I am an AA apostate.
12 and a half years ago, I stumbled into my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. The night before, I had gotten so loaded while out with friends and my fiance that I had to vomit in a restaurant. Experiences like this were nothing new –– I had been having them since I was 12 years old. Twnety years later, any charm or romance or intrigue that drunkenness and public vomiting had ever held for me were gone. I was finally done, and I knew it. I showed up at that first meeting broken and in tears, and I pleaded in a choking voice, “I need help.” I got it. A man said something that night which I desperately needed to hear, which I never forgot, and which has proven to be true: “You never have to drink again.” I will forever be grateful for that.
I threw myself into the program. I read the book. I attended meetings regularly. I got a sponsor. I worked the steps. I stuck my hand out to the newcomer. And I stayed sober.
I got married, I acquired a stepson. I had a daughter. I got divorced. I navigated a career, and I did a lot in between. I stayed sober.
But several years ago, around the time I knew without question that my marriage was falling apart, I began to realize that I needed something more.
AA weaned me from alcohol and marijuana. It gave me the courage to finally face my compulsive sexual behavior, from which I have achieved freedom in a separate 12-step program. The 12 Steps and the way of life they outline have enabled me to look honestly at myself and my behavior, and to receive relief from the most destructive of my character defects. Thanks to AA, my children have never seen me drunk. It laid the foundation for the life I have today, which is a hell of a lot better than the one I had 12 and a half years ago.
But it hadn’t helped my brain chemistry. I suffer from clinical depression; my seratonin levels are apparently dysfunctionally low when left to themselves. I spent 10 of the last 12 years on antidepressants, and though they level me out, I never escaped the feeling that they come at a price. I never felt comfortable with handing control over my synapses to Pfizer or Bristol-Myers Squibb.
It also hadn’t really helped my PTSD –– the result of being raised in an alcoholic, abusive, loveless home by two narcissists, one sadistic, the other mentally ill. I wanted it to. Other people told me it should. But it hadn’t. I began to realize I needed something more than AA or the more widely available techniques I’ve tried for years.
I’ve been in therapy longer than I’ve been in the program. I’ve done chi gong, yoga, breathwork, prayer, meditation, service work, church, you name it. And none of it has ever healed the hard core of agony and brokenness at the core of my being.
A Very Bad Trip
Eventually, I began to seriously consider something that many people do claim can heal these wounds –– ayahuasca. I first heard of it when I read Terence McKenna in my mid-20s. It sounded fascinating to me, but I found his claims about it overblown. To hear him tell it, all that was required for world peace was for everyone to dose themselves with sufficient volume and frequency on ayahuasca or psilocybin mushrooms. I didn’t buy it.
Six years later, in early sobriety, I was going through a nightmarish time and a good friend suggested I try ayahuasca. “Yage,” he called it, with a slight air of condescencion towards the more mainstream “ayahuasca.” My friend had logged serious time in the jungles of Ecuador and Peru, drinking with grizzled shamans and twisted ex-pats. He swore by the experience.
“It’ll clean you right out,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
“No way,” I replied, barely six months sober and terrified of relapse, “that sounds way too much like getting loaded to me.”
You see, I had done psychedelics before. Plenty of times. And my understanding of them, though perhaps not altogether blighted, had been hopelessly distorted by years of active alcoholism. I knew that they weren’t exactly “partying” in the strict sense of the word. Not in the sense of “let’s buy a tank of nitrous oxide and pass it around in a circle until we can’t remember our names” kind of partying, the way my friends and I did it in high school.
Instead, I understood them more as the “thinking man’s party.” A philosophy party, if you will. And in that capacity, I had always been a big fan of them. Get together with friends, go camping for a long weekend at Enchanted Rock or Pedernales Falls, and make sure to bring a big sack of ‘shrooms or plenty of tabs of acid.
To be sure, we had some great conversations and some genuinely wicked laughing fits. In fact, I maintain to this day that a significant portion of my profound sense of “otherness” comes from the insights I gained while tripping. Human society and morality really are largely arbitrary and constructed in the interests of power. Once you’ve stepped outside of them with the aid of psychedelic drugs, it’s impossible to ever take them at face value again. I find real use in that.
“What a bunch of bullshit!” was the refrain that thundered through our twisted heads at the time, almost drowned by hysterical laughter.
But make no mistake. At bottom, it was just another way for me to get high. And, in my last experience with it, it was much darker and more terrible than that.
The last time I did psychedelics I was 26. I ate mushrooms with my girlfriend. The trip itself was unremarkable –– we were in a lovely spot in the Texas hill country, enjoying the experience and our warm feelings towards each other. What was extraordinary and truly terrifying was what came afterward. I felt something that I have never, thank God, experienced before or since. I felt like a murderer. Out with my girlfriend and other friends the next night, I found myself desperately wishing that someone, anyone, would threaten one of us so that I could beat him to death.
It was a horrific experience, and the compulsion stayed with me for almost two weeks. I only got relief from it when, in desperation, I sought help from a psychic healer I had consulted several times before. She was appalled by what she saw. She said it looked like I had torn a gaping hole in the top of my aura. She told me that I had let what she called a “two-dimensional intelligence” into my body –– an entity that knew only fear. She did the work that she does and she patched me up. When I left, I felt completely better.
Before then, I had never given any serious thought to the notion of malevolent spiritual entities, and certainly not to anything resembling demonic possession. This experience changed all that. I resolved to never, ever take psychedelics again.
This resolution would remain unchallenged for the better part of fifteen years. I married and had kids. I developed a career in the corporate world. I was determined to put the trauma of my past behind me, to become a normal guy, or as close as I could manage.
If You Want Something You’ve Never Had, Do Something You’ve Never Done
I guess it looked OK, at least on the outside. Sometimes it even felt right. But deep down, I knew something was wrong. Holidays with my wife’s family, vacations we all took together –– somehow I always ended up feeling like an impostor. The marriage was loveless and cold, but I held out hope that it might improve. I drew tremendous satisfaction from providing for my family. I focused on climbing the ladder as best I could, slowly improving our standard of living.
Still, the cracks grew deeper. The anger and tension in our marriage became unbearable. My stepson acted it out, and I retaliated. I still cringe at some of those memories. Sex disappeared from the relationship; I retreated into compulsive working and pornography. For a long time I rationalized that I stayed in the marriage for the sake of the children. After about the tenth time that both of our children together begged us to stop fighting in front of them, I realized that the opposite was true: I had to leave the marriage for their sakes. And so I did.
And at first I felt a tremendous freedom from that. Then I lost my job. I had hated it –– mind-numbing and soul-crushing, the nadir of the corporate experience. So at first that felt like freedom as well.
That was, until the fear returned. All of the props that I had put in place to shield me from feeling the terror and despair of my childhood, still locked deep in my body, were removed. Even bad habits become comfortable, and suddenly all of mine were gone. My life felt like pictures of Dresden or Nagasaki after the Allied Air Forces had done their work –– burnt and fucked and dead, nothing more. In January of this year, I realized I was experiencing a return of insomnia, a problem that had plagued me since childhood, but had mercifully been gone for the past few years. It had snuck up on me gradually, but by late winter its presence was undeniable and devastating. As the weeks went by with little to no sleep every night, I felt my organism cracking and I began to fear for my sanity.
“If you want something you’ve never had, do something you’ve never done.” Ironic that those words –– a phrase I’d heard so many times in AA meetings to exhort the newcomer or the incorrigible relapser to finally buckle down and work the steps in order to achieve lasting sobriety –– should come full circle and and convince me to book space in a 2-week ayahuasca workshop in the Peruvian rainforest.
And yet why should it be? Bill Wilson himself [co-founder of AA] took LSD-25 in order to more effectively heal himself, to address the roots of his alcoholism. The Big Book states that, as recovering alcoholics, we are free to make use of outside resources in healing our hopeless state of body, mind, and spirit, be they religious or medical. It seemed to me that ayahuasca counted as both.
But that original message of tolerance, open-mindedness, and suspension of judgment has been lost in mainstream AA, at least as I have experienced it. Truly, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and the rank-and-file AA member is no exception. In the average AA meeting today, no distinction is made between alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, or ayahuasca. They all count as relapse. And relapse terrified me.
In the end, only a greater terror convinced me to do it: the terror of suicide. I refused to abandon my stepson and daughter to that fate. I’d met too many children of suicides over the years, in therapy groups and 12-Step meetings, to even consider that as an option. I also believe intuitively in reincarnation, so ducking my troubles in this body has never seemed like a practical solution to me.
It had been drilled into me over the course of twelve and a half years of regular meeting attendance that “sobriety comes first.” But in the end, when faced with the very real choice of a life crippled by PTSD or death by my own hand, I didn’t put sobriety first. At least not the narrow, fundamentalist version of it I’d heard espoused in countless meetings. I’d heard condemnation for people with clinical depression who took SSRIs, for people with broken legs who took painkillers. I could no longer reconcile that version of sobriety with my own well-being. I could no longer accept sobriety as an endurance contest. So I didn’t put sobriety first. Instead, I put my own healing there.
The thing I’d never had –– real, lasting freedom from depression, anxiety, insomnia, despair, suicidal thoughts and all the other terrible effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder –– compelled me to do something I’d never done: journey to South America to drink ayahuasca seven times in 12 days under the care of shamans from the Shipibo tribe. It was a terrifying decision, the hardest one I’ve ever made in my life. But something deep in my heart told me it was right.
And that is how I have come to find myself here in a cafe in Iquitos, Peru, five days after my final ayahuasca ceremony, scribbling these notes in an attempt to come to terms with the enormity of what I have just experienced. What was it? A full description of that would fill a book. All I know is that it was big. Grief that has plagued me my whole life seems to have evaporated. There is a space in my heart that had been blotted out with rage and despair for decades. It feels strange and beautiful, and more than a little scary. Everyone who has gone through this assures me that my real work is just beginning: integrating this experience into the rest of my life. I believe them.
Am I still sober? I have no answer for that. The ayahuasca journey itself is disorienting and seemingly intoxicating (it isn’t really; ayahuasca actually leaves one’s liver cleaner than before). The Spanish word for this condition is “mareado” or “seasick” –– a pretty neat encapsulation of the nausea and light-headedness that follows drinking ayahuasca. I found it quite disagreeable, and utterly unlikely to lead to the formation of a habit. The emotional component? Wrenching, grueling, occasionally nightmarish. Night after night I sobbed like a heartbroken baby. The transformative power? Astonishing. Equivalent to decades of therapy crammed into the space of two weeks. The taste? Gruesome and vile in a way that words simply cannot convey. As though Satan dragged his rectum through the jungle for 100 years and then shat out this brew for our torment. As the ceremonies progressed, simply draining the cup became an almost superhuman test of will.
I know this, though. I drank alcohol to numb myself, to escape, to flee from my demons. I have drunk ayahuasca with the exact opposite aim: to confront them and exorcise them from my being. I appear to be getting my wish. How it will play out in the rest of my life, I have no idea. I am excited to find out.
To equate ayahuasca with recreational drug use is absurd. What it really is, is medicine. Ancient, weird, extremely powerful plant medicine. Medicine that cannot be divorced from the millennia-old shamanic tradition which has brought it into being. Medicine that cannot be divorced from the primordial rainforest in which it grows. About halfway through the workshop, musing one day on the riot of vegetable life surrounding me, it occurred to me that plants are utterly free from neurosis and despair. They drink up the rain, absorb the nutrients from the soil and reach for the light. They love to be alive. They want the same for us.