Ayahuasca: Miracle Healer or Something Else?

By Laura Barcella 10/15/14

Is it all crazy visions and mind-numbing hallucinations, or is there more to this tea that goes by many names?

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My first real boyfriend, C, traded me in for a tea. Not just any tea—a psychoactive, psychedelic, hallucinogenic, magical mystery tea he called “daime,” which most of us now know as ayahuasca. (It bears other names as well, like yagé, kabi, natema, nepe, and hoasca.)

It was my last summer-before-college. C was a couple years older, but college wasn’t in the cards for him, at least not then. We were young and depressed, both of us chronically prone to dark moods and melancholy and chain smoking and nihilistic philosophizing—all that rote, humiliating jazz—but I may have done a better job at hiding it. I was wrapped up in the buzz of preparing for my freshman year in Massachusetts, where we nobly planned (er, hoped?) to keep our relationship alive via long-distance calls, instant messaging, and fumbly attempts at cybersex.

And then there are the hallucinations, which can last for hours and are frequently described as being both utterly terrifying and realistic. 

Then C went to Brazil, to some “community in the rainforest,” as I believe he put it, to drink hallucinogenic tea. It sounded, to me, like a cult—like a bunch of lost hippie souls looking for an excuse to trip out and “see the other side” or something. But he tried to explain that it was deeper than that, that daime brought on spiritual experiences, not just psychedelic ones, that he’d be guided by real-life shamans who knew the workings of the mysterious drug, as well as the sometimes frightening visions it could trigger.

C was suicidally despondent when he left for the Amazon. I believe he went for that reason—as a last-ditch effort to help treat his depression, using an herb that was, at the time, even less commonly known for being what some experts now consider it: a potential healing tool for a range of spiritual and mental-health ills like addiction and depression. 

Dr. Charles Grob, a researcher at L.A.’s BioMed whose extensive Brazilian studies have shown profound positive changes among some alcoholics and addicts following long-term ayahuasca use, says, “When we did our initial study in the early ‘90s, when I told people l was studying ayahuasca, they were like, ‘aya-whatska’? Now it’s becoming better known, but still, the vast majority [of people] aren't aware of [its potential for success as a mental health treatment].”

Though ayahuasca (loose translation: “vine of the soul”) may have been something of a longtime rite of passage for spiritual seeker types, in recent years it’s grown more popular among mainstream Westerners who’ve read about the drug or seen it mentioned in the media. An astonishingly wide range of celebrities have heralded the brew for helping them expand their minds and overcome demons, including Sting, Oliver Stone, Tori Amos, Devendra Banhart, and Penn Badgley; Lindsay Lohan even mentioned it in the finale of her trainwreck masterpiece “Lindsay,” claiming that it helped her get a grip on the "wreckage of her past life.”

Because of the escalating level of public interest in the mysterious blend, every year, scores of curious tourists shell out anywhere from a few hundred bucks to multiple thousands of them to fly to countries like Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador for ayahuasca retreats. There they get the full guided-tour ayahuasca experience, often with professional healers and shamans to hold their hands. 

First, though, the basics: Ayahuasca is a muddy, reportedly foul-tasting South American brew or tea comprised of a mix of two plants: the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub dubbed chacruna (Psychotria viridis). Chacruna contains a fairly high amount of the psychedelic chemical dimethyltryptamine (DMT, which in America is considered a Schedule I controlled substance).

The brew is usually consumed as part of a spiritual shamanistic ritual, and is often affiliated with the religion of Santo Daime in Brazil, where it’s legal (it’s also legal in Peru). Ayahuasca isn’t a casual thing like smoking weed among friends every once in a while; nobody's doing it to chill out or feel mellow. “This is not a recreational drug; it should not be trifled with,” Dr. Grob warns. 

Ayahuasca is part of a sacred South American ritual that’s been passed down through the centuries—one that’s intended to guide its participants through the darkest recesses of their souls (one participant reportedly dubbed it like “psychotherapy on steroids”). The goal? To help its devotees beat back whatever painful internal enemy may be holding them down. For one person that may ultimately look like achieving “enlightenment;” for someone else, it may be experiencing visions of God. It’s a deeply personal and subjective experience; no two ayahuasca “trips” are alike.

Of course, no one ever said the path to enlightenment was pretty, or easy, and neither is a typical ayahuasca experience. Intense vomiting is the norm; puke buckets are often provided by ritual leaders, who believe that the physical purging of the body is a sign of the necessary cleansing occurring in the mind and soul. Allen Ginsberg once colorfully wrote about his ayahuasca experience, “Stomach vomiting out the soul-vine, cadaver on the floor of a bamboo hut, body-meat crawling toward its fate.” 

And then there are the hallucinations, which can last for hours and are frequently described as being both utterly terrifying and realistic. Many people have claimed they felt forced to face down physical images of their darkest fears or most painful memories. After consuming the tea with a shaman when she was living in Ecuador years ago, Anna Bent* of San Francisco recalls seeing, well, lots of interesting things during her ayahuasca journey, from a “demonic representation of my own...hang-ups and failings,” to “a girl of about seven [years old] who was [made of plant], and kind of green, who talked.” 

Bent continues, “I had a whole conversation with her in a language that I don’t know. Behind her were dozens of plant-people watching and participating.”

Despite the freaky visions, though, Bent considers her ayahuasca journey worthwhile. At the time, her mother was very sick with Hepatitis C, and Bent was hoping to do a sort of remote cleanse to help speed her mother's healing. In other words, she wanted to heal her mom, not herself. “I tried to reach out to her in a psychic way as I was sitting under the stars, but I couldn't do it,” she remembers. “I went into it seeking something specific, and the answer I got was not what I wanted. I ended up realizing that I couldn't take my mom’s illness because it wasn't mine to take,” she says. But, “As uncomfortable as it was, it was a powerful step.”

In “Peru: Hell and Back,” her exhaustive National Geographic article about using ayahuasca to address her longtime chronic depression, writer Kira Salak writes about her repeated trips to Peru for shamanistic healing. Those experiences were anything but painless—she encountered malevolent forces, shadowy figures; she even remembers seeing (and speaking) with a manifestation of the devil himself. But, she writes, those horrifying visions were ultimately worth it when, “The next morning, I discovered the impossible: The severe depression that had ruled my life since childhood had miraculously vanished.”

So how, exactly, does ayahuasca promote healing? Depends on who you ask. Dr. Grob says ayahuasca’s purported benefits have been examined from various angles. “If you're a biological scientist, you'll look at its effects on serotonin receptors, or you'll look at the mono inhibiting effect. If you ask [some of the Brazilians] we studied, they'll say it’s the spirits of the vine that are able to cause a healing response.” Under optimal conditions, though, “it facilitates developing insight into oneself.” 

Of course, not every expert subscribes to the belief that ayahuasca is much use as a treatment for addiction or anything else. Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a marriage and addiction therapist in Manhattan, is one of those doctors. He says, “Ayahuasca is a fashion trend. It is not a valid treatment for addiction or mental health issues. It's a mind-altering drug that is not medically prescribed, and holds the potential for abuse.”

And there are risks involved in taking ayahuasca—even when it’s consumed under the guise of something noble and recovery-oriented. As the herb has increased in popularity, so have the number of charlatan shamans who don’t know what they’re doing; also, having certain medical conditions or taking some prescription medications (for instance, it should never be mixed with antidepressants) can be super-dangerous when dealing with ayahuasca. 

The brew also made news in 2012 when 18-year-old Kyle Nolan of Northern California was found dead in Peru. A shaman at the Shimbre Shamanic Center, where the boy’s buried body was uncovered, was arrested, and told authorities “that the teen died as a result of exceeding the dosage of the hallucinogenic brew.” 

And as for my long-ago first boyfriend, C—we spoke a few times while he was on his self-help mission in Brazil. He told me of crazy visions and mind-numbing hallucinations and lots and lots of astral projection. He told me he had hung out with the (long-deceased) Kurt Cobain and come to watch me while I was sleeping. I thought he’d gone a little nuts, but I knew it was just the tea, and I was glad that he seemed to have found something that helped him cope with the cruelties inside his head. 

I was depressed, too, so I understood why he’d had to run away to “find himself.” We broke up a few months into my freshman year and he never came back from Brazil—at least not as far as I heard—so I’ll never know exactly what his daime helped him find, and whether it was ever enough. 

Laura Barcella has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. She recently wrote about love addiction and secret sober pot smokers.

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Laura Barcella has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. She recently wrote about love addiction and secret sober pot smokers. You can find Laura on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.