A Hard Pill to Swallow: “The Agony of Ecstasy”

Adding to the debate on drugs that seems so often to revolve around dance culture, the Australian broadcaster ABC2 has released a new documentary: The Agony of Ecstasy. Named after Irving Stone’s postmodern 1961 biography of Michelangelo, the film tracks Lise, a 28-year old former raver, as she explores the impacts of two years of weekly ecstasy use. Pondering her current battles with mental illness, it gives voice to a human dilemma rarely heard over the fear mongering and denialism that so often dominates the debate on drugs.

Beyond that, it explores an important issue that deserves further attention. We already know that Lise is far from alone in having suffered the short-term pain of a come-down. It is true that some people deny ever even suffering from those – this is probably because they don’t hurt like hangovers. More realistically, the people who deny suffering from come-downs do indeed suffer them, but on emotional levels that can be more difficult to detect in themselves than the screaming headache of a hangover. If we can assume that what goes up does indeed come down, that feeling is one 5.7% of Europeans are familiar with.

And as long as it remains illegal and unregulated, the risk of death from a bad batch of ecstasy is as tragic as it is ever-present. It seems that barely a summer can pass without countless tales of promising, vibrant lives cut short by the failure of governments to respond to drug use in a responsible, humanistic manner. When we caught up with Barnt, recently back from a tour to Australia, he was scathing. Whilst preferring to avoid drugs himself, in his opinion the “autocratic gesture” of drug prohibition puts blood on the hands of those responsible. “Politicians are murdering these people. I’m really strict with that.”

But what are its potential long-term impacts on mental health, memory, motor skills and our ability to learn? As you’d expect, the answer is far from clear. But in a scene with Professor Ian McGregor of the University of Sydney, he reports evidence of long term depletion of serotonin, and increased rates of depression and anxiety, in even casual users. He has also found in his experiments that it impacts oxytocin levels, which are crucial to our ability to function socially.

While Lise’s weekly pill-diet was heavy, it was far from uncommon in many circles. So dark feelings that overcome us every now and then may indeed find their roots in nights long forgotten.

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