One organization has been largely responsible for bringing psychedelics into the mainstream, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS.
In researching her new book, about the therapeutic applications of MDMA, author Rachel Nuwer dove into MAPS. She discovered the group was supported by some surprising benefactors.
This includes Elizabeth Koch, the daughter of Charles Koch of Koch Industries, which is one of the largest private American companies. Besides their massive fortune, Charles Koch and his brother David are known for funding conservative movements, like the Tea Party.
Nuwer explained in her book that though it may be counterintuitive, many public figures with conservative ties, like Elizabeth Koch, invest in socially liberal groups like MAPS.
Read below for the story of how Elizabeth Koch came to support psychedelic therapy in an excerpt from Rachel Nuwer’s new book “I Feel Love.”
The following is an excerpt from Rachel Nuwer’s new book, “I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World.“
The moment I walked through the door of the loftlike space, the slender forty-five-year-old greeted me with a hug, a blanket, and not one but two very LA-appropriate canned drinks (“energy booster” and “prebiotic popping soda”) from the office’s meticulously organized fridge. Elizabeth’s bubbly enthusiasm and disarming warmth immediately put me at ease, and within minutes I felt as though I were chatting with an old friend.
Elizabeth’s uncanny ability to endear herself to others is a skill she has been cultivating nearly her entire life, and it’s actually a symptom of her trauma. In hearing her story, I would learn that MAPS’s fundraising success doesn’t just boil down to Doblin’s prowess as a salesman, or to wealthy people simply loving MDMA, but to the fact that trauma and suffering are universal.
Not even the most privileged individuals in the world are immune to mental anguish, and they can face the same limitations as the rest of us in finding relief for that pain. Elizabeth’s “fall from Eden,” as she described her index trauma, occurred when she was five years old.
After a close friend of her parents severed his spine by diving into a shallow pond, the family went over to pay their respects to the now wheelchair-bound man. The atmosphere in the house was oppressively somber, so to lighten the mood for her little brother, Elizabeth began singing the Humpty Dumpty song.
In one refrain, though, she absentmindedly replaced “Humpty Dumpty” with the name of the paralyzed man. Suddenly, all the tension in the room was directed at her. “I see my dad looking over his shoulder and giving me this death stare,” she recalled.
When the family got home, Elizabeth’s father sat her down. “You kids don’t get it,” she recalled him saying. “You have everything that everyone wants, and you’ll be hated for it your entire life. Your job, always, is to be the nicest person in the room, and the hardest worker in the room — the one who picks up garbage that everyone leaves behind. You have to be aboveboard because if you aren’t, you’ll not only be hated by everyone else but also by yourself.”
Looking back on this incident with an adult’s perspective, Elizabeth now understands that her father was trying to protect her. “He was absolutely terrified that my brother and I would grow up to be spoiled, piece-of-shit monsters,” she said. As a five-year-old, however, she interpreted his lecture to mean that she could only be loved if she were good.
That pivotal message came to hold sway over nearly every facet of her personality and life.
In “The Myth of Normal,” Gabor Maté wrote, “A child who does not experience himself as consistently and unconditionally lovable may well grow to be preternaturally likable or charming” — which was exactly the path Elizabeth followed.
It started with a nightly ritual: before bed, she would review everything she had said and done that day to make sure she had been the nicest person and the hardest worker, and that she hadn’t accidentally hurt anyone’s feelings. If something bad happened to her — say, she tripped and skinned her knee — she would tell herself that it was because the universe was punishing her for not being good enough.
In classrooms, during extracurricular activities, or on sports teams, she would always beeline for whichever kid she thought would hate her the most — usually the one who appeared to have the least money, or the one who looked the least like her — and try to win them over by telling them funny stories about her family’s dysfunction.
Over the years Elizabeth rose to the top of her class, won competitions for her writing, and made many friends, but she lacked joy. “I have to do this to prove that I deserve to be alive,” she would tell herself each time she accomplished something.
“I have to earn my existence.”
Her paranoia about what others thought of her intensified, as did her unhappiness. She realized she needed help and began trying various mental health solutions, including yoga, silent meditation retreats, and, briefly, medications.
She read books about Buddhism and neuroscience and gained glimpses of insight. But no amount of knowledge, learning, or practice brought genuine relief.
When a friend suggested in 2016 that she try psychedelic-assisted therapy with a “consciousness cowboy” he knew — an ex-military man who called himself Doug the Lovebunny — she agreed. Doug filled a silver balloon full with “some kind of vapor smoke,” Elizabeth recalled, and instructed her to breathe in and hold it.
Doug the Lovebunny hadn’t prepared Elizabeth for this harrowing and destabilizing experience, and he did not provide any support or integration for her afterward. For weeks, she would wake up in the middle of the night, she said, “scrambling to try to grab hold of my body.”
She wanted to know more about what she was going through, and research led her to MAPS. She attended a psychedelics conference in Los Angeles, where she was moved and inspired by the firsthand accounts shared by war veterans who had taken part in the MDMA-assisted clinical trials for PTSD.
MDMA sounded a lot more user friendly than 5-MeO-DMT — and perhaps, Elizabeth thought, it could help her, too. So in spring 2018, she found “someone off grid” who agreed to give her MDMA-assisted therapy following the MAPS protocol.
Elizabeth wound up doing three sessions, and through that process, she saw the vast amount of pain she had been harboring throughout her life.
“I had been terrified of joy,” she said. “The medicine showed me the degree to which all this buried stuff that I hadn’t even been able to see was causing me to be reactive and feel constantly trapped, overwhelmed, and miserable.”
The MDMA sessions (one of which she also paired with psilocybin) helped Elizabeth let go of the “intense self-hatred” she had been burdened with since she was five years old, she said, and to feel sympathy and love for herself. She’s since become one of MAPS’s top five donors.
“MDMA is not going to save the world,” Elizabeth said. “But together with conversations and experiences of going inward and self-investigating, I think it can help.”
Following that thread, in 2018, Elizabeth founded a company, Unlikely Collaborators, that aims to bring people together who seem like they’re on opposite sides of an issue, and then work with them to reveal their shared humanity and commonalities.
If and when MDMA-assisted therapy gains FDA approval, Elizabeth also envisions Unlikely Collaborators providing community-oriented group integration services.
“We each have our own relative hell realms that we have to learn to crawl out of,” she said. “The only way to bridge divides out there are to bridge the divides within.”
From I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Fractured World out now from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2023 by Rachel Nuwer. All rights reserved.