Disclaimer: The author of this blog does not encourage the use of psychedelics on one’s own without proper guidance and preparation for such an experience. Psychedelics are also not for everyone, there are many things to consider before exploring psychedelic recovery as an option or as an aid to your recovery process.
As many of us know, recovery from addiction can be a long & daunting road. Often it takes many attempts for an individual to stop using drugs, alcohol or other self harming behaviours, we find reasons or excuses to go back to the quick easy fix or escape that our preferred substances & behaviours temporarily provide us with when we are in difficulty or simply just unable to cope with the circumstances of our lives.
This blog post is a true account of my lived experience as a person who has overcome a lifelong battle with addiction to hard drugs & alcohol. It’s interesting to search “ayahuasca & recovery” and only find blog posts from conventional treatment centres denouncing the use of psychedelics written by people who have never explored the option and quite possibly haven’t experienced first addiction first hand.
I personally struggled with severe & debilitating depression as far back as I can remember, chronic suicidal ideation, feeling as thought I don’t belong in this world and unable to concentrate or focus in school, long before substance use was an issue.
I connected with the countercultures of the 90’s, skateboarding, punk rock, graffiti, smoking weed, drinking and eventually harder drugs. I made friends with a small handful of kids in my neighbourhood & school who seemingly identified with a lot of the same things and who came from dysfunctional families or “broken homes”.
I realized very early on that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol, I didn’t care at all about life – the drugs and booze felt good, they gave me character & allowed me to feel like I fit in in some distorted way. I had experimented with psychedelics throughout my teenage years, almost always accompanied by alcohol, stimulants and social events, but never for the purpose of spiritual exploration or finding ways to reveal & heal the underlying trauma that was ultimately the cause of death wish.
Near the end of a 16 year battle with cocaine, opiates, alcohol I had been given a vial of LSD by a close friend, with a note that that said “ Hey man, everything is going to be ok, I believe in you – you need to believe in yourself; take 2 drops of this, put it on a sugar cube, pray, meditate, write a gratitude list, go for a walk in nature, think about who you want to be and what your life could be if you had it exactly the way you wanted”
I remember thinking to myself, “what a bunch of hippy bullshit”. At the time I was drilling for oil in northern Alberta on conventional oil & gas drilling rigs and really had no concept of spirituality, god, or anything along these lines. I put the vial away in a drawer somewhere and continued my excessive binges as I had for over half my life at this time.
Christmas day arrived and everything was closed in the town of 5000 people I was living in, no liquor, no cocaine, ran out of pills and had nowhere to score anything. I remembered the LSD and decided that it probably wasn’t going to do much so I proceeded to ingest not only 2 drops as I remembered being instructed but instead the entire vial in one single dose.
Before I continue I will say that I definitely do not recommend taking high doses of psychedelics unsupervised and that these days there are many substances being passed off as LSD which are actually analogues and other potentially dangerous research chemicals, I was also in an extremely emotionally dark place, alone, hopeless & in withdrawal.
Desperate to escape the above mentioned situation I took the LSD thinking nothing other than maybe I would be high for a while and had no idea that It would completely change the entire trajectory of my life forever.
I had a profound spiritual experience, I laid on the floor of my house for hours completely overwhelmed by geometric shapes & patterns, I saw my whole life & all of the things currently wrong with my situation and who I thought I was. I encountered what I felt could be perhaps god or angels, a spirit of sorts that spoke to me and shared with me some deep insight about my difficulties and what seemed like logical solutions to my problems.
“You will never find happiness so long as you pollute your mind, body, and spirit with drugs, alcohol, and everything else you are doing to cause harm to yourself”. The experience continued to roll through a series of powerful visions seeing myself healthy, happy, back in university, helping people and most of all living without the use of drugs & alcohol.
After the effects wore off around 12-16 hours later into the next day, it was very clear to me that I needed to go to rehab. I quit my job on the drilling rigs, packed up the little belongings I had and I got on a greyhound bus back to Vancouver Island to begin searching for serious help with my mental illness, problematic substance use.
I realized once I began the process of seeking help just how extremely difficult it would be, the barriers in place were actually quite appalling and still are to this day. I continued to go to a mental health & addictions office multiple times a week for counselling support and shared how desperate I was to go to treatment. I had tried to get sober 10 years previous to the LSD experience from the age of 19 and started out going to AA but didn’t find it useful mostly because of my ego & the age gap there at the time.
What could I possibly have in common with all of these old people talking about how they lost everything and the only thing that helped them stop using were these meetings they had been going to for 25+ years – no thanks. Little did I know where I was missing the point was in fact the community, sponsorship, & doing the work that is outlined in the programs of most 12 step fellowships. I managed to stop drinking for several years but still continued to use drugs and continued to even after the LSD experience.
The psychedelic experience undoubtedly shifted my consciousness & helped me understand on a much deeper level that seeking professional help would be necessary if I ever wanted to completely stop using drugs and live a healthy, happy, productive life. However, I still would end up scoring drugs in between my counselling appointments and after finding out it was a 6-12 month wait to get into treatment I really began losing hope.
At the time I was applying for treatment I had quit my job, I had no way to pay for private treatment so the only option was to apply to the ministry of British Columbia to receive government funded treatment. After 4 months of waiting, I received a call from the ministry of BC. I was so thrilled and thought ok great, I get to go to treatment. The counsellor at mental health & addictions was equally excited for me and couldn’t wait to hear what the ministry said.
The woman on the phone informed me that I did not qualify for government funded treatment due to the amount of money my tax return stated I had made in the previous year. “You need to quit your job and apply for welfare and then reapply for treatment” she said in a rather snarky voice. I hung up the phone in total disbelief and absolutely furious. I broke down and went back into the comfortable old way of thinking I had developed over the years and ruminated on committing suicide so that I didn’t have to go through another year of living in addiction.
A week had passed, I continued using drugs and alcohol. It was 2015 and fentanyl had just started to flood the streets and a couple people I grew up with had just died from overdoses. At the time I was using heroin intravenously and cocaine. I was sure that If I didn’t kill myself intentionally I would eventually overdose and die but at the time no one seemed to really be taking the fentanyl thing as seriously because it most people thought well it’s just junkies on the street dying and the dope I was getting at the time I was getting from “friends”.
I had written my family an email about my situation, the application being denied and the severity of my suicidal thoughts. I was going to kill myself, I felt I had no other options. I didn’t even consider taking psychedelics again as I was too deep in the addiction to cocaine and opiates to care about anything else and not only that but the profound experience I did have only seemed to fade away as life became difficult and I fell back into my usual self destructive behaviour.
The morning I sent the email to my family, my aunt called me. I hadn’t spoken to her in 20 years due to my mother and I being separated when I was just 13 years old. She informed me that she had received the email from my father and that she was an administrator at a treatment centre in Saskatchewan and her employer let her know that I could attend treatment there for free, all I had to do was get on a plane. I wept in total disbelief and knew that this was my only chance.
June 10th, 2015, I attended a 5 week program at a centre in Saskatchewan. I reunited with my aunt and grandmother, and began working on myself in ways I hadn’t ever considered or believed in. My first counsellor there Jeni Mayer was a wonderful woman, she was a practitioner of various shamanic & spiritual arts. She gave me incredible guidance and support and introduced me to yoga, meditation, and supported me through my first set of the 12 steps.
I openly shared my story about the LSD experience that pushed me towards seeking help and she explained to me even the often untold story of AA founder Bill Wilson who had coincidentally been taking LSD with Canadian doctors from Saskatchewan while they explored treatments for depression & alcoholism. I thought wow what an amazing coincidence & connection. I had to learn more about this history and expressed my interest in the field of psychedelics & their potential to help me in gaining a better understanding of myself and furthering my healing.
“No matter what, when you leave here, don’t let ANYONE tell you that your interest in psychedelics & your recovery is wrong”. Jeni supported the idea of seeking a psychotherapist or “shaman” who could give me guidance & support in a therapeutic setting with the use of psychedelics or entheogens. She also encouraged me not to use these medicines alone and not to use them if I was just looking for a way out of my problems. I agreed with her that I would eventually explore them again at some point in a safe & responsible way but for now I felt pretty good being 5 weeks clean & sober and was eager to get back out into the world with my new found purpose & recovery way of life.
I went back to Vancouver Island and started going to NA & AA meetings. I made so many amazing friends and still continue those friendships today. Around the 18 month mark I noticed some of my depression creeping back, I was working in construction operating heavy equipment and in an environment where everyone talked about drinking and doing drugs. I felt like I didn’t belong there anymore and eventually my mental health deteriorated to the point where I had no choice but to take medical leave to continue seeking counselling and outside professional help.
I expressed my desire to explore psychedelics & cannabis with some of my NA friends and people I considered family. Everyone strictly advised against it and expressed their concern for my safety. Even with my explanation of the story of Bill Wilson and his powerful spiritual LSD experiences shared in “pass it on” & “as Bill sees it” no one agreed or acknowledged that psychedelics were appropriate for a member of NA with over a year clean.
I decided to take mushrooms one weekend while working on a set of steps from the NA working the step guide, it was incredible. It opened up so many memories and gave me incredible introspection and answers to so many of the questions that I had been struggling with about myself. I felt like I had really finally just woken up. The depression lifted and I started to think about what mattered to me the most, my health, my wellbeing, being in service and helping people who are seeking ways to overcome the same personal hell I had been trapped in for most of my life.
The experience led to many other experiences, I started to take mushrooms every couple of weeks or so, life was good. I would eventually end up having a difficult experience taking what I thought was LSD, which I touched on earlier in this blog post – It was awful, I can’t even call it a “bad trip” because it was actually another unknown substance that caused me to become confused, unable to form sentences or words and in my panic I dialled 911 and was taken to the hospital. At the time, I was concerned that perhaps the LSD blotter I had taken had fentanyl or opioids in it, the fear came from reading about fentanyl laced blotter being discovered in Winnipeg & Montreal that same year.
Luckily I was ok and there was no fentanyl, benzos or opioids detected in the urine screening, whatever I took was most definitely not psychedelic and was a wake up call for me because I watched myself begin to chase the “awakened state” the mushrooms and previous psychedelic experiences had given me. I didn’t want to come down, but eventually would always come down. Ram Dass often talks about this in his lectures and stories of the nature of psychedelic experiences. I would come to realize that I wasn’t taking what I was learning and putting it into action, integrating while at the same time taking these substances at my own will & discretion without supervision or professional guidance, I was breaking my promise to Jeni Mayer which didn’t feel right.
A dear friend of mine from NA came to the hospital because I had called her for help. She rushed there to see me and make sure I was ok, a long time NA member and had no idea I had taken anything. I confessed that I had taken what I thought was LSD – she was furious. “What the hell do you want me to do? You used drugs! You’re lucky you aren’t dead!” She didn’t want to hear my explanation or why I chose to take what I thought was LSD. “Do you know how many times I have been to the hospital because someone OD’d and died? You need to get your ass to a meeting and put your hand up to let your friends know you are coming back from a relapse!”
A relapse? I never considered this perspective from people in the NA community but the program is a program of abstinence from all drugs. Rightfully so, for many people using cannabis, mushrooms or even prescription medications is deemed unacceptable. Why should my situation be any different? reluctantly I acknowledged that I “used” and lost the prestigious honour of having over a year clean at my local Narcotics Anonymous home group.
What was even more disturbing to me was just how ostracized I had become. “We thought we knew you” some friends commented, I felt shamed, embarrassed. Some people even went as far as not speaking to me anymore or would move if I sat next to them. What kind of community is this? Then I would see it happening to other people as well, I had never noticed until it was me “coming back” from a “relapse”. People who struggle with hard drugs often don’t get to come back to the rooms, I really started to take notice as I continued to participate in the community and would see new comers or people who struggled with chronic relapse being shunned by community members.
I was always taught to treat the newcomers with compassion, kindness, and make a point of going to the after the meeting to give them some words of encouragement. I would notice people often scowling at me for going to talk to people coming back or new people, as if they would cause me to go back using or who knows maybe they thought I would try to give them psychedelics, which often did cross my mind.
I started to feel like NA maybe wasn’t my home, after all the spiritual experiences that I had were true, the epiphanies, revelations and post-trip afterglow that would last for weeks or months was a testament to the efficacy of the psychedelics. I googled “psychedelic therapy” and found a practitioner only 1 block away from my house. I had found a way to legitimize what I was doing and the truth that I knew for myself. I began working with a therapist, I wouldn’t take psychedelics with them, but I would take them the morning before an appointment and go there during the peak or at the end of the experience to do various types of therapeutic work including somatic experiencing, cognitive behavioural therapy, and just to have someone to help me integrate what I had experienced and gain some insight on how to move forward.
I found a new sponsor who invited me to his home after catching wind of my psychedelic journeys and he expressed his understanding as an avid consumer of psychedelics back in the 1960’s & 1970’s although he hadn’t used these substances in over 27 years he acknowledged their ability to create what I was experiencing and also agreed that seeking outside help in the form of psychotherapy combined with these medications was in fact by the book, the big book of AA that is.
Members of the 12 step fellowships have literature that the program is explained and operates from, many people take it to extremes and for good reason, they found their pathway to freedom using the methods explained. However social politics can be rather deterring when dealing with 12 step members, everyone has their own interpretations of things or the way things should be or need to be when the truth is that recovery is an individual path and each person is on their own journey to finding themselves and what freedom means to them.
For myself, I know that I can not use alcohol, cocaine, opioids or any form of addictive drugs and now with nearly 8 years of abstinence from these mentioned I have absolutely no desire to do so. Does that mean other people seeking recovery will be unable to use alcohol in moderation? Well that’s simply up to them, I developed a strong belief in harm reduction and developing personal boundaries around what works for someone and what doesn’t. The only person who gets to decide what that is is myself or the person left with the choice to make. After all recovery is a choice, a decision that I wake up and make each & every day knowing that using the drugs I used to use will never serve me or have a place in my life because of their effect on my emotional, physical & mental well being.
I decided to go back to university to study social work in 2017. I was eager to find more communities who understood psychedelics & their use in treating mental health disorders & problematic substance use. Here I was, 31 years old, high school dropout punk rock skid back in school writing essays and papers about addiction. I happened to write a few essays on the use of ayahuasca despite having never tried it and would discover that people in the academic faculty had first hand experience working with “the medicine”.
It was seemingly difficult to find people my age to connect with in school, most people in university at the time were not interested in psychedelics and weren’t in their 30’s recovering from addiction. I still lacked fellowship and only had a small handful of friends who I could be open about psychedelics with, I stopped going to 12 step meetings unless it was for someone’s annual milestone. I continue to believe in the program work and the methods used to help people overcome their substance use, but what was missing for me was the ability to tell the truth about psychedelics and the role they play in my recovery. I still continued to struggle with bouts of major depression, suicidal thoughts and chronic physical pain, having the support was essential so I knew I needed to keep searching for answers & community.
I continued to work with the therapist during my studies but started to realize he was having some of his own challenges that led me to the conclusion that my work with him was nearing the end. I was invited to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony held by a practitioner who also happened to have a professional therapeutic background. I was mostly interested because it was done in community, multiple people together sitting simultaneously receiving icaros, healing songs that could be directed at the physical body and help heal various things. I believed in it being possible and had gotten A’s on both essay’s I wrote in school so perhaps it could help me resolve some other things I was struggling with including the suicidal ideation despite being 3 years clean at the time.
The first two times I drank ayahuasca literally nothing happened, I did not feel anything. It was unlike mushrooms or LSD, choking down this bitter muddy liquid from the Peruvian amazon was much less pleasurable than sipping some mushroom tea or putting a couple drops on a sugar cube. The ceremony began both nights, beautiful icaros filling the room, people purging from time to time, but for the most part a very calm setting. The room was dark and there was a stillness that existed, it felt safe. The morning after my second night of no psychedelic effect I considered going home, what was the point of drinking that nasty stuff a 3rd time if nothing is going to happen.
I met privately with the person holding the ceremony and expressed my frustration, I was welcomed to drink a bit more to see if that would help and also received the explanation that it doesn’t always open up for people the first time, sometimes the energies a person is holding can actually prevent the effects from opening. I had to be patient, I had to come to the ceremony with good thoughts, with my true intentions and communicate with the medicine.
“Talk to the plant, ask mother ayahuasca for help” they suggested. I thought to myself, well this is totally insane and goes against any logic I have, talk to the plants – right. The last night of the ceremony was before me and I drank a much stronger dose than the previous two nights. I went back to my mat and sat there, literally asking ayahuasca to show me what I needed to do. “Mother ayahuasca, show me what I need to do, help me” I muttered. I started to feel something, I closed my eyes and was enveloped by this warm bright light and felt this feminine energy. She said “you need to love yourself” it reminded me of the angel or spirit from the first breakthrough LSD experience I had. “How do I do that?” i asked her “start by thanking your feet”
I reached to my feet and held them, “thank you” I thought to myself, Wow, I have never once in my life thanked my feet or even considered being grateful for my ability to walk, I had taken it all for granted. I continued moving up my legs, thanking each bone, each joint, I had become aware of my body in a way I had never considered or understood – somatic awareness. The visions continued to open and suddenly I was holding what appeared to be a baby in my hands, I brought it to my chest and a flash of light shifted into another perspective, I could see life through my estranged mothers eyes.
My mother and I had just been reunited after nearly 20 years just a year prior to this ayahuasca experience but I was so disconnected from her and struggling to develop a relationship, I saw life through my mothers eyes in the medicine visions, I understood what the separation had done to her for the first time. I understood that It wasn’t simply me who had been abandoned, I held this pain from the age of 13 that I hadn’t had my mother and never once considered the pain that it caused to her. Tears ran down my face as I gained a new found compassion for my mother and for myself. It was the most incredible experience of my life and I knew that it was an opportunity to heal the wounds that existed between my mother and I.
I continued to participate in the ceremonies whenever possible, it was about once every 2 months and in that time I stopped taking psychedelics on my own. I no longer needed to take mushrooms or explore things outside of the ceremony space. I made lasting friendships with other people who drank ayahuasca and was accepted into a community of like minded people all working towards healing themselves and developing as human beings. I saw this as an opportunity to belong, to learn about myself and hopefully bring other people seeking freedom from active addiction to similar conclusions as myself.
I would begin inviting members of 12 step fellowships to ceremonies and eventually bring one of my sponsors to his first ceremony after taking a 10 year cake in NA. The results for people with established long term recovery have been incredible to witness. “The NA campouts will never be the same hey?” I joked to my sponsor after his first weekend of ceremony came to a close. Often times people with long term recovery seek outside help for other conditions such as PTSD, depression and various chronic illness. The western models currently in place are rather limited and mostly rely on pharmaceutical drugs that may or may not be habit forming or come with a range of undesirable side effects. Access to psychedelic therapy in north america is also limited & expensive, qualified practitioners are not easy to come by and a single session by a “trained” practitioner can cost upwards of $1000-$2000 per session none of which are covered by health insurance. It felt right to share my experience with those I know could benefit and more importantly those who feel they have the maturity and solidarity in their recovery to seek help in these ways.
5 years ago I drank ayahuasca for the first time as described above. It has undoubtedly been the most helpful of all the remedies I have tried over the years. Having explored ketamine therapy, mdma therapy, psilocybin and various types of counselling, psychotherapy and around 9 different psychiatric drugs since my adolescence, ayahuasca has helped me recover from debilitating physical illness & injury, it has relieved me of chronic suicidal thoughts and destructive patterns, and given me the inspiration to help create community for people in recovery such as myself.
However, ayahuasca alone isn’t the answer, more importantly it is the community and the support of the highly trained & experienced people who have been holding the ceremonies, post ceremony integration, ongoing therapeutic support and mentorship that have helped bring all the pieces together and provide me with the tools and resources to continue working with psychedelics in my recovery in a healthy & constructive way. People who are new to addiction recovery or new to psychedelics are encouraged to seek qualified professional assistance in accessing this type of support. I don’t encourage the use of psychedelics on one’s own without proper guidance and preparation for such an experience as there can be a lot of things that go wrong and lead to difficulty. Psychedelics are also not for everyone, there are many things to consider before exploring psychedelic recovery as an option or as an aid to your recovery process.
The covid pandemic closed the doors on ceremonies and most social gatherings including 12 step meetings for many people, online zoom meetings took place in both realms and few people had the privilege of private ceremony nights sporadic & random over the 2 years the pandemic shut things down. I knew that I wanted to learn more about ayahuasca, I also wanted time to continue working on myself and Canada just wasn’t cutting it for me anymore. I knew about Nihue Rao from my mentor and many other friends I drank medicine who came here to work with Ricardo Amaringo and so as soon as I could I got on a plane and headed down to the Peruvian Amazon where I now live and currently training in the shipibo tradition of vegetalismo.
Most people reading this will know that ayahuasca is not legal in Canada, it is not available at any treatment centres or clinics currently and is likely many years away from being accessible if it will ever be at least in a traditional ceremonial sense. My experience has shown me that under the right conditions with the right guidance and skilled qualified practitioners & support, ayahuasca can be an effective way to treat problematic substance use & chronic depression when done in conjunction with therapeutic support, wise mentors, wise friends, a program of recovery, and a community of peers with lived & living experience. Ayahuasca is a tool for spiritual growth & personal change, it is not a cure for addiction.
I am grateful to have had the experience I did in treatment to gain a foundation of recovery and some time away from using before re exploring psychedelics in the ways I have described. I was able to develop skills and a better understanding of myself and my intentions before moving towards exploring ayahuasca in a deeper way. I was also very fortunate to find qualified practitioners and support who deeply cared for me during my process and guided me through times of difficulty during my ceremony experiences and in the weeks, months, years following. Without the help of the people involved in my process I don’t feel confident that drinking ayahuasca or other methods of psychedelic therapy would have proven to be as effective or allowed me to succeed in the ways that I have.
Inpatient treatment is available beginning sept 2023 here in the peruvian amazon with limited space, for more information for yourself or a family member please visit the website for details.
Members of the ayahuasca community who also are in recovery from addiction are networking and collaborating to hold retreats here in the Peruvian amazon at Nihue Rao through Sacred Rebels Recovery and eventually within North America. Our hope is to have a safe container where we can discuss our experience as people in recovery and provide each other with a safe space to communicate openly about our use of psychedelics.
We would love to hear from you about your experience with ayahuasca & addiction recovery. We welcome all inquiries & questions. Stay tuned for more blog posts and join the mailing list for up coming events and retreats. Community is key! Find the others!