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"The intensity was mind-blowing": Mental health and plant medicine

Struggling with his mood and not making progress with mainstream mental health support, Neil Thornely ventured to Costa Rica to try Ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca brewing
Apollo

“All these memories will be lost, like tears in the rain…” I laughed to myself with tears still flowing, near the toilets at a Costa Rican Ayahuasca retreat - in the rain. The laughter came from feeling just how finite and how impermanent life is, how much pain I had just released, and also how hard it was trying to recall my favourite Blade Runner quote correctly whilst in this state.

Much of my life had felt like a battle between darkness and light, with periods of joy and elation juxtaposed against these inescapable black quicksands that would suck me under for years at a time. My romantic relationships were chaotic, stormy and dramatic, like a Spanish soap opera, with my entire self worth often riding on the back of them.

To keep these feelings at bay, I did what many intelligent depressed people do: drank and took drugs. Luckily, the better times had blessed me with good enough friends to keep me from straying too far, but there was always something in the background providing an emotional crutch.

Following a crushing relationship breakup, I hit rock bottom for the third or fourth time. Tired from years of navigating the UK mental health system and still holding on to my PIP back-payment, I booked two nights at an Ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica with the generous offer of staying at a friend’s house nearby.

Now, there is no doubt that for many people, antidepressants are lifesaving. They can mean the difference between making an attempt on their own life and not, and I would never undermine anyone for whom antidepressants are having a positive effect. For myself, however, this simply wasn’t the case. I had tried a panoply of medications with no real success. I had tried CBT and numerous self-help modalities. I had made some progress with EMDR and therapy in terms of identifying issues, but affecting change was like pulling teeth. I was stuck.

In many ways, travelling across the world to seek the teachings of obscure, esoteric plant medicine felt like Last Chance Saloon - a dice roll to see if I was salvageable or truly trash.

Ayahuasca
upslon

The day came and I was drowning in anxiety. As carefully instructed by the retreat, I’d kept a strict diet of no red meat, pork, spicy/pickled food, refined sugar, alcohol or weed for the week before.

We sat in a ‘moloka’ - an open, windowless structure - with mats arranged radially around the room, with eleven participants. At the front were two healers and a helper, and beside them was a smaller mat with candles, sacred tobacco and a stocky brown bottle of prepared Ayahuasca brew.

The brew, made from chacruna root and ayahuasca vine, has been drunk ceremonially in South America for at least a thousand years. It’s actually the chacruna which contains the DMT (N, n-dimethyltryptamine), and the ayahuasca vine which contains the MAO (monoamine oxidase) inhibitor, which greatly extends the trip. There is much more going on than these two compounds alone, however, and each shaman’s brew is slightly different.

A prayer was said to the universe, the spirits and to mother Ayahuasca, acknowledging everything as god rather than a conventional deity.

Starting with the healers Carolina and Pedro, each of us drank the bitter medicine one-by-one and, against the dimly lit tropical backdrop, things began happening. I became surrounded by organic forms: stems, runners, leaves, roots, lizard patterns - perfectly imperfect - breathing, swaying and twisting.

The trip intensity ramped up, and then came the icaros - shamanic songs that keyed directly into the trip and greatly affected the direction. These songs are received through traditional plant dietas in the Shipibo lineage and are believed to be living transmissions capable of diagnosing and healing those participating in the ceremony. I felt that ‘presence’ that many report, like someone was there - and although the intensity was mind-blowing, I knew I wasn’t in danger. This stage was merely making acquaintance with the Ayahuasca

Each participant is required to tacitly set an ‘intention’. This helps guide where the attention and healing move to. I wanted to know if I could truly love or if there was something wrong with me, as my life experience was tilting towards the latter.

“The amount that you can love is directly correlated to how much you love yourself,” Carolina told me. “You need to ask yourself how you can love yourself.” This set my intention for the second ceremony the following night.

On that second night something didn’t feel right - like an awareness of what was coming. I considered calling it off. “F*** it,” I said to myself, and drank anyway. Before long I entered a kind of shadow realm, in which I was confronted by the exact pain and depressive thoughts that had tortured me for years.

Although initially terrifying, with the help of Pedro and Carolina I was able to navigate this world and confront the source of these feelings. Having proper guidance here was invaluable, having met these feelings during trips before and knowing the difficulty of grappling with them.

Recognising that I was struggling, Pedro came and sang an icaro to me. Suddenly I felt I was plugged directly into the universe, my body moving without volition and the pain gradually unravelling, like years of therapy happening in mere moments.

Eventually came the tears - for everything I had lost - followed by a deep exploration of the behaviours that had caused it. A psychedelic ‘clean-up team’ worked through themes such as childhood trauma, bullying and alcoholism, exchanging old toxic thoughts for compassion and forgiveness.

High on my healing, I asked for more medicine. Carolina looked me up and down.

“Mmm… you’re good,” she said. I wasn’t expecting this. “You need to sit with the part of you that always wants more. You’ve always been running from this. If you can’t sit with yourself then it will continue to cause problems in your life.”

I don’t know if she had a particular knack for dealing with needy, entitled white males, but the truth hit hard.

“You’re enough. Go and unpack that pain.”

I went back to the mat. I confronted what was left of that grumbling pain in my heart. The shame, not feeling good enough, feeling less than. The coping mechanisms to deal with these feelings. I lay there and spoke directly to my inner child - the part that had been suppressed and quietened in order to survive. I spoke like a loving parent would about how things had been hard, and how we were going to work together now.

With that, something else clicked. Looking at the ceiling of the moloka I realised my inner monologue could now be turned off. No thoughts, just peace. Shortly after this I ‘received’ explicit instructions on how to maintain this, through meditation, yoga, journaling, eating properly and getting into nature.

One month on and my heart feels light. I am calm and grounded. I say yes to plans and I listen to my body when I’ve pushed it too hard. Anger is no longer a dominant, driving emotion. I have no desire to drink alcohol. Many of these things I have never experienced before.

Were the forms I saw actually plant spirits? Was it actually my higher, divine self that I met and experienced in those days after the ceremony? I don’t know. And frankly I don’t care. I feel an order of magnitude calmer and more together than perhaps at any other point in my life.

As time goes on, I know the afterglow fades and things might get harder. Psychedelic integration can be very difficult when it crashes against the realities of the modern world. But I believe that for many people, meaningfully connecting with their own spirit is a powerful tool against depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.

I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that there is more that dictates human happiness than the presence of a chemical receptor. I am going to go a step further and suggest that the whole model of mental health treatment being used in the West is at best patchy and at worst unfit for purpose.

The post-enlightenment obsession with rationality and progress has many of us thinking that the future of medicine is always technological - some elusive method we haven’t discovered yet. This may be largely true for physical ailments but, with mental health, the wisdom is often within us already and the tools to facilitate this grow naturally in the ground.

We are creatures of narrative, and changing the story we tell ourselves is paramount to positive, lasting outcomes. One day all of our memories will be lost like tears in the rain: no one will remember us, but we had the opportunity to take part in this experiment in which the universe evolved the ability to watch itself being a ridiculous, perfect, beautiful mess.

What can’t be stated enough is the importance of experienced healers in this kind of work. During several points I was beyond suggestable and could have been exploited very easily, or left with even deeper trauma. Pedro and Carolina made me feel safe at all times, despite the fact I was trawling the murkiest depths of my soul. They held my hand through a beautiful, healing but at times extremely tough experience.

Note: The treatment modalities discussed here are largely untested and unresearched by Western medicine. If administered by inexperienced practitioners they can lead to worsening of symptoms.

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