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I have a history of depression and addiction issues.
These are issues that, although they never go away, they can get better. These days, I can say that depression has little hold on me, and I haven’t touched an alcoholic beverage for three and a half years.
In the past, I tried every possible way to help myself: therapy, medication, exercise, creativity, diet changes, and energy work. Some of those things helped, but many didn’t.
Ayahuasca, however, changed my whole life. It enveloped me into its cocoon, liquified me, and cracked me open again into a healthy, whole being that saw everything in a new light. It was the most laborious process I’ve ever been through, but it’s the only thing that’s ever worked for me.
There’s been a lot of discussions these days about the benefits of psychedelic substances such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, ketamine, and a few others. Most people who have gone the route of psychedelic medicine have exhausted other options and wanted to try something new. The desperation for healing makes many of us seek out these substances even though some are still considered illegal.
Those who’ve been helped by these substances struggle to find the right words to portray their incredulous experiences. How can you describe something that seems to happen on a level of consciousness that few of us ever experience? It’s like putting words to the feelings, images, and visions of an abstract dream that doesn’t exist in everyday reality.
Inevitably, people always ask me the same question about ayahuasca and until now, I haven’t been able to come up with a definitive answer.
How exactly did ayahuasca help me recover from depression and addiction? What actually happens that brings about the healing?
I could tell you about all the funky visions I saw, the amount of vomit that came up—the shaking, sweating, and crying. I believe all those things were cathartic and purgative. Forgotten memories and feelings surfaced, which helped me put the fragmented and lost pieces of my life together.
I could also tell you about how I saw, felt, and experienced “God” or the “universe” in a way that let me know that he, she, or it has always been by my side and will always be there forever. Knowing that I’m a part of everything and that this beautiful entity is there to help me has lifted my profound loneliness.
Although these things were a big part of my recovery, there was something much deeper that happened during the many years of sitting in ayahuasca ceremonies. This one thing is the reason I was able to recover and why I speak so openly now about it.
Ayahuasca taught me to sit with my pain.
Ayahuasca taught me not to run from pain but to face it head on and get intimate with it.
I’m sure that might sound a bit trivial, and I’m sure that many people can argue that you don’t need psychedelics to sit with pain. And maybe some people don’t, but most of us who’ve grown up in modern, Western society have been actively taught from birth that pain is to be avoided at all costs.
Most of us are professional and highly skilled pain-avoiders. It’s so deeply rooted in our being that we are oblivious to how often we avoid it. These things are actively taught and socialized into the fabric of our being.
We can’t ignore that our entire culture is built on distraction, work, and the quest for pleasure. We have an economy that thrives only because people buy items, services, and substances that help us avoid pain.
Obviously, avoiding pain has a function in terms of getting through highly stressful events. For example, to avert a car accident, we must refocus our thoughts and emotions solely on the task of driving the car. However, we seem to be avoiding pain even when all is well and no disasters require our undivided attention.
If we value pain-avoidance over pain-intimacy, then how can we possibly expect ourselves to understand how to work effectively with our pain? The answer is we do not—after all, you don’t know what you don’t know.
When we’re traumatized, we have a protective system that kicks in to help us switch off our pain at that moment. All living beings have this mechanism. If we didn’t have it, we’d die. However, once the trauma passes, we have to be able to digest and integrate the pain of these wounds so we can release them and move forward.
As such, we now have millions of people who are entirely unconscious not only to their pain but also to the ways they avoid it. This is why we think nothing of scrolling, drinking, smoking, buying, overeating, and so on. These behaviors are considered normal and are actually encouraged.
Throughout my life, I’ve used alcohol and many other escape routes to avoid my pain. I’m likely not that different from most people out there who are trying to get through the day. Unfortunately, my escape routes evolved into addiction and depression. Again, this is likely the same story for many others as well.
What makes ayahuasca different from my self-medicating and pain-avoiding behaviors is that it forced me to sit with my pain—to look it in the face and not turn away.
It felt like someone, or something, was holding me in place and forcing my eyes open; the process of which was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever endured in my life. In fact, I was so used to running from the pain that when I had to stay put, I felt like I would die; like the world would swallow me up and I’d disappear forever.
The thing about ayahuasca is that when the medicine hits your bloodstream, you can’t escape. It feels as if you’re forced to see, feel, and experience old traumas. They may not come to you as a memory but rather as a series of abstract visions and sensations that are directly related to those traumatic events.
For example, the chaos of abuse may show up as overwhelming, colorful, and twisting visions accompanied by the feelings you had when the trauma happened. The feelings seem foreign only because you’ve shut them off and forgotten them. Over time, as you sit with it, you begin to remember.
Next, the medicine helps you purge and release the energy of those traumatic memories through vomiting, shaking, crying, yawning, and sweating. When it’s done, you feel a profound relief and lightness.
In many of my ceremonies, I was brought back to feelings and memories I had walled off, and the medicine held me there while I cried uncontrollably; my whole body shaking in terror while I was vomiting and sweating. I hated every second of it—but then came the compassion.
I don’t know if this compassion came from “God” or ayahuasca or my higher soul-self. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that integration happened by feeling it all, releasing the pain, and being held in love and kindness afterward.
Many who have done ayahuasca will tell you that there’s a kind of benevolent spirit who comes to your aid once you’ve surrendered and felt your pain. No one can ever say who or what this entity is, but for me, that’s the closest thing to “God” I’ve ever experienced. And there’s no doubt, that this entity had nothing but pure love and good intentions in helping me integrate my pain.
After that, I couldn’t help but see the pain in a new light. I began to wonder if anxiety and depression or general mental health discomfort was only the pain wanting to be seen and acknowledged. It’s as if it wanted to complete the process of integration that I never knew how to do all these years.
Metabolizing food is a great analogy to explain the integration of pain and trauma.
When we eat food, we chew it, swallow it, then our digestive systems take over and absorb the nutrients before pooping out the waste. Pain is the same thing. We need to chew it, swallow, digest, and get rid of the waste.
Most of us chew and swallow but never absorb and poop out the waste. This means we are walking around with all this rotting and undigested pain in our bodies. After a while, it becomes toxic as any stagnant thing does.
Every time we run from our pain, we deny a natural process of digestion and integration. But we don’t even know that we’re running.
Pain-avoidance has become a profoundly unconscious habit, almost like driving home and realizing we weren’t even aware of how we got there. Likewise, we seem to get through the day without any awareness of pain and all the ways we shut off from it.
Of course, we can integrate pain without ayahuasca or other psychedelics, and I think it’s vital that we don’t turn these substances into panaceas without understanding the nature of how they work to heal us.
Also, you can’t go to an ayahuasca ceremony expecting a quick fix. We must realize that our current understanding of medicine simply doesn’t apply to psychedelics. Most of us view medicine as something we swallow, then we expect it to work without any effort on our part. Ayahuasca is not one of those medicines.
In fact, ayahuasca itself may not even be the medicine. Instead, it’s like a facilitator or teacher to help you take the real medicine—your pain.
Who would have thought that pain could be medicine? We already know how to eat and chew our pain, but we don’t know how to finish the process of digesting and releasing the waste. And it’s that exact process that helps us heal. If that’s not medicine, then I don’t know what is.
This brings me to another critical point—pain contains vital nutrients for our well-being. If you don’t believe me, think about the people you know who’ve done extraordinary things once they’ve digested and integrated their pain.
Likewise, there are waste products in it too. We need to shake, cry, sweat, and release it or else we become toxic. Since we don’t know how to finish the process of digesting and integrating pain, this is why psychedelics like ayahuasca are so revolutionary.
For me, the best part of ayahuasca is that I don’t really need it anymore. Once you know how to sit with pain, you can do it on your own for the rest of your life. But like any learning we commit to, it takes time, patience, and effort. And we can’t give up just because we’re not moving forward fast enough.
There are indeed many people who’ve never touched a psychedelic substance and have learned to be with pain through meditation or prayer. I also know people who’ve sustained a health event or dark period that broke them down so deeply that they had no choice but to learn how to integrate their pain.
There are many ways to learn, and we are waking up and taking control of our own destinies.
Ayahuasca worked for me because I was ready. My pain had been calling me for years, and I ignored it until finally, I had nowhere else to turn and had exhausted all my options. Would something else have worked for me as well? Maybe—but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I found healing, learned how to integrate, and became whole in the process.
In whatever way you choose to learn how to sit with, digest, and integrate your pain, it’s worth it. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how long the road seems, you will get to the light.
Just don’t give up.