In April 2004, I traveled on assignment to the Peruvian Amazon to take a “shamanic tour.” I was contracted to write an article for a major American publication about the growing interest in “New Age tourism” in the West. During this assignment, I experienced ayahuasca for the first time.
Before the trip, I had absolutely no idea what ayahuasca was aside from what little I’d dug up on the internet: the name was shorthand for a kind of special tea made from various boiled Amazonian plants. People claimed that the drinking of this concoction had resulted in profound physical, psychological, and spiritual healing. Specifically, members of the UDV church of Brazil regularly use ayahuasca as a sacrament during services, and there have been scientifically documented reports of their being cured of depression, addiction, anxiety disorders, and the like. Still, due to the visionary properties of the brew, ayahuasca is banned in the U.S.
During the tour, I participated in five ayahuasca ceremonies. The morning after my third ceremony, I immediately became aware of some uncanny results: the major depression I’d had my entire life, ever since I was a young child, was completely, unaccountably, gone:
It was as if a water-logged wool overcoat had been removed from my shoulders. There was a tangible, visceral feeling of release. I noticed that the nature of my thoughts had completely changed. There were no more morbid, incessant desires to die. Gone was the “suicidal ideation” that had made joy seem impossible for me, and made my life feel like some kind of punishment. I actually woke up in that hut in the jungle of Peru desiring only to live. Wanting to live. Feeling hope for the first time in my life. It was, without a doubt, miraculous.
Privately, I continued to go down to Peru to work with the shamans and to receive more healing through Blue Morpho Tours. Physical and psychological ailments that had long burdened me—anxiety disorders, OCD, migraines, knee joint pain, PTSD, etc.—vanished one after the next and never resurfaced. A friend of mine, commenting on the “obvious changes” she saw in me, went down to Peru to try it herself, and she experienced similar results. She went on to tell her friends, and soon there was a small circle of us who had experienced it for ourselves and who knew. That circle continues to expand. More and more people, who once believed they would have to suffer from conditions like depression for the rest of their lives, have found a cure through ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca would remain my best-kept secret until the summer of 2005, when my editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine convinced me to write about my latest trip to Peru. Never expecting him to publish what I wrote, I gave him a very honest, in-depth account of my ayahuasca experiences and how they had changed my life. Though the essay contained all the background material that the previous publication had cut, to my great surprise my editor not only kept it in, but saw that the piece was published as the issue’s big feature story.
That article, entitled “Hell and Back,” appeared in the March 2006 issue of National Geographic Adventure. It would go on to become the most popular article the magazine had ever published, bringing in “20 times more reader response mail” than any previous article. Maybe the West was ready to hear about ayahuasca after all?
What Do Western Scientists Know about Ayahuasca?
For my article, I became acquainted with Dr. Charles Grob, M.D., Director of Child and Adolescent Psychology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA’s School of Medicine. He is one of a handful of Western scientists who has studied ayahuasca and scientifically proven its benefits. Dr. Grob on ayahuasca and depression (from my article):
In 1993 Dr. Grob launched the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. His team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a church, the União do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. In addition, blood samples revealed a startling discovery: Ayahuasca seems to give users a greater sensitivity to serotonin—one of the mood-regulating chemical produced by the body—by increasing the number of serotonin receptors on nerve cells.
Unlike most common anti-depressants, which Grob says can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there. “Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressant drugs],” Grob concludes, adding that the use of SSRIs is “a rather crude way” of doing it. Ayahuasca, he insists, has great potential as a long-term solution.
So Is My Depression Still Gone?
I still regularly receive emails from people who have read my article about ayahuasca and are interested in trying it themselves. Most of these messages come from folks who have exhausted all the options of Western medicine (anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, pain-killers, etc.) and are ready for something that gets to the source and really works. They usually ask me the same thing: Is my depression still gone?
Yes, it is. It’s been over nine years since I had that ceremony in Peru, and the depression has never returned. It actually takes an effort now for me to remember what that dark, depressive state felt like. It's as if it all happened to someone else. The slate was "wiped clean," and life has been unbelievably wonderful since that old cloud was taken away. Miraculous? As someone who suffered from depression her whole life, I would say, yes. Absolutely miraculous.
If You’d Like to Find Out for Yourself…..
Hamilton Souther of Blue Morpho Tours operates a very professional shamanic healing center about an hour and a half from the town of Iquitos (having moved from the more distant location described in my article), and he works in tandem with his maestro, Don Alberto, an indigenous ayahuasca shaman, and several apprentices. As I mentioned in my article, the skill and experience of the shaman in charge is critical to a person’s ultimate success during an ayahuasca ceremony.
I am not able to advise on the reputation or effectiveness of any other healing centers. When choosing an organization, please be aware that not every shaman is alike. Unfortunately, some are in the business of ripping off tourists. Some have little experience and aren’t equipped to help during a difficult ceremony. Some are solely interested in the dark arts. (Shamanic healing should always be about light, love.) Some are motivated by anything but a desire to help improve the lives of their clients. Buyer beware. You really do get what you pay for.
I wish you all the best on your journey!