Russ Binicki while serving in Vietnam.

Ayahuasca A Promising Treatment For Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Russ Binicki while serving in Vietnam.

 
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by Katie Bain

on June 24, 2014

For decades, Russ Binicki experienced feelings of tremendous rage. He’d get angry while driving and while at work, at home and in public. He was a workaholic, and would freak out if his then teenage daughters were late for their midnight curfew.

“I would go from zero to warp speed in a heartbeat,” Binicki says of his angry tendencies.

These behaviors were all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It would take decades, and a trip to the Peruvian rainforest to work with the ancient plant medicine Ayahuasca, however, for Binicki to understand, or even recognize, his PTSD.

Russ Binicki while serving in Vietnam.

Russ Binicki while serving in Vietnam.

Binicki was 21 years-old when he served in the Vietnam War as a medevac, a position for which he flew helicopters in battle zones. During his year in Vietnam, helicopters Binicki was flying in were shot down seven times, and he was involved in several more crashes due to mechanical failure. Three of his closest friends were killed in battle, and in time he grew disillusioned with what he viewed as government bureaucracy.

When Binicki returned home to Indiana in 1970, he began getting in fights, drinking, smoking pot and putting himself in dangerous situations —all coping mechanisms to recreate the high intensity scenarios he had experienced in Vietnam.

“In retrospect, I became an adrenaline junkie,” Binicki, now 68, says. “You get a shot of adrenaline five or six times a day, and then you kind of go through withdrawals. When I got home, a lot of the stuff I was doing was trying to get that same kind of high.”

Binicki corrected his destructive path, first working on his uncle’s ranch in Colorado and then going to college and earning degrees in psychology and sociology and then master’s degrees in counseling and social work. He got married, had children and a successful career as hospital administrator. By all accounts, his life was ideal.

He was still, however, angry. “The only thing I was afraid of was meeting someone like me, who would get violent if they had to.”

He even found himself jealous of the soldiers serving in the 1991 Gulf War and in Pakistan in 2002. “I wished I was younger so I could be there to experience that same feeling, because I knew they were scared,” Binicki says. “That’s when I realized that something was kind of wrong with me, because I was craving that experience.”

By this time, Binicki had retired and was doing a study on prostate cancer in veterans. It was a woman he met at one of these focus groups, a veteran’s advocate, who recognized symptoms of PTSD in Binicki’s behavior.

“She was asking me all kinds of questions and being really annoying,” he recalls. “She recommended me to a PTSD specialty program at the University of Phoenix in Arizona. I said, ‘I don’t have that,’ and she said ‘Yes, you do.’ That’s how I started.”

While Binicki had long considered post-traumatic stress disorder a “bullshit diagnosis”, he enrolled in the program, which ultimately led him to Ayahuasca.

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Simply put, people with PTSD have trauma —defined as a distressing and unresolved experience— lodged in their subconscious minds. They live in a pathological state of fear, with their fight or flight response system always activated. They are thus prone to fly into fits of rage, as Binicki was, and live in a constant state of high anxiety.

A treatment called prolonged exposure therapy, wherein patients are exposed to the thing that scared them in a controlled setting, has been the most successful treatment of PTSD. And yet, PTSD remains widely resistant to treatment.

Like Binicki, many sufferers do not realize they even have PTSD, and people who do seek treatment are often left feeing helpless because they find treatments ineffective. Alcohol and drugs are often used as coping mechanisms to help suppress symptoms. While antidepressants and pharmaceutical such as Xanax are commonly prescribed to treat PTSD, such medications do not address the root of the problem. Binicki was prescribed anti-anxiety medication, although he never took it.

While estimates vary, a 2011 article in The New York Times estimates that at least one in five Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans have PTSD. Simultaneously, the suicide rate among veterans in the United States is staggeringly high. A 2011 report by the Center for a New American Security states that 18 veterans die from suicide every day, meaning that former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States.

This is an area where Ayahuasca may be able to help.

Shamans, or healers, prepare the Ayahuasca brew by combining chacruna leaves, that contain the powerful psychedelic DMT, with the ayahuasca vine.

Shamans, or healers, prepare the Ayahuasca brew by combining chacruna leaves, that contain the powerful psychedelic DMT, with the ayahuasca vine.

Used ritualistically by indigenous tribes in South America for thousands of years, Ayahuasca has proven to be an effective PTSD treatment. Made from the vine and the leaf of rainforest plants, Ayahuasca is consumed as a tea. Its active ingredient, the naturally occurring psychedelic compound DMT, causes users to revisit and process issues associated with personal traumas and suppressed memories in a safe, controlled setting. Many compare the experience to doing ten years of therapy in one night.

Ayahuasca is taken in a ceremonial context facilitated by a shaman or experienced guide. Its effects usually last for six to eight hours, with users typically purging via vomiting, crying or diarrhea at some point during the “journey.”

A number of scientific studies have found Ayahuasca to be effective in helping PTSD patients formerly considered untreatable, and there is a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence that the cathartic effects of Ayahuasca are real and long lasting. Typically only a few ceremonies, and often just one, are needed to create profound and positive changes. Such was the case for Binicki, who traveled to Peru in 2010 after learning about Ayahuasca from a person he met in his PTSD program.

Ayahuasca is known for its intense abortive effects which often cause drinkers to vomit.  Shamans call this 'getting well' because the body is begin purged of negative energy and traumas.

Ayahuasca is known for its intense abortive effects which often cause drinkers to vomit. Shamans call this process ‘getting well’ because the body is begin purged of negative energy and traumas.

In a 2013 lecture at a Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies conference, researcher Jessica L. Nielson stated that Ayahuasca is an effective treatment for PTSD specifically because it reaches regions of the brain that form the subconscious, where the root of most trauma resides.

“Ayahuasca activates areas of the subconscious brain, creating opportunities to identify, reorganize and neutralize environmental triggers and symptoms,” Nielson stated, “while also providing a context to explore what has been trapped in the subconscious in a safe and controlled setting.

“Such traumatic memories are released to the conscious mind so they can be processed and integrated into the subject’s life with meaning, without replaying the initial emotional intensity.”

Although classified as a schedule one controlled substance by the U.S. government, Ayahuasca has no proven addictive or neurotoxic properties. It has in fact been used to treat various drug, nicotine and alcohol addictions. Anyone who has used it will attest that Ayahuasca is a challenging experience, and certainly not a party drug. Users should know that it is dangerous to do Ayahuasca while taking prescription anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication.

While Ayahuasca exists largely underground in the U.S., there are sprawling communities who use the medicine, and Peru and Brazil both have prevalent Ayahuasca tourism industries.

A man waits for the shaman to bless the ayahausca during a ceremony near Iquitos, Peru.

A man waits for the shaman to bless the ayahausca during a ceremony near Iquitos, Peru.

While in Peru, Binicki did eight ceremonies over the course of two weeks. During these ceremonies, he experienced powerful visions that opened him up to the idea that he indeed had anger issues. When he returned home, he enrolled in a PTSD treatment program.

“I would have never have gone into that program I hadn’t gone to Peru,” Binicki says. “The Peruvian trip motivated me to explore the PTSD stuff further, and I learned a lot of the reasons for my behaviors that I thought were normal, but really weren’t.”

Essentially, Binicki figured out why he was angry. “A lot of it was feeling guilty because I lost three good friends the first month we got to Vietnam. I was thinking, ‘damn, I pretty much have it made and these guys are dead.’”

Binicki realized his strictness with his daughters also stemmed from the war. “I couldn’t handle when they were late, because in Vietnam if someone was late, it meant they were in trouble.” He recognized his unusual sleeping habits were a result of always having to being ready to jump in action, and that constantly working was also a coping mechanism.

In 2013, Binicki returned to Peru to do Ayahuasca. This time, he had a vision of himself flying a helicopter and slept out in the jungle, which he found looked, smelled and sounded similar to the jungles of Vietnam, which exacerbated his cathartic experience. He also felt similar feelings of camaraderie with the people he did Ayahuasca with as he did with the people he had served alongside in Vietnam.

It was during this trip that Binicki finally made peace with his PTSD, realizing that it will simply always be a part of who he is. The difference now is that he is able to recognize and control its effects instead of have the effects control him. He says he would recommend Ayahuasca to most anyone dealing with PTSD.

Binicki still attends group sessions, and says that these, paired with the lessons of the Ayahuasca, have fundamentally changed him.

“Now, instead of zero to warp speed, I go from zero to a hundred, which I think is a whole lots better. Stuff I couldn’t walk away from before, I can do that now.”