What are your 'ecstasy years' doing to you today?

28-year-old uni student Lise experimented with ecstasy when she was younger. After a period of anxiety and agoraphobia, ...

28-year-old uni student Lise experimented with ecstasy when she was younger. After a period of anxiety and agoraphobia, she was rushed to a psych ward, where she was diagnosed with psychosis and clinical depression.

There was always something about ecstasy that scared me, even despite the certainty I had during my uni days that it would increase my enjoyment of big beat electronica tenfold. Perhaps it was down to going through peak high school in the aftermath of Anna Wood’s ecstasy-related death and the ensuing drug and alcohol education, but I was one of those people who could never shake the sense that if I took it - if I dropped just one “pill of drugs” - I would die instantly of a heart attack.

That’s not to say I am necessarily anti-drugs - indeed, I have burned through a small old-growth forest’s worth of certain secret herbs and spices in my time - but there was a no-go zone surrounding MDMA, pills, pingerz, and whatever else you choose to call it. Other friends were certainly not so shy, nor was Lise, now 28, whose former ecstasy use is the subject of the short ABC2 documentary The Agony Of Ecstasy.

Having used ecstasy regularly - “every weekend, for two years” - in her younger days, Lise soon found herself dealing with detrimental effects to her mental health that went beyond the accepted ‘comedown’ period after each party: psychosis, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. The Agony Of Ecstasy explores the possibility that regular use of the drug could contribute to long-term detrimental effects to mental health, memory, motor skills, and even the ability to learn.

“A friend of mine had been experiencing mental health problems that she believed was from ecstasy use, which also seemed to reflect the experiences of other people we knew,” says filmmaker Katrina Lucas. “This gave us the idea to make a film that explored the long-term effects of ecstasy/MDMA from a personal perspective.”

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As it turned out, when the pitch was accepted by ABC’s Opening Shot initiative, Lucas’ friend decided she didn’t want to be involved; eventually, the filmmakers found Adelaide student Lise van Konkelenberg. “When I was approached to tell my story for the documentary, we found that many others we knew wanted to talk about their experiences with drug use and mental health, both positive and negative, but so few people were willing to do so in a public way because of the massive stigmas surrounding both subjects,” she tells me via email. “By putting a face on the topic we found people were much more willing to take part in this important conversation.”

What’s surprising about Agony, given how many people think of ecstasy as a bit of a “‘90s drug”, is hearing that its use is once again on the rise. “I think it's partly because the drug isn't as covered in the media these days, and also because hospitals are presented with many more alcohol, cannabis and amphetamine related cases,” offers Lucas. “But according to the latest figures from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey,  it's still the second most common illicit drug of choice after marijuana. So although we wanted this film to provide information to current and mainly younger users, it is told from the perspective of a former user who is interested in the long-term effects, so I definitely think it's going to resonate with people in their 30s and 40s who took ecstasy in their younger days, whether it be one pill or hundreds.”

As it turns out, many of the potential long term effects of ecstasy use are tied to what makes it such a popular drug in the first place: its stimulation of the hormones serotonin and oxytocin, and the ensuing depletion of the former, which can take days to replenish.

In Agony, Lise visits Prof. Ian McGregor of Sydney University, who has been conducting research into the effects of the drug: he has found evidence of long term depletion of serotonin, and increased rates of depression and anxiety, in even casual users. In rats that had been exposed to small amounts of MDMA, Prof. McGregor also found long term depletion of oxytocin, which is essential for day-to-day social functioning. Compellingly, he says there is also evidence to suggest that users who experience “terrible Tuesday” could be displaying a predisposition to mental illness.

It is, as Lise puts it during her Agony journey, “a chicken and the egg” scenario: it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether she was already prone to anxiety, depression and poor judgment before she began taking the drug, or if the drug left her in that state.

Either way, The Agony Of Ecstasy serves as a compelling counterpoint to the scaremongering zero-tolerance drug education campaigns that young people are exposed to (case in point: I’m sure to die of a heart attack if I ever take it); it says, ‘okay, you’re probably going to take this drug, and here’s why, but also, here’s a frank look at the possible downsides’. “Absolutely,” agrees Lucas, “a harm reduction approach that focuses on safe use has been proven to be more  effective in terms of reducing the risk to individuals and society. Of course there will always be a demand for drugs because young people will always want to try new experiences, but making sure they are making informed choices around drug taking, and the risks involved, is really what we want to contribute to.”

Lise’s hope is that the documentary will begin a national conversation, and that other people who might have felt too ashamed or proud about former (or current) drug use might be spurred on to explore their choices in more depth. “The ‘turning a blind eye’ approach to drug culture is where a lot of the danger comes from, because it creates an environment that encourages people to keep things to themselves,” Lise says. “When I was taking it, and I was in trouble, the grief and stress [I perceived] it would cause just to be honest and open about what was happening kept me from being able to turn to the people who would have been able to help me.”

“These subjects [are] so often wrapped up in misinformation and alarmism,” she continues. “It's a message of awareness that we're sending out to millions of people around the country; we've done our job if it encourages even just a handful of people to break that barrier and talk about it, or to think a bit more deeply about what they're doing and why. And not just about ecstasy use, but about drug use as a whole, and about the fragility of our mental health.”

The Agony Of Ecstasy airs on ABC2 at 9.30pm tonight.