Can a Single Pill Change Your Life?

Can a single pill change your life?

MDMA, the active ingredient in the drug Ecstasy, has been reviled as a menace and even a killer. Now some therapists claim it can help light the way out of a traumatic past.

Sarah lived in a basement for a few weeks when she was a child. But in a way, she lived there much of her life.

Her father terrorized their family. He hit her, threw hot coffee at her, locked her in closets. Once, he held a gun to her sister’s head. The winter Sarah was 11, she brought in the wrong wood for the fireplace, so her father locked her in the family’s unfinished concrete basement. Her meals were brought to the top of the stairs. It was a freezing Christmas in Pennsylvania, more than 30 years ago.

Sarah eventually left home for college, earned a master’s degree in education, had a son. Surprisingly, she stayed in close contact with her parents. But the sound of a door clicking shut made her heart pound; if her dog barked, electric sparks shot through her limbs. At a party, she’d struggle to follow the conversation; the room would spin and the lights would smear; her ears rang with blurring voices. She slept badly, and always with the windows open and the doors unlocked. “I couldn’t stand to feel trapped,” she explains. She was often irritable or paranoid, short-fused, consumed with self-loathing.

Sarah’s nervous system was stuck in the amber of childhood, when her psyche had been conditioned for chronic danger. Decades after leaving her father’s house, her mind and body remained on 24-7 high alert, poised to duck a flying fist or slip through a closing door. She was in her early 30s before she received the formal diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter author photo by Adrian Kinloch
Jessica Winter @ Adrian Kinloch

Jessica Winter is an editor at The New Yorker. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications. She lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn, with her family.

Selected Writing

New York Times Essay: Our Autofiction Fixation

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In February 2020, at a book party in a Brooklyn brownstone, a smiling stranger walked up to me. “We have something in common, you know,” she said. “We conceived our children without having sex.” My memory of the exchange then goes blank for a moment — I must have spluttered some confused pleasantry in response — but it quickly emerged that she had read my first novel, which explores its protagonist’s struggles with infertility, and drawn the conclusion that I myself had undergone I.V.F., as she had.

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Stealth Kids’ Movies for the Era of Quarantine

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In order to minimize the odds that sheltering in place will drive us to renew our subscriptions to “PAW Patrol,” “PJ Masks,” and any number of other infernal children’s entertainments, I’ve been pulling together a list of movies that are kid-friendly by happenstance rather than by design. The criteria are loose and can stretch or contract depending on your kid’s age and preferences. But the basics are that the movies be live-action, fun and somewhat intellectually engaging for grownups to watch, and lack as much as possible what Tipper Gore might call “explicit content.”

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