One rainy weekend this past November, I found myself in the middle of the woods outside of Lake Okeechobee, Florida. I had been advised not to consume any dairy, red meat or drugs at least a week before and to bring a bottle of water, a pillow and a blanket. I filled out a medical form to confirm that I wasn’t on antidepressants or had schizophrenia (hooray?). Finally, I wrote down my intentions in a notebook. While I was initially drawn to ayahuasca as a curious journalist, I was also intrigued of the possibilities for physical and mental healing. I had the usual garden-variety problems: father issues, chronic back pain, seasonal depression. If nothing else, I simply wanted a break from feeling bad. My career was on track, but I still wasn’t at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In the words of my trusted shaman, I was surviving, not thriving and now was the time to do something completely different. So, here I was, sitting cross-legged in a circle with other warm bodies and bracing myself for a shot glass of dark, goopy liquid that went by the name of “Vine of Death,” or yage. You might now want to know that ayahuasca has DMT in it, the strongest hallucinogen known to man. It also tastes like crushed toads and bile, which I’ve never tasted, but can only imagine. Down the rabbit hole we go.
To be honest, it wasn’t the gross taste that made me anxious. From everything that I had heard, I was preparing (maybe hoping) for my head to explode in an otherworldly, out of body experience. What if I went down said rabbit hole, looked into another dimension, and never came back? Or even worse, got lost in the woods and fell asleep with my face in an ant pile? At least I wasn’t in the Amazon dodging insects the size of small dogs and flesh-eating microorganisms that lay eggs in your brain. According to my research (okay, Google searches), these were all potential dangers in the jungle. And, so I chugged it back and tried not to projectile vomit. Not a good way to impress the Shaman. Speaking of, my shaman had told me not to drink any water for at least an hour after taking it. That way the medicine wouldn’t be diluted and I would feel it right away. I took his advice and within ten minutes, I was violently vomiting into a bucket with severe flu-like symptoms on and off for the next 4 or 5 hours. All these side effects are not uncommon as Ayahuasca might be the strongest drug in the world, and as I dry-heaved into a bucket and suffered uncontrollable leg and arm twitches, I understood why this wasn’t your average recreational Friday night toke.
Ayahuasca contains DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a simple compound found throughout nature that has profound effects on consciousness. Essentially, it is one of the strongest hallucinogens known to mankind, a startling thought, especially since this molecule is found and produced naturally in nearly all living things. Some experts theorize that the relationship that exists between organisms and these ancient messenger molecules could hold the key to our future evolution. Sounds like a trip, right? But, I was in serious pain but also it was like the most exhilarating and euphoric feeling I’ve ever had in my life — at the same time. Having hippies as parents, I’d had an overdose of hippy dippy psychobabble at countless drum circles I was dragged to as a child. To this day, I cringe when I hear the word “spiritual,” but the thing about ayahuasca is that after the waves of extreme nausea and terrible things coming out of every orifice, I felt this overwhelming happiness and a feeling that I had a deep connection to the world. All my emotional walls melted away and I was able to see the essence of myself. I was everything and nothing a billion times into infinity. Hopefully you’re still reading as I know it sounds wacky, but it takes you to another realm, a place where even a cynical atheist like me will start questioning previously-held notions of some kind of higher power, as well as try and reconcile things going on on every level of my life.
DMT, the hallucinogenic ingredient in this ancient jungle medicine, is released in our brains when we’re born and when we die, which might explain why many users proclaim having out of body experiences similar to near-death testimonials. For me, I had the sensation of flying down a bright tunnel while a mouth of a wise snake told me to surrender. Once I did that, all the puking, writhing and crying stopped and my body melted away. It just wasn’t there anymore, but lost in some other dimension or maybe a Weeknd music video.
From there, I then entered into what I can only describe as ayahuascaland—a place of intense beauty filled with vibrant, pulsating colors, and spectacular geometric patterns and shapes. I also saw animals from the rainforest jumping in and out of the bushes. At one point I was a jungle cat, waiting for my next move, and then slipping away into a lucid dream-like state. It was as if the ayahuasca was calling for me to run around in the woods inside my head, beckoning me to explore anything and everything all at once. Time has no meaning in ayahuascaland, four or five hours can easily feel like several days. I was also forced to face all of my emotional issues I had conveniently pushed aside. There was no pretense or filters, just the bare bones of my old emotional scars. Ayahuasca brought all of that up to the surface whether I wanted it to or not. Like a heart-wrenching Dickens novel, it was the best of times and the worst of times. At its worst, you feel like you’re going to puke up your insides and die. At its best, it’s the most amazing moment of ecstasy you’ll ever experience. For reasons still unknown to me, I was flooded with powerful emotions like empathy, compassion, love, and forgiveness as well as gratitude and humility.
Many claim that one ayahuasca trip does more for your mental health than 10 years of psychotherapy. After participating in a three-day retreat, I realized the incredible healing power of this Amazonian rainforest medicine. Afterwards, all my bad feelings were magically gone and my back pain was noticeably reduced. I felt like a new person, and in many ways, I was. I had shed all those emotional wounds that were keeping me from my true potential. Looking back, my ayahuasca experience had been somewhat of a success. I didn’t die or become permanently insane, but instead came away with a peaceful, reinvigorated sense of self. The only problem is, the feeling doesn’t last. After about two weeks, my back pain and anxious feelings started to come back. Tribes in the Amazon typically take the medicine twice a month for maintenance and I realized that I’d have to dance with the ayahuasca again, puke bucket and all. In the never-ending search for piece of mind and understanding, ayahuasca isn’t a magic potion, but it can give you a whole new perspective on life.