I rolled onto my back and took a deep breath, feeling my shoulder blades poke through the thin mattress beneath me to the hardwood floor below as my lungs expanded. The firmness of the wooden planks felt supportive and grounding, a small but powerful reminder that I was still there, still alive, still safe. Among the twelve members of our group were American and Australian veterans – some of whom came from the special operations community – with dozens of combat deployments between them. We were collectively there to work through and heal from traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, addiction, suicidal ideation, physiological dysfunction, depression, and anxiety, just to name a few. Not counting the two healers holding space for us, I was one of only two without prior military service and the only woman. Even though most of us had just met, it felt like many of these people were family, and my new family and I had just embarked upon a life-changing ayahuasca journey together in Peru because of Heroic Hearts Project.
Ayahuasca is a plant-based medicinal brew traditionally used by the Amazonian peoples as part of spiritual ceremonies. It’s prepared by boiling a vine called Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) with leaves from a plant called Psychotria viridis (chacruna) over one to two days. Both plants are necessary because the chacruna plant contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful psychedelic substance, while the ayahuasca vine contains monoamine oxidase inhibiting (MAOI) harmala alkaloids that are necessary for making the DMT bioavailable in the gut, where it’s normally inactivated. Although MAOIs are currently available with a prescription (some of these are your standard antidepressants), DMT is illegal in the United States. The final brew containing both plants is a powerful psychedelic that lasts for four to six hours and is collectively referred to as ayahuasca. Because of its ability to influence consciousness and lead to spiritual healing experiences, ayahuasca is known in the Quechua languages of South America as the vine of the soul, or spirit vine. The brew that our group drank was made from plants on the property where we were staying and included a few additional types of tree bark because our shaman, the La Medicina retreat center owner, intended for it to be particularly strong.
The psychedelic effects of ayahuasca are varied, but often include greatly enhanced visual, auditory, and tactile stimulation, and sometimes a crossing or mixing of sensory modalities. Consumption also includes a purgative effect, which has been referred to as la purga or “the purge”. Purging is related to the release of negative energy and often appears in the form of vomiting, but it can also include diarrhea, laughing, and, for me, loads of yawning, shivering, and crying. Beyond the physical sensations, consumption of ayahuasca can lead to enhanced introspection and connectedness, feelings of awe, fear or terror, sadness, relief, expansiveness, ecstasy, and enlightenment, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. Many people report having powerful spiritual experiences after consuming ayahuasca, while others speak of seeing the ways in which their current behaviors are holding them back, almost like a visual gap between where their current and ideal lives are.
Whatever someone’s journey with the medicine might look like, the experiences gained during ceremony typically lead to a kind of knowing that arises from a felt sense rather than a conceptual sense. In other words, you feel on a deep level what you’re being shown rather than holding it in your mind as a superficial concept. Because of this powerful property of the medicine, significant life changes can be made and sustained by an individual after even just one ceremony, although multiple ceremonies are very common. In this way, ayahuasca has been effectively used to treat individuals with severe depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even post-traumatic stress (1,2).
There is no doubt that ayahuasca is powerful jungle medicine, and although I believe that many people could benefit greatly from it, I also believe that people must feel called to it, have a very clear intention as to why they want to pursue it, and possess a willingness to work hard for the change they seek. In fact, the hard work isn’t making it through the ceremony, it’s putting what you’ve learned to use after you return to your “normal” life. The bottom line is that ayahuasca is an incredibly powerful entheogen that can lead to profound positive transformation in one’s life, but it is not a quick fix or silver bullet for difficulties.
Although my knowledge of ayahuasca is recent, the journey that led me to it was a long one, defined by nearly 15 years of struggling with addiction in one form or another. As a young woman, I experienced difficulties and traumas that created chaos in my life, and I didn’t have very effective tools for managing any of it. My view of the world became distorted. My life felt unstable and unpredictable except for a darkness that took many forms but most frequently showed up as sadness and drove me to seek ways to control whatever I could in an effort to restore balance and order to things, like somehow an orderly life would be a brighter one. My fears drove me to seek control of my internal and external environments through food and physical training, and I used those preoccupations as distractions, punishing my body and welcoming extreme physical discomfort while avoiding even the slightest emotional discomfort. Many of the men in that maloca with me were experts at this kind of thing, too. We were slaves to the discipline that enabled us to forget.
One can only maintain a state of deprivation for so long before the body and soul scream out against the abuse imposed by the mind, but when attempting to make our way towards peace and balance, we all too often miss the mark. I certainly did. I blew right through the serene center of things and into some foreign landscape full of unknown dangers. My intensely rigid and restrictive way of being was thus matched by equal but opposite excess. This was apparent in my relationship with food, for sure, as my eating disorder shifted from anorexia to bulimia, but this also became the case with my relationship with alcohol. Anyone who has ever consumed alcohol knows well that the kinds of things you do when you’re deep under the influence aren’t typically laudable, and I eventually lost track of the number of poor decisions I made while self-medicating with booze, each resulting in an outcome that was unfortunate at best and traumatic at worst. The painful irony was that with every action I took to distract or detach myself I plummeted into further darkness, defined by depression, loneliness, and shame, and went deeper into the very behaviors I was trying to escape. Thus, I continued the cycle, reinforced the patterns, and ultimately lost hope. An abusive relationship with prescription or illicit drugs, sex, or violence could have just as easily been substituted for my relationship with food or alcohol and it would have achieved the same end. Regardless of the tools, numbing oneself in these ways is only temporarily effective. When the anesthetic effects wore off, as they always did, and the agonizing reality of existence broke through, I’d find myself questioning whether living through the pain was worth it. Although I was never actively suicidal, death became a welcome thought during these times.
My internal struggle was a silent and invisible one. Most people I knew assumed I was happy and had a great life, probably because I always tried to be positive even though I felt like I was slowly dying on the inside. I threw myself into my work and extracurricular activities, sometimes using them as an excuse to avoid socializing with friends or family when being around others while holding onto secrets became overwhelming. On some level I think the more I accomplished the easier it was for me to pretend I didn’t have any problems. No one knew how hard I fought, though, and that internal war was one that seemed all but unwinnable.
It seems logical that one should ask for help in a situation like mine, but I didn’t trust people and I never learned how to ask for help growing up which made it difficult to be open about any kind of personal struggle. Thus, I’d default to burying whatever I was dealing with, reminding myself that this was the respectable path of a strong woman, and telling myself that if I could deny it, if I didn’t name it, whatever “it” was didn’t exist. Many of us have to hit rock bottom before we’re willing to make an honest attempt at changing ourselves and our trajectory, and this was certainly my path. My poor choices and actions led to experiences that forced me to my knees more than once before I was able to look at myself and the life I created and acknowledge that I couldn’t fix my issues with more willpower or by pretending that my problems didn’t exist.
The break in my soul drove me to seek traditional and alternative approaches to healing. I read books. I wrote. I spent time in nature. I returned to yoga. I found my way to meditation. I went on retreats. I sat in silence. I found an incredible holistic therapist. Each approach became another unique tool required for the construction of the road back to my humanity. It was hard for me to be patient when I was used to a world where massive success required massive action. Step by step, I tried to re-learn how to live an embodied life which allowed me, for the first time, to look at my problems, name them, and really understand them. I spent countless hours sitting in silence, following my breath and the movement of my body to places within me just as wild and beautiful as untouched forests and mountains in my own backyard. I explored my traumas and the ever-present darkness, and learned to welcome pain, fear, and uncertainty as wise teachers rather than reject them as unwelcome house guests. I studied myself and began to understand more than I knew was possible, and I achieved a certain level of inner peace, but there was still something within me that was dark, unsettled, and sticky – the addictive behaviors that had been reinforced for so long refused to depart without a fight. I needed help, and I was beyond willing to try any new approach if it could help me heal, even if that meant drinking an unfamiliar plant medicine in a foreign country.
I finally confronted all of this on my mat that first night in Peru, a night that was both extremely difficult and cathartic. In retrospect, it turned out that the first night was beautifully mild and I was blissfully naïve about what was still to come. Each night brought more intense experiences – both painful and magnificent – and each night took more out of me. On the third night of ceremony, perhaps the hardest of the entire week, I looked at the faces in the maloca as we drank the medicine and I could tell that some of us were preparing for battle. I had never seen such tough men look so nervous, which confirmed for me that this was the bravest and most courageous thing I had ever seen anyone do. During the four ceremonies we participated in that week, our individual experiences were vastly different, giving us not what we thought we wanted but exactly what we needed. It felt as if we were all somehow just making our way home, but it didn’t come easily; we had to earn it. For me, earning it meant that, at times, I was faced with death and made to feel it. There were even times when I actually wanted to die, but these were always followed by experiences that made me want desperately to live, and live fully. On the lighter side, I was also gifted the experience of a rebirth, a rise from the ashes, a second chance, which was sometimes followed by feelings of invincibility, like I was part of an ancient lineage of powerful warriors and healers. Although what happened during ceremony was incredible, the more amazing experiences actually took place when we emerged from the nightly journeys and were filled with profound love and gratitude for being alive. It was the laughter that always seemed to follow the realization that we all made it through another night – together. As a friend of mine once said, going to the dead place, returning, and laughing well with those who you survived with, is a gift so few receive in their safe and comfortable lives.
In death there is life, in despair there is hope, in suffering there is triumph, and so it is. My time in Peru was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. What I experienced and witnessed was life-changing transformation and healing, and it happened because the group of us chose to be courageously vulnerable together. These experiences taught me that the basis for healing, and healing of any kind, is found in in connection with others. The medicine and the people I was with literally saved my life, but they also taught me how to live it. The last year has consisted of me revisiting the lessons I learned and practicing them on a daily basis, much of which includes sharing more of myself with the people in my life, surrendering to what is rather than trying to control what comes, and facing my fears by embracing emotional discomfort. Although it doesn’t always come easily, I know that something significant always emerges from these practices if I just stay the course. The gifts I received from Peru have shown me I’m much stronger than I ever could have imagined and capable of achieving the impossible, including finally and completely letting go of the lingering shadows – the addictions – that held me back. I make a conscious decision every day to live with intention, view life as a gift, express gratitude, embrace vulnerability, and lead with love, and I find purpose in helping others on their own journey to healing. As a close friend of mine once said, I now find myself in an upward spiral.
I reflect back on my experiences in Peru frequently, especially our final day. According to tribal tradition, the culmination of one’s journey with the medicine must include water, and for our group, this meant trekking to a nearby waterfall park. The day prior, the flow of water off the precipice from which it plummeted would have been gentle enough that we could have swum in the pool at the base of the falls. In a symbolic twist, it had rained the night before and the water was a raging, untamable force of nature. The park was closed when we arrived and we were almost denied entry due to the dangers the situation presented. First of all, our group loved danger. Second of all, we weren’t the type to take no for an answer. So, we were eventually granted access and made our way to the top of the park by climbing countless slippery and submerged stone steps. The energy of the place was extraordinary and the hurricane force winds literally took my breath away. It was completely alive, and I was sure we were being watched, assessed, deemed worthy or not by an invisible consciousness. I suddenly had a need to use my voice, the one I had found again, to let it be known that I was also an untamable force of nature. I screamed into the roaring, vibrating cliffs with everything I had. We all did. I looked around at my new brothers, smiling, soaking wet, fully alive, and I recognized this moment as one of the most beautiful I had ever witnessed. We embraced one another and I felt both complete and somehow brand new, like I had just finished writing one book only to open another, the first page of it staring blankly at me, patiently waiting for the first word to be written. I stopped to take one final look up at the tumbling waters as I felt a friend’s arm around me. We looked at one another, registering something that felt like home in one another’s eyes, a knowing that we wouldn’t be here without each other. Our gaze turned upward, and lost in feeling rather than thinking, our lessons from Peru were absorbed in parallel with the energy of the canyon. We must face the raging waters within us rather than turn away, holding our ground in the face of fear even as it shakes us to our core. Growth requires discomfort, but through it something invaluable is gained – our embodied humanity.
Katie Pate has a PhD in neurophysiology and currently spends her time as a researcher and consultant in the fields of military trauma medicine as well as military and veteran holistic health and performance. She resides in Golden, CO with her dog, Miles.
Heroic Hearts Project (HHP) is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to provide hope and healing to military veterans struggling with mental traumas by connecting them with ayahuasca therapy retreats. Katie learned about HHP through a friend who experienced the healing power of ayahuasca, and after reaching out to find out how she could help further the organization's mission, she was invited to participate in one of the veteran retreats to better understand the tremendous potential of ayahuasca as a powerful healing modality. Katie is now the volunteer Director of Research for HHP and dedicates her free time to better understanding how ayahuasca can help our military veterans. To learn more about the organization or contact Katie, you can go to www.heroicheartsproject.org or send her an email at email@example.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremy Lock https://www.jeremytlock.com
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2. Dos Santos RG, Hallak JEC. Ayahuasca, an ancient substance with traditional and contemporary use in neuropsychiatry and neuroscience. Epilepsy Behav. 2019 Jun 7:106300.