Features & Columns

A Dose of Sunshine

Ayelet Waldman's microdosing diary. 'A Really Good Day,' explores the potential
for LSD to lift moods, increase productivity and save relationships
Over the course of 30 days intermittently microdosing on LSD, author Ayelet Waldman found the peace that FDA-approved pharmaceuticals and therapy sessions could not provide. Photo Scott Carroll

Cookbooks crowd the lower tier of the bookcase. Above it, colored bowls and greeting cards line the top shelf, along with a solitary, empty Mason jar. There's a handwritten note in black ink taped to the side of the vessel. A small heart punctuates the phrase, "Self-loathing jar."

Sitting at a long kitchen table made of blond wood and galvanized steel, author Ayelet Waldman waits for the electric kettle to boil as she completes an online purchase in preparation for the Jan. 21 Women's March on Washington. She makes two cups of tea—one for herself and one for her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who is sitting in the living room of their Berkeley home, diligently setting up the new flatscreen TV they've just purchased as a surprise for their four children.

Chabon can hear every word his wife says as she begins to explain the new drug regimen she's on to help stabilize her moods. Waldman occasionally stops, listening to see if she can discern her husband's thoughts from the tense silence punctuating the breaks in conversation. Before trying this new treatment—the latest in a litany of pharmaceuticals and therapy sessions—she'd sampled "a shit-ton of drugs." Waldman has been prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like Prozac and Lexapro; mood stabilizers, like Lamictal and Topamax; amphetamines, like Adderall; and benzodiazepines, including Xanax and Valium. Some of these worked for a time, she says. Others didn't. All had side effects.

So she dropped acid.

"This morning I took LSD," Waldman writes in the opening line of her new book, A Really Good Day, the latest in a long line of fiction and nonfiction works. What at first scans as a run-of-the-mill scene of upper middle class ennui feels much less ordinary in Waldman's world.

The Jar
It's important to note: Waldman didn't take an acid trip in Muir Woods in the naive hope of opening up a third eye and chasing away all personal demons in one fell swoop. Nor did she score on Haight Street after chasing down a dread-headed shaman. And she certainly doesn't recommend taking the drug recreationally. The DEA still classifies lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, as a Schedule I drug—meaning that since it was banned in California in 1966, the agency recognizes no medical applications for the substance and has determined that it has a high potential for abuse.

In her warm, brightly lit kitchen, Waldman says she received her LSD in the mail from a trusted but anonymous source, and only took "microdoses" of the drug, all while adhering to a strict 30-day, doctor-supervised regimen.

As she details in her book—subtitled How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life—a microdose is "a subtherapeutic dose of a drug administered at a quantity low enough to elicit no adverse side effects yet high enough for a measurable cellular response." It's approximately one-tenth of a regular dose.

Waldman found her way to this alternative treatment by way of the self-loathing jar—and only after nothing else seemed to work.

"That's my biggest problem," she says, referring to the jar, which her daughter made for her. "When I make a comment that evinces self-loathing, I have to pay the jar. It goes to my two younger kids and they can spend it however they want. They did it just because they wanted money."

Of course, there's more to it than that. Waldman has a propensity to put herself down—hard. And her gloom and mood manifested in other ways as well. In her book, she roots around in her own psyche in order to contend with the problem, a detective in search of her better self: "I found myself in a state of seemingly perpetual irritability. I seethed, I turned that fury on the people around me, and then I collapsed in shame at my outbursts." The "vicissitudes of her moods" are closely scrutinized throughout the length of her narrative.

Waldman is a keen chronicler of her own struggles and failings, which seem beyond her control to adjust or modulate without the help of "hundreds of hours in the offices of psychiatrists and psychologists" and a heavy scoop of prescription drugs. One diagnosis of bipolar disorder was countermanded by a new doctor to PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, "a severe, sometimes disabling extension of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)."

Seeking alternatives, she came upon the work of a Stanford psychologist with decades of experience researching the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

The Decision
Waldman does not suggest that LSD is the ultimate panacea we've all been looking for—some version of, say, Aldous Huxley's soma—but her book does cite evidence for the psychedelic drug's potential to help suffering minds. If, that is, the drug is taken under a controlled set of circumstances like the one she chronicles: a 30 day protocol designed by Dr. James Fadiman, author of The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys.

It was Fadiman's collected reports from microdosers, and his conclusions from their anecdotal accounts, which convinced Waldman to try the drug. The title of her book is borrowed from his summation of the people "who experimented with regular microdosing of LSD and psilocybin." He concluded: "What many people are reporting is, at the end of the day, they say, 'That was a really good day.'"

Waldman writes with a certain amount of longing about obtaining the same peace of mind Fadiman's subjects found. "A really good day. Predictably, regularly, unexceptionally. That is all I ever wanted." Taking her at her word, it's rather heartbreaking that something so basic has been well beyond her reach.

Dropping acid was not easy an easy choice for Waldman. Her decision to write about her experiences, warts and all, may have been even more difficult—as evinced by the sidelong glances she sometimes gives to the TV room, where Chabon continues to occupy himself with the new flatscreen.

As a Harvard Law School graduate, she was initially reluctant to even consider taking an illegal substance: "For many years," she writes, "I taught a seminar called The Legal and Social Implication of the War on Drugs at the UC Berkeley School of Law, and was a consultant to the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization dedicated to the reform of U.S. drug laws."

Openly discussing her decision would also mean considerations would need to be made for her roles as a mother, respected author and public figure.

"I didn't necessarily know that I would have the courage to publish the book or that my family would allow me to," she says. "I make a rule not to publish things about my family unless they pre-vet it."

In her prologue , Waldman weighs—with a great deal of carefully won irony—her former career as a federal public defender against her decision to take LSD. Her scrupulous approach to the substance in question, at times, sounds like a brief for the federal courts, as well as the court of public opinion.

The book's strength, however, its verve, derives from Waldman's forthright account of her personal struggles: "My emotional pain is the very reason I started down this path." In person, as on the page, whatever preconceptions the reader may have of Waldman's occasionally embattled public persona, it's impossible not to sympathize with her intimate accounting of her years with incurable pain.

A Really Good Day isn't a pamphlet for Burning Man neophytes. It's the story of one woman's search for relief from physical and psychological pain. She proffers countless anecdotes and details about her suffering and the ensuing damage that undermined the stability of her marriage and family life.

Dr. James Fadiman has studied and written extensively about the therapeutic use of LSD and other psychedelics. Ayelet Waldman followed his 30-day microdosing guidelines for her new book. Photo Scott Kline

Over the course of a 30-day microdosing regimen, Waldman certainly found her share of really good days. She also experienced a phenomenon that creatives everywhere crave: flow. She wrote her new book during and after the microdosing experience.

"That is the effect that I am absolutely sure was—that I think I can fairly confidently credit to [the LSD]," she says.

"That focus was very similar to stimulant drugs like Adderall or Ritalin, but without that irritability, without the crash. I had a prescription for [Adderall], but very quickly, within a couple of days, decided I didn't want to take them because they made me feel so crappy."

Waldman wonders several times in the book if she's actually ingesting the drug at all, if her intention to become less irritable, to have better days, is simply imagined: "It's been over a week now, and either this experiment is working or the placebo effect is a mighty force." But there appears to be science to support Waldman's personal experiences.

On the fifth day of her protocol, Waldman reached out to a psychopharmacologist as well as a psychiatric researcher to find out how the microdoses of LSD might be helping her flow. The former talked about a gene known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, BDNF; the latter about glutamate. "Psychedelics," she writes, "enhance neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to grow and change, by increasing the level of BDNF in the brain and by increasing glutamate activity."

The Flow
Instead of falling into the kind of "hellish introspective nightmare" that Hunter S. Thompson references in one particularly uproarious chapter in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Waldman found, through her microdosing, the peace of mind she feels she needs to live a happy, healthy life. And instead of the relief that comes to so many wigged-out psychonauts after the walls stop breathing, now that her term of microdosing has ended, she fears what the future holds for her mental state.

Her writing now is "more of an effort. Focus is hard to come by. You have to really drag yourself to your desk. Some days are great. Some days are amazing. Some days are not."

How LSD Saved One Woman's Marriage is just one recent book review headline in The New York Times, suggesting that Waldman had won the decades' long war with herself after just the 30-day protocol. "Saved," however, denotes past tense, meaning problem solved. Unfortunately for Waldman, her years of psychological pain did not simply evaporate at the drop of a microdose. And now that her brief journey has concluded, she has concerns.

"I have a real feeling of loss for sure," Waldman says. "I think my whole family does." In this moment, she looks away from the kitchen table, toward the living room. A pronounced hush glares back.

There's an underlying feeling of melancholy as Waldman discusses her current state of mind without legal access to the microdoses: "If it were legal somewhere, I would probably move my family there because the difference was so astonishing," she says. "The amount of effort it takes now to maintain a similar equilibrium is really intense. I have no guarantees that I'm not going to fall into the same kind of depression. I know myself well enough to know now that the dark mood is always coming. I never had a mood as dark as the mood that inspired me to do this crazy thing."

The Hope
From the opening pages of A Really Good Day, Waldman develops a cogent argument for the legalization of further clinical studies into LSD's effects on the brain—but never for the legalization of the drug for recreational use. Waldman confirms this idea explicitly: "I'm just not interested in recreational drug use. The drug use that I have engaged in has been very consciously and purposely therapeutic rather than recreational."

Although her children spent the money from the "Self-loathing jar," they must have made it out of concern and care for their mother. When she offers their testimony in the book, that during the protocol they're noticing a lighter, more playful, less stressed-out mom, we trust their account.

It's reason enough to believe that, despite Waldman's legitimate doubts and fears about microdosing, the risk was worth it for her and her family. Even if the relief was only temporary, that glimpse of hopefulness, that her moods could stabilize and change, appears to be sustaining her.

Ayelet Waldman: A conversation with Angie Coiro
Jan 25, 7:30pm, $10-$35
Kepler's Books, Menlo Park