Can a Sober Person Take Ayahuasca?

Can a Sober Person Take Ayahuasca?

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This post was originally published on July 29, 2015.

“Have you heard of Ayahuasca?” Linda asks, leaning forward across the table, her voice low so the surrounding diners won’t hear.

“It’s a psychedelic right?” I reply. “I saw a CNN special about it.”

We’re at a restaurant in Brentwood that for over 25 years has been a popular spot among New Age types. It specializes in healthy food—quinoa, kale chips, gluten-free bread, Chia seed pudding, that sort of thing.

“It’s not a psychedelic,” Linda says, the word like dirt on her lips. “It’s a tool for transformation!

“Hmm,” I think. “I meditate, I do yoga, I visit Esalen regularly. I’m all about transformation!”

“Tell me more,” I say.

Linda’s eyes gleam. “Ayahuasca’s made from a vine in the Amazon,” she begins. “When you take it— actually it’s called going on a journey—you get these deep soul revelations. The Ayahuasca, like, speaks to you. It’s life changing. You can accomplish in one night what would take you 10 years in traditional therapy.” 

I feel a tickle of excitement in my chest. I want a soul revelation!  I mean, I haven’t used drugs or alcohol for over 30 years, but this is different right? It’s a form of therapy. It’s a “journey,” not a trip. And really, my real problem was alcohol, not drugs. Well, there was that one time I did so much cocaine that I thought I was going to have a heart attack so I took three Quaaludes and drank vodka until my heart rate slowed down, then when it did, I did some more cocaine, but that was a one time thing! And even Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, experimented with LSD back when it was used as a common modality in psychotherapy! Of course so were shock treatments (which are seeing a resurgence by the way) and lobotomies.

Linda goes on, “Ayahuasca has been producing fantastic medical results. Military veterans have been cured of PTSD, depressives have been able throw away their medications. And it’s not a drug, it’s natural.”

Ah, this argument sounds familiar. As a teenager in the 1970s, I did love my psychedelics. I dropped acid a couple of times but didn’t like it. The cheap street stuff I had access to was usually cut with speed so the high I got from it was edgy and crawly. Then I was turned on to Psilocybin, aka, magic mushrooms. You haven’t rocked out at a Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer concert until you’ve done it on shrooms. Those laser shows! And hey! Mushrooms are natural! So I ate them once a week for the entire summer between my junior and senior year of high school. Along with smoking hash and weed every day, and enjoying Cokes spiked with Bacardi 151 in the evenings.

I take a desultory bite of my marinated tempeh salad with roasted yam croutons. Reality is beginning to sink in. Linda sips her Kombucha tea. She goes on, “I go to these retreats in San Francisco. They only cost $150 and include the guides, Harold and Mary. They’re amazing.” 

“Harold and Mary? Those don’t sound like Peruvian names.”

“No, they’re not—they’re American. But they were trained by a Peruvian Shaman.”

“Oh, a Peruvian Shaman,” I repeat, trying to keep the ironic tone out of my voice. “So how many times have you done it?”

“I’ve done three journeys in the last six weeks. I’ve made so many discoveries about myself. I can’t wait to do it again.”

“Isn’t that, a lot of, um, journeying?” I ask.

“Peruvians have been using it for centuries. They take it, like, every day.” 

“Why do they take it every day? I mean if it’s a tool for transformation, isn’t that excessive? Shouldn’t they have transformed?

Linda waves her hand dismissively, avoiding the question. “The point,” she says, “is they do it all the time; it’s totally safe.”

Safe? Maybe. But not for Kyle Nolan, an 18-year-old from Northern California, who was found dead after going on a journey at a retreat in Peru. And not, I’m forced to admit, for people like me. As evidenced by my youthful predictions, I could never trust myself to do “natural” drugs like Mescaline, Peyote, Psilocybin, Ayahuasca (all of which are Schedule I controlled substances) with impunity. I’d always want more.

In the words of philosopher Alan Watts, who in the 60s, at the height of the LSD movement helped bring Eastern ideas to the West, “Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight…a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. ”

People like me never hang up the phone. We put that number on speed dial.

I’m in my 50s now and attendant with my age are certain realities, mortality for one. 

Earlier this year I visited an old friend in the VA hospital. He was a former homicide detective who prided himself on being a tough guy. (Of course that was an act; the man was a sweetheart.) He’d been free from drugs and alcohol for over 40 years and had helped hundreds if not thousands of people. He always had his hair and mustache perfectly groomed and sported a ubiquitous black Members Only jacket to keep himself looking good for the ladies.

When I visited him, he’d had a stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down, and as if that weren’t enough, he also had cancer of the tongue, which left him unable to speak. Seeing my friend lying in that narrow hospital bed, inelegant and vulnerable in a pale blue open-backed hospital gown, the opposite of the dapper image he’d always aimed to present, was heartbreaking. I sat by his side for hours and told him how much I—and so many others—loved him. How much he meant to us. I know he heard me because he looked into my eyes the whole time I was there, tears occasionally running down his gaunt cheeks. Whether they were from gratitude or shame I’ll never know. We lost him a few months ago.

My beloved father has Alzheimer’s. He’s still at a stage where he can shower and shave and go to the bathroom by himself but other than that, he’s completely dependent on my mom. She has to remind him to eat, to take his medications, go to bed, wake up, dress, everything. 

Last week, Mom got very sick with bronchitis. I got a call from the adult care center where my dad spends a few days a week, asking me to come pick him up. He’d been crying all day, begging to go home. When I arrived he rushed to me, his face drained of color. “Is my wife okay?” he cried.

I embraced him, patted his back. “Yes, Daddy, “ I said. “Don’t worry. She just has a bad cold.”

He broke into sobs. “Oh thank God, I was so worried, I love my wife so much!”

There I was on the sidewalk holding my weeping father, consoling him as if he were my own little child. Talk about a life changing experience.

If I’d been running off to San Francisco or Peru to take Ayahuasca for “insight” and personal “transformation,” I would have missed these moments: the honor of being present for a sick friend as he passes, the strength to be there for my father as he slips away. These painful yet precious drops of reality have “soul” changed me more than any drug-induced journey I took in my misspent youth. How glimmeringly beautiful life can be if you’re willing to be awake for it. It will reveal everything you need. No drugs, natural or otherwise required. Reality. What a trip.

I slurp down the last of my Acai berry infused iced green tea as our dreadlocked server, “Moon,” brings the check. Linda reaches for it.

“No, that’s okay,” I say. “I’ve got this.”

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15 Comments

  1. And by the way, if you haven’t taken in with a shaman (shaman is a doctor so I consider some people here rather racist to not think of them as doctors) then I don’t think one can comment.

  2. Yes. I ‘d rather do a plant in ceremony to change my brain chemistry, something that causes you to go within and has longer lasting results than to give my life to pfizer and years of therapy that doesn’t work. What is really sick is AA’rs vigilante attitude toward plant medicine but encourage pfizer. WTF.

  3. I apprecIate many of the thoughts here as someone who also values my sobriety and being present for the ups and downs of my life. I’m struck though by the last line.

    ‘I’ve got this’ is actually the reason why I would want to try the ayahuasca experience. Isnt the whole point of the program a renunciation of that idea. That ego really the root of all of our problems.

    I’ve had a hard time with maintaining the destruction of ego as well. At least from what I’ve read, the aspect of the vine that many people find so impactful is that it somehow helps people see very clearly the illusions of self that keep us unhappy. Who knows. I haven’t done it.

  4. To Dale,

    I haven’t taken Aya. I won’t because for me it would be a slip as I used to use those kinds of drugs recreationally before I was sober.

    Having said that, I felt the sincerity of your comment so I wanted to respond. I have been in the place you describe many times in my sobriety . I hope you are sharing about it and your thoughts about Aya with a loving non-judgemental sponsor and close AA friends. I also hope that you see a doctor to go over your symptoms. Remember, as it says in the BIg Book, there are problems other than alcholism. Depression is one. Personally, I was helped very much by a psychiatrist named Dr. Phil Stutz. He wrote a book called The Tools that I highly recommend. I believe in the work so much that I now coach it.

    I will share this, every very low period in my sobriety had to do with some kind of deep personal change. I stayed alive (I so get the wanting to end it) one breath at a time. And didn’t drink or use one day at a time. My experience has been that each time I thought my life was over, it was just beginning. At 34 years of sobriety I have a deeper sense of happiness and serenity than I ever thought possible.

    Do whatever you have to do to stay alive. Please take care.

    Jamie

  5. Delaune Michel on

    Jamie,
    Beautiful piece. So well written and sensitive to such a difficult, tricky area. Yes, to each his own, but eyes wide open is the way that I want to live now. As Cubby used to say, and I’m paraphrasing terribly, life is just a series of decisions and what happens after we make them. Thank you for being a voice of clarity about this particular one. I’m going to pass on making it.

  6. I have strong reservations on the use of psychedelics as therapeutic change agents and wrote about them here: “Back to the Future with Psychedelics.” There’s a link there to an issue of “Current Drug Abuse Reviews”
    that was devoted to the investigation of psychedelics and their potential as therapeutic agents in the treatment of addiction. Here is a warning quote from Albert Hofman, the inventor of LSD: “A portion of the self overflows into the outer world. . . . This can be perceived as a bless[ing], or as a demonic transformation imbued with terror.”

  7. Jamie,
    This is a brilliant piece. As a sober person who HAS done this drug ( and in the Rainforest with REAL LIVE SHAMANS) I can testify to it’s danger. Almost 6 years later I am only just now finding my footing again after being pushed off a psychedelic cliff in a dark night without a parachute. Everyone in our group experienced startling and terrifying things that we were not prepared for. I am grateful to be alive after that hellish experience. It was a slip. Denial is deep. Thank-you for posting this. Trust me people, life is fragile and so is the psyche. I would give anything to have not taken that “trip” and so would the others I “journeyed” with.

  8. Hi Jamie..lovely piece and yes it is a little snarky but only a little. Obviously the woman who felt you were being judgmental is seeking relief from her emotional pain and that is a good thing. I know nada about this drug; I never did psychedelics mainly because I couldn’t handle them. And like you had a dad with Alzheimer’s and a mother who died only last April who I miss a great deal. Those 2 relationships helped me to see the fragility of ALL life in every moment and my own near close encounter only recently has left me stunned every day at the beauty of roses, a vegetable garden, my dog Brando and my friendships and lovers among so many other things. Life itself is a drug. How lucky we are to still be healthy, fit and awake in our 50’s and 60’s. Your wisdom which I saw in your wonderful book about the tango and always in the beauty of your face shines through once again in this honest and fearless article. Blessings and please keep writing. Joanna

    • Jamie this essay is phenomenal in my opinion. I’m personally so struck by both your observation of the new trend of having an “Ayahuasca transformation” and your personal experiences of truly life altering and transforming events. I related so much to all that you wrote it was great, such a cathartic piece for me to read. I really can’t thank you enough for writing this and posting it on Facebook. …It’s times like this that I’m truly grateful for social media. I haven’t seen you in years but I get to read something so moving and necessary for me to read, all because we’re connected through fb. Thank you again. xo Catherine

  9. Beautifully written Jamie. Your rhythm, thought fullness, and range weave this piece into true narrative art. I happen, as both a depth therapist and recovered addict, to agree with you. But that’s not my point. More than yes or no to this conclusion I want to shine a light in your engaging maturity and tender appreciations.

    Illness in its various forms is — when we can stay awake — a spectacular numinous teacher.and in this article do are you.

  10. Man, where can I hang the future on my brain on an untested psychedelic?

    Enlightenment comes from being present. So does healing.

  11. I find this article to be jugdemental while you haven’t had the experience yourself! You state that for peolpe like you it is not ok to use ayahuasca. Well I have been fighting addiction over 19 years now. Had lots of relapses untill I found the 12-step programma that helped me stay clean for over a year and then had a little relapse again and yes I inmediatly refocused so the damage was only little luckely but still 12-step programma helps me to stay clean and sober but still I suffered every day dealing with trauma’s from my past. I have tried almost every form of therapie there is inclyding EMDR which exactly let to my relapse because I just couldnt handle the pain and anger due to this trauma’s. I have read many articles about ayahuasca watch podcast en really prapared myself well and then took a ceremonie it has transformed my life beyond anything I could ever imagined. I do not feel the need to use ayahuasca over and over again because it was not a pleasent trip allthough I have never felt some love in my entire life. It has cured my of my PTSD and I have had even a thought about using drugs or alcohol. And I do not think it is a solutions for everybody I do think lots of people would benefit from it instead of using anti depressives rest of their lives. Dr Gabor Mate is allso using it a treatment for addiction. So please if your gonna be jugdemental about stuff get your facts straight first ….

    • Hi I am interested in your response. I am planning to do ayahuasca in May. I am 20 years sober and have done, do do, the steps. I have had several years of counselling for PTSD. I was on antidepressants for 12 years of my recovery and detoxed off them 1.5 years ago. I am hoping aya will help me as I still feel lost, directionless and occasionally tired of life to the point of wanting to end it. I see ayahuasca as my last hope. How did it help you?

      • Hi Dale, I wrote a response but I think it ended up in an off place in this thread. Check above.

        Jamie

  12. David McBurnett on

    Good job. Our journey is within. Surely soorms or whatever new trip briefly attracts but I have been 300 feet up that pole and as Allen said, Hang up the phone. (Sad that drink got him in the end,)

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About Author

Jamie Rose is an actor, acting coach and the author of the Penguin memoir Shut Up & Dance—The Joy of Letting Go of the Lead, On the Dance Floor and Off. She's currently at work on her second book.