I Tried Taking Frog Poison For My Mental Health

Illustrated by Ellie Blackwell.
*Refinery29 does not condone or encourage the use of non-evidence-based medicines like kambo in any way.
I turned up to the ceremony, two litres of water tucked under each arm. I knocked on the door of the grand west London flat that was moonlighting as a holistic retreat. I already felt woozy – you’re not allowed to eat for eight hours before you arrive – and as the practitioner opened the door, I was engulfed by a waft of incense which made my empty stomach lurch pre-emptively. “Welcome sister, come in.”
I was trying kambo for the first time. It was something I hadn’t even known existed until the week before, when I’d pointed at the three symmetrical holes on my friend’s ankle and asked her what they were. “Kambo,” she’d said, as she tried to scratch around the forming scab. They looked like fag burns. “It’s a healing ritual from South America using frog poison. You vomit loads and then feel amazing. It’s changed my life.”
This was the first time I’d heard about people giving alternative healing preference over Western medicines. I had friends who’d dabbled in San Pedro or ayahuasca in South America but I hadn’t thought that it had much to do with healing, and more to do with tripping balls on your gap year. For that reason, I practically laughed in my friend’s face when she told me about kambo but, later that night, I found myself scouring the internet for information, curious to learn more about its supposedly "life-changing" properties.
Like ayahuasca, kambo has been used as a medicine for years by Panoan tribes in the Amazon. Secretions from the giant leaf frog are harvested – ethically, the kambo blogs assure me – then the top layer of your skin is burned away and the poison is introduced to lymph nodes which carry the kambo round your body. The ritual's MO is to be violently sick, expelling the toxins the kambo has extracted from your body. The Panoan tribes use it before a hunt, to clear the mind and sharpen the senses, as well as for treating snake bites and tropical diseases.
Now, however, kambo is being used by some in the West as a tool to help with mental and physical illnesses. Dr. Dennis McKenna, professor at the Centre for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, told me that this rise is part of a growing phenomenon and, reading through countless blogs written by kambo advocates, I had to agree.
I couldn't find much about the hard science of kambo – something to do with peptides. Any written evidence is flimsy at best. Worryingly, Dr. McKenna explained to me that the peptides in kambo were “potentially useful, but also dangerous” and The Royal College of General Practitioners told me that they don’t condone the use of “non-evidence-based medicine”. I also stumbled across a few stories where people had died while using kambo, although these seemed to be lone wolves using the poison in the wrong way, ie. ingesting it through your blood or orally, or taking too much.

What the fuck was I doing? I was in a random basement with total strangers, about to be given a substance with absolutely no proven medical value.

What really struck me were the testimonies. I scrolled through pages and pages of people thanking their kambo practitioner and urging everyone else to try it. People who’d suffered with addiction, ME, chronic diseases; people recovering from cancers – this frog poison seemed to have transformed their lives. I found an interview with Teresa, the practitioner my friend had seen, where she spoke about how she’d suffered with depression her whole life. She’d tried anything that doctors and friends would recommend, only for the illness to tighten its hold. But since first using kambo she’d felt a shift; through more sessions, her depression lifted and she became a kambo practitioner to treat people who felt like they were out of alternatives.
In Britain, young people have the second worst mental health in the world; we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis compounded by dwindling services for those who are engulfed in it. I knew this first-hand. Events over the past two years had left me in a bad way. Going from not having experienced anxiety or depression to feeling them both so intensely all the time was scary. After trying for weeks on end to get an appointment with my GP, I changed my practice. After seeing a new doctor I faced a lengthy waiting list for pressed NHS services and, not feeling well enough to wait up to six months, I was referred to a charity that ran counselling. When that fell through because of funding cuts I finally shelled out for a private therapist, with whom I didn’t make much headway and couldn’t afford to continue seeing once our sessions were up. It was awful. Finding help had taken me over a year and actually getting somewhere healthier seemed impossible.
So when I read about this "miracle" treatment, my interest was piqued – even if there were risks attached. Sure, the friend who’d recommended it also believed in the healing power of crystals, but I was desperate. I emailed the practitioner my friend had recommended and booked for a "kambo circle" the following week. Those tiny holes in her ankle seemed a small price to pay for a shot at mental clarity.
Illustrated by Ellie Blackwell.
Inside the flat, an array of giant earthy-coloured pouffes and blankets was set out in the front room. A tiny shrine in the fireplace, complete with a porcelain frog statue, housed the kambo resin on a piece of carved wood. Four buckets in bright colours were stacked ominously in the corner. Teresa led me over to one of the pouffes and introduced me to the other guy who would complete our circle. He was in his 40s and looked like he’d probably done a lot of drugs in his lifetime.
Teresa carefully explained each part of the ceremony, step by step. The highlight was learning that if you needed to "bottom purge" you had to crawl to the bathroom because of the drop in blood pressure you get. Great. I had mixed feelings; I didn’t really want these strangers to watch me expel bodily fluids. Sensing my apprehension, she turned to me. “Kambo is an intense experience, but it works fast,” she smiled.
We opened the space with a prayer to the spirit of kambo and I quickly realised a lot of my time would be spent holding hands and following sacred rituals. I reluctantly sung the kambo song. We then had to state our intentions, something that’s done with ayahuasca, too – you explain why you’re there and what you’re hoping to get out of it. In case you’re wondering, the haggard guy said he was there to “reset” so he could continue smoking DMT on the regular.
Since arriving, we’d been instructed to chug our water down. Mr. DMT had finished so Teresa turned to him and after burning a couple of test points into his skin to see how his body reacted to the "medicine", she sat close to him and asked him what he was feeling.
I have to say that the worst part of my whole kambo experience was this guy. Pretty soon after the first points were administered, he lost colour and closed his eyes. He started to dry heave. The end game is to be very, very sick, so you basically have to keep administering points until you spew. She gave him a couple more. Apparently when you work with kambo regularly, you’ll have a set number of points, kinda like a golf handicap – but working out that sweet spot was proving difficult.

Kambo users say that depending on what chakra you’re working with, you can throw up all colours of the rainbow. I later Googled what I threw up and I was pretty sure it was just bile, but it’s a nice idea.

I sat opposite, trying to meditate as I was told… but feeling more and more freaked out. What the fuck was I doing? I was in a random basement with total strangers, about to be given a substance with absolutely no proven medical value, which could kill in the wrong hands. Teresa gave him a few more points and turned to me: “Best get you going too, then.”
I was way too far down the rabbit hole so I closed my eyes and rolled up my trouser leg. The burns are always on "meridians" and "chakras" and which one you choose depends on your intentions; traditionally, women get their first kambo points on the inside of their right ankle. Teresa pressed what looked like a smoking matchstick into my skin, then rolled three tiny balls of the resin into the burns. I sat back and waited, trying to block out the man's groans.
I started to feel extremely hot. Rising from my ankle through my body, my blood felt like it was coursing through me at 10 times its normal speed. My cheeks burned and I felt a pressure build in my head like a balloon. I touched my face, to feel it puffed-up and swollen like a frog. The irony. The pressure mounted then dropped back through my body, leaving my heart throbbing in my ears. As it subsided, nausea crept into my belly and gripped my throat. I didn’t need any more points, thank god, I was going to be sick.
Heaving into the bucket, bitter black bile diluted the clear watery substance that I’d just thrown up. “That’s good, that’s all the toxins you’ve purged” the practitioner said, encouragingly. I attempted to look up at her but my eyes were watering and my face was puffy, and she looked pityingly back as I threw up more. Kambo users say that depending on what chakra you’re working with, you can throw up all colours of the rainbow. I later googled what I threw up and I was pretty sure it was just bile, but it’s a nice idea. Finally, I heard the other guy fill his bucket and his groaning stopped. 20 minutes later it was all over and I was huddled in the foetal position under a throw that smelt like hemp and Nag Champa.

My heart sank and I realised I’d been mugged for 60 quid. At least I hadn’t died, I thought.

Waking up the following day, I felt much the same as I had previous months. My heart sank and I realised I’d been mugged for 60 quid. At least I hadn’t died, I thought, and got on with my morning. As the day progressed, I started to feel increasingly energetic and focused, confident. For the next 48 hours I felt invincible. It was a marked difference in my daily mental state – I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t last forever, though; after a few days I slipped back into the same patterns of thoughts and feelings, but those who claim it’s really helped them continue to do kambo in rounds. Maybe I needed more?
The sceptic in me didn’t buy into the ceremonial side of kambo, but I doubt I would have had the same experience sticking it in my leg solo on the bathroom floor. Nor would I have felt safe. The ritual is an important part of it. I’m sure a degree of kambo is psychosomatic – but so what? Does that matter, if it genuinely helps people? Being in a space where someone is so focused on helping you on a level I’d not experienced before felt great. Teresa messaged the day after to check in on me. Dr. McKenna agreed that “placebo is important in the dynamics of healing” but added that whether it was important “in kambo or ayahuasca is not clear.”
30 years ago, the Brazilian pit viper’s venom revolutionised medicine. A synthetic strain of the poison was introduced to blood pressure tablets and continues to save millions of lives. The snake’s poison had been used in the Amazon as medicine for decades before pharmaceutical companies paid it any attention. Currently, there’s interest in kambo from the same type of companies; flash-forward another 30 years – might we see a chemical strain of kambo being used to treat addiction? Or chronic conditions? Mental illness? I have no idea. But I’m already booked in for my next session.

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