The Ibogaine Experience: A Miracle Cure or a Bad Trip? - Page 3

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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Although the early results we witnessed at Crossroads are compelling, as reporters we wanted to know the fates of some of the former clients who Dr. Polanco claims are longer-term success stories. We ask to be connected to three people with at least a year of sobriety after treatment. Dr. Polanco arranges this within 24 hours. Here are summaries of our interviews with the two of these clients and with the psychologist mother of a third. 

AMANDA: A former prescription opiate addict involved with “pretty much everything” since she was 16, Amanda experienced a “moderate” five-year addiction to pain meds and numerous attempts to quit, detox, rehab. There were the lost jobs, the lost loves, the lost baby, the broken family, the bottomless hopelessness and despair. She finally turned to suboxone, which spun her into a nightmare from which she thought she’d never recover - a medically-induced addiction that required 300mg daily of short-acting narcotics to detox her prior to her ibogaine treatment. 

Ibogaine, she tells us, “was more powerful than anything I had ever imagined, even with extensive experience with psychedelics. It was as if I was part of an all-knowing Universe, one that knew me and loved me absolutely. It took me all the way to the bottom of myself, showed me everything about my life, all the stuff about my addiction, my relationships, my family, my ancestors, my lineage, everything and everyone like… intertwined. At one point, I saw everyone in my life as a kind of circus, everybody doing their own routines, with no real connection or relationship to the others, except that we’re all in the same circus together. And I saw that it was all right, and I was able to just let go of trying to control, impress, fix, judge, condemn. I was able, at last, to simply surrender.  

“I felt as though I was being restructured from the ground up, at the very cellular level, renewed, restored, reborn. Even telling it now, I’m not even close to how powerful and intense it was. At a point I found myself in my bed, which was burning with a magenta fire – a flame of purification. All around my bed, and within the fire, were these tiny brown ladies chanting and singing and praying and meditating over me. I recognized them as my ancient ancestors, saw myself at the center of a timeless transdimensional healing ritual.  I knew it was time to for me to receive this, that it was something like a karmic unfolding, a very important moment in my life.  It was like coming home after being gone for a very long time."

Despite the opening into a wider vision, Amanda found, her body still had to detox afterward from years of embedded drug toxicity. Unlike many people who experience ibogaine, she made sure she had supportive aftercare and chose Crossroads for it. 

“My aftercare and early recovery were extremely challenging. My body was in an extreme detox for several months – night sweats, nausea, dehydration, manic restless legs, long sleepless nights. It got a little better every day, but it was a really tough time. There were times when I literally begged Martin to put me back on suboxone. He and the Crossroads staff stayed in close touch with me throughout the entire process. At one point, I actually had a pill in my hand. I was right on the edge, just about to take it when the phone rang.  It was Deanne, my counselor, and she’s like, ‘What’re you doing right now?’ That call was an absolute miracle. I swear it saved my life.

“I’ve been clean ever since, a year and a half now. There were still some challenging times, but I was so much clearer, and I got so much better. The Crossroads people supported me all the way. I still talk to Deanne all the time. I’ve got a job that I love, an amazing new boyfriend, my relationships with my family are healed; my life is totally different than it was. I’m healthier and happier than I can ever remember being. I have no craving or desire for the drugs that used to control my life. It is as if they have simply been removed from my life. I’ve been given a chance to hit the reset button, to begin my life again.

“Ibogaine is not a miracle drug. You have to really want it, and you have to be willing to do the work, and it is some of the most challenging work I’ve ever done in my life. You also want to make sure you’re doing it safely, with people you know you can trust. But if you are ready, then ibogaine will definitely change your life.”

ZACK: Former heroin addict, a self-described “absolute mess.” Done it all, tried everything, couldn’t get clean no matter what. A friend heard about ibogaine, did the research, found Crossroads, and shepherded Zack into treatment, because, says Zack, “I really couldn’t do much for myself.”

“My ibogaine treatment was the most intense, scary, overwhelming, powerful and profoundly beneficial experience of my life. There’s just no way to put it into words… especially if you don’t have extensive experience with psychedelics. It goes way beyond anything I ever experienced before. I could talk for hours about it, but to be honest, it’s not the trip itself that matters. It’s what happens after, in how you take the things ibogaine teaches you and put them to work in your life. The bottom line is that ibogaine did what it promised, did what I was praying for: it took me through opiate detox with no withdrawals or cravings. But I also recognized that my freedom depended on my willingness to leverage to it to change my life in a radical way. 

“I dove into action through the window ibogaine opened for me. I got very involved in 12-step recovery, worked the steps relentlessly; I sponsor other guys. I’m doing work that I love – I help people make money – and that combines with a sense of service both in my personal life and in my work.  It’s an amazing way to live!”

Sparkling clean for almost two years, Zack adds: “I was terrified before I went for treatment, like this was my last hope, my last shot on planet earth. It’s important to realize this is not a magic bullet or a quick fix. It is a profoundly powerful medicine that has the capacity to completely transform your life. Be true to yourself before you go, know what you’re going for, and be willing to do the work.”

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TARA: “I’m a therapist, a caretaker,” Tara shares. “The toughest thing I ever had to do was to let go.” Her daughter Vanja’s heroin addiction had taken them to the edge of the abyss. There were jails, hospitals, rehabs. “The worst one? We sent her for four months to one of those high-end places in Malibu - $53,000 a month. We spent almost a quarter of a million dollars on that one. Vanja came home 40 pounds heavier, with multiple pathological 'diagnoses' and addicted to 13 prescription medications. She relapsed on her first day out of rehab.” Tara’s voice cracks a little. “I’m sorry. It was just so painful.  We’d put all our hopes into this, what we were sure was her last chance. When she relapsed on day one, it was like hearing a death sentence… for both of us. I knew I couldn’t live like that anymore. I didn’t want to live at all anymore.”

By grace, Tara was led to a healing experience with another sacred plant medicine. “I came to see the roots of my own co-dependency with my daughter’s addiction, how if either of us was to have a chance, I had to let her go and pray that she would find her way. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do as a parent, but I knew I had to do it. It wasn’t long before my daughter was full-on in her addiction, homeless on the streets of Toronto in January.

“When my daughter contacted me about ibogaine, there was no money for treatment. We’d already spent everything many times over. Still, my own research convinced me this might be the very thing Vanja needed.  So I sprung for her treatment with a credit card. I remember thinking, ‘I’m putting my daughter’s life on my American Express card. Don’t leave home without it.’ Vanja was an absolute wreck. Tara didn’t think she would ever make it to Mexico for treatment, but she took her hands off the wheel and let Vanja handle it herself. 

Tara doesn’t talk much about her daughter’s ibogaine experience, preferring to keep that in the realm of privileged information.  “She came home about a week later. She was totally transformed, like she’d been clean for a year. I knew right away something major had happened when the first words out of her lips were, ‘How are you, mom?’ She actually cared about someone besides herself.” I never worried about her after that, like she would relapse or something. This was like a wholly different person, a different kind of ‘clean’ than I’d ever seen before.”

Vanja’s been clean for a year and a half, and, Tara says, continues to be loving, radiant, accountable, dependable. Relationships with the whole family are greatly improved. Vanja’s been able to grieve the shattering loss of her fiancé in a car accident some years back, and has found new love and nurturing work with kids. Finding that “12-step meetings just didn’t work for her” Vanja chose not to seek out any formal aftercare management, treatment or therapy. Despite this, Vanja has no cravings and exhibits no inclination toward her former behaviors. “It’s like someone returned the daughter they stole from me 15 years ago,” Tara says.

“The moment I let go, the teachers came. I had to accept their lessons and learn to trust. In this way, I empowered my daughter to find the help she needed. Enabling is disabling! Yes, I recommend ibogaine, especially if you’ve already tried and failed with other approaches. It is something else entirely. My daughter believed she could never get clean, never get free… but here she is! This is by no means a magic potion. You have to be ready to dig deep and do the work. Yes, you want to have your treatment supervised by someone whose medical expertise and professional ethics you can trust. You know, you hear a lot about the so-called risks. Compared to the risks of heroin addiction – which is like 100% certainty of death if you don’t get clean - the risks of ibogaine, properly managed, are like a walk in the park.”

Dr, Martin Polanco (right) with Crossroads staffers.

One obvious conclusion from these interviews is the potentially crucial role of aftercare provided by people who understand ibogaine. Crossroads assesses that it needs to step up its capacities here, both to meet demand and out of the belief that it will dramatically improve the relapse rate. “The critical third leg of our recovery program – an affordable Clean Living component which would allow our guests to manage their transition into their new lives– is still very much in need” is how Deanne Adamson, the upbeat Clinical Supervisor and recovery coach who guides Crossroads clients from pre-intake through post-discharge, put it. “We’ve done a lot of work to create an aftercare model consistent with our principles and a business plan for our expansion; the clients are already lined up to move in.” The plan calls for a new residential setting down the beach from the recovery house, followed quickly by a second residence north of the border in San Diego County. One challenge: handling licensing and regulation hurdles imposed stateside for a Mexican healthcare company to set up shop in the U.S. – particularly one working with Schedule 1 substances. 

It’s early morning at the beach house. We’re outside sharing hugs, smiles and tears as we say goodbye to staff and clients, our new friends. Our parting view is to the breakers beyond the beach, where the pod of dolphins that live here leap, dive, surf, frolic in the rolling waves, sharing their own ancient medicine. 

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A cautionary footnote: Even with ibogaine as a transformative agent, as the interviews indicate there’s no escaping the inner work to be done after treatment. No substance will completely clear all the damage, the wreckage, the peer influences, the long-term patterns of thought, action and behavior that dominate an addict’s life experience and deprive one of health, meaning, satisfaction and abundance. If, however, addict or not, you’re ready to take a deep look at yourself, however difficult or painful that might be, if you’re willing to open the window of opportunity revealed by this most sacred of medicines, to embrace its ancient wisdom and powerful teachings and completely re-order your life in recovery, then ibogaine will give you the chance. It is definitely not a drug to take socially, or in pursuit of the ultimate high.  

The side effects during the experience are well-documented – loss of muscle control, tremors, light-sensitivity, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms usually subside within a couple of days. More serious complications arise with changes in blood pressure, pulse, dehydration from vomiting, heart arrhythmias, potentiation and interaction with opiates and other drugs. Thus you must choose your ibogaine treatment center carefully to be sure you are thoroughly pre-screened and competently attended to during treatment. Individuals with pre-existing cardiac conditions or risk factors – prior heart attack, cardiomyopathy, arterial, heart-valve or cardiopulmonary disease – need to be especially careful around ibogaine and be certain that emergency care is close by. 

Or consider the scenario of a person addicted to opiates who goes into ibogaine treatment afraid that it won’t work, and carries a secret stash of pain meds to the session just in case. If unbeknownst to attending staff the person takes their usual dose with ibogaine in their system, with a brain reset to pre-addiction tolerance levels, it likely will be their last dark dance on Earth. If you choose to pursue the path of ibogaine, know what you’re getting into, accept the risks responsibly and choose wisely. As we’ve sought to make clear here, this is no rave date. 

Doug Heyes M.A is a writer, healing artist and outdoor rescuer from Southern California. Alesha Carlander is on the editorial staff of The Fix. The two last wrote about their challenge and search for a natural state of recovery.

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