Ayelet Waldman would like you to know that she’s just a regular mom. Like you, she lives in her yoga pants, Instagrams her indulgent desserts, bickers with her husband and (four!) children: “I’m the woman standing behind you in Starbucks ordering the skinny vanilla latte, the one getting a mammogram in the room next to yours, the one digging through her too-full purse looking for her keys while you wait impatiently for her parking spot,” she writes in “A Really Good Day.”
But Waldman the everywoman is also Waldman the outlaw. She has not only taken LSD but has also written a book about it. “A Really Good Day” is a chronicle of her one-month search for emotional balance by taking small doses of a drug most people associate with Timothy Leary or CIA experiments.
Dabbling in an illegal substance wasn’t just a hippie’s midlife lark — though the 52-year-old novelist does live in Berkeley, Calif. It was a desperate attempt to find happiness. For years, Waldman writes, she has struggled with severe mood swings, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.
“I was suffering,” she writes. “Worse, I was making the people around me suffer. I was in pain, and I was desperate and it suddenly seemed like I had nothing to lose.”
Waldman is no stranger to controversial subjects. Her 2009 book, “Bad Mother,” was a boldly opinionated take on the demands on modern moms that sprang from a much-discussed essay about her relationship with her husband , the novelist Michael Chabon, whom she said she loved more than her children.
In “A Really Good Day” — a mix of anecdote, science and policy — Waldman again unpacks her heavy emotional baggage. She also empties the shelves of her overstuffed medicine cabinet. Over the years, she tells us, she’s tried Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft, Effexor, Adderall, Cymbalta, Xanax, Ambien, Wellbutrin and more. She has spent “hundreds of hours in the offices of psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers and licensed family therapists”; “nattered on to Freudians and diligently filled out the workbooks assigned by cognitive behavioral therapists”; tried yoga , meditation and other alternative therapies . Yet her cycle of depression, anger, guilt and shame remained crushingly intact.
In these pages, Waldman comes off as a combination of an endearingly wired best friend and oversharing malcontent. She spares no detail about her odd neuroses — her nut allergy is not to nuts themselves but to the sound of people chewing them — and she cops to often being volatile and irritable. Few are spared from her anger, she tells us, including herself. At one point, Waldman writes, in a moment of despair, she considered driving her car off a bridge.
Turning to LSD may have been a last resort for Waldman, but microdosing — taking very small, regular doses of either LSD or psilocybin (a psychedelic compound in some mushrooms) to treat anxiety and other ailments — has become something of a fad. Since the publication of his book “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide” in 2011, psychologist James Fadiman has been gathering testimonies from people who have tried the technique. In Silicon Valley, LSD is becoming the latest tool for improving performance. Among the many people Waldman talks to is self-help guru Tim Ferriss, who has boasted that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.” Mainstream researchers are beginning to work with psilocybin as a treatment for depression in cancer patients.
Waldman, a self-described nerd, is well aware of all of this. In fact, she goes right to the source, consulting with Fadiman for guidance on her own LSD experiment. The biggest hurdle for a vanilla latte-drinking mom, however, is finding the drug — even in Berkeley. But through connections and a bit of good fortune, Waldman is greeted one day with a package, return address “Lewis Carroll,” and she begins her journey toward self-enlightenment. (Initially, Waldman, a former federal public defender familiar with drug laws, tells only her husband and two close friends, though on one peppy day she also blabs it to her physical therapist and later, ill-advisedly, to a couple at a dinner party.)
Waldman is a diligent guinea pig, recording her every mood, sensation and ache, journal style. “The trees look prettier today than usual”; “I miss the peace of yesterday afternoon”; “I noticed the beauty of my neighborhood . . . the smell of jasmine. After lunch, I felt slightly nauseated”; and so on. Woven throughout are informative passages about drug policy and the science of psychedelics.
At times Waldman’s book resembles that too-full purse: There are riffs on her parenting style (an advocate of “harm-reduction,” she stocks her teen kids’ bathroom cupboard with condoms), a transcript of a text conversation with Chabon when she was under the heavy influence of Ambien (“Put screen away,” says the man who also patiently tracked her menstrual cycles so she could time her medications) and a long discussion about the couch in her writing studio. But push past the sometimes amusing asides and you’ll be rewarded with an intriguing and thorough look at the therapeutic possibilities of an illegal drug. Waldman really is a nerd (in a good way), and her book is an engaging and deeply researched primer on a taboo subject and a compelling case for more research on it.
As for Waldman (spoiler alert!), microdosing does help quell her roiling moods (“Like, when you’re angry, you’re super-chill,” one of her kids tells her) and allows her to focus better on her work. But she realizes that the benefit isn’t worth the legal risk. The real blessing of the experiment, she writes, is to show her that “happiness, though delightful, is not really the point.” A really good day, it turns out, is a lot simpler — and more attainable — even without the help of a drug.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer in Book World.
On Feb. 12 at 5 p.m., Ayelet Waldman will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.
By Ayelet Waldman
Knopf. 229 pp. $25.95