Ayahuasca and Addiction

Tunnel

Over the past two decades there has been renewed interest in the therapeutic use and potential healing effects of psychedelics. Much has been written about that of late, including an article published in the New Yorker earlier this year: The Trip Treatment. Of particular interest have been plant medicines such as psylocybin (derived from mushrooms) and ayahuasca, which is found in the Amazon jungle and used by shamans for spiritual and medicinal purposes.

Bill Wilson experimented with the use of psychedelics for healing purposes in the 1950s. He wanted to share this within AA but was blocked by the trustees of the day. That story, well written and researched by a regular author on this website, Thomas B., is recounted here: Bill Wilson’s Experience with LSD. No doubt over time more shall be revealed.

The following article is about an experience with the plant medicine, ayahuasca.

The Worst Night of My Life

By Paul M.

It was a Friday in June and I was in a large room at a retreat in a very rural part of the world, one of two dozen people.

The thought came to me: “Why don’t you let go of the pain?” I stared at nothing. Once again, inexplicably, the thought came to me: “Why don’t you let go of the pain?”

I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t understand the question. Well, we all do that right? So why am I being asked? Everybody has pains here and there that are not worth being bothered with, right?

And then it hit me with the impact of a subway car I had once seen smash head on into a woman who had jumped in front of it as it entered the station: my brother.

All the lights went out. There was no sound, anywhere. I inhaled deep, deep, deepest and as I sucked in the air a sob developed the like of which I had never experienced before, in my throat, in my face, in my chest, in my mind, in the muscles in my body, in my heart, in all of my being. Eventually the inhale ended and as I exhaled I began to howl. No meaning in the howl; it could have been the howl of a badly, maybe fatally injured dog. Just pain, pure pain, only pain.

I was crying. I would cry for hours. Sometimes I would get a little break, and then it would start up again. Crying.

* * *

My brother killed himself with a combination of alcohol and my mother’s sleeping pills in 1981. He was 23 years old. I doubt he killed himself deliberately. He was an alcoholic and an addict.

He was in every way a troubled and disturbed boy and had been all of his life. I remember tossing him into a snowbank when he was in Grade Two because I couldn’t for the life of me force him through the door of the bus that would have taken him to school. I defended him in court when they tried to send him to reform school. He sexually assaulted a child and spent almost two years in jail. My mother and I promised him a visit every two weeks and we kept our promise throughout his time in prison.

I loved him. I loved him from the moment he was born to the the moment he killed himself. I love him as I type these words, more than three decades after his death.

During the short span of his life, I had devoted large chunks of my own life to trying to help him. To cure him. To save him. To usher him into the normal and happy world that I knew he belonged in, even though I was hardly an expert in understanding the parameters of that world. Looking back I am stunned at how few helpful resources were actually available, or that I was aware of. There were societal officials keen on locking my brother up, but far too little or next to nothing was available or offered as a form of treatment. Truth be told, then – and no doubt still today – we are actually not very knowledgeable when it comes to treating many forms of illness and inner disturbances, whether these are just crippling or inevitably fatal.

For me, there was another totally devastating consequence to my brother’s death, which I only now have remembered.

When he died on the kitchen floor of my mother’s home, I gave up on “love”. For me, his death had been, as I said then, proof that love doesn’t work. If love worked, if my love worked, well, he would have gotten better, he would have lived, right? Don’t we all believe that love is the most powerful thing in the world, the human world?

It was a turn around moment in my life. I had always had faith in the omnipotence of love. For years, I had had a fantasy of a young woman falling out of the sky. I would catch her and save her life and we would get married and live happily ever after. Nice, huh? That’s how love works, right, when you are open to it, when you accept it.

But it was not to happen.

I became an alcoholic. Some of the worst years of my life – my bottom – were in the late eighties, although I didn’t quit drinking until decades later. I never loved. I didn’t know how to, anymore. Ask anyone who knew and loved me but did not understand the black world in which I lived.

I was isolated. Disconnected.

I don’t remember my brother’s funeral. There must have been one and I must have been present. I never cried. I never cried when my brother died. Never. Ever. Cried.

It all began with the thought: “Why don’t you let go of the pain?”

* * *

As the sobbing let go of me, I could hear the shaman chanting.

I emerged into a different world.

Earlier that evening the shaman had given me a glass of ayahuasca which I downed in one gulp.

I had been told that Mother Ayahuasca would not necessarily give me what I wanted but that she would give me what I needed.

Look, Paul, look!

Yet I also suspect that my brother’s death is not the only pain buried within nor is it necessarily the most severe pain I have hidden from and within myself.

It was the worst night of my life and for that very reason it may well have been one of my most important nights.

A chance to hit a reset button.

The next morning I sat outside the retreat staring at the sky, at the mist rising from the pond, at drops of water falling from the leaves of trees and listening to the water cascading into the pond. I begin to weep again, but this time out of gratitude.

Thanks to ayahuasca I at least have the possibility of a personality change, of growth and transformation. A journey has begun.

My new plant friend.


As Gabor Maté says: “The salient question in addiction is always not ‘Why the addiction?’ but ‘Why the pain?’” In the video The Jungle Prescription, aired on The Nature of Things on CBC in Canada, Dr. Maté explores the use of ayahuasca in the treatment of alcoholism and addiction.


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Ayahuasca and Addiction — 17 Comments

  1. Alan Watts on psychedelics…..

    “Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen…”

    • That doesn’t mean that he didn’t respect the use of psychedelics, of course. Alan Watts: “All in all, I have felt that my experiments with this astonishing chemical have been most worth while, creative, stimulating, and, above all, an intimation that “there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy’.”

      • I’ve done more psychedelics than Alan ever did, trust. Admittedly not Ayahuasca, but DMT several times yes, and elephant doses of all the rest.

        There’s no answers there. They just point to a different way of thinking/experiencing life which is accessible without the use of said chemicals. I abused those chemicals in the same way that I did every other substance, and for me once I’m sober there’s no reason to take psychedelics. For me that’s a relapse. Getting truly honest with oneself and engaging in a meditation practice can elicit the same realization/results as a drug experience without having to ingest a mind altering substance, reset my sobriety date, and risk a bender that ends up the same way I always end up when I ingest a mind altering substance.

        My program isn’t anyone else’s program, but taking psychedelics in sobriety is nonsense in my corner of the universe.

        Research of course is another matter entirely.

        One love.

  2. An acquaintance of mine once observed, “There’s no such thing as a bad trip. There’s just people who can’t handle their acid.”

    This witness is true. Hallucinogens don’t bring new concepts to your mind; they work with what’s already there. What’s troubling to some is that they expose and strip away all the rationalizations we have built up to excuse ourselves, and we are confronted by our naked essence. That’s hard on some folks.

  3. Again, much food for thought. Of course when Bill W experimented with LSD it was not a banned substance. LSD was used to treat alcoholics at some mental hospitals in Britain until it was proscribed and there have been recent moves to reintroduce it as a treatment. Professor David Nutt, former UK government drugs adviser, wrote, ‘Curing alcohol dependency requires huge changes in the way you see yourself. That’s what LSD does. Show me another treatment with results as good. This is probably as good as anything we’ve got for addressing alcoholism.’ There are similar calls to legalise cannabis for pain management. Before synthetic anaesthetics, alcohol (often brandy) was used to deaden the pain of e.g. amputation. Laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opium, was sold over the counter for a range of ailments, physical and mental. John Greenleaf Whittier, the 19th century American poet, was a temperance campaigner and supported the Washingtonians, one of AA’s precursors. He wrote the words to ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind,’ voted second favourite hymn in a BBC poll. The hymn is the last six verses of Whittier’s poem ‘The brewing of Soma’, a hallucinogenic beverage worshipped as a god in the ancient Indus civilisation; the Rig Veda scripture says, ‘We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light the gods discovered.’ Whittier’s poem includes these verses:

    And brewed them well or brewed them ill,
    The priests thrust in their rods,
    First tasted, and then drank their fill,
    And shouted with one voice and will,
    ‘Behold the drink of gods’.

    They drank, and lo! in heart and brain
    A new glad life began;
    The grey of hair grew young again,
    The sick man laughed away his pain,
    The cripple leaped and ran.

    Whittier also wrote a poem about cannabis, The Haschisch. And William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience refers to the ‘anaesthetic and stimulant effects’ of alcohol. It seems odd, if it is the first drink that does the damage, that Bill gave Dr Bob a bottle of beer to calm his nerves before embarking on a surgical operation, and that early AA’s kept beer in the house to help newcomers taper off. You’d have thought it would kick start the craving. I stopped drinking cold turkey, without sedatives or detoxification, but I can see that their use could be helpful, and we know that stopping abruptly as suggested in the Big Book (‘Step over to the nearest barroom …’) can be dangerous. Treatments like LSD might help someone stop but I doubt that long term sobriety is helped by the constant use of stimulants or anaesthetics.

  4. The “death” and recovery of love, so eloquently and emotionally shared here, is so touching and conveys to me a profound rearrangement of attitude and character both in a presumably negative, but later on, positive outcome.

    It reinforces for me the axioms, “we will not regret the past”
    and
    “The joy tomorrow
    Is already inside
    The grief today” – Omid Safi

    And with regard to the use of ANY method of getting or staying sober or healthy:
    “For methods of staying sober let fools contest — whatever works best for you is best.” (I believe I stole this quote from someone on this website.)

  5. Great Post.

    I’d like to report that 10 months after the first WAAFTy, where I got to meet Roger and Joe C. my life is great! As an atheistic, agnostic, freethinking recovered alcoholic who had recently taken the vow of the three jewels in Theravada Buddhism, AA dogma and meetings no longer worked at all for my serenity.

    Intent on starting an agnostic meeting here at home, I changed my mind about that, after WAAFTy, too.

    Today, I meditate 20 minutes a day, attend my awesome sponsor’s “Makakilo Mad Men’s” last Friday of the month dinner meeting in his home and read AA Agnostica.

    Thanks for what you do, Roger!

    • Congratulations on all your decisions and on your taking Refuge. I too have been in the program for many years and I am a monastic in the Tibetan lineage. I am just hearing of AA Agnostica for the first time and I am happy and will check out the one meeting here in Montreal.

  6. Certainly this article is very interesting. It presents a positive glimmer of hope from some of the participants. My reaction is that it evokes a need for skepticism for now. We AAs are not medical professionals. We are amateurs and our AA recovery program reflects this fact. An AA principle violated many times over the years advises us not to race into self-medication nor to diagnose and prescribe for others. Perhaps ayahuasca will eventually be proven by the medical community to be the panacea or at least an effective tool for treating alcoholism. But, it may only be “an easier, softer way” – a mirage floating in the distance like so many other “cures”, tempting but unreliable or ineffective.

    For a garden variety drunk like yours truly, the AA program with some tweaking to fit my atheism worked just fine. Risky shortcuts were not necessary and rushing the recovery process did not seem necessary nor desirable to me. So I will watch what happens with this latest elixir, remain skeptical, and wish the best for those with a more crippling variety of our common malady. But let’s not project unnecessarily about the latest possibility.

  7. Personally, being pill-adverse (mood and chemistry altering medicine) I’ve explored more of the psychotherapy avenues to the type of emotional blocks/breakthroughs described here by Paul. That said, having had similar emotional breakthroughs through similar old traumas, I feel akin to Paul and I rejoice in his recovery.

    At our meeting last night one member, who has had spotty attendance through the last 18 months or so, was talking about her favorable experience with moderation management. Also not for me, I am still happy to see her feeling well and she certainly looked and sounded better than I have seen her in the past. Will it have long-term success for her or will it not? While I am curious, hers isn’t my sobriety to manage. I run my sobriety by my own self-defined bottom lines and I try to stay open-minded to others courageously trudging slightly different paths. I just hope she feels welcomed and heard at our meeting regardless of what her journey might entail.

    I’m clear about my path and happy with my recovery. However I wouldn’t wish my path on anyone else. Sobriety has had it’s dark moments for me; but none that I regret today.

    I enjoyed today’s post and discourse, as usual.

    • When a coyote pretends to be a dog, it usually doesn’t end well for the dog it has befriended. Moderation management is fine for NON ALCOHOLICS. These people have been around for years and should not be welcomed at meetings whose only requirement for attendance is a desire to stop drinking. Sorry but her little journey could kill an innocent bystander. I hope people at your meeting can straighten her out.

  8. This field seems ripe for research and the article is an interesting one. I assume that the herb is lawful and one need not rely on an unregulated “street” source where there is always a risk of its being adulterated by harmful and possibly addictive substances. In addition, I note that a component of this drug contains an MAO (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) in which case it could cause severe reactions if taken with various other foods or medications. Any alcoholic should know the risk of “self medicating” apart from professional supervision, for is not alcoholic excess precisely that?

  9. Paul, thanks for this. I saw a youtube with Mate at the ayahuasca place a while back, and it was of course real interesting, and probably now the place has a mile long queue of hopefuls outside its doors, and a 5 year waiting list.

    First thing I saw by Gabor Mate was Brain Development and Addiction and it was the most informative new thing to come my way. At that event the door charge probably wasn’t 60 bucks. But then again, if he has to come all the way to Toronto it can’t be done for nothing, I guess.

    Such are things in a capitalist world, and Paul, it is indeed lack of resources and capacity for help and treatment that is our biggest problem.

    There is an interesting article in the Guardian of how a Massachusetts police department is approaching things very differently – maybe there is hope we will get away from the punishment and judgment model: Massachusetts Police Chief War on Drug Addiction.

    And follow-up is of course crucial, William White has a lot to say about that.

    And with respect to pharmacological or psychedelic compounds to be used in treatment, we go around in a self-congratulatory manner chanting “…medicine may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet” – written in 1939, and we’re chanting it as if it was written yesterday, and as if medicine will never accomplish it, and AA of 1939 is the last word on everything.

    One other sign that maybe it isn’t, maybe medicine is on its way to accomplishing it, is the Sinclair Method, which has had quite a bit of support and success in Finland with a drug called Naltrexone which significantly reduces the craving for, even interest in alcohol, and the inclination to keep drinking, and so is a much better option than antabuse where the craving is as bad as ever, it’s just that you get very sick if you drink on antabuse. Seems like abuse of the alcoholic, all right.

  10. Interesting article. I think the use of psychedelics in addiction deserves real research, and am glad that some is beginning to occur in various places. So far, all I’ve seen about ayahuasca is testimonials like this article. Very moving, and I’m glad ayahuasca brought him relief, but n still = 1. If anyone has a lead to related research, I’d appreciate learning of it.

    We’ve come a long way since 1939, when drunks had almost no help from the medical and scientific worlds, aside from the love and commitment of people like Dr. Silkworth. There’s no reason psychedelics shouldn’t be another break in the clouds, but I’d like more precise information about psychedelics’ dosage and side effects, and I haven’t seen that yet in stories from the jungle.

    When I finally got sober, the only medicinal help I ever heard of was injected vitamin B12 and the emetic whose name I forget. Fortunately, I didn’t need either.

    I also think the world of addiction recovery needs to look at and start utilizing what’s called energy psychology (“tapping”, EFT, TFT) a nonmedical approach based on Eastern medicine which I’ve found very useful for both physical and emotional stressors.

  11. BRAVO !~!~! BRAVO !~!~! BRAVO !~!~!

    This is an especially important article, Roger, for those of us who have spurned the rituals and dogmas of orthodox or traditional religions, including the “Back to Basics” religion AA is increasingly becoming throughout North America.

    It reveals the possibility of the majesty and mystery that being fully alive within the Kosmos can be, even for us who are dominated by rational, empirical thought.

    I am convinced that Bill’s use of LSD in the late 50s and early 60s is another indication of how open and inclusive he envisioned and hoped AA would always be – alas, his hopes and visions were squelched, perhaps even sequestered by more orthodox and traditional – no doubt, ruled by fear – minds within AA, and today the “Back to Basics” crowd are striving to concretize AA into as narrow and closed-minded an orthodoxy as the most fundamentalist of the world’s religions.

    I am hopeful that we who are agnostic and atheist can continue to emulate Bill’s open-mindedness, avoiding secular orthodoxy on the one hand and being open to the infinite wonder and mystery of the Kosmos on the other.

    Congratulations and thank you for this perceptive story of our “experience, strength and hope.”