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Cover Story

The Peace Drug

Post-traumatic stress disorder had destroyed Donna Kilgore's life. Then experimental therapy with MDMA, a psychedelic drug better known as ecstasy, showed her a way out. Was it a fluke -- or the future?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007; Page W12

THE BED IS TILTING!

Or the couch, or whatever. A futon. Slanted.

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She hadn't noticed it before, but now she can't stop noticing. Like the princess and the pea.

By objective measure, the tilt is negligible, a fraction of an inch, but she can't be fooled by appearances, not with the sleep mask on. In her inner darkness, the slight tilt magnifies, and suddenly she feels as if she might slide off, and that idea makes her giggle.

"I feel really, really weird," she says. "Crooked!"

Donna Kilgore laughs, a high-pitched sound that contains both thrill and anxiety. That she feels anything at all, anything other than the weighty, oppressive numbness that has filled her for 11 years, is enough in itself to make her giddy.

But there is something more at work inside her, something growing from the little white capsule she swallowed just minutes ago. She's subject No. 1 in a historic experiment, the first U.S. government-sanctioned research in two decades into the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat psychiatric disorders. This 2004 session in the office of a Charleston, S.C., psychiatrist is being recorded on audiocassettes, which Donna will later hand to a journalist.

The tape reveals her reaction as she listens to the gentle piano music playing in her headphones. Behind her eyelids, movies begin to unreel. She tries to say what she sees: Cars careening down the wrong side of the road. Vivid images of her oldest daughter, then all three of her children. She's overcome with an all-consuming love, a love she thought she'd lost forever.

"Now I feel all warm and fuzzy," she announces. "I'm not nervous anymore."

"What level of distress do you feel right now?" a deeply mellow voice beside her asks.

Donna answers with a giggle. "I don't think I got the placebo," she says.

FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, Donna Kilgore was raped.


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