An Amazing Children’s Book Thanks to Molly

My legs were shaking and convulsing, as if someone were holding a pair of live jumper cables to each one. I lay in bed, the day after my birthday, at around 9:40 in the morning, wearing an American Airlines eye mask to block out the morning light. All I could think about was coming out of surgery at Johns Hopkins, thinking I had mere days to live. That experience was 15 years ago, but it felt like it was happening all over again, right now. When I got out of surgery, shivering uncontrollably as the anesthesia wore off, I experienced a phenomenon nobody warned me about. I thought my body was shutting down, and I’d be dead soon. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. But why was I feeling the same thing now, safe in my bed at home?

I thought I knew the cause of these spasmodic actions, but I didn’t.

About an hour before the legs started their jitterbug, I took 135 milligrams of MDMA. Despite countless nights in clubs and at raves, I had never tried MDMA, known in my day as ecstasy and most recently as Molly. The biggest reason was the unpredictability of drugs on my body, which I’ve always tried to treat like a temple—well, okay, a temple that enjoys a damn good cocktail. I’ve never been into drugs. I did smoke weed a few times and actually inhaled like every other kid in the ’90s (except Bill and Hillary).

In 2021, I had a reason to take MDMA, and I also had a professional guide.

This is my story of how MDMA helped me heal several past traumas, create a new level of empathy, and inspired me to write a children’s book that was released on New Year’s Day. I’ll tell you the title at the end of the blog!

I mentioned I had a professional guide—let’s call her Molly Malone. She is a CEO coach in Silicon Valley and has also been involved in Stanford University’s studies on MDMA with veterans suffering from PTSD.

Over the past few years, Molly Malone, my professional guide, had told me about taking other CEOs on an MDMA “Journey.” She convinced me that an MDMA journey would help me process past traumas. I had split from my wife of 20 years, harbored anger at my mom, and had a personal highlight reel of being whipped by my leather belt-wielding grandfather and playing chicken with oncoming traffic courtesy of my drunk uncle. All this, wrapped up in a cozy Irish blue-collar culture where showing weakness was a bigger sin than forgetting your grandmother’s secret brown bread recipe.

Molly suggested that MDMA would help open up a different perspective on my trauma and help me process it. I knew from my six years of neuroscience research (for Fear is Fuel) that processing really means creating two types of memories that fit in with other memories; kind of like categorizing a book in a library. I was curious enough to tell her I’d try. She was in Boston the day after my birthday and said she’d come over on the day after.

The violent leg shakes? Turns out, not a side effect of the “medicine” but my body’s way of processing the trauma from a surgery 15 years ago. My legs were throwing a nostalgia party, and the guest of honor was my own mortality.

Molly told me that she’d administer a booster dose of 75mg at about two hours into the journey. The Elvis leg had finally stopped; however, when she asked if I wanted the booster after about two hours, I gave her an emphatic “No fucking way.”

Like many things in the journey, I didn’t know what would happen next.

She went back to asking me probing questions about my childhood and experiences associated with those snapshots in time. I started to feel differently about my relationships with those memories. Suddenly, I was able to put myself in the shoes of others and understand their story. It was heightened empathy, and that’s exactly what the medicine does. There is a lot of research now that shows MDMA coupled with therapy has a significant impact on reducing trauma[1].

After hundreds of Q&A sessions with neuroscientists, the biggest take-away I write about in my book, Fear is Fuel, is that we need to reprogram our brain to replace judgment with curiosity. I lay out a model for reprogramming the brain in the book, and it’s all about managing the parts of the brain that activate, the chemicals produced, and the timing of those changes. My method has helped tens of thousands of people, but it takes time to work. MDMA does the same thing in an hour, although it may not have the same effect on new traumas and can’t be used each time you get scared.

What Happens To Your Brain Under MDMA?

MDMA produces serotonin, which squelches our fear center (the amygdala), and it also increases the communication to our prefrontal cortex (PFC), the newest part of our brain responsible for rational thought. The PFC is what we try to take control of from our subconscious when we meditate. The goal is to self-reflect and see your traumatic situation from afar rather than as the main protagonist. When the amygdala hijacks us, we can’t use the PFC. One of the powerful effects of MDMA seems to be the reconsolidation of memories and an empathetic mindset. Often you relive the trauma to process and categorize it. That’s what was happening with my Elvis leg.

Our brain can change at any age; that’s called neuroplasticity. In order to change a memory, you have to access two memories. One is called the episodic memory, or just the facts: “I drove over an IED and blew the HumVee in half.” The other is the Emotional Memories and the feelings associated with that event—fear, pain, anger, surprise, etc. MDMA helps create more neuroplasticity, making it easier to change emotional associations and work through them.

Changing the Story on my Own Trauma

My Uncle Bobby was an alcoholic and doing God-knows-what kind of drugs. His pupils were constantly dilated, and he was often sweaty on cold nights. He’d scream at my brother and me non-stop. Usually, it was to go shopping; he’d yell for us to get into the car or stand in front of a fresh dent he might have caused the night before, so that when he wheeled my grandfather out, Gramps wouldn’t see the latest trauma to his beloved Scout. Bobby once drank a fifth of Vodka in a movie theater (he took us to Raging Bull as 7 and 9-year-olds) and then drove us home in Boston traffic, swearing and honking most of the way. He terrified me.

When Molly and I talked about him during my journey, I realized that as the youngest of four siblings and the only one not married, he was forced to look after my infirm grandfather. Bobby had to wheel Gramps around in his wheelchair—lift him into bed and out, change his clothes,

and help my grandmother move his bed pan in and out. When my grandfather got really bad from the crippling arthritis he would scream for Bobby or my grandmother to get him a gun. He’d get to tears begging them to help him end it. I was sitting in the living room hearing him scream from his bed. I was dazed and unable to process what was happening, so I just sat on the edge of the couch.

Under MDMA I could put myself in Bobby’s shoes. He was fresh out of the Navy, he was very good looking, tall and strong with a great sense of humor and a wonderful singing voice. When I think about all the fun I had when I was 25 or 26 years old, hundreds of happy memories surface. None of them included my father begging me to kill him, or spooning shit out of his ass when he was constipated. If I was in Bobby’s shoes I’d have been high all the time too. During the journey I understood and I felt sad for him.

It doesn’t make Bobby’s reckless actions any less egregious, but it shows what this medicine can actually do in helping me empathize and forgive him. This also spread to other areas I wanted to work on. The emotional memories became very healthy, even when I knew I, or others, could have acted more kindly, because the MDMA changed my brain.

The Booster Dose and Next Level Thinking

As Molly and I talked I started pulling different threads in my life I felt myself becoming very happy and proud of all sorts of new insights I was discovering. I saw the seven year old me wanting to be liked by everyone and then the 40 year old me learning about the neuroscience of liking and put those things together. Then I saw all the dogs in my life and how each one had a special place. Then I came up with the idea for a great children’s book. I would have never guessed I’d write a children’s book. I was making crazy connections and it was really fun to create like that.

“I’ll take that booster dose!” I exclaimed to Molly. And so I did.

I realized if kids knew that each of us were wired differently, it would help them understand why some people like you and why some don’t, why some people are shy and some are outgoing. I love dogs, and each dog in my life had a different personality so why not write a children’s book about learning personalities by introducing them to nine dogs? Nine is the number of personalities in the Enneagram assessment of personalities that I’ve used for years in my companies. I said to Molly then and there – I’m going to write a children’s book about dogs, personality and the Enneagram.

We’ve all had lots of crazy (often alcohol induced) ideas but seldom actually follow through on them. Well the kids book I did follow-through on. I began writing it on a train between Lviv and Kyiv Ukraine last year. I wrote almost all of it during that trip to Ukraine. I also found a Ukrainian illustrator and will be sending the profits to some of the charities I’ve worked with over there. It’s a great book to share with your kids because there are exercises that go with each dog.

The Heartwarming Childrens Book inspired by MDMA

So the name of the book is:

Paddy Picks a Puppy

Go buy a copy today and let me know what you think, and please share it with someone you love.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7351848/

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