Tune In, Turn On and Cheer Up: Swiss Psychiatrist Fights Fear with LSD
Part 2: 'A Feeling of Mystical Oneness'
But can the high truly help people to overcome their fears? Borwin Bandelow, a psychiatry professor at the University of Göttingen and Germany's most prominent expert on anxiety, is skeptical. "For every therapy in the world, you will find someone who tells you this sort of thing," he says. Nevertheless, says Bandelow, he would like to see the effects of psychoactive substances for the treatment of anxiety examined in well-controlled studies. "It's an extremely interesting subject," he says.
Altered sensory perception, objects that suddenly seem alive and the feeling of floating in mid-air are all spectacular, of course, says Gasser -- but they are merely secondary phenomena. More important, he says, is the deep self-awareness and the trusting relationship the patient can quickly develop with the therapist. "It can only be achieved at this intensity using LSD," he says.
Within the framework of the study, Gasser is permitted to treat 12 patients suffering from anxiety disorders as a result of a severe physical illness. Eight of them receive a capsule of 200 micrograms of LSD each, in two full-day sessions spaced several weeks apart. The remaining four patients, the control group, receive a dose of 20 micrograms, which is too small to have much of an effect. "With a substance like LSD, a placebo-controlled procedure is, of course, questionable," Gasser admits, noting that the patient quickly realizes what he or she has swallowed. But that is just the way things are done in medicament research, he says.
The three patients who have received the effective dose to date have all benefited from the treatment, says Gasser, but the study is still underway. Besides, he adds, a study group of only 12 patients is much too small to be able to make statistically valid statements. "What we hope to demonstrate in the end is that no serious incidents occurred, and that the results suggest that this is an effective treatment method."
'The Entire Room Suddenly Came Alive'
Udo Schulz finds it difficult to articulate his drug experience. He hesitates as he begins his account. "The potted plant, the tapestry, the entire room suddenly came alive," he says, interlacing his fingers and gazing meditatively out the window. And then, after a pause, he says: "You could say it was a feeling of mystical oneness."
Schulz's problems began in the spring of 2006. He had just started a new job as an orderly in a nursing home. At first, he attributed a growing loss of appetite to the stresses of the job. Then he noticed a feeling of pressure in his stomach after meals. He ate less and lost weight. Finally, a doctor sent him to the nearest hospital. After being hospitalized for several days, he was handed his file and sent to a final examination. "On the way there, I read the file, and I saw that the diagnosis was stomach cancer."
How does one react to this kind of information? "Well, at first I thought: This isn't my file. It's impossible. I've always lived a healthy life," says Schulz, twisting his mouth into a thin smile.
But he realized that he had to undergo surgery. One-third of his esophagus and a large part of his stomach were removed. The doctors did not find any signs that the cancer had spread and so Schulz did not need to do chemotherapy.
After that, however, fear began to dominate his life. He was tormented by the thought of never being productive again, of never regaining his strength, of losing his job and having to give up. He exhausted himself with his efforts to return to work and he suffered from insomnia. Conversational therapy with a psychologist did not help very much.
When Schulz happened upon an article on the Internet about the LSD study in Switzerland, it immediately appealed to him. "The preliminary tests showed that I'm apparently a person who suffers from these symptoms of anxiety," he says.
It has been a year since the LSD therapy, and Schulz is now working full-time again. Several months ago, he began working in outpatient geriatric care, which allows him to schedule his time more flexibly and take breaks. He hopes that the changes will enable him to cope with full-time work. He keeps himself physically fit by riding his bicycle and playing table tennis several times a week.
Schulz is convinced that the LSD helped him. The drug, he says, gave him a gentle push, an energy boost at a time when he felt miserable and listless. During the trip, he says, he felt for the first time his entire sadness and anger at the cancer. "All of a sudden, I was able to cry like a baby," he says, smiling again.
There is only one thing he regrets, says Schulz: The two sessions were much too short. "I would like to continue the LSD therapy," says Schulz, staring out the window. "But not if it's illegal."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Swiss Psychiatrist Fights Fear with LSD
- Part 2: 'A Feeling of Mystical Oneness'
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