I am writing this story, the story of how I traveled to hell and back in a Peruvian rain forest during my Ayahuasca experience, as a way of trying to process what I went through. I'm still recovering, and I'm hoping to reach out to others with my story as a way of connecting and getting more insight into the process for myself.
I'm a successful marketing executive. Married, upwardly mobile. From the outside, everything was perfect. But I traveled to Peru specifically to experience Ayahuasca with a shaman, and I did it for a few different reasons.
I had begun to feel stuck, stagnant. My wife and I were no longer seeing eye to eye on a number of important things. But more than that, I wanted enlightenment. I started to feel like I was always choosing the dark side of everything, and enlightenment sounds like the antidote to that attitude, right?
Well, yes and no. The problem is that enlightenment isn't always light; total consciousness, when you come right down to it, can be a heavy thing. Experiencing consciousness of everything that has happened in your life, good and bad, can cause some very dark feelings, too.
The past doesn't stay in the past
I should preface this discussion with a little bit about my past. My family immigrated to Canada when I was a boy, and for a time, before we got there, we were refugees. I write those words casually, as if these events were just things that happened. But trust me, it was nothing like that.
Those days and weeks and months were my first trip to hell. There in the assigned refugee housing I learned how it feels to live with fear, all of the time. We shared our tiny house with another family who were strangers before we arrived. There was running water only once a week at 3:00am, and health and sanitary conditions are even worse than you're imagining right now after I've said that. Countless people, poor, desperate, starving, and terrified, all packed together there.
We were just kids, but we weren't allowed to live like children. We weren't allowed to eat like we used to, our diets were drastically restricted. We weren't allowed to go to school. We ended up getting smuggled to school with Turkish identities for the last few months. We never got report cards or grades. We were just allowed to exist there in school: second class non-citizens, not valued participants.
In fact, that's the most important thing to understand. The worst part wasn’t being poor or a refugee per se. The worst part about being a refugee was getting separated from family from back home and going to a country which didn’t want or accept me. Going zero to 60+ in seconds in an amazing car is an exhilarating rush; going from everything, respect, love, and being valued, to zero just as quickly in life itself instead of a car is the opposite feeling, and it is worse.
In the refugee housing I also learned a core lesson that has never left me: if I was to survive, I could never go back. No matter what, whatever challenges in life I faced, I could never fail enough to lose what I had gained. Never again could I face that hell.
And so, I caged those experiences up. Like other people who live with traumas, I never once thought of them that way (until my Ayahuasca experience). I simply did what I could to bury the past and moved on.
Each of my successes was like a monument to the promise of moving on. A reward for not dwelling back there in hell, even in my mind. And in retrospect, it seems almost silly that I imagined I could take Ayahuasca and not be facing down all of those old demons once again—but if, like me, you've managed to bury trauma deep enough, these thoughts may not readily occur to you.
Releasing the Kraken
This is one of the most valuable parts of the Ayahuasca experience. It forces even the parts of your lived experience that you've hurled away, out of time and memory, into focus once again.
So now, here I am, trying to make sense of what happen to me when I drank Ayahuasca in my second ceremony.
The first ceremony (my first time on Ayahuasca ever) was amazing. I got so many answers during that initial journey. In fact, it felt as though it solved most of my problems. After that first night I had a new feeling of understanding: I knew exactly what to do with myself and my life once I got home. This was euphoric for me.
But my second night! Oh my God, my second night was something else.
I was in a tent with eight other journeying people, two shamans, and three nurses. We prayed, and drank the Ayahuasca given to us by the shamans. My cup was fairly full. I said my intentions and drank the whole cup.
After five minutes, someone started vomiting. I knew who she was; we met earlier on our trip. She was a great person, and I remember feeling happy for her, because this purging was supposed to be part of the cleansing and healing inherent to the experience.
I started feeling dizzy, so I drank a little water. Still, no purging. Ten more minutes passed and I felt nothing too unusual at all. After twenty minutes, everyone around me was purging like mad; vomiting in waves. But nothing was coming out of my body. This alone made me feel panicky, and I asked the shamans why. The nurse told me to relax and let the medicine do its work.
I give in and relaxed. The Shaman starts singing the Icaros. The whole room is throwing up now. It sounds like it might be the whole country. I now know how all of the lush vegetation is maintained during the dry season: sweat and vomit.
And then, it happens. A wave hits me. But it isn't nausea. Nausea is easy. This was unbearable.
This is not something I can't explain lightly. The wave I feel hit my body and my being is made out of screams. The stretched out screams of millions of people. I start having endless visions, but they are coming at me too fast to process. I can’t focus on anything.
I ask Mother Ayahuasca to help me relax. Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe. Focus on your heartbeat. That presence of mind, that feeling, quickly vanishes and the darkness comes back in full force.
I feel the pain of a child dying of hunger, war, and disease. I am a little child, dying of everything terrible. Now I feel the pain and experience the thoughts of a woman being hung for her sins.
I start to terrify myself. I feel the intense, rushing thoughts of a murderer wanting to gut a human being. I feel the brutalizing impulse of a rapist. And now I am the victims; I am being torn limb from limb. Finally, I victimize myself; I see and feel my own agony as I commit suicide and die.
Throughout all of this an endless cacophony of screams assaulted my senses without a moment's respite. I realized I was begging and pleading with Mother Ayahuasca, asking her to take me and please stop because I understood the pain and misery.
That wasn't the plan, of course; I was to experience everything until I passed out. Meanwhile, I felt like my mind was being crushed in a pneumatic press with evil all around me.
I started moving uncontrollably, looking for a blanket, only to lose it as an entity stripped me naked. I wanted to rip my skin off. I start hearing whispers all around me—and that was even worse than the screaming, somehow.
At that point the pain I was experiencing was just too much. I could no longer stand the twisted, broken figures and intolerable suffering; I was certainly questioning reality and I lost control of my body. I started smashing my head against the floor. I then started punching myself uncontrollably and screaming in agony. Finally, I blacked out.
And everything after
I remember nothing after bashing my head into the ground and punching myself. All I know is that six people, including the two shamans, had to move me to another room. I was also told that while I was “blacked out,” I wasn't passed out; I was moving in circles, punching myself, twitching uncontrollably, and vomiting all over myself.
When I came to, I jumped up and looked around. No one was around me except the two shamans and a nurse. I just held my head, which was throbbing with pain, and kept my eyes closed as I sat. I was extremely weak. I held my head that way for about 30 minutes before looking back at the nurse to ask if I could go to my room.
I stood up. I couldn’t walk or hold myself. The shamans somehow managed to take me to my room.
When I got there, my friend immediately noticed that there was something drastically wrong with me. I noticed my clothes were completely wet; it looked like I had been swimming. My friend changed my clothes for me and I went to bed.
In the morning my friend told me that I was fighting all night in my bed. I was twitching and moving around, and then I started puking. He stayed awake all night on watch; he was worried that I'd choke on my vomit. Occasionally he would call my name and I would wake up; I remember him waking me, but nothing else.
The next day came and I wasn’t right. I couldn’t walk, talk, or eat. I was extremely weak. Something was off.
People came to check on me. The Ayahuasca hadn’t left my body; I was still tripping. For the next 30 hours, all I did was drink water and eat a little bit of food (basically by force). I had a black eye, blood in my nose, bruises all over my face and hands, and my lungs felt like I ran a marathon.
Nothing made sense to me then. I didn’t have any clue why my second night was the way it was. I guess I still don't know for sure, although I have more ideas now.
Piecing it together
I think back on some of the most salient lessons of my life, and most of them have involved terror. Those times as a refugee were what stuck with me, and the question for me became: how do we as humans handle the enormity of our experiences without hurting ourselves? How do we process things without either glossing over them or making our traumas worse?
I couldn't understand why I blacked out, but blacking out can be a good defense to too much sensory input. It can be your mind and soul saying, okay, that's it for us at the moment, we need a psychic minute. I think maybe that's what happened to me.
I think this was my way of re-experiencing my old traumas. I had never thought of myself as a PTSD patient, even though refugees experience very high rates of PTSD. I think when my mind was suggesting that I break ultimate taboos and engage in ultra-violence it pushed me over the edge and terrified me, which is understandable; yet the lesson to take away there was that even under those out of control conditions, I said, no!
The murderer's impulse, the rapist's brutality, that was all unspeakably horrible to me. After surviving it all in the camps I grew up, struggled, achieved, and got where I am today (wherever that is). But now, each glimpse of the past for me is like a threat from my previous traumas. It's like they rear their heads at me and say, “We can drag you back down and make it even worse next time. We can still get you. You have not really escaped or recovered no matter what it seems like.”
That is scarier than hell! Because like I always told myself: Never again. “Never again will I be in that position.” But my past threatens me with that in the darkest corners of my mind all the time. That's how trauma works. It says, “You're wrong! It can happen again.” And maybe I believe it, just a little. And then I experience Ayahuasca, and it seems utterly real, and I totally believe it.
I felt the horrible impulses, the violent feelings. And it was even worse because I was afraid that the evil was in me, too. But it was just fear. Pain and suffering are real, especially when they are yours. But then they pass. They're passing for me, gradually.
I think the lesson from the Ayahuasca experience, as painful as it was and continues to be, was that you can't just leave the past behind or bury it. But you can process your traumas if you work through them at whatever pace works for you. That's what I'm learning to do now.
And here I was 2 days later after my second ceremony; broken and mangled.