“What lives in my head is an abnormally long horror film about the monstrosities of the human race,” says anthropologist Riccardo Vitale, Ph.D. After two decades of working in some of the most violent and war torn regions of the world, as an advisor and researcher for large international aid and development agencies, he found himself struggling with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a condition that develops after exposure to a traumatic event. Although it is closely associated with war veterans who witness and experience horrific and violent acts on the battlefield, it is also common among women who have been physically or sexually assaulted and those who go through terrifying and life threatening events, like Riccardo.
“In Mexico I did participant/observation research and worked with human rights organizations documenting abuses against indigenous peasants,” Riccardo tells Reset. “Most of this time I lived with indigenous Tzeltal, Chol, Tojolabal and Tzotzil communities.
“In 1996, after receiving some death threats, I was told to leave the country for my own security,” he continues. “And I did, but I came back two months later.”
A year after he was warned to leave Mexico, Riccardo was abducted in broad daylight.
“As I walked near the Zocalo, in the middle of the day, someone approached me and said my name,” he tells us. “An unidentified car appeared and I was pushed in as the vehicle drove away. I was kept for about a day inside an old, beaten, unmarked car in the middle of a field in a rural area near Tuxla Gutierrez, the capital of the State of Chiapas.”
Although Riccardo was released the next day and forced to fly out of the country, his kidnapping and deportation coincided with a massacre of forty-five indigenous Tzotzil as they celebrated mass in a small chapel.
“As a young, enthusiastic, budding anthropologist I identified strongly with the indigenous people of Chiapas. The massacre and the deportation devastated me emotionally,” Riccardo explains.
“Because of Acteal (the village where the massacre took place) I stopped celebrating Christmas and New Year’s for more than seven consecutive years. I actively avoided family, people, and festive gatherings. I spent many Christmases and New Year’s locked in hotel rooms or alone in Cambridge working on my PhD.”
According to the Sidran Institute, an international non-profit that helps people understand and treat PTSD, sufferers may feel emotionally detached, withdraw from friends and family, and lose interest in everyday activities. They can also become very irritable and prone to anger.
“I became very uncompromising with myself and with others. Rigorous in my work, but also inflexible, belligerent, and temperamental,” Riccardo says. “Anger and poor mental hygiene were issues.”
Numerous studies have shown that the trauma and extreme stress that triggers PTSD actually causes brain changes and even brain damage, meaning that the emotional symptoms of the disorder have physical dimensions and it is not simply something that people can “snap out of.” In fact, most people with PTSD suffer for years as psychologists still struggle to manage the disease.
For Riccardo, however, the experience in Mexico was just the beginning. After the deportation and massacre in Mexico, he soon found himself right back in the hot zone again.
“Towards the end of my Ph.D. I did some work with refugees along the Iraqi borders,” he tells us. “In two different trips I had to witness some atrocious episodes and scenes. I can’t talk about these experiences out of decency, out of respect for the victims, and out of pain. The images are just too horrible and sad to convey.”
These events only served to worsen Riccardo’s PTSD symptoms.
“The relationship with my family deteriorated. I couldn’t relate to anyone anymore,” he says. “I was only interested in human rights and social causes. I stopped all hobbies. The concept of vacation was foreign to me. My life-long passions for skying, sailing, and scuba diving went to sleep.
“When my grandfather and then my grandmother died, I felt so estranged from family that I didn’t even think about catching a short flight to attend their funerals. This is something I will always regret.”
For the next ten years Riccardo worked for various human rights organizations in Colombia, often on the front lines of conflict, advocating for the victims of the half century of violence that has rocked this incredibly bio-diverse but tragic land. During a break between consulting jobs, Ricardo was traveling along the southern Putumayo River, when he encountered the Amazonian medicine known as yagé or ayahuasca.
“I had travelled several hours south in the Putumayo River — this is a definite no-go area of Colombia,” he tells us. “Whilst in navigation, I spotted some Red Cross boats flashing their huge identifying flags. Great, I thought, I’m freelancing in a war zone without any assignment. I got that familiar, stomach churning, alert, alert, adrenaline boosting feeling.
“A couple of days later, at the old man’s wooden hut, in a remote area on the Ecuadorian side of the river, I was served a large chalice filled with a large portion of yagé. A few small candles dimly lit the room. The old man and I were the only two people present.
“Just as I gulped down a first portion of the brew, a mortar went off in the distance, the sky lit up for a short moment. Then for a few seconds we heard gunfire. ‘It’s far away in Colombia,’ muttered the old man as he smiled compassionately.
“As the loud concert of the tropical forest reclaimed the night, I thought: ‘There is a reason why I am here and closed my eyes to wait for yagé to start its work.’”
A highly hallucinogenic tea made from mixing N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) containing leaves with a particular rainforest vine, yagé has been used since time immemorial by a large number of different indigenous societies across the Amazon. They consider it to be a sacred medicine that heals at a deep spiritual level. But the process is often quite intense.
“The famous ayahuasca purges, the diarrhea and vomiting, were just minor nuisances — a relief in fact — compared to other physical, spiritual, and mental hurdles that these experiences posed,” Riccardo recalls. “I felt so miserable that I wished I would die. I saw a huge red octopus-like creature convulsing inside my body. It was terrifying.”
But that ‘red octopus’ experience was a turning point for Riccardo, as the darkest ayahuasca ceremonies often turn out to be the most cathartic.
“I feel that yagé continues to work in the weeks and months following the ceremonies,” Riccardo tells us. “The integration period is quite long. Only about six or seven months after my last ritual in 2015, I became aware of substantial and profound changes in my personality.
“At the end of 2015, after almost two decades of conflictive relations, I told each member of my family how much I loved them. I also said that I had forgiven myself for all of my mistakes and forgiven the mistakes of anyone else in my family.”
The profound healing power of ayahuasca, which often takes the participant into deep emotional places and forces them to re-live memories, is something that is creating a momentum of advocacy for its use to deal with modern day health crisis’s — like addiction and PTSD.
“The numerous anecdotal accounts of people reporting that ayahuasca experiences helped them overcome their PTSD justify a scientific study,” Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), tells Reset.
MAPS has initiated several important studies that prove that psychedelics are perhaps the most powerful treatment options available for certain disorders, including the first North American observational study of the safety and long-term effectiveness of ayahuasca treatment for addiction and dependence.
They also recently published a bulletin on how PTSD affects the memory functioning of the human brain, and how ayahuasca can be used as treatment for the disorder.
“In the psychotherapy of the future, it’s possible that people with PTSD will be treated with a several month process of psychotherapy including a series of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy sessions, some with MDMA and others with more classic psychedelics like ayahuasca, LSD, ibogaine, mescaline, or psilocybin, along with the option of marijuana,” says Doblin. “The long-term goal would be to enable people to function without symptoms of PTSD and without the need for any further medications.”
For Riccardo, working with ayahuasca over the last two years has continued to pay off. He feels that the PTSD has been resolved and that dramatic change and real healing have taken place in his life.
“In 2016, the ceremonies brought me some very different experiences,” he says. “The utter agony was gone. There was some pain, but eventually that also changed. I realized that I’m on a learning path. Yagé is showing me a way. It’s an interesting, significant, yet difficult and slow learning process. The ceremonies of 2016 focused on the equilibrium between matter and spirit; self control and the power of the mind over matter.
“I have learned to process adversities and obstacles, even daily minor ones, as learning opportunities that you can resolve with clarity and grace.”
Riccardo now makes his home in Colombia, and has developed deep relationships with several indigenous communities in the Putumayo area.
“An Inga friend, an experienced yagé drinker, told me that the medicine dismembers your defenses and your ego. It takes you apart. Until you are a nothing but pieces of disconnected raw material. Everything is there though, all the hurt, the pain, the joy. At this point your task is to reassemble everything. To rebuild yourself,” Ricardo explains.
And rebuilding his life is now what occupies Riccardo’s time. Although he continues to do advocacy and research work on human rights issues here in Colombia, he has also teamed up with a handful of anthropologists and human rights professionals to create an anthropology-based organization in partnership with local Inga communities and the Union of Traditional Indigenous Yagé Medics of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC). Together they aim to assist indigenous communities that are experimenting with alternative development models based on cultural exchanges, small scale farming, and traditional healing practices.
“Now we are marketing, raising more necessary funds and organizing a crowd-funding campaign for an Amazonian Center for Ancestral and Spiritual Plant Knowledge and Education,” Riccardo tells us. “This is a community-based initiative. It’s an educational hub were youth from the Amazonian basin can learn and practice ancestral medicine from elderly healers. This is a key issue, because every year that goes by we are losing a huge patrimony of autochthonous knowledge about plants and healing.”
This indigenous knowledge may be the key to not just preserving traditional ayahuasca practices, but the very world we live in as well.
“We have adopted a development model that is unsustainable,” says Riccardo. “We are stressing the ecosystem. Indigenous people are on the front line of extractive economy. They see their forests and rivers dying because of unscrupulous, aggressive mining, logging, oil perforations, flooding, droughts, cattle ranching or mono-crop cultivations of eucalyptus, soya, and African palm.
“Concerned about these environmental catastrophes, indigenous spokespeople are proposing an alternative development model based on their millenarian experience, their philosophy, their cosmology, and their spirituality. We should listen and incorporate this vision into all development models.”
In the end, this is the same message that ayahausca is delivering to us. The damage that we are wreaking on the earth is also the same damage we are inflicting on ourselves as manifested in war and ensuing mental illnesses like PTSD. The incredible medicinal power of ayahuasca is not that it is a magic cure-all, but a teacher that points us towards another way of being.
“I don’t believe in panaceas,” says Riccardo. “If the world is experiencing a psychological fallout, we need to work on structural changes. Happiness is not about finding the perfect medicine; it’s about resetting our value system and the implementation of social and environmental reforms.
“Love and compassion should replace profit as the driving force of development. This however is not going to occur as long as our quintessential spirituality is kept dormant.”
In other words, in order to save the world, to save ourselves, maybe we should all go native.