In France, an old drug promises a new cure for alcoholism. But it’s the side effects — vivid dreams and encounters with otherworldly beings — that’s catching the fringe’s attention. Christopher Lord reports on a chance prescription that led him to profound experiences and encounters with immortal beings.
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I’ve been taking the drug Baclofen for a little over three months now. It has become a fashionable treatment for alcoholism here in France, where I’ve lived for 13 years — one of nine countries I have called home. Even in my village pharmacy, this once-obscure muscle relaxant has achieved slang notoriety: “Here’s your baclo.”

The French are moving a ton of the stuff as a cure for alcoholism and other addictions. But most users are ignoring the well-documented side effects that include vivid, fully recalled dreams and nightmares and DMT-style psychedelic visions.

As a user of LSD during my teenage years and a long-term but nowadays occasional alcohol abuser, I was in a good position to learn about these nightmares and visions.

New Applications for an Old Drug

Credit for Baclofen’s newfound popularity can be traced to the late Dr. Olivier Amiesen, a successful French-American cardiologist whose New York practice collapsed under the weight of his alcoholism. Having lost everything, he wrote a book about his discovery of Baclofen as a cure. Le Dernier Verre (“The Last Glass” – though the English edition was retitled The End Of My Addiction) was published in France in 2004, and remains the seminal work for exploring Baclofen’s potential to curb addiction.

From a commercial point of view, Baclofen is in a very peculiar situation. It has been around for several decades, but not as an alcoholism treatment. As a muscle relaxant, it is used to treat multiple sclerosis and other conditions involving spasticity. From a medical perspective, this is good news. It has been used so long without problems, sometimes at very high doses, that it is clearly a very safe drug. There is a good deal of incidental information about side effects and so on.

From the industrial point of view, however, baclo’s value as a profit center is very limited: Its patent ran out in 1984, leaving its original producers, Ciba-Geigy (now part of Novartis), little incentive to support it. With alcoholism being such a common condition, drugs to treat it can mean big money, and the industry is opposed to this new use for Baclofen: They have expensive, new, patented treatments already on the shelves or in the pipeline. Though some clinical trials have been held to study the drug greater potential (Essentia Health is currently recruiting subjects for “Preventing Alcohol Withdrawal With Oral Baclofen”), widespread American development is unlikely.

Addicts who try Baclofen often say they know it’s going to work from the first day.

It was pure chance that I came across baclo. I had a routine appointment with Sexy Sophie, my delightful general practitioner, who is a never-ending source of life and color in the rather austere environment of rural France. I casually inquired about Nalmefene, a drug increasingly deployed by the British to curb our national sport of alcoholic binges. There are many reasons I love having Sexy Sophie as my doctor, and her relaxed attitude toward lifestyle drugs is near the top of the list. She cheerfully offered me Viagra, for instance, with a girlish shrug and a what-the-hell kind of attitude. She didn’t know anything about Nalmefene, but she had been prescribing a French drug, Baclofen, for her many alcoholic patients. Did I want to try that instead?

Despite the hysteria about prescription drug abuse in the U.S., the French are among the world’s top consumers of psychotropics, with one-third of the population popping anti-depressants, tranquilizers and sleeping pills in 2013. As the charming little cafés of la France profonde disappear, gleaming new pharmacies are now everywhere, selling a weird mixture of expensive beauty products and homeopathic, herbal and other remedies for imaginary diseases, as well as doling out Mother’s Little Helper to anyone who asks for it.

Baclofen’s rise in France may partly be explained by this pill-popping habit, but can also be credited to national pride. It was a French doctor who started all this, and the French edition of his book was a bestseller. There’s also a natural resistance to authority among French intellectual types, and a group of doctors involved in treating alcoholism has decided to resist the industry. They reject the paid stooges whose articles in Big Pharma-corrupted journals paint Baclofen as useless and even dangerous.

This is standard self-defense by Big Pharma, and in the United States the power of industry lobbyists is such that, ten years after it was first demonstrated that Baclofen is uniquely successful in treating addiction, this same technique has led official medicine to knuckle under and accept the views that are convenient to drug manufacturers. Fortunately, it is now possible to use the internet to bypass the official journals and corporate lobbyists, and this is indeed happening in France.

The Known and Unknown Science of Baclofen

Alcoholics and drug addicts who try Baclofen often say they know it's going to work from the first day, and I had a tangential first-day experience similar to that described by Dr. Amiesen in his book. He wrote that, on his first Baclofen day, he went shopping for CDs — something he often did, compulsively buying music he didn’t want or need. This time, after browsing the store, he realized that for the first time he hadn’t bought anything.

My own experience was simpler: I got to the end of the day and, without even thinking, hadn’t drunk a single cup of coffee all day. Normally I drink coffee almost continuously.

The exact mechanism by which Baclofen achieves this is not known, but it seemingly improves neurotransmission in the amygdalae, two small areas behind your eyes that are part of the paralimbic system and involved in emotional management. Dr. Amiesen suggested that improving the inhibition of neural signals in the amygdalae treats the emotional damage and anxiety that causes people to drink in the first place.

The amygdalae are attracting a lot of attention among neuroscientists. Various psychological conditions, including depression, schizophrenia and psychopathy, have been linked to abnormalities in the functioning of the amygdalae. Additionally, researchers into ESP and psychic abilities such as precognition propose that the amygdalae — a very old part of the brain in evolutionary terms — process some kind of non-sensory information, too. If Dr. Amiesen and other pro-Baclofen researchers are right, this may explain why alcoholism makes people behave as if they are crazy. It may also explain the supernatural sleep hallucinations that Baclofen produces.

However, the neuropharmacology of Baclofen is not as specific as this. Gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA is used throughout the nervous system, and is mediated by two large classes of receptors, called GABAA and GABAB receptors. Together these make up 40 percent of the brain’s total synapses. Their general function seems to be reducing the excitability of nerves, preventing muscular spasms and perhaps also suppressing sudden mood swings such as panic attacks.

Alcohol, barbiturates and benzodiazepines (such as Valium) work by affecting the function of GABA receptors. While this can be shown in tissue studies, getting from the histology up to large-scale personality issues is a huge leap and, as with many other areas of neurobiology, there is a hefty dose of speculation and unproven assumptions.

It’s plausible that Baclofen could be used to treat any addictive behaviors.

Baclofen is an agonist for the GABAB class of GABA receptors (i.e., it’s the opposite of an antagonist — it improves the function rather than slowing it). That is about all that’s known as solid scientific fact about its function. These receptors are widely distributed through the central and the autonomic nervous system, and this explains the use of Baclofen as a whole-body muscle relaxant. The effect on the amygdalae may or may not be the main relevant factor in relation to addiction.

Dr. Amiesen writes extensively about how his alcoholism was caused by anxiety and fear of failure, suggesting that Baclofen cured this anxiety and thus removed the reason for his alcoholism. I don’t believe all alcoholics have this same pathology. In any case, my own observations are different. It seems to me that Baclofen repairs two complementary and highly damaging emotional mechanisms associated with drinking: need and shame.

The need is simply, “I need a drink” — an everyday phrase that hides a terrible truth. The shame is the bleary-eyed coming to and wondering fearfully what happened the day before.

Baclofen breaks this cycle, attacking both ends. It’s entirely plausible that it could be used to treat compulsive shopping, gambling, eating disorders and any other addictive behaviors that share an underlying biological and behavioral mechanism.

I was pleasantly surprised by my first experiences of Baclofen. Apart from the interesting effect on my coffee habit, there was something else: a subtle but definite buzz. Dr. Amiesen writes about it “establishing a sense of well-being”; others describe it as “similar to slight alcohol intoxication.”

As I was soon to discover, there’s more to Baclofen than that: It is a powerful psychedelic that produced the most amazing dream-state hallucinations I’ve ever experienced.

(Before everyone runs to score some Baclo from your local dealer, know that it’s not a practical drug for recreational use. Admittedly, it’s safe enough, at least from this layman’s non-medically accredited perspective. There is one case of a woman who attempted suicide by taking a month’s supply in one go; she made a full recovery. I’d like to know if she had the same kind of hallucination experiences I was to have, but the medical literature is silent on this subject. But there are other reports of people suddenly going into a coma by overdosing, and it is one of those drugs where you have to build up tolerance gradually over several days or weeks before you hit the effective dose. Do not try Baclofen as a party drug.)

Dosing Up for Vivid Dreams

It is during the process of building up your dose that the dreams and hallucinations come. It doesn’t seem to depend on the doses involved: It is the process of gradually taking more that seems to trigger it, although I did very quickly notice some strange odd flashes, usually when I was going to bed. These flashes lasted just a second, but they felt like sudden bright flips into a different reality.

These light, almost casual hallucinations are reported by Baclofen users with experience in recreational drug use — as are the more intense kind of experiences I describe below — but in Dr. Amiesen’s book, and elsewhere in the medical literature, they’re not described in psychedelic terms. Instead, they talk about “vivid dreams.” It’s possible that the anti-alcohol doctors (including one authority with the splendid name of Dr. Miriam Bottlender) are too conservative, square and uninformed to use psychedelic terminology.

Furthermore, the confusing, interminable nightmares may be more common among the emotionally disturbed end-of-the-road alcoholics who were the first patients for high-dose Baclofen. (Dr. Amiesen himself was drinking bottles of spirits day after day.) The treatment regime calls for steadily increased doses until one’s desire to drink disappears. This suggests that, in the early stages, when the brain chemistry is being altered, these people are still so drunk that they don’t notice or can’t experience the hallucinations. I wasn’t drinking at anything like those levels.

The whole universe was filled with the beauty of this moment.

There’s another reason that Baclofen’s intense hallucinations have been classified as dreams or nightmares: They come while you are asleep. Unlike most dreams, they are fully, vividly recalled the next day, and are highly coherent.

This stage lasted about a couple of weeks. Once I reached a certain dose, and presumably found a certain as-yet-unknown chemical balance in my body, I stopped having the DMT-like visions. However, I still have occasional nightmares and very vivid half-dreams and half-daydreams, some very enjoyable and usually early in the morning. Three months later, these persist.

Drowsiness and somnolence are also reported baclo side effects. In my experience, it’s not a simple matter of feeling tired. I believe one’s entire sleep cycle is shifted by Baclofen; the drowsiness is a result of this shift, as if your natural bed-time were suddenly in the middle of the afternoon. For me, an afternoon siesta is the solution, but that isn’t practical for people holding down a regular job.

Meeting the Immortals

Let’s talk about my dreams, nightmares, visions and hallucinations — whatever you choose to call them.

There were many, but I will explain the essentials of two visions. They came perhaps three nights apart, and were clearly connected. The first was more complicated, and the second had an amazing sense of beauty to it. The general themes were drawn from Chinese and Indian traditions, with images of both Buddhist and Hindu origin.

In the first, I woke up squatting on a shelf overlooking a strange scene that I recognized from the story of the Monkey King: This was the garden of the immortals. In Buddhism, it’s also called the Pure Land. A group of immortals were sitting around a table, talking, but I couldn’t hear them and they paid no attention to me. As I looked around, I also saw pairs of very tiny people; they were too small for me to describe in any detail. The immortals were very beautiful in immaculate, flowing traditional garments. Instinctively, I knew I wasn’t pure enough to set foot in their garden.

One particularly beautiful goddess, tall and thin and possibly Guan Yin, goddess of compassion for the Daoists and originally said to be the Mahāyāna bodhisattva Avalokitasvara, came over to me. She looked into me and saw that I was concerned about my drinking, trapped in the cycle of need and shame.

She smiled, said gently, “You don’t need to worry about any of that.”

I understood that she was right. With that, I was purified. I was able to step down into the garden, approach the immortals and take my place at their table.

Thanks to the Baclofen, a healing process had been opened.

In the next part of the dream, a few nights later, I was once again with the immortals. More had come this time, and we were sitting on the floor in a room scattered with cushions and carpets. We were there to receive instruction in yoga. Tantric Yoga, in fact. The instructress was a higher being who was only partially visible, and she was working with two beautiful girls who adopted various yoga positions, very perfectly, which we all followed with interest. The girls looked European, actually, though dark haired.

There were no spoken instructions; the instructress just gestured with her hands, and the girls went into the various postures. Then she made a different gesture, and the girls lay on their backs with their legs in a kind of lotus position, but it became clear that their clothes were open at the front and we could see their sex organs. They were a little embarrassed by this, but the instructress now spoke to them and said, quietly, in the same tone that Guan Yin had used with me, “It’s okay.”

To me, the whole universe was filled with the beauty of this moment. The purpose of the lesson was now clear: The energy in the universe that makes beauty is the energy of female sexuality.

And there, the vision ended.

The DMT Connection

I’m not alone in believing there’s something very profound — and far-reaching — in these hallucinations.

DMT: The Spirit Molecule is a 2010 documentary that examines the visions experienced by users of Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, widely considered to be the most powerful hallucinogen on the planet. What makes DMT different than LSD, and even Salvia Divinorum, is the similarity of experiences reported by users who have had no personal contact. Most common are the “mechanical elves,” “fractal elves” and “self-transforming elf machines,” who appear within mandalas and other geometric visual hallucinations; these elves welcome the users, and often thank them for finally coming.

Other DMT users describe encounters with kindly higher-dimensional beings offering love and advice. These experiences leave the users with an intensely real impression of having visited not just an alternative reality, but a higher reality. These encounters match mine so closely that I can’t help but consider a connection. Note that I learned of these DMT encounters after I had already enjoyed my own; they were not influenced by any foreknowledge.

Has an immortal bodhisattva of infinite compassion indeed purified my soul?

Many pro-DMT activists connect the drug’s effect to shamanic practices, where people in traditional societies use naturally occurring chemicals to induce similar experiences. In many of these cultures, the specific goal is indeed to connect with these higher beings to gather life-enhancing advice and insights.

For me, Baclofen offered real-world benefits, too. During my week of visions in the Pure Land, I was also writing music — a suite for violoncello, to be exact. Although the music is quite complicated, it flowed on to the paper very smoothly and easily. I believe, thanks to the Baclofen, a healing process had been opened in my consciousness at night, and continued through my days.

I’m not suggesting that Baclofen will do this for everyone, automatically. Sometimes my visions came closer to being nightmares, but generally because of their confusing, interminable and tedious nature — not for any horror and fear. These can be difficult to endure. Recently, for example, I got stuck in an endless Game of Thrones episode. I’ve never watched this program, and the experience left me with no great insights.

Soul of the World, or Solely Psychology?

Having experimented with Baclofen for several months, I’m unsure what to conclude. Was the drug only affecting my ability to remember my dreams? That is to say, is this my typical downtime dream state, drawn from my years of studying Eastern philosophy and languages, typically forgotten and dismissed by my subconscious mind? Or has an immortal bodhisattva of infinite compassion indeed purified my soul? The experience was so real that I’m inclined to choose the latter.

One thing is certain: My dream state experiences with Baclofen have had an element of treatment. I really did stop worrying about the need/shame cycle, and that’s only because I understood — and remembered —that message from the higher being. The net result is a great sense of peace and contentment, just as Dr. Amiesen reported.