A Calling: It is often said by those who have experienced ayahuasca that it is not something you seek out. Rather, it is ayahuasca that seeks you. It calls to you. It beckons you to drink of it so that you can experience the healing powers it has to offer. I can honestly say that is what I experienced. Ayahuasca called to me, I drank of it, and my life has been forever changed.
Aya-What?: I had never even heard of ayahuasca before, as I sat in my dentist’s office one day awaiting my turn. To pass the time I picked up a random magazine and started flipping through it, landing on an article about Courtney Love. I’m not sure why I even bothered reading that particular article since I have never really been into her music, but I read it anyway. In the article Courtney mentioned that “everyone should experience ayahuasca at least once in their lives.”
Ayahuasca? What on earth is that?
My dentist said, “See you in six months,” and I went home that afternoon and did a search on the internet for ayahuasca. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. Somehow I even managed to spell it correctly. I read one article, and then another, and another. What I read totally blew me away, but in a really good way, and I spent hours reading about this incredible Amazonian medicine.
Why had I not heard of ayahuasca before?
I read the (now famous) article by Kira Salek that appeared in National Geographic Adventure Magazine about how she was completely cured of a lifetime of depression by drinking the psychedelic tea that the indigenous people of the Amazon jungle have used for thousands of years. Salek’s account is now the most famous article in the magazine’s history, still drawing inquiries years after it was published.
In addition to curing depression, I read of others being completely cured of such nasty ailments as anxiety, OCD, PTSD, fibromyalgia, and others. Not only did these people find relief from their afflictions, but they were completely cured — finally free from the soul-crushing symptoms that had wreaked havoc on their lives for so long. I continued reading anecdotal reports of people claiming to be cured through ayahuasca, but what really got my attention was when I stumbled upon the medical research that had been done on this amazing medicine. Yes, actual medical research!
Dr. Charles Grob, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine and the Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center has conducted extensive research on ayahuasca. To sum up Dr. Grob’s lengthy study of long-term drinkers of ayahuasca in Brazil, he found that ayahuasca drinkers had a dramatic increase in the number of receptors in the brain for the feel-good chemical serotonin that is naturally found in the body. The increase in receptors allows the body to make better use of the serotonin that is already there.
Modern antidepressant medications, in contrast, flood the brain with a high dose of serotonin in the theory that more is better. There are some researchers who hold the belief that flooding the brain with so much serotonin actually causes the brain to lose some of its receptors, ultimately resulting in a loss of the drug’s efficacy and a need to switch to a different kind of antidepressant medication. With their heavy side effects and often poor results, some people just give up on these medications and decide to trudge through life without them (like I did). […]
In the weeks following my discovery of ayahuasca, I simply couldn’t get it out of my mind. Is it really possible to be cured of depression and anxiety? Is it really possible for someone like me to live a normal life? […]
Becoming Depressed: People don’t just wake up one day depressed and anxious. It isn’t the result of a single event. Rather, for most people it’s a process. It is often the result of a series of negative or traumatic events that slowly do significant damage to one’s ability to feel and function like a normal person. It’s different for everyone. For some it’s the result of years of being on the receiving end of an abusive parent or spouse. For others it’s the result of living in an inner-city slum with no way out. It usually results in a lack of hope for a better future. For reasons that the scientific community is still exploring, when a person experiences any kind of significant trauma, it changes the way the brain perceives things. People lose the ability to feel any happiness. They become anxious and experience panic attacks. They lose any remaining semblance of self-esteem and withdraw from society. In short, life sucks. And not only that, but depression can be deadly as well with suicide being the tenth most common cause of death in the United States.
My Own Personal Pearl Harbor: I grew up in a small coal mining community deep within the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia near the Virginia/Kentucky border. It was a relatively poor community where coal mining was the primary industry. My father worked as a coal miner, as did both of my grandfathers, and several of my uncles. Coal mining may have run in the family, but I knew from an early age that it wasn’t for me.
I was mostly oblivious to the poverty as a child and actually have fond memories of playing in the forest with my friends. Things began to change, however, as I grew older and realized that I was not exactly living in an optimal location for making a living for myself. As a teenager I was unable to find work at the local grocery store or at any of the restaurants in town. And this was during a time when the economy was supposedly booming.
After high school I attended a nearby community college. It was at the end of my first semester (final exam week) that something happened to my family that ultimately led to me plunging into the depths of depression and anxiety. It was my own personal Pearl Harbor. Just as the December 7, 1941, attack on the Pacific Fleet docked at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese changed the course of history, the event of December 7, 1992, changed my life forever.
My father was working the night shift at a small coal mine nearby. Early that cold December morning my mother received a phone call, a phone call that no one should ever have to receive. There had been a terrible accident, she was told, a massive explosion deep within the mine. My father and seven other men were trapped inside.
I, along with my mother, brother, and several aunts and uncles maintained a vigil outside the mine as rescue crews made attempt after attempt to enter the mine, but the progress was slow. The mine was still smoldering from the explosion and it was difficult for the rescue crews to enter it, even with their protective equipment.
The hours turned into days as the rescue crews continued their operations. And then the news crews starting showing up…just a couple at first, but in no time at all the area outside the mine was flooded with reporters. And not just from the local stations. These were big-time reporters. These guys were from the major networks. I’ll never forget one of them pointing a camera at me and asking me if I still had hope. I did, but I had no intention of ending up on national television at the expense of my father who was still somewhere in that mine. I walked away from the reporter without saying anything.
After a few days I did start to lose hope. It had become painfully obvious that the odds of anyone surviving that accident were nil. My family eventually went home to shower, eat, and try to get some rest. For as long as I live, I’ll never forget turning on the television and seeing them talking about the “trapped miners” in Virginia on CNN Headline News… every half hour and on the hour. Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it.
After about a week the rescue crew finally reached the miners… all deceased, of course. We got closure from the accident, but it was just the beginning of a major depression for me as I tried my best to resume a normal life. Try as I did, it just wasn’t working too well for me. I eventually was able to get out of the Appalachians, but after working a series of difficult jobs with difficult bosses, there was no denying it… I was mired in a deep, dark depression. My life sucked. I didn’t see any way out and I started to have frequent thoughts of ending it… of taking my own life.
Mos Eisley’s Spaceport: It was early morning when my flight from Lima, Peru, landed in the jungle city of Iquitos. I had flown through the night and hadn’t had any sleep. Exhausted, I was. I had just turned 39, and this trip — a solo trip to a country that spoke a different language — was the first trip outside of the United States I had ever taken. I was nervous, scared, and tired all at the same time.
The city of Iquitos is a truly unique city. It is the largest city in the world that is not accessible by car. You can’t drive to it, because there are no roads leading to it. The only way to get to it is either by boat up the Amazon River, or by plane. The “Capital of the Amazon,” as Iquitos is known, is the most surreal place I’ve ever seen. It is a wild place that reminded me very much of Mos Eisley’s Spaceport in the movie, Star Wars. I could almost hear the music from the cantina scene playing as I collected my luggage and hailed a taxi, an ancient rust bucket that would have been sent to the scrap heap many years ago in most other places. But since it’s very expensive to ship vehicles up the river to Iquitos, the industrious locals tend to make things last much longer than they normally would.
The Healing Centre: My taxi dropped me off at the Yellow Rose of Texas, a restaurant operated by an American expat from Texas. This is where the [retreat] journey begins. Everyone scheduled for the next retreat was supposed to meet at this restaurant at 10 AM and then we were all supposed to travel together to our destination. I arrived early, but I didn’t have long to wait. In no time at all others who were there for the retreat started arriving… people from all around the world. There were people there from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, and several European countries. It was a very diverse group… We all took a little time to eat at the restaurant together, socialized a bit, and we then traveled to the retreat in a small bus.
Upon arrival at the retreat I was instantly struck by its beauty. Everything looked just as amazing in person as it was in the pictures I saw on the internet. [The retreat’s owner] showed us around the property a bit and everyone chose a bed upstairs in the big house. Everyone except for me, that is. [I was taken] on a short path through the jungle to a small jungle hut called a tambo. This was to be my “hotel room” since I was specifically there for healing. I got a place all to myself! The tambo contained a simple bed, a table and chair, a hammock, and a small toilet area. Perfect. During my stay, I would spend a lot of time in my private tambo during the days relaxing in solitude.
The Tobacco Ceremony: Later that afternoon we all assembled in the maloka (meeting room). The maloka is a large, circular hut where all of the ayahuasca ceremonies would later be held. But today we were there for a different purpose. We were there to throw up.
I remembered reading something about a tobacco ceremony, but I really didn’t know much about it. In my mind I envisioned the shaman blowing tobacco smoke on us as he blessed us (or something like that). Really, I had no idea what the tobacco ceremony entailed. It’s probably best that I didn’t.
With everyone in the group assembled on yoga mats on the floor in a semi-circle, [the retreat owner] and the retreat’s shaman arrived together carrying something in a jug. That jug […] contained a tea that was made from a type of tobacco that grows in the jungle. The purpose of drinking the tea was to make us nauseated so that we would throw up (into purge bowls that were conveniently provided for us). The tobacco purge (as it is known) is used by the indigenous people to cleanse themselves of negative energies prior to using ayahuasca. There are some people, [the retreat owner] explained, that ayahuasca can’t heal because they have too much negative energy built up inside them. The tobacco purge helps to clear those energies so the ayahuasca can do its healing work.
One by one we each went up to receive our cup of tobacco tea. And then it was my turn. I went up to [the retreat owner] and the shaman and received the foul-looking cup of tobacco tea, brought it up to my mouth, and slowly started to drink it down. I can’t even begin to describe how awful it tasted other than to say it tasted like tobacco smoke smells. After forcing it down I returned to my yoga mat, made sure my purge bowl was in front of me, and waited for the inevitable purge. And waited… and waited… and waited.
All around me people were throwing up, like some kind of scene out of a frat house full of drunken revelers. Except this was no party. And it wasn’t fun. Some started to throw up after just a few minutes while others took much longer. A very heavy nausea eventually gripped my stomach and I wanted so much to throw up, but nothing was happening.
One thing that I had not even considered prior to making this journey was the fact that I had a history of stomach problems. After dealing with years of heartburn issues, my body had learned (quite well, I must add) how to suppress nausea. This was not something I had even thought about and it was now painfully clear that it was going to be a problem. After about half an hour I and one other person were the only ones remaining who had not yet thrown up. In an effort to help “move” things along, I got up and started walking around inside the maloka. Still nothing. More time passed. More pacing around. I went outside the maloka and walked around some more. And then it happened. I finally threw up into the jungle. Sweet relief! The tobacco ceremony was finally over and my negative energies were now presumably cleansed.
We ate a nice supper and then relaxed the rest of the evening before retiring for the night.
A Trip To Hell: The next morning we ate a light breakfast. That was all the food we were to receive that day since you can’t drink ayahuasca with any food on your stomach. We relaxed and socialized most of the day until it was time to gather once again in the maloka at 7 PM to experience what we had all traveled so far for. It was time to experience ayahuasca.
With darkness approaching we assembled once again in a semi-circle on yoga mats inside the maloka. [The retreat owner] and the shaman arrived moments later and took their seats at the head of the semi-circle. By the dim light of a small oil lantern in the center of the room, the shaman took the container of ayahuasca and opened it. He then lit a type of cigarette (a mapacha) made from Amazonian tobacco and started to bless the ayahuasca by saying something in Spanish and blowing smoke into it. He then said a prayer for a safe experience and finished by making the sign of the cross. One by one we each went up and took a three-quarter cup (a starter dose) of ayahuasca, drank it, and returned to our seats. I had read about how horrible ayahuasca was supposed to taste, but I didn’t think it was all that bad. It certainly tasted much better than the tobacco tea. After each of us had drunk ayahuasca, [the retreat owner] went to the middle of the room and extinguished the oil lamp. Everything went dark.
I waited expectantly with my eyes closed for those amazing visuals I had read so much about. Ten minutes passed. Nothing. Then twenty minutes. Still nothing. I opened my eyes and looked around the room. It was pitch black and I could barely make out the outlines of those around me. I closed my eyes again and continued to wait. After a long period of silence, the shaman started to sing. I don’t know if his singing had anything do to with it or if it was just a coincidence, but just a few moments after he started singing was when my visuals started.
With my eyes closed I saw the very distinct image of a face, but not just any face. It was the unmistakable image of an Aztec face… or possibly Mayan, like the ones you see carved on the ancient ruins that still stand today. In a flash it was there in bright, neon color, and then it was gone. What was that? I wondered.
I continued to wait for more to happen as the shaman continued singing. By now a couple of people around me were throwing up. I started to feel intoxicated, like I’d been drinking alcohol. I opened my eyes again, but now I couldn’t see much of anything. What little I could see before was now very blurry.
I suddenly became aware of another sensation. I felt incredibly hot all over… abnormally hot like someone hot just turned up the jungle heat as high as it could possibly go. My body felt so uncomfortably hot that I stripped my shirt off and tossed it behind me. And that’s when I saw it.
I saw what I can only describe as an evil entity. It was an entity that looked kind of like a ghost wearing a dark hooded veil. I saw it move as though it was pulling back the curtain on something it wanted me to see. The entity disappeared and in an instant I was transported to another dimension where everything was pitch dark but I could see a soft glow all around me. I also heard a loud roaring sound, like the sound of a freight train. Where was I? What was going on? It took me a while to figure out what was going on because at the very instant I was transported to this place, something else happened. My head started to hurt.
It was the worst headache I had ever experienced in my life and I started rubbing my head as hard as I could to make it stop, but it was no use. And to make matters worse, I started to feel an unbelievably strong nausea in the pit of my stomach, like I really needed to throw up. I picked up my purge bowl and held it close to me, but nothing was happening.
Once again I failed to consider my problem with resisting nausea. I never did throw up that night.
I found myself dealing with a terrible headache, unbelievable nausea, my body was roasting, and I had this weird vision of being in a very dark place with a soft glow and a loud roaring sound all around me. And then I finally figured it out. I finally realized what this place was that I had been taken to. This is what the evil entity wanted me to see. I was in Hell.
I called out to [the retreat owner] for help that night and told him what I was experiencing and he tried to console me as best he could. After a few hours (at least I think it was a few hours) [he] left the maloka and returned with some lemonade for me to drink. He explained that citrus juice helps to neutralize the ayahuasca. I’m not sure if it helped or not but there was something that did happen. A short while later [he] returned to me and told me the shaman was singing a song just for me. I thanked him profusely. Just moments after the shaman started singing the new song, my head stopped hurting, my nausea went away, and I started to come out of my vision. I was starting to think there was more to the shaman’s singing than mere coincidence. Eventually, the ayahuasca ceremony came to an end and we all called it a night.
The next day I felt truly terrible, like I was going through the worst hangover I had ever experienced. I could barely move. While washing my hair in the shower I saw clumps of hair in my hand. I had rubbed my head so hard the previous night, that I had literally pulled the hair out of my head.
I was supposed to use ayahuasca several more times during my stay, but I now realized that my issue with not throwing up was going to be a major problem for me. With great reluctance I told [the retreat owner] that I probably would not use ayahuasca again.
Huachuma: I got a really good night’s sleep that night and woke up the next morning feeling… amazing. I felt better than I had felt in a long time. The usual chatter in my head that was constantly telling me how horrible my life was wasn’t there. In fact, there was nothing there and it felt so, so good! For the first time in a very long time I actually felt alive.
Today was going to be a San Pedro day, which is supposed to be taken on an empty stomach. We would receive no breakfast or lunch, but we would get a light snack of fruit in the late afternoon and a normal dinner.
San Pedro, or huachuma, as the locals call it, is very similar to the psychedelic peyote. Both are derived from cacti, and both have the exact same active ingredient, mescaline. A typical huachuma experience lasts 10-12 hours. Like ayahuasca, huachuma also has powerful healing properties. I was game to give it a try and I’m glad I did.
We all gathered around in the big house as [the retreat owner] mixed huachuma in separate glasses for each of us. I filled my glass with water, mixed it as best I could with a spoon, and then drank it down. It had a strong earthy taste to it and the huachuma did not mix well with the water. The only way I know to describe drinking it is that it was kind of like drinking a glass filled with a mix of sand and water. As you can imagine, it was a little hard to get it down and one guy started throwing up before he could finish drinking his. I got mine down without any trouble and then waited for it to kick in.
After about 10-15 fifteen minutes I was starting to feel it and I could tell right away that the huachuma experience was going to be very different from ayahuasca. It gave me a strong feeling of euphoria, like everything was all right in the world. It also gave me a strong feeling of connectedness with the natural world around me. For some reason I just felt like I was one with everything while on huachuma. My perception of the passage of time changed as well. Everything seemed to slow down almost to a crawl. As the hours passed, it felt more like minutes passing.
Another interesting thing I noticed with huachuma: At one point [the retreat owner] played a little mood music on his stereo… some Enya and similar groups. I didn’t just hear the music… I actually felt it! This phenomena, as I understand, is called synesthesia, and it happens with other classic psychedelics too. It occurs when our brains become hyper-connected while on these amazing medicines. Synesthesia can also mean hearing colors and seeing sounds.
My huachuma experience was absolutely amazing and I spent most of the day walking through the jungle trails at the retreat and relaxing in the hammocks. By dinner I was no longer feeling the huachuma. I would experience huachuma one more time before returning home.
A Hard Decision: We were scheduled to do either ayahuasca or huachuma every other day. I knew that I could not use ayahuasca again because of my stomach problem, but I was scheduled to stay here for a full three weeks. That’s a long time when the days are hot and humid and the insects are biting (I didn’t use insect repellant like I should have… totally my fault). I was still feeling great, too. My depression had completely lifted and I was able to easily fall asleep at night, something I had not been able to do in many years. I’d come a long way in a very short time.
After careful consideration, I decided to cut my trip short. On my tenth day in the jungle I said goodbye to Iquitos, Peru, and flew home to Nashville, Tennessee. I knew that both the ayahuasca and huachuma had done some serious work on me, but I wasn’t sure if the benefits would last. Only time would tell.
Integration: After returning home I noticed a few interesting things. First, for a few weeks everything around me looked incredibly bright to me, like someone was shining a spotlight on my surroundings everywhere I went.
Another interesting thing I experienced: Every morning upon waking I wouldn’t have a clue as to where I was. I was waking up in the same bedroom I’d slept in for the past two years, but for the first twenty or thirty seconds after waking, I wouldn’t recognize my surroundings at all. This caused me to panic a little, but I was always able to quickly regain my bearings.
My feeling of euphoria continued for about two months. As winter started to set in I started to feel less and less happy, and then I started to have a few days here and there where I actually felt depressed again.
Was my trip to the Amazon jungle a failure? No, and here’s why: It has now been about a year and a half since I returned and although I’m not cured of depression and anxiety (I still have days here and there where I don’t feel very good), I can honestly say that my lows don’t go anywhere near as low as they used to. And not only that, but the days that I do feel depressed don’t happen as frequently as they used to either. For me, this is a major improvement.
Looking Forward: So, where am I going to go from here? Honestly, I feel like I’m just getting started in my use of these incredibly powerful and healing medicines. I have made a lot of progress, but I know I still need additional healing. Whether or not I use ayahuasca again depends on whether I can get my stomach issues straightened out. But there are other psychedelic medicines that have powerful healing properties as well… like ibogaine and psilosybin mushrooms that I am considering.
In recent years medical research has resumed on these powerful medicines and the results have been astounding. With help from these medicines, I’m confident I can be completely cured and live not just a normal life, but a totally fulfilled life. I can’t wait!
Edited lightly for typos and clarity, and to remove names.