30 minutes after having ingested the psychedelic brew, I decided to look around me. I noticed a stillness in the air of the ceremonial tent. Then the sounds began.
Weeks before I walked into Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth, questions filled my mind.
What is ayahuasca, and what does it have to do with a church? I had heard about ayahuasca through friends, but why had it caught my ear? Was it out of curiosity, or did it come from a place of self-help? A search for information ensued.
Ayahuasca belongs to a class of drugs called hallucinogens. It can be said hallucinogens produce mind-altering mystical experiences, otherworldly visions of paradise, and profoundly altered states of consciousness. These hallucinogenic experiences are often associated with religious ceremonies or shamanic rituals, but the fact remains hallucinogens are chemical compounds that can be analyzed by science.
Hallucinogens, simply put, cause hallucinations. They induce changes in perception and sensation1Rafael G. Dos Santos, José Carlos Bouso, and Jaime E. C. Hallak, “Ayahuasca, Dimethyltryptamine, and Psychosis: a Systematic Review of Human Studies,” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology 7, no. 4 (2017): 141–57. . And while they can do so without a loss of memory or loss of consciousness, they can also distort a person’s ability to reason, communicate clearly, and connect with reality2Nora D. Volkow, Rep, Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse, February 2015. Humphrey Osmond coined the term psychedelic in the 1950s and used the term to encapsulate this array of manifestations3Claire D. Advokat, Joseph E. Comaty, and Robert M. Julien, Julien's Primer of Drug Action: a Comprehensive Guide to the Actions, Uses, and Side Effects of Psychoactive Drugs, New York: Worth Publishers, 2014. Humprey Osmond was an English psychiatrist who eventually became both the head of the Bureau of Research in Neurology and Psychiatry at the New Jersey Psychiatric Institute at Princeton and a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama. He was associated with Aldous Huxley, a respected English writer and philosopher, who popularized the phrase “turned on” to describe the hallucinogenic experience. .
Hallucinogens are often divided into two basic subtypes: classic hallucinogens (e.g., lysergic acid diethylamide [LSD], psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine [DMT], and 3,4- Methylenedioxymethamphetamine [MDMA]) and dissociative drugs (e.g., phenylcyclohexylpiperidine [PCP] and ketamine). In textbooks on the subject, the categories can be several more4Claire D. Advokat, Joseph E. Comaty, and Robert M. Julien, Julien's Primer of Drug Action: a Comprehensive Guide to the Actions, Uses, and Side Effects of Psychoactive Drugs, New York: Worth Publishers, 2014, Page 238. .
DMT, a classic hallucinogen, is structurally similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT). It acts as an agonist to produce a response at a serotonin receptor site called 5-HT2A, just like fellow classic hallucinogens LSD and psilocybin5Albert Garcia Romeu, Brennan Kersgaard, and Peter H. Addy, Clinical Applications of Hallucinogens: A Review, 0AD, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5001686/. . By acting on the same neural circuitry in the brain that is utilized by 5-HT, classic hallucinogens are thought to act on everything from mood, cognition, and perception to arousal and physiological processes connected to stress and panic6Nora D. Volkow, Rep, Hallucinogens and Dissociative Drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse, February 2015. .
You may also like: DMT vs. Ayahuasca: How Do They Actually Differ?
DMT is found in the leaves of a shrub called Psychotria viridis. When the leaves of P. viridis are brewed along with another component, the bark of a vine called Banisteriopis caapi, the resulting “tea” is called ayahausca7Dennis J. McKenna, C. J. Callaway, and Charles S. Grob, “The Scientific Investigation of Ayahuasca: A Review of Past and Current Research,” The Heffter Review of Psychedelic Research 1 (1998): 65–76.
DMT on its own is predominately vaporized and inhaled, and a fairly short effect is expected8Claire D. Advokat, Joseph E. Comaty, and Robert M. Julien, Julien's Primer of Drug Action: a Comprehensive Guide to the Actions, Uses, and Side Effects of Psychoactive Drugs, New York: Worth Publishers, 2014, Page 255. . Ayahuasca contains DMT as its active ingredient, but once brewed with the bark of the B. caapi vine–the bark contains β-carboline alkaloids, a kind of monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor–the effects of the DMT are prolonged to span several hours.
The β-carboline alkaloids slow down the degradation of the DMT molecule by MAO. This prolongs the effect. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin originally used the brew as a magical, religious sacrament, though its use has spread to include both syncretic-religious (defined as an amalgam of religions) and more religious-independent, medical efforts9Paulo Cesar Ribeiro Barbosa et al., “Assessment of Alcohol and Tobacco Use Disorders Among Religious Users of Ayahuasca,” Frontiers in Psychiatry 9 (2018), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00136. . I was intrigued, and I researched further still.
In a 2006 United States Supreme Court case Gonzales v O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, the court sanctioned the use of ayahuasca in a unanimous decision. Under the decision, ayahuasca can be used in spiritual and religious practices by specified groups10Jonathan Hamill et al., “Ayahuasca: Psychological and Physiologic Effects, Pharmacology and Potential Uses in Addiction and Mental Illness,” Current Neuropharmacology 17, no. 2 (2019): 108–28, https://doi.org/10.2174/1570159×16666180125095902. . Santo Daime, a religion that utilizes ayahuasca, fought a similar legal battle in Oregon. Benefitting from the precedent11 Collin M. Reiff et al., “Psychedelics and Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy: Clinical Implications,” American Journal of Psychiatry, (2020): 1–20. set by the 2006 case, the religious group won, allowing for the ceremonial use of the drug in 2009. However, clinical trials still do not exist in the United States as the active ingredient, DMT, is a Schedule I drug, with no approved clinical use and a high potential for abuse. This contradiction in the law lives on, creating a gray area for future research.
I eventually began to correspond with Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church of Mother Earth. The religious organization operates under the protection of the 2006 Gonzales case, but I noted and wish to emphasize that at the time of this correspondence the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had yet to respond to the church’s request for religious exemption12“Spiritual Retreat Center In Orlando.” Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church Of Mother Earth, June 2, 2020. https://www.ayahuascachurches.org/. . Despite the obvious dangers, I signed up for a retreat. The word “retreat” may inspire in the mind an image of a camp or spa-like environment, but at this church in Orlando, Florida, a retreat is something else. People travel to Soul Quest to ingest the psychedelic called ayahuasca. The retreat would include three ayahuasca ceremonies over the course of three days.
Preparing for the Ayahuasca Experience
I had officially decided I would ingest the drug.
The church sent me a guide through e-mail a week before the experience was to take place.
This guide instructed me as to how to prepare for the experience, what to expect (and what not to expect), and what to bring.
The guide instructed that I eat a plant-based diet for a week before and after the retreat. The plant-based diet allowed for things like fresh fruits, rice, and olive oil. I was instructed to refrain from dairy, not to drink alcohol, not to eat red meat (especially pork), not to eat hot foods like peppers, not to eat fermented foods like pickles, and to limit my consumption of sugars and salt.
I was also instructed to refrain from sexual activity, as this physical exchange would inevitably deplete the body of important energies.
The guide included a list of medications to avoid: opiates, diuretics, sleeping pills, asthma medications, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), antihypertensives, and supplements like St. John’s Wort and turmeric were on the list.
I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but I had not been on medication. It is true that my OCD had distressed me greatly, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is true that I was looking for a path to relief that didn’t include taking pills. This is why ayahuasca had first caught my attention, I believe. Motivation is key, and it was important that I realize why I was leaving for Soul Quest in a few days.
The guide went on to recommend I bring a water bottle, a flashlight, warm clothes, a pillow, a towel, and a blanket.
I was ready. Or, at least, my bags were packed.
One flight later, I found myself in Orlando, Florida. The morning of the retreat’s first day, I was picked up at a hotel near the airport by Carlos, a volunteer at Soul Quest. He picked me up in his red minivan. The steering wheel was coated by a rainbow exterior, a covering of stretchy fabric. It was very psychedelic indeed. Inside, Carlos was playing music and speaking with another retreat-goer, a woman named Marsha. She was nervous, to say the least, about taking ayahuasca. On the way to Soul Quest, Carlos mentioned that he had ingested ayahuasca a week prior, and that he was in a state of bliss. This did not calm Marsha.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at Soul Quest. Carlos pulled into the driveway of the church, which was actually more of a house. Painted orange, it seemed a continuance of the psychedelic vibe I first encountered in Carlos’s minivan.
I went through the front door of the house to check into the retreat. I gave a Soul Quest volunteer my name and driver’s license, and then I was taken to a back room for a medical examination. It was a routine examination. My vitals were measured, and then I was asked a few questions concerning medical history.
After the examination, I had an hour to mull around the church grounds. Behind the house, a woody, grass-laden area presented itself. The church had the feel of a compound, and it seemed to stretch out into the surrounding woods. Where the church started and ended was unclear. It was a liminal space.
I was informed by a volunteer that a group orientation would be starting, but before that, the volunteer led me to my sleeping quarters. I was given a mattress on the floor of the ceremonial tent where the ayahuasca ceremonies would be taking place. That is when Chris and Verena Young, co-founders of the church, walked into the tent to lead the orientation. We were informed of the schedule for the three days. There would be three scheduled ceremonies, two at night and one in the daytime.
By the time the first nighttime ceremony arrived at 8 PM, rain clouds were forming, but the rain was not yet falling. A pyre of sage was ignited, and we cleansed our bodies in the smoke. Inside the tent, the shaman was introduced. She was dressed in ceremonial garb. The brew was brought to the center of the tent, and she blessed it with a bundle of leaves, waving them. The stage was set.
A music man was introduced. He would play songs that would help facilitate our ayahuasca-induced journeys. The brew was dark and sludge-like, somewhere between the colors of midnight and tart cherry. A line to receive the sacrament formed. I was toward the front of the line, and I could smell the ayahuasca. It smelled of tamarindo, a sweet Mexican candy made mostly from the fruit of the tamarind tree. I received the brew, and with it, the blessings of the shaman. As instructed, I sat down at the foot of my mattress, and I ingested the brew. It also tasted of tamarindo but in a bad way. Fruity, acidic, spoiled notes stole the scene, making my mouth seize with discomfort.
I did not feel much the first night. Retreat-goers were allowed only one dose for the first ceremony primarily as a safety precaution.
Perhaps I was already a guru. Perhaps I was an excellent compartmentalizer. In either case, I did not vomit, and I did not go to the bathroom. (Although purging is considered by some to be essential in the experience of ayahuasca, one study suggests closer to 50 percent of participants will vomit.13 Evgenia Fotiou and Alex K. Gearin, “Purging and the Body in the Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca,” Social Science & Medicine 239 (2019): 112532. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112532. 14Matthew J. Begola and Jason E. Schillerstrom, “Hallucinogens and Their Therapeutic Use; A Literature Review” Wolters, Kluwer Health, Inch, J of Psychiatric Practice, Vo 25, No 5, Sept 2019.
I was offered rapé, a nasal tobacco meant to crank up or dial down an ayahuasca experience depending on the needs of the user, and of course I obliged. Upon administration, I felt as though I was struck by lightning. Cold sweats began.
I remember it was finally raining. I fell asleep. When I awoke, the rain was torrential.
Chris Young delivered the news that the daytime ceremony would be canceled as a result, giving me more time to mull around and to contemplate the upcoming nighttime ceremony. Even though the ayahuasca didn’t affect me very much the first night, it left me in somewhat of a daze. Perhaps it had more to do with the rapé. I remember volunteers fortifying the ceremonial tent with rain-proofing materials. I ate a light breakfast of cereal and a peanut butter sandwich, and then I had the same sandwich for lunch. It was best to stay light for the ceremony, so I retired to my mattress and listened to the rain again. My daze did not dissipate. Before I knew it, the second nighttime ceremony was upon us. Plus the volunteers, there were about 60 people in attendance. This time, we would be allowed to have more than one dose of ayahuasca. I had three. As I was a large, rather healthy individual at 23 years old, 6’5”, and 230 pounds, I was told that three would be enough, and that, moreover, I should take no more than three. After about thirty minutes, the “trip” ensued.
Ayahuasca for PTSD Reports
Speaking of trips, before fully committing to my trip to Orlando, I searched for those who had experienced the psychedelic brew ayahuasca.
I was intrigued to find that combat veterans were connected to ayahuasca, either by way of having ingested the drug themselves or by way of facilitating ayahuasca ceremonies for other veterans.
Lance Supernaw and Daniel Murray are examples of both these categories of veteran. Supernaw and Murray are the co-founders of Warrior Quest USA, a group that deals in facilitating ayahuasca events for veterans in need15“Warrior Quest USA Florida Veterans Support Group Helping Vets PTSD.” Warrior Quest USA. Accessed July 15, 2020. https://www.warriorquestusa.com/. . Many veterans present with treatment-resistant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they join the ranks of retreat-goers like the ones I would meet at Soul Quest.
Supernaw is a master sergeant who served over 14 years as a United States Air Force (USAF) Special Operations Pararescueman. In July of 2018, he found himself at a PTSD center in Salt Lake City, Utah called the National Center for Veterans Studies. “I was there for two weeks,” Supernaw said. “I had 24-hour treatment. I had three sessions with a psychologist a day.”
Combat veterans can suffer from PTSD, defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event”16 “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, July 6, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post- traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967. .
The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is where veterans may first turn for psychological treatment. In the fiscal year 2018 alone, the number of veterans having “received treatment in a VA mental health specialty program” was more than 1.7 million, according to the VA’s online website17“VA Research on Mental Health.” VA US Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed July 15, 2020. https://www.research.va.gov/topics/mental_health.cfm. .
Critics of the VA will often speak of “combat cocktails.” These are potentially toxic mixings of prescription drugs–including but not limited to antidepressants, anxiolytics (anxiety-reducing), and pain medications–meant to help in the treatment of lasting psychological trauma, PTSD being a prime example18James Dao, Benedict Carey, and Dan Frosch, “For Some Troops, Powerful Drug Cocktails Have Deadly Results,” February 13, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/us/13drugs.html. 19 Martha Rosenberg, “Are Veterans Being Given Deadly Cocktails to Treat PTSD?,” Alternet.org (Alternet.org, September 21, 2020), https://www.alternet.org/2010/03/are_veterans_being_given_deadly_cocktails_to_treat_ptsd/. 20 Phil Briggs, “Combat Cocktail: Are PTS Meds Doing More Harm than Good?,” Connecting Vets, March 30, 2018, https://connectingvets.radio.com/articles/combat-cocktail-are-pts-meds- doing-more-harm-good. .
Some veterans do find relief in prescription medication, just as a sizable portion of the general population does.
For the VA, forms of talk therapy are another element in treating PTSD, although not always deemed successful by critics. A study conducted in 2015, by Maria M. Steenkamp, PhD and a team from New York University Langone Medical Center, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association21 Maria M. Steenkamp et al., “Psychotherapy for Military-Related PTSD,” JAMA 314, no. 5 (2015): 489, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2015.8370. . The authors examined randomized clinical trials of psychotherapies for military-caused PTSD. The study covered a 35-year period of time and found that two talk therapies called “cognitive processing therapy” and “prolonged exposure therapy”–the most commonly used evidenced based therapies for PTSD–resulted in around two- thirds of people still meeting the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis after treatment.
After going to the PTSD center, everything was “peachy,” according to Supernaw. That is, until the routines of home-life resurrected a destructive side few are able to integrate head-on. “I fell right back down the wormhole.”
“I was taking Adderall, Ambien, Xanax, Teraza, Zoloft, opioids, cocaine, and alcohol every single day to cut the pain.”
It was like this until a trusted friend phoned Supernaw. Supernaw’s friend had recently started dating a volunteer at the Soul Quest church in Orlando. He encouraged Supernaw to come in.
“People were looking out for me. I showed up at Soul Quest at the end of July of 2018.”
“I was broken. I had no zest for life. Everything in my life was gray. I was gonna eat a bullet.”
Daniel Murray was one of these people looking out for Supernaw. Murray had his own demons, and they also led him to Soul Quest. After receiving a DUI and coming to terms with his having PTSD, Murray showed up to the church in August of 2018. “You know, that first retreat was the most important, because it opened my eyes to everything. All of those emotions that I had buried deep inside just started coming out,” he said.
Both Supernaw and Murray insist they have made tremendous strides and that ayahuasca is to thank.
“The VA needs to fund ayahuasca treatment for vets. It’s really the only thing that helped me,” said Murray.
I wished to further elucidate the scientific perspective, so I found another veteran organization, Heroic Hearts Project (HHP). In addition to connecting veterans to ayahuasca ceremonies, the organization is looking to add to a limited body of scientific knowledge through studies on the drug. Founder Jesse Gould is a former member of the Army Rangers, a special operations unit of the United States army. Gould is not suffering from PTSD per se—he has suggested his mental ailment is more of a generalized anxiety and depression—but he is acting as a spokesman for those severely affected by PTSD nonetheless. Gould is not a medical expert. His efforts are simply that of a veteran looking to help other veterans in need.
Gould says: “[A psychedelic trip is] not like a Yelp review. Like, ‘Oh, this is great’…There still needs to be some sort of rigor.” His organization is collecting data and conducting research on a small scale: “What we're trying to do is these smaller interesting studies, not necessarily proving beyond a doubt one way or the other, but exploring different avenues to see if there's interesting markers, interesting effects.” As an example, HHP has received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval from the University of Colorado, Boulder—an important step to its desired goal of collecting information on the gut microbiome in patients taking ayahuasca. Gould hopes this collection of information will shine some light on the mind-gut connection as it relates to ingesting ayahuasca.
Gould doesn’t totally dismiss the subjectiveness of the psychedelic experience. Having had his own psychedelic experience with ayahuasca, he explains his trip as such: “When [the ayahuasca] first hit me, I had the stereotypical psychedelic experience: a lot of geometric patterns, various colors, a lot of things moving…I would open my eyes to make it stop, but the graphics would still be there…It was very physical; I had to purge, which is a typical part of ayahuasca…You get that fear and worry: ‘Is something going wrong?’ It just kept pushing me further and further, bringing all of the fear and anxiety [I had] into the experience.”
Gould was attending a series of three ayahuasca ceremonies to deal with his own anxiety as a result of combat, and in experiencing the second of three ceremonies he describes it as being “worse than the first.”
“I considered writing a letter to my family…It pushed me so close to the line that I didn’t know what would come of it,” said Gould.
He concludes: “I knew I had to do [ayahuasca]. I was there to fix some of the issues that I had, and going back [home] without pursuing every single avenue was not an option. I just buckled in, like, ‘I don’t know where this is going, but let’s take this ride’…It’s a very individualistic experience…That was exactly what I needed.”
The Ayahuasca Experience
That last night at Soul Quest, my psychedelic experience was different.
30 minutes after having ingested the psychedelic brew, I decided to look around me. I noticed a stillness in the air of the ceremonial tent. Then the sounds began.
There was groaning, a symphony of groaning. Bodily noises seemed to go off without permission from the user of the drug. And then I found myself tripping. I would hear from other retreat-goers after the fact that finding oneself in the trip was not uncommon, as opposed to being able to track exactly when the trip started.
I was aware of my body, and yet I was completely engrossed in the machinations of my mind. I watched as the famous parade scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off unfolded. Instead of Ferris Bueller singing Twist and Shout, it was The Bride from Kill Bill. And there were other famous characters from movies: Neo from The Matrix, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction. The list went on.
I had written down some questions about my life that I needed answers to a week before the retreat; with the help of the ayahuasca, I began to answer them. The ayahuasca allowed me to witness my regular trains of thought from a certain remove.
I gained insight to questions about strained relationships, what direction my career would take me, and why I was really at the retreat. Yes, I had OCD, but I was also curious to find out who else took ayahuasca. I thought about the veterans I had met at Soul Quest, and a sense of sympathy for their trauma washed over me. Not an intellectual sense of sympathy, a visceral, almost uncontrollable urge to comfort them came forth.
I also began to see, in my mind’s eye, what I can only describe as the limits of sanity. I saw precisely how someone could fall over that cliff and never return.
Ayahuasca does not come without its risks. I spoke with leading experts to underline this reality. Their comments help explain the psychological impact of a drug as powerful as ayahuasca.
John Briere, PhD and Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine warns of the downside of administering a drug, especially one as powerful as ayahuasca, outside of a controlled, clinical setting. In an ayahuasca church, “You might be working with someone who’s not very experienced, who doesn’t know how to help you if you have other psychiatric problems. [If you have] pre-existing panic attacks, and then you take ayahuasca and suddenly you’re panicked, is that guy going to be able to help you? Very possibly not.”
Psychotic episodes, though rare, have been reported in association with the use of ayahuasca. A 2017 literature review by Santos, Bouso, and Hallak found three case series and two case reports that all described psychotic episodes connected with the ingestion of ayahuasca, in addition to three cases describing psychotic episodes in connection with the active ingredient in ayahuasca, DMT22 Rafael G. Dos Santos, José Carlos Bouso, and Jaime E. C. Hallak, “Ayahuasca, Dimethyltryptamine, and Psychosis: a Systematic Review of Human Studies,” Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology 7, no. 4 (2017): 141–57. . Interestingly, these reports included both subjects with and without family history of psychosis, which suggests even those without a genetic predisposition to mental illness are susceptible to psychotic breaks under the influence of ayahuasca.
Briere questions the calculation of dosage and purity of the drug in the church setting, suggesting he’d rather opt for the clinical setting: “I’d be much more happy if my mother or my brother were going to undergo this and they did it in a [clinical] context with someone who knew what the drugs were, who knew how to handle negative effects of the drugs, and had access to a drug that was what the drug was supposed to be… I would want to make sure that whatever they’re engaged in is safe, and that, of course, is very, very complex.”
Briere ends by stating simply, “I would never recommend to anyone that they try anything that hasn't been shown to be effective in clinical research.”
The data supporting the administration of ayahuasca in the clinic is insufficient23Collin M. Reiff et al., “Psychedelics and Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy: Clinical Implications,” American Journal of Psychiatry, (2020): 1–20. . Most studies involving psychedelics in general suffer from small sample populations, inconsistent metrics, and altogether weak study design24 Matthew J. Begola and Jason E. Schillerstrom, “Hallucinogens and Their Therapeutic Use; A Literature Review” Wolters, Kluwer Health, Inch, J of Psychiatric Practice, Vo 25, No 5, Sept 2019..
What’s more, these reflections from Dr. Briere are quite possibly life-saving.
A 2016 paper by Frecska, Bokor, and Winkelman cites one death due to ayahuasca ingestion25 Ede Frecska, Petra Bokor, and Michael Winkelman, “The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects against Various Diseases of Civilization,” Frontiers in Pharmacology 7 (2016), https://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2016.00035. .
Authors are quick to note that extra ingredients like datura, a poisonous plant, or tobacco may in fact be to blame.
There was even a death at the Soul Quest church in April of 2018. The death was dismissed by the Orange County, Florida Sheriff's Department as an accident26 Karla Ray, “No Charges after Death Investigation at Ayahuasca Church.” WFTV, October 14, 2018. https://www.wftv.com/news/9-investigates/no-charges-after-death-investigation-at- ayahuasca-church/852255976/. This finding certainly factored into my decision-making process, but I still decided to attend a retreat at Soul Quest. (Reader, please beware.)
Jeffrey Sugar, MD and Assistant Professor in Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine warns that with new psychological treatments like ayahuasca, “People are quick to jump on the bandwagon…to go for the shiny new bobble.” According to Sugar, people should be dubious of so-called administrators of ayahuasca: “Some of these people, their main credential is they have had a lot of these experiences themselves…That’s not all you need to move someone out of a psychological or psychiatric state…Anyone can hang out of their shingle and say [that].”
Sugar stresses the importance of the clinical setting, of coming under the care of clinicians with significant therapeutic credentials: “It would be best if [ayahuasca] was done in the context of someone who’s trained in other things besides ayahuasca…So if you want to see someone who’s trained best, I think it would be a trained psychologist or psychiatrist.”
As ayahuasca administration in the clinical setting is far from reality in the United States, Sugar’s warning can for now be seen as a call for genuine pause when dealing with ayahuasca churches.
The American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that medical use of psychedelics should include carefully calculating the appropriate dosage, thoroughly screening patients, effectively preparing patients for psychedelic-augmented psychotherapy sessions in line with a strongly evidence-based regimen, and following up with patients appropriately27 Collin M. Reiff et al., “Psychedelics and Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy: Clinical Implications,” American Journal of Psychiatry, (2020): 1–20. . This grade of treatment protocol available to the clinician may stand in stark contrast to the accommodations of the church setting.
The reader may wonder how I am doing, or how, for that matter, my psychedelic trip that last night even ended.
I am happy to report I did not dive over the cliff into insanity. I feel as though I was shown the limits of my mind, and then I was allowed to pull myself back of my own volition (a curious sensation). Of course, it was an easy decision.
I did not vomit. I did go to the bathroom, but it wasn’t an emergency by any means (in other words, I do not think it was brought on by the drug in any way). My trip ended rather calmly. I remember going to the kitchen at midnight for a peanut butter sandwich, and then I fell asleep to the rain, which seemed to go on and on, just like the church compound seemed to go on and on into the surrounding forest.
The third day consisted of a celebratory lunch–warm vegan soup, basmati rice, and garden salad–as well as a wrap-up session led by Chris and Verena Young.
In smaller sessions throughout the retreat, we were taught to integrate our psychedelic experiences into our daily lives. At this larger wrap-up session, Chris and Verena insisted that we continue to do the self-work necessary to understand the insights and sounds of the ayahuasca experience.
I do not know if my OCD has improved. I do feel as though I am more aware of my internal world of mind and body, but these are different things.
The sun had come out by the time I took an Uber back to the airport. My flight would be leaving at 7 PM. I ate Wendy’s at the gate. It tasted nothing like ayahuasca. I thought about Marsha, who I had first met in Carlos’s minivan. To this day, I hope she’s doing alright.
More than anything, I am certainly more aware of the traumas of wartime, and of the need for consistent research efforts to develop strong, evidence-based therapies for our veterans in need. My trauma will never be in the same realm. For better or for worse, Lance Supernaw and company will continue to go to Soul Quest. Let us elucidate the dangers and the possible benefits of the ayahuasca experience, for their sake.