Post-traumatic stress disorder begins as a natural response to danger, according to psychiatrists.
Rachel Hope says her life had been the stuff of nightmares. She reached out to South Carolina psychiatrist Dr. Michael Mithoefer in 2005 after suffering the effects of PTSD for years and trying various treatments, to no avail.
"My mom was 19 when she had me, and she was very ill-equipped," Hope said.
But the worst arrived when Hope was 4 years old and her mother went on vacation, leaving her with a male friend who'd agreed to babysit.
As it turned out, says Hope, he was a pedophile who raped her repeatedly over the six-week stretch that her mother was gone. When they finally reunited, her mother noticed a change.
"She told me, 'I just wondered why you were kind of withdrawn and weren't the happy child you used to be,' " Hope said. But the angry, bewildered child didn't tell tell her mother what had happened, and no one put the pieces together.
Not long after, Hope went to live with her grandmother in San Diego, where she did well in school and became accustomed to a "normal" life.
But five years later, another catastrophe struck -- literally. She was hit by a delivery truck as she was riding her bike to a dance lesson. Hope nearly died. As it was, she needed two reconstructive surgeries on her face and was partially paralyzed for four months.
Yet, she survived. The 11-year-old found strength in stoicism.
'"That was good and bad. I mean, it was heartbreaking to be a kid like that," she said. "To realize, there's not gonna be a magical fairy that shows up. 'Bad news, kid, no one's saving you.' And that was a big turning point."
Seemingly against all odds, she pulled her body and mind back together. She became fascinated by notions of human potential, the way the mind works.
And she asked herself the big questions. "I wanted to make sense of it all."
It took years, however, to reach out to Mithoefer. Her plan: to see whether she could free herself from torment by taking a drug called MDMA, commonly known as Ecstasy.
Party drug and forbidden substance
The compound known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, was first synthesized in Germany in 1912. No one quite knew what to do with it. It was studied by the military in the 1950s and eventually emerged from the lab in the late 1970s.
The first report on its effect in humans was published in 1978 by independent chemist Alexander Shulgin and David Nichols, a professor of pharmacology at Purdue University.
At the same time, Shulgin was churning out the drug in his lab and sharing it with a handful of psychiatrists and therapists who saw MDMA as a lever for human growth.
Dr. George Greer helped Shulgin make an early batch and offered it to interested couples and individuals. "MDMA reduced the fear response, so people could talk about the things that made them afraid or upset," he recalled.
At the same time, "people were able to have normal cognitive function, and the insights they had were able to translate to everyday life." A few people had mild panic attacks, says Greer, "but in general, it was well-tolerated." He described his experiments in a paper, detailing the experiences of 29 people.
Not everyone was so careful. By the mid-'80s, Ecstasy was also in use as a party drug. In the spring of 1985, the alarm was sounding, and Ecstasy was making headlines.