Hallucinogenic plant, Ayahuasca, is in the mainstream news again today with the tragic death of British teenager, Henry Miller, after he drank it in Peru. It can have profound effects on people’s minds and lives and is even being considered for treating addiction and psychosis. Yet reconciling this mysterious Amazonian shamanic aid with our modern Western lives is not as simple as it may seem.
I’d never heard of the ‘mother plant’ until a friend took it nearly two years ago. The extraordinary events that followed compelled me to start researching this mysterious vine and its powerful effects. The tale begins with ‘Sarah’, drinking ayahuasca on a Spanish island. The formerly caring young woman subsequently behaved so callously and out of character it was bewildering: deserting her partner and fiancé of ten years, taking all her possessions and sentimental items of his, making unfounded accusations of abuse against him, cutting off close friends and just disappearing.
When her fiancé called to tell me what had happened, we immediately blamed this mysterious ayahuasca. When I typed ‘ayahuasca’ into a search engine nearly four million results sprang up. As if the situation were not bizarre enough already, all I could find were positive testimonials from people who had taken it and whole websites devoted to promoting it. Nothing matched what had happened to Sarah, so I started looking deeper.
Traditionally, ayahuasca is mixed and administered by South American shamans to heal indigenous people, physically and spiritually. Ayahuasca is unique amongst plant hallucinogens in that it requires the interaction of the chemicals of one of a number of other plants to obtain its psychotropic qualities. The name of the resulting chemical that alters the imbiber’s mental state will be familiar: dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
There is archeological evidence that ayahuasca use was well-established by 1500 BC; today, Westerners travel to Amazonia in so-called ayahuasca tourism to take part in ceremonies in the hope of gaining from its potential benefits, others just go to trip out. There are also domestic shamans and retreats in countries around the world, offering to bridge the gap between ancient traditions and modern life, and people have even started taking it recreationally. Ayahuasca use is spreading.
Despite the lack of records documenting the effects of ayahuasca on Amazonian tribes, the fact it has endured indicates it must have benefits. Further ayahuasca websites were also full of praise for it, but I could not find reports relating to long-term, negative effects or adverse character changes post-ceremony that I was looking for.
Then, I discovered a paper on an ayahuasca website by Dr. Stephen Trichter. Ayahuasca: Beyond the Amazon – Risks and Challenges of a Spreading Tradition, describes the psychological and spiritual risks that are particular to Western participants. The paper considers how ayahuasca use amongst Westerners can open up past traumas that people may not have the emotional capabilities to work through, thus causing distress to themselves, and their loved ones. The next step on the path to making sense of the loss of Sarah was to speak to a psychologist.
Dr. Fergus Kane is a London-based psychologist, specializing in psychosis. When we made contact, he was returning from a six–month tour of South America, during which he sampled ayahuasca three times. Having studied psychosis and written a thesis on the active ingredients in cannabis and how they work, Kane is interested in how things operate in a pharmacological and psychological manner. His work with psychotic patients fostered an interest in drugs that can cause psychotic effects, so when people he was sharing a hostel with in Columbia invited him to drink ayahuasca with them, he agreed out of professional curiosity.
“When I did ayahuasca, it was because I met a group of people who had done it with the same shaman, so it felt safe,” recalls Dr. Kane. “ With any mind-altering drug or medication, if you don’t feel safe it’s going to affect your experience. I had never taken an hallucinogenic drug before and professionally I wanted to understand psychosis more.”
It’s hard to recount such personal, visual experiences, but Dr. Kane described his ayahuasca journeys as fascinating: serpents, stones breathing, writings in the sky and the sense of seeing the Universe in panorama then collapsing in on itself.
“Ayahuasca makes you reflect on your previous experiences, it loosens your normal way of thinking,” explains Kane. “Beyond the visions, it makes people think in a very different way. I don’t have evidence for this, but from the many people I talk to about it, it allows them to think about things that are often too difficult to consider: their relationship with their parents, a traumatic event in the past, things that they normally push our of their conscious mind.”
Dr. Kane echoed the concerns of Dr. Trichter, about participants being ready to confront buried issues. “As a psychologist, you don’t press somebody to confront something they don’t want to. We might take them to places that are hard, but first we talk to them about it and explain why we we’re doing it. With ayahuasca, especially if you don’t know why you’ve gone to take it in the first place, it could be dangerous, just like in therapy it could be dangerous if you have a therapist pushing in a direction that is not appropriate.”
There is no extensive research into the rates of extreme negative reaction to ayahuasca, so we simply don’t know what percentage of people have positive experiences compared to those who suffer negative outcomes. Likewise, we don’t have hard data for the number of people who have extreme reactions to LSD, for example. Kane explains that we are beginning to research cannabis better but there are decades of missed opportunity due to prohibition.
How is it that a group of people can drink the same ayahuasca brew yet only some may suffer negative after-effects? Dr. Kane offers a simple insight of comparison. “That can apply to any drug: if you take twenty people and they smoke a joint, you’re going to get twenty different reactions; if you give twenty people an anti-depressant, they will go in different directions. Thus, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if every psychoactive drug were like that.”
Hallucinogens like magic mushrooms, LSD and ayahuasca work on the serotonin system. They all give people a connection with nature, so there is overlap between drugs and their effects. Likewise, people not coming back and flashbacks are also reported on other hallucinogens. We humans are all individual, with unique psychological make-ups, so what works well for one person, may not be good for another.
Kane: “An obvious thing would be to compare it to an anti-psychotic. When someone is psychotic they will be administered with an anti-psychotic that theoretically brings them back to something like normal. But, it may also give them serious physical health problems, remove their creativity and lust for life or quickly make them very fat. There are serious side effects to what we treat people with.”
Dr. Kane sees the ceremony as a crucial element of ayahuasca use. “It has evolved over a long time and is part of the set and setting that keeps you safe. There’s somebody present who will tell you that it is going to end and you are going to be okay if you are having a bad experience. It is more complicated than taking a drug; it’s a cultural thing that has developed over many years with a purpose.”
I could feel my attitude towards ayahuasca altering. “Remember,” says Kane, “the bad stories you hear, you don’t know how it was taken or in what situation, you don’t know what the other people were like who took it. You don’t even know it was ayahuasca, or in what form. You simply don’t know.”
But there is clearly an element of risk involved in taking ayahuasca, I venture.
Kane puts it very succinctly. “Humans don’t assess risks very well. We have an idea of how risky something is but it doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to how risky it actually is. Everything we do is associated with risk, and that includes simply living in your house or crossing the road. Sometimes, like with cycling, there are significant risks, but also significant benefits. It is important to maintain perspective when looking at these things.”
Kane refers to former government advisor, David Nutt, who said that horse riding is more dangerous than taking ecstasy, one of the reasons he had to leave his post. “It’s true, but it’s not something people like to compare,” Kane expands. “With ayahuasca, it’s not just recreational, it’s a therapeutic medication with a cultural history. What’s the balance between people who do or don’t develop psychological difficulties after taking it, and would they have become mentally unwell next year anyhow? Or did they take ayahuasca because they were going through a crisis anyway and they were trying to find an answer to something?”
I needed to speak with a shaman. Leo Rutherford of Eagle’s Wing has been a shamanic practitioner since 1987. He does not use ayahuasca in his healing, preferring to use methods such as drums and trance-dance for altered states, but has taken it in the UK and Peru on around thirty-to-forty occasions in various circumstances since 1990.
“Aya is a good way of opening the psyche but it is hard on the body and I would not wish to do it for a living. Also, to become an ayahuascero (ayahuasca shaman) requires a long and arduous apprenticeship, which is not on my path. I find methods such as journeying, soul retrieval, sweat lodge and medicine wheel more appropriate for the majority of my clients and students. That is not to say I would not be happy to recommend others who can offer the aya experience, though.”
In his time, he has not come across anyone who has suffered any bad, long-term consequences after drinking ayahuasca, although people can have good or bad nights on it. He also reiterated the importance of a shaman’s experience, knowledge and integrity, not necessarily their geographical roots.
But what surprised me is how his views chime entirely with what the psychological standpoint seems to be.
“Aya opens us to a wider reality, but it does not do wounded child healing. It can make that easier, but it won’t do it for you. Some go to aya as if it is a shortcut or an easy way, but tourist-style drinking leads nowhere useful. It’s about spacing in, not out. The point is to open the consciousness: the plant is the tool, and there are some indigenous British plants that work just as well.”
In a similar vein, Dr. Kane is considering writing a paper on the possibility of combining short-term ayahuasca experiences with therapy, much as Ibogaine can already be used to treat heroin addiction: “I’m in interested in how we can give people drugs acutely, in one day, and do therapy at the same time. Ayahuasca is like that: you take the drug and in the morning you talk to the shaman and others about your experience. Of course, the shaman is there week after week to return to should there be problems. Shamans have psychological insight, although trained differently from Western doctors, but taking it one time somewhere without someone with psychological insight is potentially dangerous.”
Whilst the consensus amongst ayahuasca advocates seems to be, make sure that you take it with an experienced shaman, it is increasingly available to be bought and taken outside of such a setting. Type ‘buy ayahuasca UK’ into a search engine and prices start from around five pounds for the vine and necessary admixtures, plus there is advice about how to mix the brew correctly to maximize the effect, along with the standard legal disclaimer that the vines are sold purely for botanical research.
The increasing lucrativeness of ayahuasca tourism in South America has also widened the door for charlatans to exploit and endanger people, both there and abroad. The recent death in Peru of Bristol teenager, Henry Miller, and concealment by a shaman in 2012 of the yet unexplained death of Californian teenager, Kyle Nolan, are tragic stories that illustrate how the West is being forced to take a closer look at ayahuasca use.
Ayahuasca may seem like a fast-track to enlightenment to some, but we understand so little about this intriguing plant and how it works on our modern minds and bodies. But, that is not to say that safe practices cannot be developed for those approaching it with different psychological make-ups and life experiences to those who have evolved with the vine, without regulating or destroying the fundamental mystique of this powerful plant.
The spiritual and medical elements I spoke to are in agreement as to what can to be done to provide a safer experience to Westerners: the importance of ensuring that participants fully understand what they are doing, seeking out a shaman with experience and integrity and taking it in a secure environment. Properly trained shamans from Western backgrounds, who can relate to the psychological make-ups of Western participants better may be more appropriate, safer guides for Western ayahuasca drinkers, or able to advise them not to drink it at all; detailed research by the scientific establishment into the effects of ayahuasca would also be beneficial to our understanding and the minimising of risk, too.
“We are unaware of how someone’s pre-morbid personality might affect their experience of taking one of these substances,” notes Dr. Kane, “or whether there are some people who are seriously at risk of having a negative reaction. We may never know; it may be too complicated. The effects also relate to how strong your sense of self is in the first place, what position you are at in life and how you relate to medications anyway.”
A possible reason why I could find no negative reports about ayahuasca on the Internet appeared in Dr. Trichter’s paper. It mentions how some shamans may project their feelings of anger, disappointment, guilt or shame onto certain participants if they do not react in the expected way. It would be reasonable to assume that a stigma could have become attached to not having a good experience, meaning people being reluctant to discuss such things in public due to a sense of inferiority or being judged.
I have had no personal contact with Sarah since she drank ayahuasca, but I have truly grieved for her; the wonderful person she was appears to be gone forever. Her former fiancé has met with her once since her ceremonies and she seemed lucid, albeit different and slightly delusional at times; she was apologetic for the way she behaved and falsely accusing him of abusing her, but adamant he should not blame the ‘tea’.
I hope she is happy, but I’m not confident this is the case from the reports I hear. Nonetheless, I no longer blame ayahuasca for the loss of my friend, or the pain she caused her family and friends. It was her choice to drink it, I just wish she’d done so in a more responsible, informed way. I recently learned that the person who conducted her ‘ceremonies’ was not a legitimate shaman and have begun to suspect from further information I have heard that the place she went to take it is actually run by a cult.
As for ayahuasca, it is a fascinating plant that can clearly have benefits to humans, psychologically, spiritually and potentially medically. Would I take it? No, I am comfortable with who I am and my place in the world so don’t feel the need to, but I never say never.