We have more information than ever on how substances such as MDMA (sometimes known as ecstasy or molly), when used carefully and mindfully, can help people create positive changes in their lives. In particular, MDMA assists people in healing relationships, not just with themselves and their past but also with their closest loved ones.
One of the key figures in exploring and bringing this phenomenon into the mainstream is Charley Wininger, psychotherapist, and author of Listening to Ecstasy. In this post, we'll explore his life and work and look at both the scientific evidence and personal accounts that show the potential of MDMA to bring healing and balance to relationships.
But first, a little about MDMA.
What is MDMA?
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is a chemical compound with structural similarities to mescaline but a distinctly different effect. Rather than being an intensely visual psychedelic, it typically produces feelings of energy, empathy, closeness, connection, and safety. This empathy-amplifying effect has led to it being described as an "empathogen."
Research has shown that MDMA increases the release and prevents the reuptake of serotonin and dopamine, which is associated with increases in pleasure and positive mood. It also raises
oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin levels, which are linked to attachment and bonding with others. Along with these changes, MDMA can temporarily reduce blood flow to the parts of the brain associated with fear.
Charley Wininger is one of the key figures in exploring MDMA as an aid to healthy relationships. He has been a psychotherapist since 1989. Licensed as a psychoanalyst and mental health counselor, he specializes in relationships and communication skills and is the author of the 2020 book, Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA.
Declaring that he was "done with hiding in the chemical closet," he poured his years of experience into this work, aiming to: "To legitimize happiness-inducing experiences as potentially transformative and valid in their own right." How he reached this point is quite a story.
In his youth, Charley first took MDMA as a party drug and initially dismissed it as "a substance without substance." Even in his 40s, as he built his career in psychotherapy, it didn't hold his attention. This (along with his whole life) changed when he re-experienced MDMA with the love of his life, Shelley Wininger. In this sense, Charley's story about MDMA is Shelley's as well because it was their experiences as a couple that showed him its true potential.
Together, they discovered that MDMA allowed them to tap extraordinary emotional strength, adding layers of closeness and joy to their relationship. It allowed them to feel safe. But it also allowed them to have fun and pleasurable experiences, and both of those things were ok. Already an accomplished mental health counselor and therapist, Charley also found that his experience with MDMA enhanced his ability to empathize with and relate to clients.
These experiences led to him becoming an early advocate for the therapeutic use of MDMA and his long-running association with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
The wisdom and knowledge contained in Listening to Ecstasy are hard to summarize. Charley and Shelley's experiences with MDMA aren't just with each other. They relate rolling in Prospect Park with friends, attending Philadelphia Experiment Summer Festival, and being told, "you guys make me feel less afraid of growing older!" So their relationship with this medicine isn't limited to clinical settings. Nonetheless, Charley's work is mindful of the scientific and safety considerations.