Did Drinking Ayahuasca Change Me For The Better?
NB: I wrote this piece back in 2017, nine months after I first drank Ayahuasca.
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 some guy I was dating when I was in 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 most 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. I had flown to a country where it was legal to drink Ayahuasca and had done a lot of research in terms of finding an experienced and highly-trained shaman. The group that was joining me on this experience 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.
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 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. A year on from losing a parent and getting brutally dumped I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being stuck. I felt 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 and grieve. 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 the 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 they need to see. The one universal truth is that 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.