The ancient Amazonian brew saved me from myself.
Written by – Julia Blum
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Over a year ago, I participated in my first plant medicine ceremonies, and it’s finally time to talk about it. This might be the hardest article I’ve written to date, but if it even just helps just one person it will be worth it.
We are undeniably in the middle of a psychedelic renaissance. Research is emerging rapidly. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD is in Phase 3 clinical trials, with the FDA granting Breakthrough Therapy status treatment will likely be rolled out by 2023.
MAPS is pioneering much of the work, top-notch universities like UCL, John Hopkins, and NYU are opening Psychedelic research centers. Psychedelic startups and investment funds are popping up across the US. In late January, the first psychedelic ETF hit the stock markets and blew up in value by 10x within its first weeks of trading. And last year, Oregon became the first state to legalize psychedelic mushrooms.
Despite all of this progress, most people’s awareness of the topic is still quite limited. The stigma around these compounds is substantial, and often they are completely misunderstood (if at all known about).
Like many other psychonauts, I got into the topic through Michael Pollan’s book “How To Change Your Mind”. I was at a place of hopelessness and desperation with my eating disorder and depression, and I was looking for answers outside the conventional playbook which seemed to not work for me. I had years of therapy behind me with different professionals but was only feeling worse by the year.
I followed my gut feeling which told me to not take medication. I was convinced there was a root cause for my misery, and I was doubtful some pills that simply manipulated my brain chemistry would fix it. They might treat the symptoms, but they wouldn’t fix the underlying issue.
Before I touched a single psychedelic, I spent an entire year educating myself on the topic. I read countless books, listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts, and watched every documentary out there. In my pursuit to better understand root cause approaches to common mental health issues, I also familiarized myself with the work of trauma experts like Dr. Gabor Mate and Bessel Van Der Kolk.
Had I not taken the leap and brought these compounds into my life, I would not be where I am today. Truth be told, I don’t know where I would be. They have improved my life in so many different ways. And today, I’m here to tell you about one of them: the story of how Ayahuasca saved me from myself.
Ayahuasca is an Ancient Psychedelic Brew Dubbed the “Vine of the Soul”
Ayahuasca is a brew made from the leaves of two different plants, which grow in the Amazon and are most commonly found in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. There’s a rich history of ceremonial use of these plants in these regions: Shamans have used Ayahuasca to treat a variety of mental and physical conditions for thousands of years.
Ayahuasca is a mystery. Think about the fact that among 80,000 plant species found in the Amazon, humans knew to combine exactly these two. (Consumed separately, they are not psychedelic.)
Among shamans and aficionados, Ayahuasca is widely referred to as “the medicine”. Nobody that knows it, or “sat with the medicine” (insider speak for drank Ayahuasca), calls it by its actual name.
And after my experience with it, I understand.
It is medicine.
More specifically, medicine for the soul.
The scientific answer to how Ayahuasca works is that the unique combination of these two plants supplies the naturally occurring psychedelic compound DMT to our brains, which substantially alters our perception. We know very little yet about how DMT exactly works. But in addition to causing hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and euphoria, it decreases activity in our Default Mode Network (DFM), which is the part of our brain that houses our “ego”. Hence the infamous “ego death” many people experience during psychedelic journeys.
The spiritual answer to how Ayahuasca works is that it scans your soul and brings up whatever needs healing most urgently. It’s a “concentrated drop of nature” that helps you uncover the wisdom you hold within that is required for your healing.
Many who journey with Ayahuasca experience a “feminine” or “mother-like” energy, which is where she gets the name “Mother Ayahuasca” from. Ceremonies are known for the “purge”, a common side effect that may come in all shapes and forms — throwing up just being one of them.
Mother Ayahuasca may teach you her lessons through vision, speech, knowing, or feeling. You always begin the ceremony with an intention, but in the end, Ayahuasca heals by priority. She will bring up whatever is most critical for you to face, whether that’s what you had in mind or not.
You’ll usually sit in not one but multiple ceremonies in a row (most commonly, 4 over the course of 7 days, or 5–6 over 8–10 days). Unlike other psychedelics, it can take time for the medicine “to get to know you” and do its work. This was certainly the case for me, but more on that later.
I Chose Rythmia, an All-Inclusive Luxury Resort in Costa Rica, for My First Ayahuasca Experience
I could write an entire article about the place I went to, “Rythmia Life Advancement Center” in Costa Rica. But let’s keep it short.
Basically, it’s the only place in the world that serves plant medicine as a legal medical facility. Legal because Ayahuasca is legal in Costa Rica and Rythmia has a license to serve it, and medical because they have a variety of medical staff on-site. Everyone has to undergo a medical intake exam, and if you’re on any medication that’s known not to go well with the medicine (e.g., SSRIs), you cannot participate.
As a result, Rythmia is incredibly overpriced compared to more traditional Peruvian retreat facilities. But I was willing to pay the premium. After all, I was going to go into the depths of my psyche —and that’s not something you want to mess with. I wanted to make sure I had all the support I needed and minimized the risks as much as possible.
Rythmia’s founder, Gerry Powell, has a pretty interesting story himself, which he chronicles in “Sh*t The Moon Said: A Story Of Sex, Drugs, And Ayahuasca”. Before opening Rhythmia, he was a self-made millionaire who was cheating on his wife and was addicted to sex, cocaine, and alcohol. Even his therapist, a well-respected addiction expert running a top-notch Malibu retreat facility, had given up on him. Fast forward, one Ibogaine trip (Ayahuasca’s neighbor plant originating in Africa) was all it took to turn Gerry into a sober, loving, and healed human.
Despite spending thousands of dollars, I would choose Rythmia for my first experience again in a heartbeat. You can probably find underground Ayahuasca ceremonies for a few hundred bucks around most major cities, but what you likely won’t find is what makes Rythmia so unique:
- A luxury resort-like ambiance with comfortable rooms, a pool and spa, daily yoga classes, and virtually everything taken care of
- A range of mandatory preparation and, equally important, integration sessions with your group, led by experienced guides
- A large community of people to share your experience with (many argue it’s better to hold ceremonies in very small groups, but I actually very much enjoyed the fact that we were a bigger group: more stories to hear, more people to connect with)
- A different shaman for every ceremony, which was a great way of getting to know the different traditions
- An incredible amount of supervision (the helper ratio during ceremonies was probably around 5:1)
Drinking Ayahuasca Was the Most Challenging But Most Rewarding Experience of My Life
Okay, I’m going to try really hard to keep this short. I could probably write a book about my ceremonies.
My intention for the ceremonies was primarily to make peace with myself. To resolve the underlying self-loathing that perpetuated the fabric of my being for the past 20+ years. To find the cause of the void inside of me, and to learn how to close it. To find healing from my eating disorder and depression.
At Rythmia, you’re instructed to follow a very specific set of intentions throughout your ceremonies:
- Show me who I have become (what is it about me that I’m not willing to see/hear/feel/know?).
- Merge my soul.
- Heal my heart.
I know what you’re thinking, could this be any more cheezy.
That’s at least what I thought.
But I’m glad I went with it because Ayahuasca did heal my heart.
At Rythmia, they teach a universal narrative about mental health, which is also shared by many of the aforementioned addiction experts: We come into this world whole and happy until something in our childhood traumatizes us and causes us to adopt a limiting belief about ourselves. This “splits” our soul, into the part that needs protecting and the part that does the protecting. We find healing by merging these parts of ourselves.
The trauma does not always have to be abuse or neglect in its classical sense. If you’re a sensitive child, much smaller things can be traumatizing to you.
So at Rythmia, you have four ceremonies in a row to explore the intentions above. We drank a different brew every night, including Santo Daime from Brazil and Yage from Colombia.
Ceremony #1: I don’t feel anything.
I was extremely nervous before my first ceremony.
Who knew what was going to happen?
I had heard so many stories, and quite a few of them were pretty terrifying. So I prepared myself for the worst — demons, scary animals crawling up my skin, being a witness to my own death, you name it.
The more surprised I was to not feel anything during my first night.
People around me were purging their hearts out, puking, crying, or laughing (clearly working through their shit) and I was just lying there, waiting to feel something. Anything.
During our integration session the next day, I was assured that a) this is quite normal for people who’ve never worked with the medicine before (“she needs time to get to know you first”) and b) was comforted by the fact that several others in the group had also not felt anything yet.
Ceremony #2: I don’t feel anything, again.
My second night was very, very similar to the first one: no reaction.
I was perplexed.
Zero reaction, really?
Everyone starts the ceremony with one cup, and around two hours later, the shaman will offer a second serving. We were instructed to, if possible, always go for the second cup. “As long as you’re still able to walk, hell, even if you have to crawl —you always go for that second cup”, we were told.
I had three servings on both nights.
What on earth was going on?
People will see the weirdest things and have the most extreme physical reactions to Ayahuasca. They travel through space for god’s sake. But I was not feeling a damn thing?
My biggest fear started to haunt me: That I would return home as the same person who had embarked on this trip.
It was hard to hear about all the incredible healing journeys people around me had gone through in prior nights, while I was just over here not even feeling anything.
I went to bed after the ceremony with a stomach ache that kept me awake for a few more hours, but I didn’t think much about it.
Because I had bigger problems: What if Ayahuasca will not work on me? What if I, in fact, was too broken to fix?
Ceremony #3: I still don’t feel anything… until I feel everything.
The third ceremony began in exactly the same way the first two started and ended, with me not feeling anything (or so, I thought).
My stomach ache came back.
I went for my second cup but felt completely normal.
My pain got worse, and so did my mental state. I became so frustrated.
Why not me?Why did everyone around me receive healing but me? Why me?
My stomach started to feel really painful.
And then, I started crying.
Initially, because I was so frustrated and sad that the medicine wasn’t working.
And then, within a few minutes, I immediately knew what I was actually crying about.
As the tears poured out of me like never before, I was suddenly no longer 27, I was somewhere between 5–10 years old. And I was curled up in a fetus position on my childhood bed after being violently punched in the stomach by my parent. I felt hurt, and really, really scared.
For the next two hours, I would feel the emotional and physical pain that I didn’t let myself feel back then. And I felt not only the pain of that night but also the pain of all those years that followed. Those years during which I told myself I was emotionally numb.
They say Ayahuasca always gives you exactly what you need. I had prepared to see demons and rainbows, and I got a purely emotional experience. After not feeling my emotions for so many years.
As I continued crying uncontrollably, a lovely helper brought me outside and tried to calm me down. After 30 minutes of no success, she called the shaman who came and sat down next to me.
“The pain in your stomach, that’s the medicine performing surgery on you”, she whispered softly into my ears, her grey long hair touching my neck.
Over the next hour, she continued to comfort me and talked me through how to let go of the pain, now that I had identified it. “You can ask the medicine for help”, she said before she left me.
And I eventually did.
At some point, I heard myself say out loud: “Please, please help me to forgive. Show me how I could possibly forgive.”
What followed is the most mystical minute of my life, and arguably the most psychedelic part of this entire experience. As soon as I asked for help, it was almost as I was turned around by the wind, from fetus position to lying on my back. I stared at the sky filled with stars and remember thinking that I’d never seen anything more beautiful. Still teary, I took a long, deep inhale. And as I inhaled, I breathed in what I can only describe as love, flowing directly from the stars above me into me, filling up my empty heart until it burst with love.
I went to bed jotting down a single sentence on my phone: “Love is the fabric of the universe.”
Since this moment, my life has not been the same.
Ceremony #4: Much less intense, but insightful.
I had gotten the healing I came for the previous night, so I went into the final ceremony with much more ease and trust. I asked the medicine to show me what my unique gift was, and how to make use of it and be of service to others.
In that last ceremony, Ayahuasca showed me that I was an empath in an incredibly intimate and touching way. But that’s a story for another time.
How My Life Has Changed Since My Ayahuasca Experience
97% of the people who attend Rythmia report “receiving a miracle”. They measure this by asking you whether you received your miracle the day you leave, and then again six months later. That’s what you come for, that’s what they promise you. That’s what I shelled out all this money for.
And that’s what I ultimately received.
I finally understood the source of my suffering. I realized that I was not broken. I simply adopted the belief that something about me must be wrong, as a result of misinterpreting how I was treated as a young kid. I began to see how this one belief that was planted at such a young age was the culprit of many of my problems, namely:
- Focusing on external accomplishment to gain validation — getting into the best schools, getting the most prestigious job, and so on
- Feeling the need to be thin to be loved, which evolved from “harmless” dieting into a full-blown, uncontrollable eating disorder thanks to my perfectionism
- Constantly seeking escape from the reality of my being “not enough” and trying to fill the void inside of me with food, alcohol, drugs, material items
I came back from Costa Rica with a glow that I thought might never leave me.
As much as I hoped it would, this experience did not immediately cure my eating disorder. But, in addition to the profound peace of gaining a deep understanding of myself, it triggered the following changes:
- I started treating myself with much more love: no more extreme diets or excessive exercise. My relationship with food and my body is still a work in progress, but it’s so, so much better. Before Ayahuasca, I felt like I so desperately tried to learn to love myself. Intellectually, I knew I was worthy. I just didn’t feel it. Since Ayahuasca, I know it and Ifeel it.
- I quit smoking: I’d been a smoker for over a decade and had tried quitting cigarettes a bunch of times previously. What was an impossible feat before Ayahuasca became a natural next step after drinking plant medicine. And compared to my previous attempts, it was nearly effortless.
- I stopped drinking alcohol: This was not at all intentional. But after drinking Ayahuasca, alcohol lost its lure for me. You’re advised to not drink two weeks before and after the ceremonies, and after one month of abstinence, I equally felt like I no longer needed it and also enjoyed it much less. Again, I will save this story for another time.
- I forgave my mother: Contrary to what you may think after reading this, I have the most loving and incredible mom. She simply did not know how to handle her frustration around not being able to reach me. Everything we do is either love or a call for love. Perhaps her parents were physically rough on her too. And I just happened to be an extra sensitive flower who took it much harder than most people would have. I forgave her, and for the first time in 15 years, our relationship is beautifully simple.
- I feel extremely connected to everything around me: I can’t explain it, but I really do believe that love is the fabric of the universe. This simple spiritual belief has become a guiding force in my life. Not only in how I treat myself, but how I treat everything around me. What I value. How I see nature.
Will I drink Ayahuasca again?
It was undoubtedly the most challenging but rewarding experience of my life.
And part of me still can’t believe that this really happened, that something like this exists.
After leaving Rythmia, I thought this might be it.
That I would be whole and healed.
But healing is not a moment in time, healing is not linear. As I continue to uncover and unpack the deeper I go, I’m starting to hear the call again.
The call to return.
To nature, to myself, to love.
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