In August of 2018, I went to Peru to join a retreat that would include 4 ceremonies of ayahuasca, and other medicinal rituals. Ayahuasca is a South American psychedelic used as a spiritual medicine. I had found my host center in an ayahuasca group after posting about how desperate I was . I had thought many times of ending my life and had tried in deep fight or flight states I could not manage. I remember sitting at my computer pleading with anyone who would listen about strange symptoms, increased emotional instability and cognitive decline. In my attempt to heal, I had seen dozens of doctors who had no answer for me and tried many different protocols that left me hopeless. A woman private messaged me that could help me. I signed up that night.
Ayahuasca was the only hope I had. I had been declining for years and had no explanation for much of it, just managing symptoms and trying to “survive another day. ” I had symptoms for as long as I could remember, but in 2010, graves disease explained some of them. After undergoing radioactive iodine to slow down my thyroid or “possibly have a heart attack” (as told to me by a doctor), they exploded. I went from running 8-14 miles a day to not being able to move at times, and sobbing in emotional agony. I had some thyroid function left but somehow it was never able to stabilize even after years of trying different doses of thyroid supplementation. I had full body pain, memory loss, extreme depression, lack of motivation, sleep disturbances, rashes, rapid heart beat, tachycardia, extreme depression, shortness of breath, dizziness, vertigo, burning in my body, nightmares, flashbacks, incontinence, light and sound sensitivity, adrenaline rushes throughout the night and upon waking, uncontrollable terror, anger, intrusive thoughts,suicidal ideation, inability to focus, extreme weakness, insomnia, paranoia, derealization and more. My symptoms were devastating and destructive, but inconsistent. By 2018, I reached my breaking point and decided on ayahuasca.
I had been on 2 milligrams of klonopin for years and worried about how this would interact. I decided to begin tapering even though I was told there was no contraindication.
I had been tapering for about a year when I traveled to Colombia before finally heading to Peru. I often traveled to “escape” and somehow, often felt a bit better. However, this time my symptoms began to get worse due to benzodiazepine withdrawal. I had tapered from 2 milligrams to .75 , but could not cut anymore without a dramatic worsening of my mental and physical state. In Colombia, I was robbed at gunpoint. The stresses I had been experiencing led to more and more symptoms,and when I finally got to the amazon in a final act of desperation for ayahuasca to “work”, cut another .50 of my klonopin. Instead, my withdrawal symptoms became worse. I lost control of my muscles, began to have worsening thoughts and cried in terror in horrid nightmares.
The waves of withdrawal were incredibly difficult. It would begin with my heart racing, after which I would enter a state for derealization. I cried, I screamed, I gasped for air, I sweat, I peed. My body was filled with burning. I decided to do the ceremony scheduled for that night. I sat down with my legs crossed. I felt a tight sensation around my brain and uterus, and was hit with a deep terror and sense of impending doom. In my fear, I began to cry. I “saw” a girl sitting as I was under a tree with white flowers falling all over her. My fear grew. I vomited, felt my heart racing, burning throughout my body, throat swelling, eyes swelling, sweat and had to pee constantly. I shook, I sobbed, I screamed out to others to “help” me. I lost my breath. I remember watching my breath hovering above me as I gasped and could not seem to “catch it” with my hands. I would actually “see” it lingering in the air above me, and I put out my hands to grab it, in desperation to breathe again.
Throughout the night, my retreat leader would sit beside me and I would grab him, petrified that I was dying. I sobbed , “Something is very wrong. I am dying. Something very physical is happening. Get me out of here. I can’t stay in here. ” I heard him speaking to me as if through a tunnel underwater. “I want you to breathe Maria. Count with me. Breathe slowly. Big breaths in and out. ” I had horrible visualizations of a shadowy looking creature circling the room, watching me in his attempts to” kill” me. I looked at the other participants who had distorted evil looks on their faces and in my state saw them staring and pointing at me, to “mock” my suffering. I remember searching for something “real” to anchor my gaze to, in order to “hang onto life.” So, I looked at the moon outside, and the trees. As long as I could see them, I knew I was still alive. Sometimes, this would calm me, and I lay there afraid of closing my eyes. A few times I scratched at the screens, wanting to run out of the room. Someone would come to calm me, and again I would beg to “make this stop. ” I watched my hair fall out, and was drenched in sweat.
My terror hit a peak, and the woman leader came over to me. She sat besides me as I cried for my mother placing her hands on my heart to soothe me. I cried out, “what took you so long?”, and began to calm down. When the ceremonies ended, my paranoia continued on as I was convinced everyone was trying to kill me, and I had no way out. I ran to my room, and accessed a feeling of gratitude I had lost years before. I was alive and rubbed objects in my room in gratitude to those who had built it. “I am here”, “thank you bed”, thank you light”, “thank you wall.”
I felt intense joy that I had survived and was still “here”. The next day and night was similar and each ceremony was as difficult. Each day I watched new symptoms emerge. I was no longer able to smoke. I had been a smoker and now cold smell the chemicals in my cigarette. I slept much of the day and had trouble keeping my balance. I spent hours crying , experiencing flashbacks and terror.
The day I returned home, I went to see my mother. I had been having this strange sensation of my mind being completely empty of thoughts. It was blank. Suddenly, the overwhelming influx of thoughts had disappeared. As she got up, I saw a brown haze around her and was felt a deep terror. I had a difficult relationship with my mother. In the following days, this terror grew, and I began to see others in my life as “monsters” and felt extremely uneasy around certain people. I had experienced derealization in the past but now it had exacerbated. The world looked fake around me. I reached out to some in an ayahuasca group I was in who told me that maybe this was still the medicine working in me. I explained how things “no longer seemed real” now that I had returned. Many congratulated me for breaking through the illusory society we lived in and advised me to give it time. Others suggested microdosing for increased healing, and so I did. When I microdosed I noticed the same physical reaction I had in Peru; burning in my body, gasping for air, throat swelling, having to urinate, stronger light and sounds sensitivities and increased terror.
In the next few months, I lost my ability to work, lived in hallucinations and chronic issue I had (mental and physical) exploded beyond control. I had suffered with cognitive decline for years and now it had been exacerbated. Anyone, I reached out to did not respond in a way I “needed”, and I felt abandoned again. I began losing any sense of connection to others and the world, withdrawing deeper and deeper into my own mind. I remember telling a neurologist I went to see, “I start to fly away in thoughts, and I am afraid I won’t return.” She referred me out to a psychiatrist.
I cried daily, became increasingly more paranoid, lived in derealization and panic. I did not sleep for days at a time and when I did, my sleep would be interrupted with heart racing, gasping for air and adrenaline rushes when I stood up. When I tried to interact with others my brain would just shut down and I would dissociate. I had extreme sound sensitivity, light sensitivity and felt each day I was progressively losing my grasp on reality.
Doctors had no idea what to do with me and I had been tested for tons of illnesses, all finally coming back positive by tests or symptoms- lyme, CIRS, MCS, EHS, MCAS, CFS, POTS, these were added to previous diagnosis I had already received. How could I have this many illnesses? I spent much of my time in and out of doctors appointments, sleeping, incapable of even washing myself, reading mail without “shutting down”, and speaking.
Eventually, I began “running” in avoidance of my triggers such as mold, chemicals and wifi, until I discovered brain retraining to calm my immune system over reactions. You can read more about that here and throughout this blog. I spent the next three years working on healing these sensitivities along with all the other diagnosis I had received.
Many diagnosed with chronic illness have a period of stress we call the “perfect storm” that seems to be the point of no return. Ayahuasca and the events of that year, (including losing a pet I had for 22 years) was my perfect storm. Ayahuasca was not my “cause” but the straw that broke the camel’s back, after which I could not function. It was a difficult process. My reactions to ayahuasca could be explained in different ways. I had a condition called mast cell activation syndrome and histamine was an issue. Aya does not allow for the breakdown of histamine, (as I understand it), so I was flooded.
Even so, I do not regret. I dealt with a lot of anger for a long time about how the retreat center handled my pleas for help. However, the lessons I learned about my own power and ability to heal what seemed like a hopeless situation was invaluable, and I am grateful.
(**I do feel there should be more support after retreats such as these, as well as continued research on psychedelics and their therapeutic use. I also warn anyone who is thinking of going to please be honest about any drugs you are taking or conditions you have and ask questions. )
You can read more about ayahuasca here.