I Took Ayahuasca to Fix a Health Problem
Six months ago, I sat outside, on a wooden deck in the mountains, across from a white dude with a man bun.
“Do you actually think this can fix me?” I asked him.
The man went by “Kapétt”, a name he picked up while studying indigenous culture in a Peruvian forest, though his legal name was John Thomas Caldwell III, and he was raised in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“I can’t promise that,” said Kapétt/John III, moving his left leg to cross under his right. “But I’ve seen people speak with their deceased loved ones. Others who’ve had their depression instantly cleared. Things you wouldn’t believe.”
Neither of those possibilities interested me.
I’m not depressed and I don’t believe in ghosts or God or an after-life. When we die, I believe we turn off. And if I’m wrong, and my dead relatives do exist, I have no desire to hear from them—loud Jews from the world beyond, floating around my bedroom, judging me for the gay-leaning porn I consume when I believe I’m alone.
But regardless, I, at thirty-one, came to this retreat because of a vestibular balance issue I’d been dealing with for three years—something wrong with my left ear. Every moment that I’d been awake, on a first date or a job interview, on a run, or in a chair, drunk at a concert or sober in bed, standing up or upside down, I’d been mildly dizzy.
I’d seen ear doctors and neurologists, acupuncturists and ayurvedists. Had MRIs that showed a swollen left inner ear, specifically my utricle (a crystal-filled straw that tells the brain which way is up and which way is not), but no one had been able to tell me why said utricle was swollen or how to permanently make it not. And after years of always being a tiny bit off-kilter, causing me not to be fully present with myself or anyone I loved, I began to accept that I would never get better and I contemplated whether living a life like this, constantly distracted and tilted to one side, was worth living at all.
So, there I was, one-thousand and ninety-five days and twenty-six health practitioners later, sitting on a porch, staring at the face of a ripped-sweatshorts-wearing-hippy, who claimed that a vomit- and diarrhea-inducing hallucinogen from the forest might help.
I looked down at the journal I’d brought for the weekend. On the first page, I had written:
Intention: fix ear
I looked up.
“Either the drug fixes me,” I told Kapétt, “...or it doesn’t.”
“We don’t say drugs, Alex,” he said, staring. “We say medicine.”
And unamused, I stared back.
In Quechua, “aya” means spirit or corpse, while “waska” means rope. To make drinkable ayahuasca, you need two different plants. Plant 1: Chacruna, an uninteresting, leafy green plant, that looks like something you’d ignore at West Elm before finding out it contained the psychoactive substance known as DMT, and Plant 2: Banisteriopsis caapi, an eerie vine that grows up to 98 feet long, wrapping itself around the branches of other trees like a snake. This second plant contains no psychoactive component but instead comes with an MAO inhibitor called harmine, which acts as a lubricant, allowing Plant 1’s DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause us to trip.
The thought of tripping didn’t scare me, but other things did. Not the vomiting aspects that discourage the weak, but the losing yourself parts. Stories I’ve heard about people walking out on their ten-year marriages, tying a clothing bindle to a stick, and galavanting off to Thailand to work on a coconut farm, erasing whoever else they otherwise might have been.
The retreat would take up an entire weekend consisting of two separate “ceremonies” with four to six hours of drug consumption, trip, and recovery — where the expectation, as I understood it, was for each individual to lose their mind just so they could put it back together.
I was as skeptical as one could be. The whole ordeal sounded like yet another trend adopted by millennials looking for purpose. But I was desperate and dizzy.
I looked around. The pine-tree-covered setting of the retreat center resembled a back-country yoga camp. Knot-holed floors and large windows with sun pouring through. In a spacious main room at the center, lay twenty exercise mats along with twenty blue buckets to dispose of any vomit. It was all arranged in a circle around what appeared to be an orchestration point for the shaman. There were musical instruments and fans and feathers and burning incense. And there, next to the incense, was a tall glass bottle, the type with the flippy rubber gasket that trendy restaurants use to serve water. But instead of water, a dark brown liquid, like grainy molasses, filled the bottle to its brim.
Kapétt walked up with another guide. To become accredited as a guide you must possess a good amount of both time and naive conviction in an unaccredited practice which is very illegal almost everywhere outside of South America. You undergo a “Dieta,” in which you fast, and in some cases, drink nothing but liquid DMT for weeks in a forest.
“Alex,” Kapétt said, “when you’re done getting settled in, come take a spot on the floor and meet the rest of the group.”
They’re probably all a bunch of weirdos, I thought. Just like Kapétt.
In my journal I wrote,
Eye contact with Kapétt makes me uncomfortable. Makes me feel weird.
For the weekend, we were twenty participants in total. Half of us were aya virgins. There was a woman who was working through the suicide of her son, another guy who came to get clarity in the midst of a mid-life crisis, a Russian with a thick accent who was about to marry her boyfriend of ten years, and a young woman who worked at a tech company—I think her name was Pooja. Everyone seemed prepared for the weekend. Open-minded and interested. Gentle, but engaged. With no one person taking too much space or attention from anyone else. No person, except for Pooja.
Pooja was loud. Like a sorority girl who sits in a library, yelling on the phone about a vacation to Tulum, Pooja shook the calm from the room.
“I’m sooooo excited,” she shouted at me. “I watched a cool TikTok video where this woman at an ayahuasca ceremony talked to her grandmother. I can’t wait. I’ve never done any drugs before.”
I eyed her up and down. She was wearing a bunch of Mayan-looking jewelry that looked expensive. As if she had searched online for “bespoke ayahuasca ceremony outfit” and went with that. “You’ve never done any drugs ever…” I said, “and the first one you’re doing...is this?”
“Yeah! Isn’t that awesome? Never even tried weed.” She laughed for no apparent reason. “I usually don’t get along with people who’ve done drugs,” she said.
Pooja shouldn’t be here
I turned away from her to meet a 40-something-year-old woman named Jinyi. She smiled at me. There it was again, that same Kapétt-like feeling of discomfort.
“I’ve actually taken ayahuasca twenty-three times,” Jinyi said.
I examined her, sniffing for issues. She must be very broken, I thought. Maybe an empty nester now looking for something to believe in. I was wrong. Jinyi was a psychiatrist who claimed that ayahuasca helped her work with her patients.
“It gives me clues as to where our little trauma islands are all hiding.”
I wanted to ask if she really needed ayahuasca to figure out that crazy people have metaphorical trauma islands. Perhaps she just needed a continuation course on how to be a better psychiatrist. But, as I was about to probe, a bald man in a white robe entered the space and a soft silence fell over the room.
“Hello everyone. Please find your seats,” the shaman said. “We’re about to begin.”
It was dark out. Maybe seven o’clock. We sat on our mats, buckets alongside, while meditative music played on a stereo next to a fireplace in the corner. The fireplace looked tilted to me. But due to my ear problem, many things just did. Five guides sat on my left. One of them played a low note on a wooden flute, signaling the start of the ceremony.
The shaman held up the bottle of brown liquid, muttered a few prayers in what sounded like a language from an Indiana Jones movie, and bowed his head. “We thank you for this medicine,” he said.
Medicine’. There it was again. A more palatable term, which tricks skeptics into getting on board with a minimally studied, Schedule I substance.
Two of the guides closed their eyes and chanted. A third grabbed a fan along with one of those sticks that makes rain sounds and started shaking it around the room. As they did all this, I wrote,
This is a cult
To be clear, I was fine with that. Anything that fixed my ear was worthwhile.
“We thank you for this medicine,” I repeated, and bowed my head.
One by one, we stepped to the center of the room, lowered our heads to the shaman, and drank a cup.
It wasn’t bad. A bit sour, like shitty almond milk with cocoa powder.
But then it was Pooja’s turn, and upon tasting the liquid, her face contorted.
“Oh my god!” She gagged and her face scrunched. “It’s like. Really gross. I might even throw up just from this!” She made a pretend vomiting face towards a nearby bucket and laughed at herself.
The shaman laughed too, encouraging her unfunny joke.
I could never be a shaman
A half-hour went by. I felt nothing. I closed my eyes, hoping that doing so would increase my ability to notice the DMT. A mild wave rippled throughout my body as if I were on a boat. I saw a couple of lights that weren’t there, which faded away. Lame. What a stupid drug.
Twenty minutes passed, “It is now time for our second cup,” the shaman said.
Cup two hit different.
I looked over to Pooja. She seemed less happy than before, but also less annoying. Progress. Maybe she saw the same lights that I had seen and that was enough to freak her out.
But she wasn’t the only one.
A man at my nine o’clock grabbed his bucket and vomited. The psychiatrist began to cry. And then Pooja did, too. But louder. Crying and shaking with her entire body. This scared me, and so I turned to the right, to face, what I thought would be, a quieter view. But there, a woman from Kenya named Sara started gasping for air, as if she was being choked, while the Russian woman on the floor alongside started laughing at whatever show was playing inside her head. She must’ve laughed for five minutes without stopping.
First time seeing a Russian person laugh
One by one, I watched them fall, and I realized, whether I was ready for it or not, that soon the insanity would come for me.
“A mystical experience defies expression. Words cannot fully relate it to others,” writes nineteenth-century philosopher William James in his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience. The Michael Pollans, Ram Dasses and Timothy Learys of the world all seem to agree—nouns, adjectives, they all fall so short that the recounting ends up untrue. But I know what I saw. Take from it what you will.
Back in the ceremony room, the gears in my brain started to unravel. My journal from this part is unintelligible besides the following stroke of genius,
DC movies are bad because they don’t feel genuine
I felt the waves again—a rolling sensation in my limbs. I saw those same little lights from before, but this time, more vivid. I lay down on my mat. And then everything disappeared, and I was left floating, in silence. In space without any stars. I was gone.
But there, in pseudo-outer space, something or someone appeared. It looked like a woman...or maybe a deity, which was weird since, like I said before, I didn’t believe in God, nor did I have any desire to meet a space version of him or her. But regardless of what this Spacelady was, she had long, brown hair, no face, and immediately began making me “know” things—like in The Matrix when Neo all of a sudden downloads and is a master at Kung Fu.
She taught me about consciousness, which felt beautiful and indescribable in all the ways someone who has taken psychedelic drugs would say that it was. But it also felt revelatory and true-enough-seeming, or what William James might’ve called “noetic.” And the strangest part of it all is that it felt as real to me as everyday waking life.
As minutes went by, though hallucinating a God was great and glorious, I started to feel dizzy. Dizzy, even while floating in space, and so I remembered to ask Spacelady about my ear, which is great, because how pointless it would have been for me to go all the way there and come back with nothing?
So I asked her, “What is happening, how do I fix my ear, what is happening, how do I fix my ear, what is happening...”
And I kept repeating this over and over, which I don’t think she liked because soon everything became unpleasant. The obvious lesson here is that I was annoying. (The self-empowering reframe is that I was annoying enough that I annoyed God.) Moments later, space dissolved and I was stuck, unable to form thoughts, trapped in the mind of what I believed to have been some kind of insect. A cricket? And while my cognitionless cricket mind imagined itself hopping around a room, I had an awareness that miles away, my human body was mid-spasm on an exercise mat on a floor.
It was hell. I couldn’t think or understand. And it seemed to last for hours.
The rest is a blur, my mind cutting back and forth between human and cricket self. Me, crying into one of the ceremonial guide’s laps. Then me vomiting into a blue bucket while I begged the lap-owner to fix my ear. The lap-owner not fixing my ear, but instead dragging me and my exercise mat back to the wall because apparently during my cricket-hopping hallucinations, I had convulsed away from the wall towards the center of the room.
But as all fun things come to an end, the DMT reached its half-life and I eventually sat my body up, while my mind stayed half-floating in something that seemed like cricket-space. I looked around at people shaking or cackling or wailing, and I felt numb.
And as my mind tried to make sense of it all, my ears heard a low note play on a wooden flute.
“The first ceremony is now complete.”
Morning came and I met with my ‘support pod’, which is exactly what it sounds like. Five of us participants were assigned to a guide named Amber who, I later found out, had been the guide that I cried and nearly vomited on during the night prior. I had trouble making eye contact with her, but I didn’t know why. The same feeling that Kapétt made me feel. Perhaps shame. The support pod was therapy—a place to find closure and make sense of the reality-bending DMT. The Russian was there, along with Sara and Psychiatrist Jinyi. Annoying Pooja was supposed to be in our pod but she, “Went home to be close to her family,” Amber said.
I laughed under my breath.
Jinyi and the Russian shared their ayahuasca stories. Both positive. Then it was Sara Kenya’s turn. During the ceremony, I’d seen her gasping for air. It seemed horrible and I was looking forward to having her as a partner in my plight against the drug.
“I saw someone’s hands around my neck,” she began. “It felt like I was being strangled for thirty minutes.” Apparently, Sara’s father used to choke her, so she always had trouble voicing her opinion. And now she’d been choked by ayahuasca. Surely she’d be on my side.
“I was finally able to pull his hands away and I now feel, lighter, freer, more alive,” she said. A tear ran down her face.
Dang, lost her.
“That’s great for you,” I said, “but I’m not doing ayahuasca again.”
The pod stared. They didn’t like this, and so I told them about my evening.
“It sounds like you were trying to control the medicine,” said Sara.
“Next time, try focusing on your breath,” said Jinyi. “Running away from the crazy islands of your mind will never work,” she added, continuing to push her island metaphor.
“Alex,” said Amber, the guide, “I think you should write yourself a message that encourages you to accept what happened.”
“Sure,” I replied.
You needed to be a cricket. It happened because it was meant to…lol
Hours later, I walked into the ceremony room to find Kapétt, talking to one of the participants. “I mean, the urban infrastructure in LA just doesn’t compare to that of Zurich,” he said. He went on like this for a bit, sharing his thoughts about the EU and ice fishing. I figured that since he’d ayahuasca juiced 1000 times that he’d be aloof or creepy, a mind up in the clouds or dead behind the eyes. But no, he might as well have worked at Deloitte. Perhaps putting oneself back together was only hard for me.
I thought about Sara, from my pod, who felt “lighter, free...alive,” and I thought about how I wanted that too. If ayahuasca wasn’t going to help me with my ear, the least it could do would be to dig up some unresolved childhood trauma. Yes, Lady Ayahuasca, at least give me that.
You are succumbing to the cult
An hour later, we sat in the room for the second ceremony.
I looked at the empty spot across from me where Pooja had sat. Pooja, who had been too frazzled to continue with the ceremony. Then I thought about Jinyi and Amber and the rest of the people in my pod who had revelations. The people who weren’t too scared to keep going and see what might be on the other side of their psyche.
I am not like Pooja. And I am not a cricket
I walked to the center and drank a cup. And then an hour later, I drank another.
On my mat, I sat, waiting for chaos, and I felt that same rolling sensation across my limbs. My stomach tightened, fearful of the hallucinations, but I reminded myself that after the psychological hell, I’d return to my normal judgemental self.
All around me, in the soon-to-be asylum, my fellow ayahuascans started to lose their minds.
Then it was my turn.
The sounds around me became louder and the fire flickered a darker red. To my right, a young woman vomited, and I wrote,
Don’t be bothered by people who do things that bother you. People will always do what they’re meant to
And then Spacelady returned. I could feel her with me, the same way you can feel yourself being watched. It wasn’t an eerie presence though. It was just there. And whenever I started to drift away and lose my sense of self, whenever I started to cling for control, I replayed the advice of my pod, focusing my attention on my breath and remained calm — doing my best to accept that if there was something for me to learn about my ear, that I’d only be able to do so if I could avoid falling victim to my anxiety.
I drank a third cup. Then a fourth. Two more than that of cricket night.
But this night was not a repeat of the last, and as a human, I stayed. I went to Spacelady, and as an open-minded version of myself that I still do not recognize, I asked her “What can I learn about my ear?”
And then, perhaps only because of my attempted namaste, an answer arrived.
It came upon me without deduction or analysis. I was focusing on my balance, trying to figure out what I could learn, when all of a sudden I knew. So strange, just like the first night, the sensation of gaining knowledge, like Neo, seemingly unearned.
My left ear has always been the problem. It feels like it’s plugged. When sounds come in, they feel different than those on the right. Due to this mismatch, I spend the majority of my days thinking about opening my left ear. But at that moment, hopped up on ayahuasca, seated in front of the semi-tilted fireplace, I was “taught” to think about the right one. About convincing the functional right ear to match the debilitated left. I thought about taking the fire poker in front of me, and shoving it into my right ear — maybe two symmetrically broken inner-ear-utricles would be better than one. No, no. That couldn’t be it. Rather, I’d let the right ear know that it needed to adjust. That my brain needed to reach for sameness. For symmetry. So I did that. I sat there and meditated on that sameness for an hour. And then in one small moment, my brain calmed. Simply by shifting my attention to my right ear, my dizziness diminished, almost entirely. I opened my eyes and looked at the fireplace. It was no longer tilted.
I stood up, walked out of the room, and stepped into the forest.
It was a crisp night. Thick trees amidst chirping crickets all living their cricket lives. Mocking me. I looked down at my steady feet, then up at the moon. I took a few breaths, felt an almost complete sense of balance, and cried.
From behind me, I heard a song playing from the building and someone sang in what sounded like a beautiful made-up-sounding language. It felt time to go back in.
As I entered and sat down, a wooden flute played a low note.
In the morning, I ran into Jinyi, the psychiatrist who kept talking about trauma islands.
“Hey Jinyi,” I said. “Tell me more about this island idea of yours. Is it only for crazy people, like your patients?”
“No, and we don’t use that word,” she said.
“Patients?” I asked.
She stared at me and as she did, I realized that I no longer had trouble holding her gaze. I felt calm and more comfortable around her.
The people here that make you uncomfortable when they look at you are the ones that look at you as if you can’t hurt them
“Everyone has islands of unresolved trauma,” she said, “or, you know, an island with a monster. If we don’t go back to fix the monsters, we get stressed, we tense up and end up with psychological or physical problems when the monsters on the islands grow.”
“This sounds like that show Lost.”
“Never mind,” I said.
It was time to leave. I grabbed my bags and walked through the ceremony room. I looked around to notice the rest of the participants and guides, laughing and hugging, like members of a cult who had been friends in their past insect lives. There was a lightness to them all, the same type of carefree vibes you’d expect from someone who’d spent the past year being vegan. And not like a deep-fried tofu vegan, but an actual one. One that just eats sunshine and wet plants.
Kapétt walked up to me. Earlier that day, I learned that he had received his name during his first Dieta, after seeing a turtle (or in Quechua, a Kapétt).
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
I took a moment to check in with myself. I closed my eyes and moved my attention to my ears to see if they were matching, down to my stomach to see if it was tense, and then to my feet to see if they were holding well to the floor.
“Hm,” I paused. “I still feel a tiny bit off-balance, but…it’s quieter now,” I said, realizing that although the sensation was still there, it was no longer at the forefront of my mind. Like having a weak left arm, or an unaccomplished child, it only bothered me if I thought about it.
“Wow. That’s great,” he said. “We can thank Mother Aya for that.”
In some other alternative reality, right there at that moment, I punched him in the face. But for the reality that I had come to know, for post-ayahuasca me, as I stood in the room and held Kapétt’s gaze for the first time all weekend, I felt my face tighten to form a closed-lip smile. “Yes, of course,” I said, “I’m very grateful for her.”
I still don’t know why I said that. Sitting here typing the words on this page, I don’t understand most of what happened those two days. How I saw what I saw. What was real or what was not. Why I wasn’t dizzy that evening, or why I still am now. But I do know, during that weekend, whether from the pressure of confident groupthink-y hippies, the hallucinating of deities that forced me into open-mindedness, or from sitting on the floor in front of a semi-tilted fireplace, meditating on a desired non-dizzy life while hopped up on a drug/medicine that potentially altered my brain chemistry into thinking that my health was actually improving, I now believe, for the first time in a while, that although my balance isn’t 100% better, that one day, it will be.
“Hey Kapétt,” I said to the man formerly known as John Thomas Caldwell III as I walked out of the forest yoga retreat. “Now do I get a cool tribal name like yours?”
“Ha,” he said. “Not yet, Alex.”
Ama Kunan Alex.
I like it.