At the end of December 2017, I went to Peru. You may already know why I was there. I’m going to explain it all anyway. It’s a long article, because there’s a lot to say. It’s a journey into my soul – a place I was convinced didn’t even exist. Maybe get yourself a cup of tea or something.
The drugs don’t work
A glint of satisfaction twinkled in his eye as he told me I was effectively drug-resistant. I’d tried the full house of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills, and even a few anti-psychotics, for good measure. I suppose if I were a medication expert in the NHS, I’d rather enjoy the idea of finding a patient for whom nothing seemed to work, too. It was the culmination of years of what increasingly resembled a random allocation of medications. ‘Tried this already? Okay, then try this instead.’
I could try to reel off a list of these medications, but I’d need to Google them first. A side effect of the sheer quantity of prescriptions was short-term amnesia, at least when it came to drug names. A steady flow of ‘prams’, ‘zines’ and ‘anols’. Some gave me a little respite and others made things many times worse. I was on holiday in Majorca a few years ago and could hardly get out of bed for 10 days. Plenty of people will appreciate that experience, only mine wasn’t down to sangria, but the latest drug that not only helped me gain a stone, but left me unable to process time as a concept.
Is there another area of healthcare where treatment is so random and unpredictable? The brain – the mind – is so complex, it’s not surprising that the impact of medication isn’t uniform. We’re not talking about antibiotics here. I’m not a sceptic when it comes to western medicine. I’m a committed rationalist. I like double blind trials and peer-reviewed research. But the impact of anti-depressants on each individual is so varied as to make the science of limited use. I know they work for some people and I would never extrapolate my experience to everyone else. But they didn’t work for me. And, believe me, I tried. I tried really, really hard.
So, sitting across from the doctor and being told I was drug resistant wasn’t a relief. I knew it already. But the idea that mainstream medicine had failed me felt like a betrayal. I believe in our healthcare system. It saves lives. Just not mine.
Death becomes you
I’d made a few attempts to take my own life. None of them particularly impressive, to be honest. It’s both incredibly easy and unimaginably hard to kill yourself. Even depressed people shy away from pain. And dying can be very painful, I’m led to believe. Of course, there are quick ways. Jumping off high things, for example. But when you’re very depressed, you probably don’t feel like scaling tall buildings, or bridges. Although death itself is the most logical, practical solution to your situation, actually getting there is quite a challenge. And even during my lowest moments, I couldn’t completely ignore the impact my death would have on my children and wife. Even when I knew, categorically, that me being gone would be better for them, their voices whispered me back from the brink. So, my attempts failed. Which fitted nicely with everything else I’d done. I was nothing if not consistent.
This isn’t about the disappointments that have shadowed my adult life – you don’t need to read a list of low-level failure. It’s not important, really. I was profoundly depressed and deeply anxious. I couldn’t call a restaurant to reserve a table because I was so fearful of the rejection when they were fully-booked. My social circle had shrunk so small that I could hoola-hoop inside it. My friends – loyal, caring and dedicated – were spread far and wide. Day to day, I was intensely lonely and so crippled with anxiety that I couldn’t do anything to change.
A glimmer of something that may have been hope
As I saw it, by the end of summer 2017, I’d left my corner table in the last chance saloon and was walking down a dusty street to the gallows. Desperation was replaced with a sense of inevitability. The depression would catch me sooner or later. It was just a matter of time. I had a vague notion of it being a shame, but my life just hadn’t worked out. I was a sunken cake. Nice try, but some things aren’t meant to be.
So when I became aware of ayahuasca, it wasn’t part of a frantic search. It was by accident. A podcast, I think. Or a weekend supplement article. And a flicker of recognition stopped me in my tracks. The people who’d tried this Amazonian plant medicine weren’t all like me, but there was a connection. Answers that wouldn’t come and problems buried in a cacophony of life’s traumas. Ayahuasca didn’t promise you the answers you want, but it did offer a way through to the answers you need.
I looked into it, read lots, watched videos. But more importantly, became drawn closer and closer to it. I had a sense that ayahuasca was calling me. It was part desperation, part stubbornness. Whatever, I’m grateful I found it. And then I found Pulse Tours and the Arkana centre in Urubamba in Peru. And then I booked it and then I was going.
There’s a book to be written about the entirety of my experience, and you don’t have time to read a book, so what follows is a melding of the most important elements of my journey. The essence of what I felt, how I felt it and the things I think I’ve learned. It’s still too long, I understand. But a lot happened. Skip to the end if you want to find out whodunit.
As I begin to write about the nine days I spent in Peru, it’s worth mentioning that lots of it was funny but most of it was excruciatingly painful – physically and emotionally. The medicine tore me apart from the inside and deposited my pain in a plastic bucket. I cried until my tears hurt. I threw up rough black stones of sorrow and regret that savaged my throat and left my stomach reeling like a beaten dog.
In a dark room, in a converted hotel, by the milk chocolate Urubamba River, I was taken apart and steadily rebuilt. I experienced epiphany and ecstasy, while my consciousness struggled to adapt the language of western religion to a spirituality that transcends good and evil. If this doesn’t make sense, then it’s not just because my command of language is inadequate (although it is), it’s because it’s not entirely supposed to make sense. The foundations of objective reality have been shaken. I’m not even sure objective reality exists any more. Except for the vomiting. That was about as real as anything could be. Christ, there was a lot of throwing up.
Just as important as the ayahuasca was the place itself. The people who had built a sanctuary, ably supported by the natural Andean beauty. A grassy garden, sprinkled with hummingbirds, soundtracked by the river’s confident purring as it pushed through the valley, its surface smooth and calm. The river was a constant and I loved its indifference to what I was going through.’ You’re a part of all of this’, it said. ‘And what you’re feeling will pass.’ That river made the week easier by disregarding individual moments and just being. If you were able to drop symbolic features into an ayahuasca retreat, the river was a perfect place to start.
How do you prepare for something like this? In my case, by giving up pork, red meat and drinking for six weeks. It was checklist stuff, but I think it helped. I’d met the group, heard the build-up and tried to remain open. So I certainly felt ready when I first chose my mattress at the end of the oblong room adopted for the ceremonies. But then came the headache. Oh my God, my head was screaming. My skull had shrunk and my flayed brain was fighting to escape. And I couldn’t even take a paracetamol. They told me it would go once I’d taken the ayahuasca. I think it did. I was too worried about the sickness to care. It’s not a pain relief approach I’d recommend.
Before each ceremony, you speak to the shaman, in translation, laying out your intention for the night. Not an expectation – expectations are the enemy of enlightenment. My intention was to shake some of the oppressive judgement I heaped on myself. Why wasn’t I doing as well as so-and-so? Why had I failed? Why was I so weak, so small, such a shit person? My intention was to address this. Until Diego, our extraordinary shaman, told me I was wrong. What I would be doing was cleansing. Forget my intention. It would be a ceremony for cleansing. Cleansing means purging. Purging means throwing up. I discovered this about half an hour later.
A very well-run crack house
There were perhaps 20 of us in the room. It felt like a lot of people. Strangers, really, at that point. We each had a mattress, of varying thickness, with a built-in pillow to prop yourself up, covered by a white sheet. There were two blankets each, a regular pillow, a plastic bucket and some floral water in a plastic bottle. An ashtray and some tissue paper. To my naive eyes, it was a B&B drug den. Along one side of the room was a raised shelf, replete with musical instruments, pipes and more bottles. The walls were decorated in bright tapestries. The kind I used to think only unconvincing hippies would display.
But amongst the absurdity was an incredible energy. Listen, lots of what I’m going to say will make you raise your eyebrows. You might even snort. Snort away. It’s what I would have done a couple of weeks ago. But try to believe that I’m being honest here. I’m telling you the truth as I felt it.
The energy was positive. Later that night I’d see it as green. It was love, even though I didn’t recognise it. So, when I drank horrible brown ayahuasca from the little shot glass – my gag reflex still kicks in when I think about it – I was open to the medicine. I wanted it to help me. I asked it to. It had other ideas.
Do you remember that time on holiday you ate a dodgy prawn and were stuck in the bathroom for a day? It’s hard to recall, I know. We don’t keep those feelings with us, for obvious reasons. But you know it was miserable. Well, this was like that, only the sickness bulldozed through the physical and drove straight into the emotional. It was like the worst food poisoning you’ve ever had, only your soul is sick, as well as your body.
So it began…
Perhaps an hour or so after the drink, with Diego’s tremulous icaro songs filling the room, I wanted to die. Genuinely, without hesitation, if you had offered me death at that point, I’d have bitten your hand off (before throwing it up in my pink plastic bucket). The vomit was alive and clung onto my throat so hard, I had to summon inhuman force to shake it free. And I wasn’t the only one. The room reverberated with beautiful music, cut through with the most violent heaving you’ve ever heard. It was funny. Horribly, miserably, sickeningly funny.
Where was the insight? That was the thought pinging through my confused and feverish mind. I’ll submit to this, if you show me something healing, some answers. It doesn’t work like that. While some people saw clear representations of Mother Ayahuasca – spoke to this spiritual embodiment of the plant, even – I just felt like I was going to die. It wasn’t what I had expected, but as I learned, expectations are bad.
A couple of hours in – maybe more, I lost all concept of time in that near-pitch dark room – Diego and his facilitators offered an extra dose of medicine. I knew I needed it. I wasn’t going to leave that room as the shivering pile of misery I had become. So I crawled on my hands and knees to the middle and took another glass. It wasn’t bravery. Thinking about it now, it was probably desperation.
It was the right decision to take more. Of course, it led to another bout of hideous sickness. I daren’t look, but at this stage, my bucket was full of diseased, half-dead snakes, I knew it. Gradually, the pain drifted. It never left me, but something took its place. Not the clear visions I’d read about. No answers. But something, and that was much better than nothing.
A lot of people talk about Mother Ayahuasca. There’s a common experience where the medicine seems to manifest in female form. Perhaps a vine, like the original ayahuasca plant, or a feminised animal. Or just a woman. Later in the week, I’d see her as a fearsomely beautiful cat woman. A kind of terrifyingly sexual creature. On the first night, she was a snake.
Look, I know this is crazy. I’m genuinely not an idiot. And I didn’t see her in the way we see the objects around us in everyday life. But she was there and she was a snake and you’re probably just going to have to believe me on this.
That said, there was no clarity, no narrative. I wasn’t guided on a journey of self-understanding. I saw two things I will mention here, amongst the mess and noise and very disorientating colours flowing through and around everything in the room. Red and green energy as flashing specks of light. It wasn’t fun. And it absolutely wasn’t some kind of Yellow Submarine 1960s acid trip bullshit.
What I saw was this. I saw a vision of one of my weaker suicide attempts. My wife Liz was next to me, taking the cord off my neck. And as I looked down on the two of us, cramped next to the tumble dryer in the little downstairs toilet, I saw a white bird descend – classically, you’d probably call it an angel, but I won’t. The bird placed a cloak of translucent rainbows over Liz’s shoulders. And then it left.
Moments – or hours – later, I was lying on my back while an ocelot snuggled into my chest. I don’t even know what an ocelot looks like, but I was convinced that is what it was. I heard the word ‘love’, so I kissed the ocelot. ‘Love’, the voice came again, so I thought of what I loved most and my children appeared at my side and I pulled them close. ‘Love!’ came the voice again, insistent and annoyed. ‘What?’ I thought, ‘I’ve given you the things I love above all else!’ Still the voice came. And then I realised. I let go of my children and brushed away the ocelot. And I tried for a moment to love myself. Fireworks went off. Not big, New Year’s firework, more a little display you’d do in the garden. And in pink lights, I saw the words ‘Love Yourself’.
Just the beginning
I can’t go into detail about each of the four ceremonies. You’d get bored. The second one was awful. I thought the first one was bad, and it was, despite the late revelations. But during the second one, I was left completely alone. The medicine emptied my stomach but left my heart and mind to fend for themselves. I wasn’t ready for it and I couldn’t do it. I cried so much I shook. I was more lonely and homesick than I’d ever been. The next day, in the bright sunshine, with the river still gliding past, I had a breakdown. I could only cry.
‘Everything is perfect,’ Shantanu, one of the facilitators told me, as I sobbed at him. ‘The medicine is working.’
It wasn’t. It was destroying me. I’d made a terrible mistake. I thought about the little bridge around the corner from the centre and how likely I’d be to die if I jumped off it. I cried and cried. I couldn’t look at anyone. ‘It’s perfect,’ he told me again and again. And he was smiling. And the sun shone and the hummingbirds danced and eventually I realised he was right. I was healing.
On that day, I understood what love was. And it’s not what we usually think it is. It’s unsentimental. It’s much more about trust than about adoration. It’s about acceptance and the absence of conditionality. It’s pure, in the sense that it’s simple and honest and unflinching. And, whether you realise it or not, it’s the essential element of life. It binds us to the wider world and cuts through fear and misery. You know the Beatles song about love being all you need. That’s basically it. If this sounds like so much new-age, stoned-in-the-forest, tie-died nonsense, then go and listen to that song rather than read this. It’s quicker and catchier, but the conclusion is the same.
Progress, of sorts
During the third ceremony, I had a more obvious ‘experience’. I was transported away from the room to a playful, almost childish place. Some kind of cross between a 1970s cruise ship and a Vegas casino. ‘Are you taking the piss?’ I asked my spirit guide. ‘Kind of,’ she said. ‘Fun, isn’t it?’
Not that the sickness went away. On that third ceremony, I was trapped in the toilet (literally, not symbolically), alternating between vomiting and diarrhoea. As I retched, I spoke to the candle resting on the cistern.
‘Why is this so hard?’ I asked.
‘Because it needs to be’, it flickered back. ‘Anyway, remember the other day, when you wanted to die?’
‘Yes,’ I croaked, my stomach stripped of bile and the lining beginning to tear.
‘Well, you don’t want to die now, do you!’ The triumphant tone felt a bit much.
‘Couldn’t you have taught me this in a gentler way?’ I asked. ‘Written a note?’
The candle shrugged.
As I returned to my mattress, Diego appeared and began to sing at my feet. I felt him draw black energy out of my foot. Pulling out misery like a varicose vein. Then, as I half-sat, half-lay in the dark, a white and blue ceramic pot appeared in my chest, just below my heart. He sang, and the pot popped out of my body, like a ball from a kid's toy gun. It flew into him and in its place flooded turquoise, blue and orange light that I knew was love. The pot hit him, his song stopped and he purged into his own bucket. He’d taken my depression, swallowed it, and spat it out. It was gone. I accepted it as utterly natural. After all, I’d been through a lot to get to this point. The most important moment of my life seemed nothing more than inevitable.
The final ceremony was kinder. Softer. I felt largely at peace. I coughed a bit, but didn’t throw up. I embraced the songs. I cried a little, but only in a peaceful, contented way. I felt an overwhelming love for everybody and everything. I knew I’d be different for the rest of my life and instead of being terrified, I was relieved and grateful and I was so excited to see my family. The gratitude I felt for having been gifted Liz, Iris and Stella was beautifully overwhelming.
Layer upon layer
So much more happened during the week, but maybe that’s for another time. There was breathing meditation which threw me into a quasi-religious ecstasy, then floods of tears. Just through breathing. There was a native American sweat lodge that explained my place in the world and sparked an understanding of my lineage that I’d never known before. There was emotional sharing with a group of extraordinary people – revealing abuse, depression, feelings of inadequacy and a will to improve – that most humans never dare to expose to one another.
The intensity of the time was exhausting. Often the ayahuasca ceremonies would run from 8pm to 4am, or later. Then the day began at 7am. At home, this would cripple me, instead it forced me to find energy from other sources. And it’s there, if you look.
And on top of all of this, there was the toad. The remarkable toad.
The remarkable toad
5-MeO-DMT is extracted (apparently painlessly) from a specific species of toad than lives in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. The excretion is dried, powdered and then smoked as a medicine. What I’m telling you about this now is copied closely from the notes I made soon after the experience. If you think it sounds crazy, then on this at least I agree with you.
The smoking is unceremonious, where everything else at the retreat was highly ceremonial. A blowtorch heats the powder, an oversized test tube fills with smoke and you inhale it – hard and painfully – through a rubber tube. It’s better suited to city alleys than the uncontaminated Andes.
It hits you quickly and hard. I panicked. I was sure I was screaming to be let out, for someone to make it stop. I was utterly terrified, fighting to escape. Then I understood why. I had died. I was lying on a mat, in a small room near a river in Peru, having my chest massaged because I was dead. And once I realised this, I was calm. If anything, I felt inconvenienced. What would people at home think? What a silly way to die.
Then I sat bolt upright. Javier was playing the guitar and Chandra was singing. Her face was inches from mine. I couldn’t move, only stare. And here was the moment of purest revelation. In her face was the face of every woman who had ever lived. I asked her, unspoken, ‘Is that what you are?’ She smiled and kept singing, calm and wise and unblinking. And the guitar played. And her features flicked from race to race, youth to maturity, arcing through time as womanhood revealed herself. I was humbled and grateful and understood the profound connection that spans generations. That we are all, essentially, one. On reflection, and in news that may disappoint some white beard traditionalists, I had seen the faces of God.
Slowly, I unpeeled myself from this vision and my thoughts were steered towards the women in my life. To Liz and Iris and Stella – and the responsibility I had to honour their existence – but also to my mother, who was part of this story too. Perhaps there was a blockage in our expressions of love, but here I understood it; calmly and without great fanfare, it was there.
Most of all, the three people so central to my life filled my heart and I cried. I cried out of love and gratitude and because all of this was so, so hard. I cried to know I could be a better man and I cried out of pain and I cried out of relief.
I emerged from the room, wobbling into the daylight. For a moment, the real world seemed manufactured. I had trodden a path of angels and it was extraordinary. The remarkable toad.
This process didn’t begin with my flight to Peru and certainly didn’t end with the return journey. Already, my thoughts are shifting and my understanding is expanding and shrinking. Maybe it’ll settle down, but I suspect it won’t.
I think I’m a new person. I have a notion of the singular energy coursing through all of us. A profound sense that my role in the world must be guided by love. My heart was first crowbarred, then massaged open. My mind was crushed, then lifted free. It would be the ultimate disrespect to the universe not to live, day to day, minute to minute, with these inspirations as my doctrine.
I know that a sense of self-worth is a delicate thing. Real confidence comes from accepting our place as part of something bigger – as at once essential and a fractional part of the whole. No more or less important than the rest of the human race, and indeed the wider natural world. There’s no need for egotistical bravado. If you rely on it, or search for it, as I was, then you’re missing the point. You just are important. It’s your job to believe it and not hunt for false affirmations. That’s difficult, I know.
I also learned that I am in control of my response to the world. The judgement of others isn’t just unhelpful, it’s irrelevant. As I stared into the toilet bowl during ceremony three, I saw the judgement of previous partners disappearing. It was physically there, swirling around in the surprisingly clear water. I’d thrown up their judgement of me and I was free of it. I’m not letting it come back.
Finally, without loving yourself, there’s no role you can play, nothing you can offer and no positive energy you’ll have to spare. It’s not selfish to love yourself. It’s the most fundamental requirement for the propagation of love, peace and joy. My love comes first, then it can radiate. It’s not even for me, it’s for everyone and everything. The building blocks of wider happiness are carved within ourselves. Understand this, remember it and most of all, work at it. Work harder at it than at anything else. From this, all goodness will flow.
A final word
Thanks for sticking with this. I imagine your tea is cold by now. I want to say one final thing to the rational, logical, thoughtful and good people reading this. If it sounds like easy, namby-pamby hokum, I get it. ‘Yeah, yeah. Love, joy, whatever. It's just taking drugs in Peru.’ But the point is, it isn’t easy at all. It’s fucking unbelievably hard. This was the hardest time of my life, by a long stretch, and I’ve been suicidal on and off for years.
So these conclusions are not reached lightly. And they may not resonate. Ayahuasca absolutely might not be for you. It nearly killed me at least twice. But it’s helped me in ways I never dreamed. All I ask is that you take all this at face value. If you can, be pleased for me.
And (get ready to cover your eyes!), I love you. See, it’s not that bad, is it?