Ayelet Waldman has suffered from serious mood disorders for years. She’s tried just about every medication or therapeutic treatment that’s available, but nothing was working, and she felt like her marriage—and her life—was crumbling. So she tried one more drug, almost as a last resort. In a series of tiny doses, she took LSD for one month—and the result was almost miraculous.
Waldman, a novelist and former public defender, tells the story in her book “A Really Good Day.” It’s a funny but also complicated story. Not just because Waldman, who practiced law before launching her career in fiction, knew the legal risks of taking an illegal psychedelic drug. It’s also the story of how this experiment with LSD affected her family—her four children and her husband, fellow novelist Michael Chabon.
Waldman recently sat down for a revealing interview with Anne Strainchamps, where they talked about her long struggle with depression, the therapeutic benefits of LSD, and her marriage with Chabon.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length, and can also be read on Medium.
Tell me about first time you took LSD. What was going on in your life?
I was in a profoundly broken, devastated place. I have a mood disorder and all of my medications had stopped working, my therapeutic tools had stopped working, and my mood had sunk deeper and deeper. I was doing things like Googling the effects of suicide on children, counting the pills in my cabinet to see what I had that could kill me, being horrible to my husband, almost as if I was trying to make him leave me—which was another kind of death. It was a horrible, bleak, desperate time.
What made you think LSD might help?
I know it sounds crazy—and I'd never taken LSD. I was not one of those people in college who did that kind of thing. The last thing I wanted to do was get into the dark places in my own brain. I'm scared enough about the light places in my brain. I was an adjunct professor at the University of California School of Law for about seven years, where I taught a class on the legal and social implications of the war on drugs. I did a lot of reading about early research on psychedelic drugs and came across a book by James Fadiman, a psychedelic researcher back in the 1960s who described using LSD in tiny micro doses, which is effectively a tenth of a dose. Fadiman said when someone took a microdose of LSD, they didn't hallucinate or have a trip, but at the end of the day they looked back and said, “You know, that was a really good day.”
So this isn’t a melt-your-mind, see-the-world-in-6-dimensions kind of dose?
No, I can barely handle the dimensions we have. Look, we think of LSD as a drug that makes you hallucinate, but what would happen if you took ten times the normal amount of Prozac? It would definitely do some kind of damage, but in small doses, it’s therapeutic. The first day I took a microdose I waited, very nervously, for my keyboard to burst into psychedelic fireworks. That didn't happen. Instead, I had a really good day, the first I'd had in as long as I could remember and I felt like a heavy weight just lifted off my shoulders.
Where do you even get LSD?
I thought it would be easy! I'd just say to a couple of people, "Hey, got some acid?" and they'd give it to me. But everyone looked at me like I was nuts. So I started asking more and more people and then someone said to me, "I heard this story about a professor at one of the local universities who’s been microdosing for decades and word has it he's dying and maybe he has some extra." And a week or two later, I opened my mailbox and there was this package festooned in ancient stamps, addressed to me, and the return address read "Lewis Carroll."
I don't think that would make me want to take whatever was in that package.
I know, "Drink this”? I opened the package and there was a little cobalt blue bottle, with instructions, and a poem, and a line from a Tibetan philosopher. Now, I don't take things that come in the mail from people who've been long dead. So I ordered an LSD testing kit from Amazon (yes, that's where you get them) and it turned out to be LSD diluted in distilled water and I thought, "All right. I'm just gonna trust this." The funny thing is, when I'd asked the most stoner-ish people I knew if they could get me some LSD, when they said no, they would always say, "When you're ready for the Mother, she will come to you," and I would roll my eyes and move on. But when I tell people this story, they say, "The Mother came to you because you were ready!"
You have four kids and a husband, the writer Michael Chabon. Did you tell them what you were planning?
I told my husband. Unlike me, he’d had a fair number of big experiences with LSD. It hurt him to see me in so much pain, so he said, “Go for it. Give it a shot. It's not going hurt you, sweetie, and maybe it will help.” I wasn't so confident that it wasn't going hurt me, so before I tried it I did a lot of research. But I didn't tell my kids. I mean, "Mommy's gonna try some acid, honey, what do you think?" That wasn't going to work. But the experiment was such a success, so I decided to write about it and then I had to tell them. At first I told them, when I was doing the experiment, that I had tried a new medication. I’ve been on lots of different medications and unlike many of the others, this one really worked. So they were very positive about the medication. Eventually I said, "So, you know that medication I was trying? That was LSD." The older kids are college students and they thought it was cool. The younger kids were more like, "Whoa. What!?" Then we decided to use it as a learning opportunity, which is how we try to approach all lessons about drugs in our house. We try to be very honest and science-based.
It's also worth pointing out that before becoming a full-time writer, you were a federal public defender, so presumably you had plenty of experience with the repercussions of using illegal drugs.
I did and that gave me pause. I've seen people go to jail for a long time for offenses that would seem to be very minor. I've seen the viciousness with which this country fights its war on drugs. This is a real tragedy. I come to this subject from an intensely privileged place. If I were a young African American man without resources in a place like Detroit, with an aggressive police presence, I couldn't take this risk. I could end up in jail. That's one of the reasons I've been so public about it, because with privilege comes responsibility and you have to speak for those whose lack of privilege makes speaking more dangerous.
You have a mood disorder, so you've tried a lot of different medications over the years. How did LSD compare with the others?
It was like a cross between an SSRI working at its best and a stimulant drug like Adderall but without the negative side effects. If you've ever taken a stimulant drug, you know that it helps you concentrate, but you get very irritable and touchy. I didn't get that way. But I had the capacity for focus and creative flow. I had equilibrium. It's not like I was never sad or angry. It just gave me some perspective on my moods. It's not a happiness drug and I wasn't like skipping through the tulips. It was more like I was productive and easy-going. Before he know I was using LSD, my older son said, “You know what's amazing? You've been so much fun! You just have this lightness to you.” That was both wonderful and heartbreaking.
Because you hadn't been like that earlier in his life.
Right. I know what it's like to be the child of a person with a mood disorder. It’s really hard. That is my challenge in life. I feel so guilty and ashamed and heartbroken about the way my moods have affected my kids. The one thing I can say about this experiment, at least my kids know how hard I'm working to do better and not impose my moods on my entire family, to save them from what my childhood was like.
You took these microdoses of LSD for a month. How did the experience change over the course of the month?
The protocol is you take it every fourth day. The third day of each cycle when I was just me, I definitely felt like, "Oh yeah, there you are."
So you could feel a difference that fast. Could you feel it kick in?
Yeah, that day. I would make breakfast, drive the carpool and do my normal mom stuff, and then about 90 minutes after I took it... I remember once looking out my window and my dogwood tree was in bloom and thinking, “Oh, look how beautiful that is.”
That's unusual for you?
Very. That was a lovely moment because I could appreciate the natural beauty. Or I'd take an extra minute to cuddle with the dog because she was so cute. And then I'd get to work. The only time I wrote better than in that month was when I wrote two books in a month because I was in a hypomanic period. That's awesome but it's dangerous.
You write in the book that microdosing with LSD also saved your marriage.
I feel like it did. I don’t know what my husband would say.
Actually, I do. Your husband, Michael Chabon, was in the studio for an interview a couple of weeks ago, so we asked if he thinks microdosing saved your marriage.
“Well with all due respect to my beloved wife, I think ... let's put it this way. It's part of her mood disorder to believe that things were that dire. That was part of the illness itself. I can't argue with that. That's how it felt to her, and it was that sense of urgency that led her to take this pretty radical step of trying to investigate this solution.” —Michael Chabon
He really loves you.
Sorry. I’m a little teary now. He's an amazing man. He's had to deal with a lot, and he's done it with such generosity and grace. I'm just so grateful I'm married to him.
It sounds like he feels the same way about you, and that from his perspective, he wasn't going anywhere.
So why did you think things were so bad?
When you're depressed, you hate yourself so much that you can't imagine that you're loveable. Part of my depression is such an intense self-loathing. How could anyone love me? Especially someone I love and admire and almost revere. How could he love me when I'm so very unloveable? I've gone so far as to think the fact that he loves me is his pathology; he only loves me because he loves broken women. But I've actually come to think he's right—that is the mental illness talking. Because I'm actually kind of a great wife. I'm ferocious and devoted and loyal. You know, Michael's a really easy-going guy. He doesn't ever leap to his own defense. But it's nice to be easy-going if you know there's a chained pit bull in your backyard and you can just spring the lock and... Rrfff, she’s going to come out. We also laugh at the same jokes, enjoy the same TV shows, read the same books and love to travel together. And we’re very complementary parents, so it's a really strong marriage. But heaven knows, it's also had its low points.
It must be so interesting to be in a marriage with two writers who each write occasionally about their personal lives. So you've written this intensely personal book in which you recount therapy sessions with your husband.
And he recently wrote a novel — in the form of a fake memoir — about living with a relative who's mentally ill. Was some of that been based on living with you?
Yeah, but no one ever seems to get that. Because “Moonglow” is a fake memoir and because the character whose living with a mentally ill wife is referred to as "my grandfather,” everyone assumes his grandmother was nuts. No one's ever put it together. The character of the grandmother is way more mentally ill than I am. She's psychotic and has been hospitalized, and I've never been hospitalized, but that experience—the demands and pain of living with a mentally ill wife—that’s Michael writing about us. I know that because he asked my permission, just like I asked for his.
What was it like to read those passages?
It made me cry. It was hard. But I was also glad he could express it. And the character is so much in love with his wife, so it was comforting even as it was painful. And he's such an incredible writer!
Did it make you feel observed?
Yeah. It made me feel seen.
I would think that would cut two ways. You could feel naked before the acuity of his perception. Or you could feel seen, comforted, understood.
He uses a scalpel where I use a hammer. And it's easier to be on the receiving end of the scalpel than the hammer. It's also a novel, so it's possible to be more honest in fiction. I'm very protective of him in my nonfiction because everybody knows that it's him. I would never reveal anything negative about him. He's an amazing man, but he's not perfect, but I'd never show that in nonfiction. Though here I am on the radio telling everyone that.
Your microdosing experiment lasted a month and then the medication ran out. It's an illegal drug, so you don't want to take the risk of trying to buy more. Where does that leave you? Do you feel like it had any permanent effect on you?
I think the dramatic nature of the improvement had a permanent effect. When you're depressed, you feel like you've always been depressed and will always be. You see no positive possibility. The fact that I felt so much better so quickly and that it lasted for that month, and a little bit after, that's given me more perspective ever since. I have not dropped again, though that’s not to say that I won't. It is possible that I'll sink again to that dark place. And if I do -- and please don't tell Jeff Sessions -- if I sink again, and I'm confronted with the choice between killing myself or committing a crime that will make me feel better.... There's great research now with ketamine infusions, and there are psilocybin studies that maybe I could get access to. But if I can't do anything else, I'd rather my children have a mother who committed a crime than no mother at all. There's no doubt in my mind that if this becomes a legally viable alternative to SSRIs or mood stabilizers, I will be the first person in line to get my prescription.