In this episode, I chat with therapist Charley Wininger.
He's the author of the new book, Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA. Writing about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic substances is pretty controversial, depending on where you live in the world.
It's a topic that I'd like to write about, but I'm not quite there yet, so I was fascinated to hear from an author who's not afraid to write about something controversial.
Charley started writing in his mid-60s. He's now 72, and it took him seven years to write the book. If you ever feel like you've missed your chance to write a book, take heart from his experiences.
I ask Charley about the correlation between psychedelics, meditation and flow state, and the creative process. He also describes his writing process and how he got around some issues like writer's block.
In this episode, we discuss:
Charley: Part of it was a healthy respect for my own ego. I don’t mind divulging different parts of myself because it’s satisfying for me to be known, to be known not just as a celebrity, because I’m not a celebrity, but to be known as who I am, for people to know who I am. It lends meaning to my life.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Are you an expert in something controversial that you’d like to turn into a book or a series of articles or perhaps even a creative business?
Hi, there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. This week, I caught up with therapist, Charley Wininger.
He’s the author of the new book, Listening to Ecstasy: The Transformative Power of MDMA. Now, writing about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic substances is a pretty controversial topic depending on what part of the world you live in. It’s something that’s gaining more recognition in the United States because psychedelics these days are used to treat war veterans, but it’s certainly not a topic that people talk about too much in places like Ireland, for example. It’s also a topic that I’d like to write about at some point but I’m not quite there yet so I was fascinated to hear from an author who’s not afraid to write about something controversial.
One of my key takeaways from this particular interview was that when Charley told friends he was writing about his experiences with MDMA, his friends encouraged him to write the book but not all of them did. Charley describes how two of his friends said to him that he shouldn’t write the book and that he should go and do something else because they were worried about what would happen to him, and in the interview, Charley explains what happened next after he decided to ignore their advice.
I also asked Charley about the correlation between psychedelics and meditation and flow state and even the creative process. If that’s something you’re interested in, I’d recommend you check out any of Sam Harris’s work. He has a fantastic book called Waking Up and he has an app of the same name which is all about meditation and I use Waking Up quite regularly. In fact, I use it nearly every day these days. Certainly something that can help you if you want to build a meditative practice.
Another good takeaway from this book is that Charley didn’t start writing ’til he was in his mid-60s. He’s 72 at the moment and it took him seven years to write this book, so if you’re further along in your career but you still want to write something or you wanna write about something controversial that happened in your career or in your personal life but you feel like, you know, “I’ve kind of missed my chance to write a book or become an author,” well, then, take heart from Charley’s experiences. He describes his writing process and how he got around some issues that he came across in his work like writer’s block.
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Before getting into the show, a quick disclaimer. The interview talks about taking psychedelics and their effects. Now, I’m not a doctor and I don’t pretend to be one. Psychedelics are also illegal in many countries so the content in this interview is for informational purposes only.
Bryan: Welcome to the show.
Charley: Thank you, Bryan. Thank you for having me on.
Bryan: I’m looking forward to hearing about the topic for your book, Charley, but before we get down to that, could you give listeners an overview of your background and how you came to write a memoir like this?
Charley: Well, I am a psychotherapist the past 30 years and what they call a psychonaut the last 50 years. That is somebody who experiments with psychedelic substances and I’ve done my growth as a human being through therapy, my own therapy, and also through these substances and I came to realize here at, starting about seven years ago, when I started writing the book, when I was 65 years old, that I had a lot to say about my life and about these substances, in general, and MDMA, which is also known as ecstasy or molly, in particular, and so I wanted to tell the world and sort of come out of the psychedelic closet and tell the world about that and how it had an impact on my life and, also, I wanted to mine my memories for meaning.
I wanted to delve back into all my many years of lived experience and extrapolate what is most meaningful and share that with others.
Bryan: So, you started writing the book seven years ago?
Bryan: And did it take you long to write it?
Charley: It took about six years, yes.
Bryan: Yeah, and was that because you changed the topic a few times or because it was memoir or for some other reason?
Charley: It’s because it was a memoir and I added other aspects to the book because it’s not only a memoir, it’s also a guide to the safe use of MDMA and it’s also, there’s a chapter called “Senior High” which is about the aging process and I have a lot to say about the aging process and how these substances can help.
Bryan: A lot of books like this tend to be written more from a clinical point of view and I know you have a background as a psychoanalyst but there tends to be some distance between the author and the topic, whereas yours is quite personal, like you have a story about you and your partner, I think you were at Burning Man, is that right?
Charley: We’re not at Burning Man, we were at a similar type of place, what they call a regional example of a burn, my wife and I, so we had a lot to share about that, yes, and it’s a very personal document.
Bryan: And did you feel comfortable putting personal stories into the book?
Charley: Did I have trouble getting personal — putting personal —
Bryan: Yeah, or did you feel comfortable doing it?
Charley: Yes. Well, I guess part of it, to be honest here, since we’re talking to other writers, part of it was a healthy respect for my own ego. I don’t mind divulging different parts of myself because it’s satisfying for me to be known, to be known not just as a celebrity, because I’m not a celebrity, but to be known as who I am, for people to know who I am. It lends meaning to my life.
Bryan: This is your first book?
Bryan: Did you find it difficult to start writing later on in your career?
Charley: No. Once I’ve decided that this is what I wanted to write about, there was only too many ways to start and too many things to write about and — can I go into the writing process for a moment?
Bryan: Please do, I’d love to hear about it.
Charley: Okay. The best writing advice I ever received was from a teacher, a teacher of writing, many years ago, and he said this. He said, “Don’t think when you write, just let it flow.” And the other piece of advice that I heard, which is not to be taken literally but you’ll get the idea, is, “Write drunk, edit sober.” In other words, and I wasn’t drunk when I wrote, or high, actually, I wasn’t high, but to just let it rip, to just let it go, turn the inner editor off and just spill and spill and spill and spill and so the first draft was completely unpublishable but it was all out there and then the rest of those six years were about honing, perfecting, polishing a hundred times.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s a lengthy revision process. What kind of revision steps did you go through over the six years? Could you describe it?
Charley: Yes. I’m a big believer, Bryan, in feedback so I chose about five people in my life who I respect. I respect their intelligence and I respect their opinions and I gave, I think it was my sixth draft, to them to get their feedback and input. Some of them were users of psychedelic substances, some of them were most definitely not so I got all kinds of points of view and opinions but also good critiques about my writing which I took to heart and then I had to sort out, you know, which changes they suggested that I would do and which I would not do but I am a big believer in feedback and I took all their suggestions to heart.
Bryan: Yeah, feedback is particularly helpful during the editing stage, particularly from people who have a different opinion to what the central idea of the book is about. When you were also writing your book over the six or seven years, I presume you were doing other things as well like working on your practice.
Charley: Yes, yes. I’m a full-time psychotherapist here in New York City seeing individuals and couples.
Bryan: When new authors publish their first book, they’re often worried about what people will think. Was that a concern for you?
Charley: Well, absolutely, not only because it’s my first book but because the topic is so controversial —
Charley: — and I was concerned about being judged for writing about such a book — writing such a book to begin with, and matter of fact, one or two friends of mine were telling me, “Do not write this book.” One or two friends of mine were —
Bryan: Do not write it?
Charley: Do not write it. These are friends that I respect, who — I didn’t send them a draft of the book but they tried to persuade me to not write it because they are very anti-drug. They think all drugs are bad. When they think of psychedelics, they think of heroin, they think of crack, they think — they conflate all drugs together. They thought it would be a destructive thing to do to write the book and I knew that they were representative of a segment of the population here in America so I was very concerned about what kind of feedback I would get about the book.
Bryan: When you get feedback like that from somebody who’s a friend and they’re telling you not to go ahead with your creative project, does that put you off? Does that make you hold back?
Charley: No, but I did take the advice to heart, meaning that — the essence of what I really took from that conversation is if I’m gonna write about this controversial topic, I better do it responsibly and I better talk about the risks and the potential pitfalls and really be responsible in the way I talk about something that I’m really actually very enthusiastic about.
Bryan: Which brings me to the central theme of the book, why did you pick MDMA as the psychedelic substance to focus on?
Charley: Because it’s the most user friendly. It’s not a hallucinogen. You can be out and about on the street, though, which I wouldn’t recommend to a first-time user, but after you know what it’s like, you can be out and about and people will just think you’re having a nice day. It’s very user friendly.
You can use it in many ways and it’s also incredibly versatile. This is a substance that’s being experimented on now with veterans from the Iraq War and it’s curing them of PTSD. MDMA is gonna become a prescription medication in America in two years but it’s also something that you can use with your husband or wife to reclaim the lost heart of your relationship and it also can be used, as you know, to dance the night away in wild abandon with a thousand other people at a rave so it’s an incredibly versatile substance.
Bryan: Compared to psilocybin?
Charley: Yes. Psilocybin or magic mushrooms is a hallucinogen and it also can be used recreationally but it also can be used for healing and so it’s much more limited mass appeal and I wanted to reach a larger audience and I think MDMA has the potential of having more of a mass appeal.
Bryan: Could you describe some of the benefits that you found through your exploration or through your writing of?
Charley: Well, those are two different questions. I mean, I could talk all day about the benefits of my exploration with MDMA. That’s what the book is about. It’s about all the benefits. The writing of it really helped me put it into — helped me articulate all of this and one of the benefits is that MDMA can act as a kind of emotional superglue for couples, as it has for my wife, Shelley, and I, and really has helped bond us and deepened our intimacy with each other and added notes of joy and play and fun to our relationship up here in our 60s and now in our 70s.
Bryan: What would you say is the risks apart from the fact that it’s illegal?
Charley: The risks are if you don’t know how to do it right. If you don’t test it, you have to test it and make sure to use only, only, only pure MDMA and there are testing kits that you can get which are not expensive and illegal to get. Also, you need a scale to weigh out the dosage so you know what dosage to take. All this is spelled out in my book. And you also need to adequately hydrate during the course of the high to keep — with Gatorade or water because your body is gonna need to replenish and you need to replenish that night with a good night’s sleep and the next day have nothing to do so that you can just integrate the experience and you have to take it very seriously. It’s a serious medicine and you have to use it right and if you don’t know how to use it, you should not use it at all.
Bryan: Do you think it’s something that’s becoming more recognized in the United States for its benefits? Like you mentioned how it’s been used to help veterans with PTSD.
Charley: Yes, and people are starting to use it for their relationships as well and some people are using it with group experiences as a bonding experience and as a healing experience with other people.
Bryan: Are you familiar with Sam Harris, by any chance? He’s written the book, Waking Up, and he does talk about the benefits of psychedelics.
Charley: Who is this?
Bryan: Sam Harris? He —
Charley: Oh, Sam Harris, yes.
Charley: Yes, I have not read the book but he’s a lot more well-known than I am and I have a lot of respect and admiration for him.
Bryan: One of the things he says is that a psychedelic can sometimes be like strapping yourself to a rocket ship whereas meditation is like getting on a boat. Have you found any comparison between meditation and psychedelics?
Charley: I do meditate and it is like — it’s a wonderful boat and helps you be on earth in a very effective way. Meditation is a good way to integrate a psychedelic experience into your life but I wouldn’t call MDMA like a rocket ship. For me, it’s sort of like a hot air balloon that helps me rise above my life for four, five, six hours and get a view, a real perspective on where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I might wanna head off to next in my life so it gives a lot of perspective and that’s one of the benefits of it for me.
Bryan: When I read the literature about MDMA, a lot of proponents talk about how it can help you get into some sort of flow state and my experiences with flow state are mostly listening to noise cancelling headphones and writing or meditating or perhaps doing some sports. Do you find that there is a correlation between flow state and MDMA?
Charley: Yes, and the effects are accumulative so, over the past 20 years, I’ve done it about 70 times, four or five times a year or so, sometimes three times a year, sometimes five times a year, and so the effects have accumulated for me so it’s helped me get in touch with that state. When I’m high on MDMA, I certainly can flow just right out from my heart to the person I’m with and speak heart to heart with them and be out of my head or I can dance, I love to dance, even though I’m 73 years old and I wouldn’t say I’m much to look at when I dance but I love it and it’s a lot of fun and that’s a way — and I’ve learned that even when I’m sober, or especially when I’m sober, dancing is a way of getting into that flow state and getting out of my head.
Bryan: Yeah, I agree. I agree. What about when you’re, you know, engaged in writing or the creative process, do you have any rituals you use to help you get into flow state?
Charley: Good question. No, no real ritual. The only substance I’ve ever used to help me write is really dark, bitter chocolate —
Charley: — for the caffeine effect and it’s mild, anti-depressant effects and it helps me flow right onto the page. But then — and, sometimes, when I wrote, I also would have some music going, like Enya or some kind of soft music without lyrics to help me get into the mood.
Bryan: For the book, you have a lot of personal stories and you grew up with Andy Kaufman, is that right?
Bryan: Did you know him well?
Charley: Yes, yeah. We were friends and he was quite the rascal.
Bryan: I can imagine, yeah. I can imagine. When you were writing the book, you’ve also included pictures from some of your experiences. Did you have like — like I’m sure you had a photo library you could go back to but did you have any journals that you were able to refer to draw back on your memories?
Charley: No, but I have a pretty sharp, long-term memory. Don’t ask me what I had for breakfast this morning but I know what I did 30 years ago and 50 years ago and 60 years ago and even 65 years ago. I have a pretty good memory. I make sure of holding on to these memories, especially the meaningful ones. So, I was just delving into it, but it just — further answer your question, I do my best thinking when I first wake up in the morning and I’m lying there in bed and sometimes I’ll realize, “Oh, I could write about this in the book and I could put a sentence together this way,” so I’ll keep a pen and paper right by my bed so when I first wake up, if these thoughts and ideas hit me, I will write them down. Now, that has helped me write the book.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s what I do as well. I have a similar process. When you had the book ready, did you have an ideal reader, we were talking about this just before we hit Record, that you wanted to pick up the book?
Charley: Yes, I wanted to reach readers within the psychedelic community in New York and in America and anywhere in the world because we are everywhere and there are millions of us. Although, of course, for legal reasons, we keep ourselves quiet, although that’s now more people coming out of the closet but I also wanted to reach people of other generations, especially people who might have used or misused psychedelics when they were younger, like in school, and then maybe had a bad experience and put it all aside and to let them know that if you can learn how to use these substances with respect and carefully, they can be of great benefit throughout the entire adult lifespan.
Bryan: What has the reaction been like from readers or from those who know you since the book was out?
Charley: Surprisingly positive. I was lucky that the book came out at a time when the war on drugs is being criticized and pretty much gonna be — is being dismantled in America, slowly but surely, with legalization of cannabis and decriminalization of many substances and so people are more open to taking a look at these drugs, I prefer the term “medicines,” than they ever were and so lucky to have the book come out at this time so the reaction to the book has been surprisingly positive, at least so far.
Bryan: Any particular strategies that are working quite well for you to sell copies of the book?
Charley: Yes, interviews like this.
Charley: Since November, when the book came out, it’s now, what? Mid-April? I’ve had about 35 interviews with podcasters around the country and around the world and people also writing for some online magazines. I was at Forbes.com and Reason magazine and a few others and so these have helped. Also, people mentioning me on their Twitter feeds or Instagram has helped with sales as well. And during COVID lockdown, I had a launch. I took advantage that it was COVID and I did a launch over Zoom.
Bryan: Oh, okay. How did it go?
Charley: Well, it went brilliantly because I had 200 people in the audience and psychedelic celebrities, American celebrities in the psychedelic world, on the screen with me talking about a time that MDMA changed their life.
Bryan: And how did you get people to actually attend that launch?
Charley: I put the word out every way I could, with my e-mail list and I have a YouTube channel, Twitter, Instagram, and relied on friends to help me get the word out as well.
Bryan: Could you describe a time MDMA changed your life?
Charley: I could describe about 70.
Bryan: Any one that comes to mind?
Charley: The times that are most impactful to me, Bryan, are the times where I sat with my wife, Shelley, and we, especially early on in our relationship, we started 20 — we got together 21 years ago in midlife, and we realized that we not only had our physical chemistry between us and our love for each other but that this medicine was the icing on our cake, that this was another kind of chemistry that we could share, that our bodies and our physical chemistry for four or five or six or seven hours could be exquisitely tuned to each other and we could enter the gates of heaven for this period of time.
It was a peak experience, where we had a peek into what it’s like in heaven or what it must be like in heaven or so we imagined. And when you have experiences like this with a partner, it helps you bond with them in a way that’s even deeper, at least for us, than we could have done sober because it’s a whole other level of bonding and that really changed us. It really set us on an increased course of gratitude for each other, generosity towards each other and towards the outside world as well.
Bryan: Fantastic, yeah. In Ireland, it’s more known as the drug that’s popular mostly in nightclubs and festivals.
Charley: Yes, and it can be used in that way and, if it’s used responsibly, I have no problem with it. It can be used — if it’s not abused, and you shouldn’t drink when you’re on MDMA, though some people do, unfortunately, and that’s where you can get into trouble, but we really believe here that, by “we,” I mean my wife and I, that fun, play, and joy can potentially be transformative experiences and to dance the night away in wild abandon with 100 or 500 other people can be a joyful and mind-expanding and heart-expanding and heart-opening experience.
Bryan: You also talk about having the next day off to internalize experiences that you’ve been through and MDMA is known for having quite a comedown over the course of a couple of days. What advice would you offer to somebody who’s experiencing that?
Charley: Well, there’s a section in my book about how to avoid what is known as the Tuesday blues after the Saturday night experience. We’ve had — we’re in our senior years, we’ve done this about 70 times, as I’ve said, we have never had bad comedown ever because we use — we follow the protocols. We’ll do it on a Saturday. We won’t do it on a Sunday where I have to go to work the next day. We’ll sleep it off. I will sleep maybe, at my age, maybe 10 hours that night, maybe even 11 hours that night and the next day, I just have an afterglow. Also, I’m replenishing my body with liquids and good food, healthy food that night and the next day and there’s an over-the-counter supplement that’s cheap and legal to obtain in any health food store or pharmacy called 5-HTP which helps replenish the serotonin that your body gets drained of with MDMA and that has helped us as well.
Bryan: Okay, okay. Good advice. What about — you mentioned that you’ve taken it 70 times over, I guess, 72 years? So —
Charley: No, 20 years.
Bryan: Oh, I’m sorry. That’s not that frequent then? Yeah, you wouldn’t be taking MDMA when you’re 1 year old. Definitely not. But like so you don’t take it that frequently from the sounds of it?
Charley: That’s right. I believe less is more and the less frequently we do it, the more impactful it is and we also moderate with the dose.
Bryan: Yeah, okay, okay. And in terms of, going back to the book itself, will you do any follow-on work with your clients in terms of coaching or course or training?
Charley: Yes, especially as MDMA becomes legal, I hope to integrate it into my practice because I could do six months’ or a year’s work of good, effective couples counseling in a day if I could use MDMA with them. Now, I would stay sober for that day, of course, but they would do the medicine and I could guide them through it and it would be a big boon, a big advantage for these couples but I don’t do that yet. I can’t. I wouldn’t want to lose my license. But I look forward to that and also appearing at conferences and traveling because things are starting to open up here now and I’ll be traveling in the fall, giving readings, speaking at psychedelic societies and readings at bookstores.
Bryan: When you’re ready to travel again, do you think you will use the book as a calling card or are you going to just try to promote the book in itself?
Charley: I’ll use the book as a calling card, absolutely. There’s a growing interest and curiosity about these substances, at least in this country and in some spots around the world. I don’t know about Dublin or Ireland but certainly in Lisbon and in parts of Australia and in London and in Prague and Berlin and other cities, there’s interest in these substances. Tel Aviv and other cities around the world. I hope to visit all of them in time.
Bryan: Yeah, hopefully, when life goes back to normal. Unfortunately, we’re still in lockdown at the time of recording this interview, at least in Ireland. And then just the fact that the book is a memoir itself, did you find writing a memoir therapeutic for you?
Charley: Yes. I have no children so this is my way of giving back all that I’ve received in the world and from people and all I’ve learned. This is my way of saying thank you so it’s been very meaningful and gratifying to have these stories that are so dear to my heart and I think that can really open people’s eyes to have them all out there.
Bryan: Was it difficult to get a publisher for a book like this?
Charley: It was hard. I got a terrific agent at the beginning, somebody who did Barack Obama’s first book, and I was very excited. She sent it out to all the top publishers in America and, one by one, they all turned it down. It was too hot for them to handle. And, frankly, to be fully honest, some of them gave a feedback saying, “Well, this is not as polished a writer as we tend to publish,” so there was that, you know? It’s a first book for me, it’s my second occupation. So she dropped me after that and then I went marketing the book myself and, through a contact, lucked out at this publishing house which has been around for 50 years called Inner Traditions Publishing, they publish psychedelic books, and it’s a traditional publisher, and psychedelic books and occult books and holistic health and healing and spiritual books and they just grabbed it and snapped it up and it’s been a terrific experience with them. They’re a wonderful publisher.
Bryan: Do you have any plans to write another book?
Charley: I have time but I don’t have the inspiration yet. I mean, I have all kinds of ideas sort of percolating beneath the surface but I can’t and won’t write another book unless I’m really inspired because that’s — otherwise, it would just be a chore. Because writing, as you know, is hard work. It really is. Writing is rewriting and so you have to really love it.
Bryan: Is it harder than being a psychoanalyst?
Charley: No. Being a therapist is difficult too but they’re both learning processes. They’re just different, but they’re both creative processes.
Bryan: Yeah. One last question, bit off tangent, do you believe journaling is a type of therapy?
Charley: Journaling, absolutely, yes, and I even kept a journal about writing the book. Maybe —
Charley: — maybe that will be my second book, yeah.
Bryan: [inaudible]. You know, I journal quite a lot and I think it’s a useful form of therapy that I recommend to anybody who likes working with the written word.
Bryan: Charley, where can people find your book or find more information about you?
Charley: Well, they can go to Amazon or, if they don’t like, sometimes people don’t like Amazon, they want a smaller company, they can go to the Simon & Schuster website which is my publisher’s distributor and punch in Listening to Ecstasy.
Bryan: Thank you, Charley.
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