Ed. note: Ayahuasca contains the powerful hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a Class A drug and illegal in the UK. The following is a first-hand account of one person's experience of ayahuasca; it is important to note that the experience is different for everyone and, as with all drug-taking, carries an element of risk. It may have serious implications for those with a history of mental health issues. Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity or harmful behaviour.
The strange thing is, I always knew I’d do ayahuasca. Some people say it’s a calling; you’re either summoned or you’re not. I first heard about it from an old boyfriend while at university. At the time, my recreational drug use hadn’t extended beyond a few spliffs at a café in Amsterdam and a terrifying ‘whitey’ in my hometown which – after a phone call to my sister, alerting her to the reality that I was probably dying – resolved itself in a curry house. I ordered half the menu and proceeded to suck on the end of the same chip for over half an hour, worrying that my relationship with salvia was well and truly over. I know, I’m a total cliché. I’m sorry.
But ayahuasca was different from any other psychedelic I’d ever heard of. It wasn’t recreational but rather a sacramental process to be respected. A potent, psychoactive, plant-based brew that has healing powers and spirit-enlivening effects, the experience promises a breakdown of the ego. The best explanation I've encountered is in Chris Kilham’s The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook: "A longing, part remembrance of something enduring and part intuition of future revelation."
Ayahuasca translates from the South American Quechua language as "soul vine" or "vine of the dead" and the ceremony has been practised for thousands of years by indigenous people who treasure the plant. The taste of the brown, bitter liquid is so potent and distinctive that just thinking about it brings the flavour to the back of my throat. The shaman who leads the ceremony, and acts as a spiritual guide and protector throughout what’s sometimes an eight-hour-long experience, is supposed to have dieted on the plant almost exclusively and sometimes for years in order to fully integrate with its qualities.
At first, I’d understood ayahuasca through sensationalised, fantastical stories that oscillated between facing demons who’d warn you about your impending, premature death and reaching the subliminal in total ecstasy with "God". All this while vomiting your guts out as you cry hysterically and possibly shit yourself. I was confounded. I couldn’t get ayahuasca off my mind and over a period of years I found myself intermittently reading around the topic. I was raised in a small, provincial village, in a 500-year-old house with a poltergeist that my parents had a priest exorcise three times. I’m not kidding. So I’d already experienced things I couldn’t explain or rationalise, and I was open to the idea of a spiritual world beyond the realms of human understanding.
So there I was, a girl who’d never so much as cast eyes on a hallucinogenic let alone tried one, on my way to drink the most powerful, mind-altering brew the world had to offer. My sister and I had flown to the north of France one dark October evening, to a large, rustic chateau in the countryside which belonged to the family of our friend. We’d arranged for a Peruvian shaman to come over to Europe and carry out a number of group ceremonies. We greeted one another in hushed whispers before being told to go upstairs and prepare. I remember feeling hungry. I’d been fasting for a week: no alcohol, vinegar, pork or beef, no dairy, nothing spicy, absolutely no lemon and no sex. I was told this cleanse would maximise my ceremonial experience. I put comfortable clothes on – a series of layers because I was aware ayahuasca altered your body temperature and I was, at that time, concerned about being cold. I was filled with anticipation but I didn’t feel scared. The house seemed swollen with a bolstering, warm energy that made me feel protected and calm.
There were 13 of us partaking in my first ceremony, including the shaman and his assistant (who’d later tell me they both believed they’d been practising these ceremonies together for thousands of years, over the course of many lifetimes). We each had a soft, grey mattress, pushed against the back walls to form a circle. Each mattress came with a pillow, a blanket, a purge bucket and 10 mapacho cigarettes (it’s believed the shaman can channel energy through this tobacco and they’re smoked when you’re having a particularly hard time, to achieve realignment). I also took some toilet roll because I was really quite concerned about the shitting bit. The room was almost pitch black, only slightly lit by candles so I could watch as the shaman walked around the room blowing smoke to ensure the space was protected. I listened as he opened the ceremony with a prayer, calling in the right spirit allies for our endeavour and praying for everyone’s intentions.
It’s important to come to ayahuasca with intentions – to know why you’re there and to understand what you seek. After a painful year of watching my father disintegrate into death from a brain aneurism and a series of strokes that left him brain-damaged, I was grappling with the rejection I’d felt from him during my life. He was an alcoholic and despite his numerous attempts to battle his illness, he’d fallen short. His death had extinguished my childlike hope that one day I’d have the relationship with him that I deeply wanted. I’d also just been dumped by my boyfriend, which came as a huge shock (at least to me), and I was struggling to come to terms with the layers of rejection I’d experienced from the men I loved.
At that time, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being stuck, stagnant. Aware of and striving for a level of happiness that I knew I’d reached before, I felt a physical weight restricting me. As I tried to embrace all the love in my life and feel grateful for my many blessings, toxic vines of unknown pain and trauma wound around my ankles and kept me motionless. I felt unable to grow and develop as a person but was too determined and optimistic to give up and tumble into a pit of despair. I was nowhere girl. And it was fucking suffocating me.
So I sat on that mattress, ready to unload my daddy issues and grieve the most ego-demolishing dumping of my life thus far. Help, was my intention; I was caught and I needed to learn to move again. Mother Ayahuasca is responsive and reactive – like absinthe's green fairy, she leads you on an essential journey. Resist her and you’ll suffer. Try and outsmart her and you’ll lose. You can call to mind a person or a situation and, like an endless corridor, you can go through doors and experience twinges linked to your past and the source of your pain. Some people have more choice of where they go; some are forced into the rooms she feels you need to see. Others have just one heavy door that’s ever-so-slightly ajar – enough to show that what lies behind are the most terrifying things they will ever know – and they keep revisiting that door to confront its horrors. Everyone’s experience of the vine is different and unique.
Roughly 45 minutes after drinking the ayahuasca, I felt it. I entered into a synaesthetic spiral of colour and energy, a new universe of otherworldly beings powered by hues and feelings and thoughts that previously seemed beyond my imagination. I sat for a while and tried to slow myself in this world, flitting out of it and into the ceremonial circle, then back into ayahuasca again. I heard my friends start to purge and a deep sickness overcame me. Balls of energy that felt like wool tangled in the back of my throat made their way to the surface and my skin tingled. I vomited for hours, but it felt relieving and almost fulfilling. I’d look down at the hands of my childhood self and resume a memory from my past, consumed with emotional abuse and the disappointment of my father. I’d heave and quiver until I’d vomit again, dispelling the pain, then I’d collapse lifeless onto the mattress until the next wave came. This experience was relentless, it rolled over me again and again, another memory to acquiesce to, another purge. The next thing I remember is looking up at the shaman kneeling in front of me, singing a haunting melody which unearthed pain that I cannot explain in words as I cried uncontrollably and unashamedly. There it was: release.
As the shaman sang his icaro, a sacred song used to call on specific spirits or to accelerate the energy in the space, I felt all the anguish and despair I’d experienced in my 27 years – but mostly I felt a sense of healing. Throughout the ceremony I witnessed "purging" icaros, which drive a more intense expulsion and enable you to relieve yourself of physical and emotional toxins. Certain members of the group would fall into a unanimous, violent purge during particular icaros. What startled me most were the songs that set the women off. I felt a stinging sensation as the women in the room vomited in unison and my sister and I craned over, retching and convulsing in perfect harmony. I often think about what it was that made the women purge but didn’t affect the men, what kind of emotional toxins we carried that they did not.
I’ve heard stories of ayahuasca helping people diagnosed with a terminal illness to reconcile their grief; of drug addicts who experience a revelation, enabling them to conquer their vice; of the young sister of a friend who, after a series of rehabilitations, faced losing her life to a crippling eating disorder but found recovery. But be under no illusion – ayahuasca will not solve your problems. Only you have the ability to do that. What it does, in my experience, is take you to a level of consciousness you’ve never reached before so that you can understand how to help yourself.
It’s work. At least that’s how I’ve noticed my friends refer to it: "I really hope she does the work that she needs to;" "I spoke to him yesterday and I’m worried he’s not doing his work;" "I’m so proud of you for doing your work." The most incredible thing about my first ceremony was reliving an experience that felt so familiar but which I couldn’t reconcile as my own. It was a situation I understood on an unconscious level, a pain I held. I could accept the weight of it was something I carried but I couldn’t understand the people or the surroundings. Weeks later, I would describe this scene to my mother and watch her crumple into tears as she listened to her youngest daughter describe a childhood memory that belonged to her. I tried to ease the fear in her eyes as I explained that in creating and birthing me, she’d unknowingly imprinted this experience on me. But now it was gone – in reliving it so viscerally I’d unblocked it, and I hoped I’d done that for her on some level, too.
The day after my first ceremony, I was reluctant to drink the brew again. I was too terrified. Imagine a world where all of your fears are a kaleidoscope in which you have to sit. But there was also something magnificent and illuminating about the experience that I couldn’t resist. What I learned in the course of that night would have taken me years in therapy: my innate fear of masculinity, my unhealthy obsession with time and planning, my emotional self-harm in the guise of impulsiveness and courage. The next ceremony, which took place the following night, was a closing ceremony. After drinking that thick, brown liquid once more, I lay on my mattress with a blanket over my head, focusing my mind on the present, hoping with every fibre of my being that I could resist its powers. But then they came – colourful, snake-like entities pushed and trembled around my body, my heart pounding and thudding until I gave into the incredible, healing work they were doing. It is impossible to describe this ceremony in words, a pre-symbolic experience of complete joy and ecstasy, where I met with my own version of "God" and visited the place I came from and will return to.
One of the things I treasure most from ayahuasca is the inimitable bond I have with the individuals I drank with, some of whom I’d met for the first time. Now it’s as if we are family, bound by our collective experience that only we will ever understand. The central revelation for me personally, though, was an understanding of my own fear. I’d been living my life through the lens and framework of something I didn’t understand and therefore had no hope of fixing. Nine months on, I can honestly say I’ve transformed the way I live and the relationship I have with myself. It’s ongoing work. It’s no miracle and it takes quotidian efforts – I actively commit to this new way of living when I wake up every day. Ayahuasca took me into a universe within myself and showed me many things that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. I am as enraptured as I am petrified by the idea of another ceremony but, just like the first time, I have the unquestionable knowledge that I’ll drink ayahuasca again.