Seekers from L.A. to New York are after a kind of rapture said to come only from a drug: ayahuasca, which devotees claim offers life-changing self-awareness, clarity, and insight. But first, you must get violently ill. Arianne Cohen takes the trip of her life.
My friend was glowing. Not post-sex glowing or good-makeup glowing or beach-vacation glowing. This was different. A moment earlier, I’d walked right past her on an otherwise empty sidewalk near my house in Portland, Oregon, not recognizing her until she touched me. Her body language seemed remade, lighter yet more deliberate. “Oh!” she laughed. “I’m just back from Peru. It’s probably the ayahuasca.”
Ah, ayahuasca. I had overachieving friends across the country who regularly attended ceremonies where they imbibed the hallucinogen—and gushed about the experience as transcendent, life-altering, mind-blowing. Purported by self-described shamans and a small body of research to cure what ails you emotionally, spiritually, and, to some extent, physically, ayahuasca is the yoga of drugs: Mushrooms and acid might open your eyes, but this heals. Or so I’d been told.
Explanations of how the magic worked were uniformly vague: You’d drink a few ounces of ayahuasca and sit all night with a shaman who’d lead you into the “spirit universe” and, voilà, you’d come out feeling shiny and new. I was dubious, until my glowing friend and a writer acquaintance separately attended monthlong retreats in Peru, drinking the elixir nightly in one of the jungle lodges that are part of the country’s booming ayahuasca-tourist industry. Each emerged in a state I’d best describe as one of enlightenment. It wasn’t that they’d reached some universal plane of understanding but rather that they emanated a clarity of being; a calm, loose openness. I wanted that.
My friends gently counseled that the experience could be unpleasant. Because ayahuasca induces hallucinations, my fears could chase me, snarling and aggressive. Also, I’d likely vomit, possibly a lot, which I was assured was worth the price of admission to see my version of God.
I had ample time to ponder this deal because I had to ask around for a year, in ayahuasca circles on both coasts, before landing myself in a ceremony. Though the drug has gotten lots of buzz—it made cameos in Weeds and the recent filmWanderlust—ayahuasca is illegal, its use under the radar. With their concentration of artistic souls and cash, New York City and Hollywood are obvious places for shamans to build followings, and a handful of celebs in both cities—among them Oliver Stone, Tori Amos, and Sting—have extolled ayahuasca’s virtues. Paul Simon even wrote a song about it (“Spirit Voices”).
An e-mail from the shaman’s assistant a week before my scheduled ceremony advised me to come up with “intentions,” in order to guard against getting lost in the mind’s rabbit holes. Unsure what “intentions” were exactly, I approached the task like therapy, arriving at the appointed yoga studio at 8 p.m. with a scribbled to-do list: Figure out career, deal with ex issues, and address eating—the mild, shape-shifting eating disorder that has plagued me in every conceivable way (overeating, not eating, purging, overexercising, etc.), always disguised by deadlines and diets, never quite rising to crisis level. Entering my thirties, I was frankly surprised I still wasn’t free of food angst. It’s exhausting.
To start, we sat in a candlelit circle, and the shaman, an imposing forty something who said his medicine name was Metsa, asked us to state our intentions. The group included a computer programmer, a nonprofit consultant, a middle-school counselor, a retiree, and a handful of women my age. It turns out that an Amazonian ceremony is precisely what you’d imagine. People sitting in a dark circle around a flame? Check. Shaman smoking tobacco? Check. Burning sage? Check. All that seemed out of place were the four Fiji water bottles filled with the brown, sludgy ayahuasca. “Purge buckets” were handed out ominously.
The ceremonial space is enclosed and, if you believe in this sort of thing, sacred: What happens there stays there, wrapped in the ritual. It’s like a cross between an intensive church group and a marathon-training club that makes you puke. There’s a hush over proceedings, everyone is grappling with vulnerabilities, and you instantly bond.
Pharmacologically speaking, ayahuasca combines two jungle plants that mix DMT—a hallucinogen that induces powerful visionary states and psycho-spiritual epiphanies—with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), the pre-SSRI antidepressants. DMT is typically inactive orally because the monoamine oxidase in your gut neutralizes it. The MAOI prevents that.
As mind-altering substances go, it’s relatively safe. “The median lethal dose is roughly 20 times a ceremonial dose,” says Robert Gable, PhD, a psychology professor emeritus at Claremont Graduate University who specializes in risk assessments of drugs. In 2007, he published an extensive safety evaluation in the journal Addiction, reviewing 80 published studies of ayahuasca, as well as studies involving DMT and MAOIs. Drug researchers contextualize toxicity by comparing substances: 10 times a serving of alcohol can be lethal; 15 times a dose of cocaine or ecstasy; 20 times codeine; 1,000 times marijuana. “Comparing ayahuasca to codeine would be right in terms of safety,” he says. “It’s safer than alcohol, but not as safe as marijuana.”
The greatest risk, Gable said, is serotonin syndrome—a cardiac condition of spiking heart rate and blood pressure—usually instigated by mixing high doses of ayahuasca with other medications, particularly anti-depressants like SSRIs or St. John’s wort. People who take such drugs should not drink ayahuasca, and Gable also suggests that those with “strong paranoid tendencies” or “extreme anxiety” avoid ayahuasca because it alters perceptions of reality.
And no one, really, is immune from having a harrowing ride on ayahuasca. On a travel website, one guy who tried it in Ecuador called the experience “hell on earth.” “I began to lose track of who I was; I couldn’t form abstract thoughts; I turned into an animal looking for survival….It entered my mind that maybe I was dead, and that if I wasn’t, maybe I should be.” Another user, on a drug site called Blue-light, summed up his trip this way: “I can literally say I know what it feels like to be insane now.”
In general, Gable says, non-regulated drugs come with two main risks: not knowing what, exactly, is in that powder or beverage and potentially injuring yourself while high. Both, he claims, are attenuated in ceremonies with established shamans or at ayahuasca centers.
Ayahuasca has been used by indigenous Amazonian cultures for centuries. In 1993, a group of multidisciplinary researchers, including ethno-pharmacologist Dennis J. McKenna, PhD, and Charles Grob, MD, a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral science at UCLA’s medical school, studied a Brazilian church that uses the drug as a twice-a-month sacrament. “It was kind of a shotgun study—no one had collected human data on ayahuasca in controlled conditions, so we didn’t know what we were fishing for,” says McKenna. They tracked everything from pupil dilation to body temperature and published the results in a half dozen medical journals over the next six years. Blood sampling of 13 longtime users and 10 controls found that users have elevated serotonin transporters in the brain for two to four weeks following ceremonies, which may indicate an increase in the neurotransmitter. Low levels of transporters are associated with alcoholism, depression, and anxiety disorders. “I find it fascinating that ayahuasca may actually reverse this long-term biochemistry, by affecting the brain’s bioplasticity,” McKenna says.
The researchers also conducted psychological evaluations of 15 church members chosen at random and 15 control subjects. In an article in The Journal of Medical and Nervous Disease, they reported surprise at both the exceptionally healthy psychological profiles of the regular users and their backgrounds: Five had prior alcoholism; two, depressive disorders; and three, anxiety disorders—and all were in remission. (Among the controls, just three had similar conditions, two active.) Though the findings are far from definitive, McKenna, who’s a cofounder of the Heffter Research Institute, which funds studies on medical uses for hallucinogens, says the former addicts told similar stories about how the drug kick-started their recoveries. “The first few ayahuasca experiences were pretty rough—pretty scary, pretty terrifying. But a lesson presented as to the direction their lives were going. It was often a redemptive vision, sometimes involving Christ. I think catharsis is an apt word to describe what ayahuasca and other psychedelics do. The person has a strong emotional reaction, and a kind of spiritual renewal.”
Grob puts it this way: “The ripple effects of a powerful, mystical experience can reverberate for the rest of an individual’s life span.”
Although very little controlled research of ayahuasca’s therapeutic effects has been undertaken since the 1993 work, a New Mexico–based church with Brazilian roots went to the Supreme Court in 2006 seeking protection for its ayahuasca use under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and, to make their case, presented 1,000-plus pages of observational reports attesting to the safety and efficacy of the drug. (The court ruled in the church’s favor.) Grob speculates that, in addition to acting on the central nervous system, the hallucinogen affects our so-called gut instincts—what some call our second, primal brain. “It seems to be activating neurological receptors in the gastrointestinal system, which is filled with serotonergic innervation, and may be involved with very deep and primal levels of consciousness.” Further formal research isn’t likely forthcoming, however, because it’s difficult to investigate a substance that can’t be produced synthetically—unlike, say, psilocybin—and is mostly illegal. (To acquire religious protection, individual shamans would have to petition the courts like the New Mexico church did.)
For 40 minutes after drinking the foul-tasting liquid, nothing happened. We sat silently in the dark. Then my pulse quickened, and my eyes clicked into cat vision, able to see into the adjacent dark room. My head and chest warmed until my fingers felt cool on my eyelids. Around me, people began to “purge.” Ayahuasqueros (the Spanish name for the ceremonial leaders) see the vomiting as removing spiritual blockages and toxins from unhealthy diets and lifestyles, leaving a clean slate for healing.
An hour after drinking, I was still sober-minded, but I’d become all senses: I could feel the energies of the men in the group gently roaring at me from across the circle. In an instant, I threw away 30 years of considering gender differences more nurture than nature—what was coming off these guys seemed innate, emanating from their cores. With this new sixth sense, the women were vibrating on a whole different frequency, a fluttering of warmth and quiet light, a cliché incarnate.
And then a swirl of color exploded in my forehead and removed me from the room. Everywhere I looked, eyes open or closed, I saw reddish-pink demons baring their teeth at me, as if to block my entrance. I was wildly synesthetic: Colors crossed with feelings and thoughts, with red-pink being the overwhelming wave. The vomiting came violently, into the provided bucket. I lay on my stomach, clutching my pillow, before getting sick again. And again. I was thirsty and nauseated and couldn’t hold either thought, repeatedly failing to make the leap from “feeling in mouth” to “thirst” to “I should reach for my water.”
At one point, I opened my eyes to note that I’d just spent 10 minutes with my forehead on the rim of my bucket, breathing into it. This was, hands down, the most unpleasant hour of my life thus far. I collapsed back onto my mat. The one thought I could muster was, Arianne, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had.
Singing. The shaman was singing, a barrel-chested, haunting minor-key melody at full volume for more than four hours, sometimes whispery, sometimes guttural, sometimes aggressive; his assistant chimed in with harmony. I later asked the woman next to me about it. “Oh he wasn’t doingit. He’s channeling it.”
There is a wide range in shaman quality. I’d heard of beloved Yoda-like figures as well as opportunistic healers who sleep with vulnerable women. It is equally hit-or-miss on Peru’s tourism circuit. Metsa was an attractive six-footer with short brown hair and sparkling saucer eyes. With no context, I would have pegged him as a Russian former footballer. He is actually French: After drugging through his mid-twenties, he got sober but, still floundering, he decided to take a friend’s recommendation to visit Peru’s Takiwasi Rehabilitation Center, led by a French doctor researching traditional plants and addiction.
In his first ceremony, Metsa and his shaman quickly concluded that he was a “seer.” As he told me, most sitters spend five hours immersed in their own minds; Metsa said he could drink ayahuasca, look at a person, and see a vision—he describes it as a 3-D image of shapes and dark areas and dots and color representing physical, emotional, and spiritual pathologies. He spent the next decade apprenticing with local shamans in vegetalismo, the physical and spiritual pharmacology of plants, embarking on fasts and diets and ayahuasca ceremonies, and learning to summon spirits by singing.
The shaman’s job description is comical in scope: He is the ringmaster for 16 people on a strong hallucinogen, some of whom are rookies, many confronting their deepest, darkest stuff. My group included three addicts and two child-abuse survivors. As you can imagine, it would be easy for the addicts in the corner to fall into a funk or for everyone to just lose it. Metsa’s role was to “remove negative energies and redirect positive ones.”
After a while, I gave myself a little talking-to. “Arianne, you can feel sorry and sick, or you can pull it together.” I flipped over onto my back, tried to ignore the nausea, and let my mind float. The pink cleared, and I saw myself as a white Pillsbury Doughboy–style blob floating down my street. Reaching out to stop me were the inconsequential tiffs and difficult people in my life, each spraying colorful fields of their particular crazy. My blob wanted an unobstructed roadway. A voice in my head said, Your baggage is totally un-useful, Arianne. Seriously.
This is how I learned that ayahuasca talks. With a slight Valley Girl accent. Interesting. This hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility. My blob kept moving. Just give ’em the space to be their crazy selves.
The next three hours were like a tumultuous dream, with an internal magic wand that I waved over my soul, pausing each time I felt a soft spot. Imagine scrolling through, say, all your ex-partners and stopping each time you feel a twinge to address the source. I floated non-chronologically and nonlinearly from one scene to the next. Giggling babies to pretty bikes to cherry trees. Sometimes I asked myself, “What are you not dealing with?” and flew there.
I also had an uncanny ability to perceive precisely what the people in my life wanted. I just thought of them, and, ding, I knew. Mom just wants appreciation. Give it to her.
This was great. Surveying my life sans ego, the solutions to various problems became immediately apparent. Many of our troubles are not, actually, complicated. You’re going to act or not. What’s complicated are your emotional attachments and obligations and others’ feelings.
I was scaling the ayahuasca learning curve. Sometimes it talked, or showed me things; other times I sensed the presence of others, what some consider the spirits of the natural world (plants, tress, rocks) or loved ones past and present. If an answer to what was bedeviling me wasn’t immediately apparent, I floated for a while. And then I swan dived into a delicious make-out dream, with fantastical tongues intertwined in sparkly energy. It was like 10 years of therapy—good therapy—in a single night.
The final hour felt like coming up from a fever, and then—boom!—I was back. It was 4 a.m. The group chatted quietly over tea: One woman told me she’d dreamed up three new business ideas. Another guy spent the night doing what’s called “ancestral healing,” letting go of emotional patterns repeated over the generations. Another woman described her night as “shattering,” simply saying, “I sorted a lot of emotional garbage and moved on.” I went home and typed two pages of epiphanies, all immediately actionable: the next three projects I should work on, a food plan of three meals plus all the fruit I want, an exercise plan, tactics to deal with the difficult people in my life.
The next day I awoke and kept typing. The insights just kept rolling in. By afternoon I felt exhausted, like when you and your boyfriend have gone back and forth so much about your relationship that you just can’t say another word. That weekend, my dreams were long-tailed and vivid, as if my mind had been sprinkled with surround sound and Technicolor fairy dust.
Two weeks later I was walking home when I realized I wasn’t sad. For my whole life, all my thoughts have been tinged with melancholy. My natural wiring is a light blue that can easily drop into gray. Walking along, I wasn’t giddy or happy. I just felt as though my thoughts were flowing freely. My chest felt light. And in the weeks and months that followed, I could just do my work; the usual cycle of procrastination and “this paragraph is awful” had disappeared.
I’ve since drunk ayahuasca seven times, and frankly I’m baffled that our government bothers to criminalize drugs at all, especially one that can be so astonishingly helpful. The only commonality among the ceremonies I’ve attended has been a magnetic pull toward the issues I need to deal with (whether I want to or not), followed by revelations about how to proceed. One time, I wandered into re-=scripting and reliving all of my awful breakups. Rather than following my usual MO of acting like a clingy mess in denial, I made observations like, “This isn’t working for either of us. I really love you, and this is hard for me, and I need help.” Carrying the emotional memory of these cleaner splits has helped me move on; I no longer wince when I think about my past relationships. I mostly don’t think about them.
My eating issues did not arise until the sixth sitting, when I was the sickest I’d been: an hour of screaming nausea overlaid with lightning-speed mental images (Neon door! Cars! Barking dogs! Blinding flashing lights!) and pink lava slinking along the walls and up my body to drown me. Through the haze of illness, it seemed as though I was vomiting up 20 years of body hate. It felt deeply buried, down near my hips, and as if I needed to be physically shaken to loosen it up, which was exactly what was happening.
I slept most of the next day, and when I awoke I felt absolutely clear. Which is not to be confused with empty. I could easily access emotions and thoughts and was aware of what my body wanted—food, exercise, sleep, etc. In the weeks that followed, I continued to listen to my body’s signals, one of which, one day while I was working, was to go buy a snack. While I was waiting in line at a nearby health-food store, a woman from my yoga class came in. She looked at me quizzically. “You look different,” she said. “You’re glowing.”
This article appeared in the November 2012 issue of ELLE magazine.