Escape to Ecstasy

Escape to Ecstasy

by Walter L. Larimore, M.D.

Ecstasy may be the most unique illegal drug ever produced. It is quite different from most illegal substances, and that may explain why it is the fastest growing nightclub drug in many countries.

My first encounter with ecstasy was with a male patient. He seemed to be, when I first met him, your average Christian high school sophomore. He didn’t have a clue where he was headed to college and wasn’t clear about which vocation to choose. He had joked to his mom, “I feel the Lord is calling me to be a billionaire!”

He loved his summer job as a lifeguard at a nearby community pool and was active in sports, student organizations at school and his church group. But he was also involved in something more sinister: the “hug drug” called ecstasy, E, X, MDMA or, by scientists, methylenedioxymethamphetamine.

If you haven’t heard of ecstasy, don’t feel bad. Many parents haven’t. It is a semi-synthetic compound, first patented by a German drug company in 1913 as an appetite suppressant. While the use of cocaine and marijuana has stabilized in many countries, the use of ecstasy is increasing exponentially. For example, last year U.S. Customs seized more than 9 million doses compared to less than 400,000 in 1997. The international network that smuggles the drug is huge and well-organized.

It can happen to anyone

My young patient related his story:

I first tried the “hug-drug” at a friend’s house after church one night. I had heard about people at school taking E, but I was surprised to hear about some of my Christian friends who took it. They said it made them feel closer to God and to each other. Many users say you’ll never forget your first high. That first high, however, is almost never replicated, and the “good” effects of ecstasy seem to decrease over time — perhaps because of brain damage, but more on that later.

They said there were no side effects and that you couldn’t get addicted to it. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try it once — especially since I had been feeling a little down lately. Indeed, this is one of the most common street myths about this dangerous and psychologically addicting drug.

Nothing happened very quickly, but about 15 minutes after swallowing the pill, I began to feel happy. Unlike the illegal street or club drugs that are psychedelics or hallucinogens, ecstasy doesn’t scramble the basic sense of self or reality.

After another 15 minutes, I felt this incredible love for the other guys in the group, and the sleeves of my shirt felt so plush and soft — I had never felt anything so feathery or velvety.

Users say soft things feel softer, music and movies are more meaningful and perspectives seem to be deepened.

That night, my pal Randy, who never hugs anyone, came over and gave me a hug. He’s never done anything like that. Normally, he’s the biggest worrywart in the world, but that night he just seemed so peaceful. We all talked and shared in a way we never had before. And then our prayer time was awesome.

Many drugs produce happiness or relaxation — a rush or a high — but ecstasy causes a unique mood elevation and feeling of being enlightened. Ecstasy, a strong analgesic, takes away physical pain. It wipes away the blues because it’s a powerful but brief-acting antidepressant and thus many first-time users are like my young patient — a bit down and out. Users say it improves memory, but again, only briefly.

With a funny look in his eye and seeming to gaze into the distance, he said, When I take it, I feel so energized, so restored to my relationship with God. I feel so pure!

Ecstasy does all those things. It raises the heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. Since it’s chemically related to amphetamines — chemical uppers — your entire metabolism kicks into high gear. You don’t feel hungry or tired. You can dehydrate quickly, and quite often users will, without knowing it, grind their teeth.

Besides, the rave scene is so spiritual — it’s so PLURy. He had to explain to me that “PLURy” was an acrostic for Peace, Love, Unity and Respect.

Then he looked back into my eyes: Doc, I know I’m not addicted to it. I could stop anytime. But I don’t want to; it’s just helped me know God and to like myself.

The young man had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital in which I practiced, where I was doing a medical consultation for his psychiatrist. He had overdosed while taking a few pills of what he thought was ecstasy at an all-night rave party. His parents and youth pastor had no idea he was using ecstasy several times a week.

If you were to see him from the outside, all seemed well, at least until he collapsed at the party and was taken by the paramedics to the hospital. He was just one of thousands who end up in emergency rooms for using this drug each year — most with dehydration, many with organ and brain damage, some dead or dying.

One of the many dangers of ecstasy is that the quality of the tablets generally varies considerably between batches. The manufacturing of ecstasy requires stable laboratory conditions, and most of the illegal labs are far from stable, much less sanitary. Last year contaminated pills killed a number of people in Orlando, Fla., and Chicago.

A dangerous lie

The peak effects of ecstasy can last up to four hours. Aftereffects may include tiredness or feeling “spaced out” for a day or so. Some users describe secondary effects, which they call “afterglow” or “exhaustion” that may last for a few days.

For many, at least initially, this is a positive experience. But for some it can cause panic or anxiety. And for most, ecstasy is first tried in a time of personal difficulty — a time when Christians, just like nonChristians, will often make the mistake of trying to eliminate personal pain or suffering without having to admit their needs to someone else.

To many users, ecstasy becomes a path (at up to $30 per tablet) to quickly escape into “on-demand self-enlightenment” as opposed to depending on faith in the Lord. The drug requires no faith and no effort, and like most activity that falls short of God’s best, it fails over time. In its wake, the user is left with a potentially damaged brain and a weakened spirit.

Ecstasy is not addictive in the physical sense that heroin or cocaine are, but it is certainly addictive psychologically. A myth spread at raves and on the Internet is that ecstasy is harmless (or relatively harmless) and nonaddicting, and this contributes to its widespread use and growing popularity.

Besides the risk of psychological addiction, there is evidence that ecstasy will alter brain cells even after just one or two doses. In other words, even one dose can lead to brain damage. Heavy users have a reduced ability to solve complex problems and almost always have short-term memory loss. Although researchers are not absolutely sure whether the damage is permanent or just long-lasting, they are concerned about both psychological and neurologic damage.

The euphoria that ecstasy causes also makes it easy for a user to ignore bodily distress signals, so ecstasy, especially when combined with alcohol, can cause severe dehydration, muscle cramping, dizziness, exhaustion or overexertion. Reports from England tell of clubbers dancing themselves into severe dehydration and heat exhaustion that required hospitalization and, in a few cases, caused death. Ecstasy puts a strain on your heart, liver and kidneys and can be even more dangerous for those with diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, depression or psychosis.

Plan of action

So what is a parent to do about ecstasy? First, acknowledge that the problem can invade even Christian homes. Then create a plan to resist chemical abuse in your home. We can drug-proof our kids by equipping them to resist the pressure to use drugs or by taking steps to stop the abuse of these substances. The idea is comparable to weatherproofing a home. You cannot do away with the weather. But the wise person has prepared his home to withstand the forces of nature. Likewise, drugs are nearby, and alcohol is always available, but they will not destroy the drug-proofed child.

The young man I treated eventually left the hospital and has been drug-free since, and I had the privilege to be his physician over the next few years. He has grown spiritually in many ways. He was able to learn from this experience and, fortunately, has no evidence of brain damage or psychological remnants. During college, he volunteered at a ministry that helped other kids and their parents who were struggling with drug abuse.

The last time I saw him, he shared with me his favorite Bible passage, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

Copyright © 2001 Focus on the Family. This article first appeared in the October, 2001 edition of Focus on the Family magazine.