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.