The Ibogaine Experience: A Miracle Cure or a Bad Trip? - Page 2

By Doug Heyes and Alesha Carlander 08/08/14

Is ibogaine a phenomenal tool for addiction or not? We visit a cross-border medical clinic and follow five people who have their own answers.

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Big, bright, funny and loyal as a Saint-Bernard, James became our instant friend and immediate champion upon our arrival at the beach house. As he prepared for his work with ibogaine, we came to learn that beneath James’ ebullient smile and winning ways yawned a well of pain and torment as bottomless as any hardcore addict, a desperation and hopelessness that far outstripped his scant 23 years on Earth. James, we learn, is addicted to methamphetamines.  

James on James: “I’ve destroyed everything and everyone in my life,” he confides to us. “I can’t go home again. I’ve lied, cheated and stolen; I’ve been fired from jobs, lived on the street, done so much damage that all the ‘amends’ in the world wouldn’t begin to fix it. I can’t stay clean, even though I know I have to. That’s my biggest fear, that I’ll get out of here and go right back to the same life as before. If that happens, I’m already done. I might as well be dead already.  I’m not, am I?”

James is restless as he leaves the beach house for the clinic on the morning of his ibogaine session. He tells us got zero sleep - his mind just wouldn’t leave him alone, berating him with all that fear and failure he had shared with us. Still, as he pulls away in the van bound for Tijuana, he flashes a confident smile and two thumbs up.  

When James returns to the beach house two days after treatment (clients are warned that the first day after treatment can be extremely unpleasant), he looks as if he’s been to war. He’s pale and shaky, doesn’t want to talk, says he doesn’t mean to be rude but is anyway. He manages a crooked grin in our direction. “Un-fuckin-believable,” he rasps. 

Two days post-treatment, we are sitting together under the watchful care of Anny Ortiz, the onsite therapist, who works with guests before, during and after treatment. Originally from Hermosillo, Sonora, Anny is both a U.S. trained psychologist and a linear wisdom-keeper of the indigenous medicine tradition.  Clearly very smart and knowledgeable, her role is to prepare Crossroads guests for their interstellar flights, then help them to integrate their experiences. Through biofeedback and breathing, she’s taken James into a deep state of relaxation. His eyes are closed, his body open, his words unchecked as he recounts the horrors of the first few hours of his ibogaine treatment: the purging, the shaking, the mental noise, the total overwhelm, the waves of fear and regret, the assault of mental imagery, memories, scenes from his life, this growing feeling of rage and struggle like he was going to explode, the creeping sense that if this is what ibogaine is, he is totally fucked.  

James: “Then, it’s like, I saw something on the other side of all that, something bright… luminous. I knew I had to get there – but I was stuck in all this shit and noise and the terrible things I’ve done to people and the even worse things people have done to me… and every time I’d try to get out I’d get sucked right back in and I’d feel that… rage… rising up again… and I would do anything to make it stop!  It’s like, ‘Do I have to fucking die?! And then this very clear voice, kind of like a game-show host, said:  ‘Don’t die. Forgive.’”  

James pauses. His lips quiver; his eyelids tighten. And right there, before our eyes, James seems to kick back into his ibogaine experience. His breath sharpens; his movements become twitches and shivers. After a time the tears come – for all of us, actually. His words pour out like a litany as he starts to forgive – himself, his parents, the people in his life, friends and enemies, anyone who’s ever hurt him, anyone he’s ever hurt; he’s naming names, releasing rivers of pain and regret, asking to be cleansed, forgiven. His voice becomes barely audible, his whispered prayers punctuated by such statements as: “So beautiful,” “Oh my God,” and “Thank you.”  

Ten minutes later James is holding us all in a big group hug. “I love you guys so much,” he says, his gentle yin reciprocal to his bearlike physicality. “Thank you for being with me for this experience. It means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

Over the next few days, James’s inner and outer talk begins to change. He articulates a vision for a new life. He tells us he believes now that it’s possible to repair some of the damage in his life. Even more important, he says, for the first time he feels as if he’ll be able to stay clean. Even though he has been a caregiver to kids with Downs-syndrome for a few years, James says he now realizes that his life’s purpose is helping others. He understands that the calling of his heart is his devotion to service, to the difference he can make. While still at Crossroads, he reconnects with his mom, who invites him to come back home. He also reaches out to his former employer (who fired him for using drugs) and is told that when he’s ready, there’s still a job for him. 

James remains in touch with us post-treatment. His phone calls are sweet, upbeat, full of optimism and enthusiasm. He’s back to work and has moved from his mom’s into a sober living community.

***

Then there is Ronny. Look up “squirrely” in the dictionary and you’ll find a picture of Ronny dealing with the aftermath of his ibogaine experience. Ronny is raw, edgy, suspicious, and obviously in a lot of pain. His journey has been nothing like the blissful trip he was expecting despite the warnings and preparation he received at Crossroads. He is anxious, irritable, even hostile. The ibogaine didn’t work, he swears. Oh, it made him sick and uncomfortable, all right, but in terms of like a big sacred psychedelic revelation or something - total bullshit! A huge fucking waste of time and money. He wants nothing to do with us, with the staff, or with Martin Polanco. He thumps off to his room and slams the door. We all look at each other. Dr. Polanco shrugs. “Sometimes, on the day after ibogaine,” he says, “we’re not their favorite people in the world.”

When he shows up at breakfast the next morning, Ronny’s a completely different person. He slept the whole night through, can’t remember the last time he was able to do that. He’s totally chill, smiling, radiant. It’s been several days since his last dose of heroin. He’s completely free of withdrawals or cravings. He feels – his word – “amazing.” 

He’s bright, charming, easy to talk to, authentically looking at his life and his path forward from here with thoughtful optimism, though he is guarded about his immediate future. He’s basically headed back to the scene of his former life, justifiably concerned about reconnecting with the same circle of practicing addicts that enabled his habit before he came to Crossroads. He is deeply aware of the hazard this reality presents to his new sobriety. We all share that concern. Martin Polanco graciously offers to allow Ronny to stay at the beach house for a while at no extra charge to allow him time to create a plan for his return to the world.

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