Ayelet Waldman was a federal public defender at the height of the War on Drugs, so even though she supported loosening the laws against drugs she was wary of taking them herself.
“There really isn’t anyone as justifiably paranoid as a public defender when it comes to the criminal justice system,” Waldman, who’s also written five books, told the Observer in a phone interview from her home in Berkeley, California.
So when she began struggling with depression, Waldman utilized traditional treatments like therapy and prescription medications. But these remedies didn’t work, and indeed her symptoms became so drastic that she had the impulse to drive her car off a bridge.
“I felt like I was in danger, and I needed to do something radical,” Waldman said.
That “something radical” turned out to be microdosing LSD, using a small amount of the drug with a low risk of side effects (not an “acid trip”). As she details in her new book A Really Good Day, Waldman put 10 micrograms of acid under her tongue every three days for a month in an attempt to improve her mood.
The protocol to self-administer the psychedelic drug was outlined by California psychologist James Fadiman in his 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. He told the Observer that while most microdosing science was based on fieldwork like Waldman’s experiment rather than lab tests, it seemed to have much lower risks because users are only taking 1/20 or 1/10 of a normal LSD dose (many in Silicon Valley microdose to increase their productivity and creativity).
“They function normally, and even a little better,” Fadiman said. “People who are depressed are less depressed, and more creative. Some patients say they’re not sure if it’s having any effect, just that they’re having nicer days than usual. That’s normal.”
Waldman said that once she began microdosing, the most immediate change was a heightened capacity to tolerate discomfort. This was especially true when it came to interactions on social media—while she was usually exaggerated and angry while responding to critics on Twitter, Waldman said that microdosing allowed her to become less impulsive.
“I slowed down and had a more mindful experience day to day,” she said.
‘I felt like I didn’t deserve my husband’s love…it’s a challenge and it sucks for him.’ – Ayelet Waldman
As the process went on, Waldman also noticed that she was able to better understand and control her depression.
“I’ve definitely cycled since then, but I haven’t gone into that same dark place,” she said.
Waldman did notice some adverse effects—she said that she was slightly more irritable on the day she took the microdose, and that at the beginning of the process she had a tendency to overshare (for example, she confided in her physical therapist about her experiment). She also had a harder time falling asleep if she took the LSD after 10 AM.
The biggest challenge, however, was maintaining her marriage to the author Michael Chabon. Waldman said that she was embarrassed and ashamed of her mental state, and so found it difficult to acknowledge his affections.
“I felt like I didn’t deserve my husband’s love, and that he was too good for me,” Waldman said. “I work really hard on it, but it’s a challenge and it sucks for him. It helps that he’s a fountain of eternal patience.”
Waldman also decided not to tell her four children that she was microdosing.
“You don’t have to tell them everything, you just can’t lie to them,” she explained. “I wanted a clean result, so I just asked them in the absence of other information to see if they noticed a difference in mood.”
The kids ended up taking the news in stride: To help Waldman track her depression when she stopped microdosing, they put a “self loathing jar” in the kitchen—she has to put a dollar in the jar every time she says something self-deprecating.
Waldman said that her experience “coming out of the psychedelic closet” has included many supportive moments like this, especially from people who were around in the 1960s.
“I thought people would call me a crazy, drug-addled radical, but many said LSD had changed their lives,” she said. “Even my parents were super interested and nonjudgmental—I underestimated them.”
Fadiman said Waldman’s experience was typical compared to other microdosers he had seen.
“Everything didn’t work out wonderfully all the time,” he said. “She functioned better in many ways, though it was not a cure-all and it shouldn’t be. No one’s given as detailed an explanation as she has.”
Waldman said that her experience microdosing had strengthened her convictions about decriminalizing drugs—LSD, like marijuana, is still classified as an illegal schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) so she couldn’t continue microdosing after her initial experiment.
“Once you begin to understand and experience what this country has done in the guise of being tough on crime it devastates you,” Waldman said.
DEA spokesperson Russell Baer told the Observer that 51 individuals and/or companies were conducting research on LSD, but that none of them had progressed to the level required for federal approval as a medical product.
But Fadiman said it was time for the approval process to be revisited.
“There’s a general agreement among scientists that evidence-based regulation are better than political regulations,” he said. “The current regulations are very out of date, and the science is going in the other direction, showing that these substances are helpful in different doses for different conditions.