Nicholas Lezard’s choice
Ayelet Waldman is, by her own account, not an easy person to get along with. Argumentative, insecure, irritable, and even occasionally suicidal. “I have spent hundreds of hours in the offices of psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers and licensed family therapists, wearing my unique ass-print into so many leather couches.” From the examples she gives us of her behavior, it would appear that it would be wise to take her assessment at face value.
“And then things took a turn for the worse,” she writes. “I seethed, I turned that fury on the people around me, and then I collapsed in shame at these outbursts.”
However, there are also several good things about her, which become evident as we read this book: she is highly intelligent and analytical, properly skeptical, a very good writer, and very funny indeed. (That “my unique ass-print” is by no means the funniest line in the book; pretty much every page, until the end, when it gets more serious and moving, has a good joke on it.) She is also determined, and when she heard, from James Fadiman’s 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys about microdosing with LSD, and how it could rapidly, and permanently, alter one’s mood for the better, she decided to give it a go.
A word about LSD. It gets, because of its momentous effects on consciousness, something of a bad press. A synthesized relative of the ergot fungus, which used to infect bread and is considered responsible for much of the mania that could affect communities in the Middle Ages (gangrene being an unfortunate and common side-effect), tiny amounts—100 millionth of a gram—can cause profound changes to one’s perception. I should know: I’ve taken it a few times, but not for ages now. It terrifies many with its association with “bad trips”, in which it is feared that the overwhelming synesthesia, hallucinations, and radical disturbance of mental process, can cause permanent madness. All I can offer in rebuttal is personally anecdotal: I have never had anything like such an experience, and indeed the first time I took it, in 1982, when penalties for this kind of thing were harsher, I was arrested (I had a further two doses in a matchbox in my pocket, and these were found), thrown into the back of a police van, and, at the station, strip-searched and threatened with violence by the arresting sergeant. And even these inauspicious circumstances failed to upset me unduly. (My main fear was that they’d phone my parents, but that is entirely rational. Oh, and by the end of the whole legal process, I became quite chummy with the sergeant.)
Forgive the lapse into anecdote: but as A Really Good Day is itself largely anecdote (with a good deal of research thrown in, but not in such a way as will panic or baffle the reader), I feel justified. Waldman is very personal about her experience, and also takes us into some of her couples therapy sessions, which I think is about as personal as you can get. (The scene is harrowing.)
Waldman, despite having worked to reform US drug law, has never taken LSD, and is very, very worried about doing so. But the dosage she is required to take is one-tenth the dosage that the user seeking the full effects; “sub-perceptual” is the phrase used. And that’s only once every three days. Two drops under the tongue, from an already highly diluted solution. Whether this worry is exaggerated or not was a question I kept asking myself: is she that much of a fraidy cat, or is she trying to reassure others as to her probity? I think she is genuinely that nervous: she scorns (with much greater reason) the usual gamut of anti-depressants, which have an all-too well-documented gamut of commonplace terrible side-effects, and are more often prescribed in hope rather than confident knowledge.
So, for a month, two out of three days taking nothing in the way of drugs at all, she documents her days, her physical and mental reactions, her behavior, her moods. The positive effect is immediately apparent. The title is perhaps a bit of a giveaway, but not nearly so much as the subtitle: “How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My mood, My Marriage and My Life”. So profound and instant is the change in her character that her daughter actually asks her, at one point, if she’s been putting LSD in her tea. She loves better, she lives better. The acute and chronic pain of a frozen shoulder which he has been enduring for a year goes away. She asks herself if this is a placebo effect, whether the shoulder pain going is coincidence; but what she decides is that it doesn’t matter. She is a radically transformed person.
Evidence is mounting that microdosing with psychedelic drugs has enormous benefits in the treatment of post-trauma victims, alcoholics, and drug addicts (LSD, even at full dose, is actually counter-addictive; also, no one has yet determined what the lethal dose of it could be, as no one has ever died from taking it—with the caveat that maybe a few people have been knocked over by cars while crossing the road; it makes judging speed of moving objects difficult; that said, it inspires caution rather than recklessness). And yet it is one of the most strictly controlled drugs in the pharmacopoeia; a policy born of ignorance—and fear of what was then called the counter-culture. Waldman’s book may be worthless as scientific research; there are no double-blind tests., and it is a sample of one. But it is an honest, plausible, and hugely entertaining book, that may well go to helping people change their minds. In all senses of the phrase.
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.