‘I’m better mentally now’: Veteran shares experience of MDMA treatment for PTSD

A clinical trial studying the effects of the drug on those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder has seen promising results.


This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741.

Jon Lubecky was desperate when he signed up for a clinical trial testing a new type of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, one that included the use of a psychedelic drug called MDMA, known on the street as “ecstasy” and “molly.” Tortured by memories from his tours in Iraq, the retired army sergeant had attempted suicide five times. Now he saw the possibility that he could get past those memories so that his son would have “a father instead of a folded flag.”

MDMA was first used as an aid in psychotherapy in the 1970s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Today, the researchers who designed the trial hoped that MDMA might boost the effects of talk therapy by quieting the part of the brain that is involved in fear processing. If it worked, the drug might allow people with PTSD to mentally relive their experiences and work through them in therapy without the intense emotions that usually come when such traumatic memories are summoned.

The trial, conducted by a nonprofit research organization called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) was described in a paper published in May, which reported that 67% of participants who received the drug no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD two months after the treatment. Those findings could help get PTSD therapy with MDMA approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The study included people with severe PTSD, like Lubecky.

“Many studies of PTSD don’t work with people who have attempted to kill themselves in the past,” said Rick Doblin, a co-author of the study and founder and executive director of MAPS. “We felt that we have to work with … the people who are suffering the most.”

The research could be a big step forward for therapy aided by psychedelic drugs, Doblin said. “If we do succeed with our second phase 3 study, it means the whole field of psychedelic psychotherapy has been proven in one instance.”

Lubecky was the perfect trial candidate. Every night he was plagued by nightmares. He felt he couldn’t go out in public with his family without having panic attacks. And “every single day, no matter how good or bad the day was, my brain was trying to figure out how to kill myself.”

I started talking and I was able to talk about things I had never brought up before to anyone. "

- Jon Lubecky, retired army sergeant

He remembers his first therapy session with the drug on board.

“I was actually terrified,” he told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie. He worried that he might have a “bad trip” and become violent or self-destructive.

Forty minutes after taking the pill, the MDMA started to kick in. It felt like “I’m wearing a wetsuit in really warm water,” he said. “Then I started talking and I was able to talk about things I had never brought up before to anyone. And it was OK. My body did not betray me. I didn’t get panic attacks. I didn’t shut down emotionally or just become so overemotional I couldn’t deal with anything.”

Say MDMA and most people will think of drug abuse. “It’s being administered in a different context, under controlled settings with people that are suffering,” Doblin told Guthrie. In the trial it was being used as part of therapy “to help them lead a better life and to stay alive and not to commit suicide.”

MDMA sparks the release of the bonding chemical oxytocin that “helps you feel safe in the moment, so that the memories of when you weren’t safe, of when you were traumatized, are not overwhelming,” Doblin said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, MDMA is also in clinical trials as a possible treatment aid for anxiety in terminally ill patients and for social anxiety in autistic adults. The FDA recently classified MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD as a "breakthrough therapy," which means that preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug may demonstrate substantial improvement over other therapies "on one or more clinically significant endpoints."

While there are forms of healing possible without drugs like MDMA, they don’t work for everyone, said Matthew Johnson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Therapy with the drug can be “like psychological processing therapy on rocket boosters,” said Johnson who was not involved in the trial.

Like any drug, MDMA can have side effects, some of them serious, so patients need to be screened carefully, Johnson said. “MDMA can potentiate or exacerbate symptoms in people with psychotic disorders or a predisposition to them, such as schizophrenia,” he added. “There are also cardiovascular risks, so it wouldn’t be used in patients with severe heart disease.”

The drug works in those who can take it as part of therapy by “mediating the fight-or-flight response without overall sedation and numbing of the system,” Johnson said. “It enhances personal awareness and contact with biographical memories, that is, one’s own story.”

Lubecky said the drug has healed his PTSD “100%. I’m actually probably better mentally now than I was before I had PTSD.”

His message to fellow veterans is “this treatment is the reason my son has a father instead of a folded flag. I want all of you to be around in 2023 when this is FDA approved. I know what your suffering is like. You can make it. ”

Jon Lubecky now advocates on behalf of MAPS in Washington, D.C., where psychedelics are now getting a warmer welcome from both sides of the aisle. Representatives Dan Crenshaw (R-Houston) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) have proposed separate amendments supporting psychedelic research.