When I was a child, my parents took me to Rainbow’s End in Auckland, New-Zealand. Being the impulsive child I was, I dived at the tallest ride in the park. Before I knew it I was strapped into a seat which took me and a few others up a massive pole. At the very top, one would enjoy views all over Auckland; that is, before we were suddenly dropped. The drop may have only lasted five or ten seconds, but they were the longest seconds of my life. I begged for the ride to be over and it completely killed my motivation to go on most rides again. I used to get a thrill out of being scared, but this fear was another level altogether. That is exactly what my experience with Ayahuasca was like: being strapped into this thing with no control over its course.
Rewind a few days ago. I have just come back from the farm I’ve been WWOOFing at the past month, but I’m about to return. Cheryl, the lady I work for, tells me some folk are coming down from Byron Bay to hold a very special Aboriginal ceremony at the farm. I’m told they will be drinking a substance, but at this stage I have no idea what this substance is. I have the opportunity to join them and I don’t want to pass this opportunity by. I feel strongly that I am meant to be at this ceremony and that this is my tribe. I cancel my mental health appointments and my workers wish me a enjoyable time at the ceremony. As Wed, the day I leave, approaches though, I find a part of me does not want to go back. My anxiety and depression are taking hold and something is screaming at me to not go back. I push through the resistance, wondering if a part of me is just trying to sabotage this great opportunity. Then I miss my train, which sends me spiraling into suicidal despair. I am not well, but I make myself wait another hour at Southern Cross station, an overwhelming station that I have had many meltdowns at before. I sit on the floor of the passenger lounge as I am upset. I just want to disappear. I am then approached by a man in a yellow vest. At first I think help has arrived, but he just tells me to sit in a seat like everyone else. I get up and sit in a seat just like a normal person when all I want is to curl up and die. I text my case worker Jorden saying I hate my life, I hate the world, and I just want to die.
When I get to the farm, Cheryl tells me that the substance they will be taking at the ceremony is Ayahuasca. I have heard of the substance (which they call “medicine”) before and of its power to clear old traumas trapped in our psyche and body. I am aware that the experience can be an unpleasant one for some, but nothing could prepare me for what was about to unfold.
The folk from Byron Bay arrive and I meet the leader of the group, who I will call “L”. I immediately get a good feeling about him and ask if I can join the ceremony. I tell him briefly about my depression, and we agree that an intention to heal is the right intention for Ayahuasca.
The ceremony runs for a whole night, from sunset to sunrise. I am already terrified. I have touched the surface of my traumas in the past and know there is still much more buried inside. I have a feeling I’m going to be somebody who has a bad experience, but “L” tells me he thinks I will have a good experience and I will be a changed person from it. He says it can’t possibly get any worse than what I have already experienced. He then tells me he will give me a small dose of Ayahuasca to begin with and slowly increase it, which makes me feel a lot better.
We begin the ceremony by going round the room sharing our intentions. I share my long-standing battles with depression and anxiety and how nothing else has worked for me. I share my sense of loneliness which has been with me all my life. My intention is to get to the bottom of what’s going on, and connect with a deeper part of myself, carrying this through into life after the ceremony.
We play some music and then begin the first round of Ayahuasca (there are three rounds). Everyone is cleansed with a burning stick and then we line up at the front for “L” to administer the Ayahuasca. He intuitively senses how much we need, then pours this into a shot glass for us to drink. The whole process requires a lot of trust in “L” and his intuition. As he promised, my first dose is small. I go back to my seat on the floor to see what happens. More music is played, but I don’t feel any different. “This is going to be yet another useless medicine“ is what goes through my mind. I just sit and observe what is going on around me. People are singing, some are dancing, some are vomiting, and one woman is sobbing at the back. What a strange ceremony! The songs continue and I start to get very overwhelmed; it is just one song after another. I desperately need silence, and don’t know how much longer I can take the constant noise.
We get to the second round and I tell “L” that I might have to leave as I need quiet time. He kindly offers to set up a bed in the back room for me in case things get too much for me, but he does say that he and the other “helpers” need to watch me to make sure I’m ok. I don’t feel the need to be watched as I don’t seem to be responding to the Ayahuasca. He gives me a larger dose this time. I go back to my spot, lie down and put my earplugs in my ears.
Shortly I start to feel very weird. I don’t know where I am or what’s real and everything feels like a dream. I sit up, and find I can’t see properly. Everything’s out of focus and it’s like looking through fog. My weight has gone also. I’m extremely light and I can barely feel my body. As I’ve written about in another post, this is not a new experience for me and I’m terrified of where this is headed. I start to panic, rubbing my face all over trying to restore some kind of bodily integrity. I’m starting to cry. I need help. I hope one of the “helpers” will see that I am in trouble. Finally a man called “C” comes to my aid. I tell him I have to get this substance out of me. He takes me outside to the fire, and speaks to me as though I am a child, asking if I’d like my “blankie”. It’s as though he’s speaking to a deeper part of me. He tells me that I need to do Ayahuasca if I don’t want to remain so sick. He tells me some very early trauma is being released. Now the sobbing starts, partly from the joy of being “seen” and the sheer terror about what I’ve got myself into. Some women helpers join “C” and then “L” comes out. I just hug and hold them and sob uncontrollably. Usually I don’t like to be touched, but this is a different part of me who desperately needs to feel human connection. All I can feel is their love and their presence. They tell me I will never be alone now, that I am part of their community. I smile and cry all at once.
I think I’ve reached the worst of it, but things only get worse and worse. I have no idea how long this is going to last for. I am barely holding on. I am weak and can barely breathe. I want to vomit but I can’t. I can barely see and am starting to feel like I’m actually dying. I tell them I can’t breathe and need an ambulance but they don’t call for one. They keep telling me they are here with me, that I am strong and that I need to stop fighting the fear and surrender. I start to doubt these people and wonder whether I’ve fallen into a cult.
The awful experience doesn’t seem to have an end. I am moaning and sobbing and it reminds me of the terrible sickness I get with my period. I truly feel like I’m going to die, that my death wish has come true. I always suspected I would die young. I think about what my family and friends are going to think of me taking off to this farm and then never returning. I wonder what Jorden will make of this; after receiving that text from me on my way here he will probably think this is suicide. I think about how awful Cheryl will feel that I die on her farm and how angry my parents will be. I come to realise how important it is to have someone by our side when we die, to talk us through the process. I ask the helpers whether I’m going to die and they say no. But I feel like maybe they are lying.
I am cold and shaking and we decide to go back inside. They carry me to the door, but I don’t want to go in as I can’t stand the music. I change my mind, deciding the music is better than getting frostbite. But now the music stops and they start having quiet time inside. The helpers are reluctant to take me in now as I am moaning and interrupting the quiet time. In the end they take me inside and I lie on the couch at the back under my dooner.
Whatever the hell this is, it’s still continuing now that I’m inside. I am given a crystal to hold. The music begins again. “L” asks the medicine spirit whether there is anything more I can do but she says no, I am doing well hanging in there. It keeps on going and “L” comes back over to the couch. I hear him whispering to the woman helper who is with me. He then tells me they are performing a deep, cellular level healing on me. Whatever it is, it seems to help a little. I stop moaning and very slowly the room starts to come into focus. “L” tells me the music is about to stop shortly and when it does, the medicine will start to stop too. I lie resting my hand on the helper’s beaded brazillian bracelet which calms me. Finally the music stops and we are given time to sleep. This is when I start to really pick up. I have survived.
The next day I am an emotional wreck. I talk with “L” and he tells me that Aya gave me such a difficult experience because she believed I was strong and could handle it. I cry whenever people speak to me, but I am glad that I can cry as I have not cried for a long time. I have no appetite, I still feel breathless and nauseous at times, and I am unable to do my work for Cheryl. I can’t tolerate any more stimulation, such as people talking. I try to sleep but I can’t; my head aches and is buzzing from listening to music all night. I can hardly call the Ayahuasca “medicine”, and maybe I should have listened to that part of me trying to stop me from going to the ceremony, but in some ways I did fulfill my intentions, such as connecting to a deeper part of me and being freed from my isolation. The helpers didn’t leave my side and for once I felt like I was genuinely connecting to other human beings. “L” said we would keep in touch, which means the world to me; I will miss him, “C” and the other people who got me through very much, the people whose faces I never saw but whose love I felt in my heart. I am not rushing to do another ceremony, and I am still wondering what the fuck actually happened to me, but I do take away the good where I can. Being close to death has given me a new appreciation for life as well. I am grateful for this second chance.