Lifetalk with Roberta Russell: Healing Through Alliance

By Roberta Russell

I devoted much of the ‘80s to writing, and simultaneously living, a book about how to have a mutually therapeutic alliance—RD Laing & Me: Lessons in Love—with the late famed Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, MD. Partly in the service of that goal we took MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. It was a legal drug then, used by some professional therapists to eliminate fear and enhance the alliance between patient and doctor. The prevailing claim by enthusiasts was that it was often the equivalent of 100 therapy sessions. Indeed, that sentiment reflected my experience of it, both with Ronnie Laing and with other close friends. 

ROBERTA RUSSELL. Photo: Cheryl Eisen.

My interest piqued, I contracted to write a book reporting on the effects of MDMA. Accordingly, in 1985 I interviewed professional psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists who reported on the then-legal treatment they offered patients—unadulterated MDMA—as opposed to dangerously impure street Ecstasy. My (admittedly, biased) sample demonstrated mostly extraordinarily successful results. 

A sensitive therapist friend, Barry Flint, the founding director of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, initiated in 1983 by Eileen Rockefeller Growald to further scientific understanding of mind/body interactions in health and disease, told me of substantial breakthroughs with his patients while they experienced MDMA at sessions. He reported that they had a more direct sense of the issues they were struggling with. Both members of a couple, depressed because they had been fighting constantly, digging themselves into a deeper hole, were able to say why they were upset in each other’s presences. “It was lovely to watch,” Barry said. “They were clearly in love… They could hear each other. It was a marvel. They did it for six hours.” 

Professionals agreed that MDMA added an element of depth, lowered anxiety, and decreased defensiveness. Nevertheless, in 1986 MDMA became a Schedule 1 drug, a felony. Research stopped.

Just in time, I lived through what felt was like a divine state, sharing Ecstasy with the late psychiatrist, my co-author (not my doctor) Ronnie Laing, a man who was known for his searing insights and compassion. Eventually, under the influence of psychedelic medicines, our boundaries disappeared. As a woman alone, I found myself ensconced and intertwined with him in my penthouse in New York City, my fantasies lived out. Never this close to another, inside or out, time stopped. The censor that watches for danger was gone.

My sense of bonding remained in the afterglow. There were reverberations.

Now, after decades, the fear of the perils of psychedelic and psychoactive drugs is giving way to growing confidence in the emerging evidence of remarkable therapeutic powers and safety, being revealed at prestigious research centers such as Johns Hopkins, New York University, and Imperial College in London. Psychedelic drugs administered in an appropriate setting have been shown to generate mystical, mind-opening, unifying experiences that are effective remedies for treatment-resistant addictions, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With an accelerating body of research accumulating, it is likely that psychedelics will become legal by prescription in the foreseeable future.

My purpose, formalized by my novel verité partnership with Laing, RD Laing & Me: Lessons in Love, has evolved. Now, even in this time of our own Covid-induced vale of tears, I am still prepared to encourage and engender the powerful force of a goal-directed therapeutic alliance with a friend. Maybe you or someone you know or will meet will find this prospect engaging? The constructive bond that I am proposing enhances the probability of forming a therapeutic alliance by fostering a mutual commitment to be trustworthy, to band together, to create a time, a plan, and an intention to do what it takes to achieve goals. Money will not change hands in this endeavor, but mutual motivation and intention may touch your heart.

Roberta Russell is the author of R.D. Laing & Me: Lessons in Love with R.D. Laing, (Hillgarth Press, 1992), Report on Effective Psychotherapy: Legislative Testimony (Hillgarth Press, 1981, 1994), and Report on Permanent Weight Loss (Columbia Academic Commons, 2017). She has also been a contributor to various international magazines and journals including: Psychologie Heute (Germany), Japan Times (Japan), The Psychologist (U.K.), Human Potential Magazine (U.K.), Changes (U.K.), Clinical Psychology Forum (U.K.), Psychoanalytic Studies (U.K.), and Bottom Line (USA). Occasionally, Roberta hosts a New York City cable television show, called Lifetalk, which has featured interviews with movers and shakers in controversial areas of psychology, weight loss, nutrition, medicine, the environment, and population growth. 

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