I want to go into the details of the incredible healing I had from drinking ayahuasca that first time in 2005. It is what motivated me to step into this work in the world. It is the reason I am sitting here writing this blog! And, at the same time, I have a certain amount of fear coming up, questions concerning how much I should reveal, and a LOT of concern for the possibility of my relatives reading this blog and finding out things about me that I would rather keep private. So, I will just post a little warning here, for them:
To my relatives:
Please, if you are one of my relatives and you have found your way to this blog, strongly consider NOT reading this particular entry. You may find here components of my story that push your buttons to the core; while that is not my intention, I feel the need to be honest about my experience as it informs everything else that has come to pass. Reading this blog may cause you distress; you may also doubt the self-reporting of my experience to the point of extreme anger and rejection. I am not willing to argue about my experience, either, so please don't contact me in the hopes of convincing me otherwise. If you do decide to keep reading, consider yourself warned.
(On that note, I will also not be mentioning names of any of the participants or teachers in this blog, to protect their privacy.)
June, 2005. I signed up to attend one night of ceremony with the shaman from Peru with whom my musician friend (whom I had known for many years and whom I trusted implicitly) was traveling, and as I mentioned in my last blog, I prepared for over three months with a raw-foods diet and many, many prayers. My then-husband also decided to attend. The circle was small and intimate, with only 22 people, including the staff. Each of us had a small, comfortable seat on the floor supplemented by sheepskins, pillows, and whatever else we brought. We were instructed to sit up straight and to use our breath to get through any difficult energy we might be experiencing. After an introduction by the shaman, we each got to drink a very small amount of the sweet tasting ayahuasca which was nearly the consistency of molasses. There was an option to drink a second time if we didn't feel anything after an hour, which was the case with me. During the experience, the shaman played many different musical instruments and sang sacred songs, and the translator, my friend, also sang and played his music. At one time the shaman played something like a juice harp, and I felt the sound go deep into my belly and pull out a very small 'purge' (translation: I vomited into the bucket given to each of the participants at the start of the ceremony). Mostly I felt calm, supported and safe, and I enjoyed the music, but it didn't seem like anything really noteworthy happened. The official ceremony ended about 1 am, and most of the participants went to sleep on site by about 2 am.
The next morning, I awoke with a very powerful imperative: I knew I had to come back and attend a second ceremony that evening. Of course my mind stepped right in with all the reasons why that wouldn't be possible - the ceremony was full, they had a wait list, etc etc. None of it made any difference to this intense knowing I had. I spoke to my friend, who spoke to the shaman, who spoke to the organizer - I think one or more of them may have come to talk with me about it - and eventually, it was arranged that I could attend the ceremony that evening and sit in front of the door to the outside, which opened in to the room and which no one used during the ceremony. My husband agreed to come be a helper for the evening.
It would be impossible to relate all that transpired at this second ceremony. When the medicine first started working on me I was taken into the depths of the purest grief I have ever felt. I felt the presence of Mother Mary standing behind me, and just an absolute GRIEF that felt as if my heart would burst apart. I cried for awhile, devastated. Then I 'saw' in my mind's eye a scenario involving incest between a young girl and her older brother, shown to me metaphorically, maybe, as happening between my own two children, right at that moment; and I experienced the purest RAGE I have ever felt, whose archetype is and who I saw as the Hindu Goddess Kali. Then "I" dropped away completely, and "I" became an emotional process of breath and movement and sound and purging, graphic images and sensory and body sensations pouring through the space wherever "I" normally resided. The shaman prayed over me many times with tobacco and floral waters during the next few hours. The things I purged that night were unspeakably horrendous and I experienced many hideous images and somatic (body) memories, especially having to do with one main trauma. I may have been in that state for up to three hours when finally one of the helpers called my name... "Harmony..." and I came back to the awareness of myself. She suggested I try silence and I was able to do that, finally. (Side note: It was at this ceremony that the helpers decided to create another space for people involved in 'processes' with the medicine in the future. I am sure I was very disruptive to the other participants there that night!)
In the morning, after a little time, I felt and saw that many of my previous attempts to heal and clear this trauma had failed due to the incredible and powerful repression that had been in place. All conscious memory of this traumatic experience had been blocked from my awareness as a way of self-preservation. Each of the healing moments previously described in this blog, and many more that I have not related, were like pressure release valves, letting out small, mostly manageable amounts of the trauma, as my psyche became ready to deal with it. The experience with ayahuasca removed the blocks, and even more. After this experience, I felt as though a part of my soul had come back to me. From that day forward I felt like some huge part of me that had been missing had been returned. I suddenly had more vitality, more energy, more life force. I decided to include a little bit about soul loss and soul retrieval here, because believe me, talking about 'soul-retrieval' is normally enough to get what I call my 'whoo-wometer' in the red zone (meaning, the topic is way to whoo whoo or New Agey for my taste).
What is soul loss?
"Soul loss is first and foremost an adaptive mechanism that usually serves by allowing us to cope, and in some situations survive a terrible experience, in which the dissociated soul parts depart, carrying the pain, the shock, the extreme emotion, or the memory of the trauma which may be simply unbearable to the sufferer at the time it occurs. Soul loss may occur in response to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; a molestation experience during childhood or being ruthlessly teased and bullied; a bitter divorce, a shocking betrayal, a sexual assault, a serious surgery, or a terrible car accident, to name just a few. The post-traumatic stress syndrome experienced by military veterans is a classic example of soul loss." (1)
What is soul retrieval?
"Anyone who's had a trauma, from a shamanic point of view, may have had some loss of their soul. By soul we mean the spiritual essence essential throughout one's life as we describe life in our culture, which is from conception or birth to the time of death. The techniques for healing soul loss are soul-retrieval techniques, and one of the classic shamanic methods is to go searching for that lost portion of the soul and restore it.
"Until about 8 years ago, most people in the Western world felt that soul retrieval was a superstitious practice that had no validity, but things have turned. I must say that a major reason is the work of my colleague, Sandra Ingerman, the author of Soul Retrieval and Coming Home. During her shamanic practice in Santa Fe, NM, years ago, women who had had significant childhood abuse would mention in the course of the sessions that they had removed themselves psychically from the situation at the time of abuse. Sandra immediately recognized, as a practicing shaman, that the person's soul to some degree had left the body (if it had left completely, the person would have been dead), and therefore the logical thing was to retrieve the lost portion of the soul and bring it back. So she then started doing soul retrieval for these people who had had significant childhood traumas, and the results were astounding. Today, this work is an important part of shamanic healing practice in the West."(2)
So, I experienced a part of my soul that literally came back to me that second night of drinking ayahuasca. Along with it came the knowledge, which I had intimations of but which I could still not quite accept, that I was the survivor of major childhood trauma: I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The particular incident I revisited during this first weekend with ayahuasca was a gang attack by a group of local boys down at the creek where we would go and catch bullfrogs. I was abused, tortured and actually left for dead, sometime around the age of 4 years old. The closest neighbor, husband of my piano teacher, found me (one of the boys must have let him know to come looking for me) and rescued me. He also became my secret keeper - but that is a story for another time.
After this experience, I felt more whole than I had ever felt. EVER. I felt like there was some justification for my having felt fucked up literally for my whole life; for having felt lost, isolated, somehow wrong, unloved and unlovable, and ugly; for my self-hatred, my addictions, my depression, my health problems; it ALL made more sense. And yet a huge part of me wanted to deny this new truth, especially as it continued unraveling into even darker and more convoluted places. "But...!" my mind stammered, "I had a normal childhood! I had parents who loved me! I was born white upper-middle class, for goodness sake! This could NOT have happened. Maybe I am just processing this pain for someone else. Maybe it happened in a past life (uh oh, there goes that whoo-wometer!)..."
Not knowing what to do next, I did some research (I know, I AM an academic geek, after all) on the constellation of symptoms in adult survivors of sexual abuse. Here is a summary:
"The symptom profile of adults who were abused as children includes post-traumatic and dissociative disorders combined with depression, anxiety syndromes, and addictions. These symptoms include (1) recurrent depression; (2) anxiety, panic, and phobias; (3) anger and rage; (4) low self-esteem, and feeling damaged and/or worthless; (5) shame; (6) somatic pain syndromes (7) self-destructive thoughts and/or behavior; (8) substance abuse; (9) eating disorders: bulimia, anorexia, and compulsive overeating; (10) relationship and intimacy difficulties; (11) sexual dysfunction, including addictions and avoidance; (12) time loss, memory gaps, and a sense of unreality; (13) flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and images of trauma; (14) hypervigilance; (15) sleep disturbances: nightmares, insomnia, and sleepwalking; and (16) alternative states of consciousness or personalities." (3)
Here are my own symptoms, collected over the years: spastic colon, depression, despair, suicidal thoughts, self-destructive behaviors, OCD behaviors, including dermatillomania, or compulsive skin-picking, many addictions (cigarettes, alcohol, diet pills, speed, crystal meth, sex, just to name a few), escapism using drugs, body dysmorphia/eating disorder, extreme lack of self-esteem, self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness, extreme sexualization of childhood play, sexual promiscuity, abusive boyfriends, lack of sexual boundaries, and revictimization (meaning I became a victim of sexual abuse again, later in life).
(I also have a very hard time with memory, and have very few memories of being a child; and in childhood I often sleep-walked and ended up at the foot of my parents' bed, or in the other bunk bed in my room. Just adding these because while I did not see them as indicators of anything before, they do apply in the context of the first list.)
I looked up this research (and MUCH more - Ms. Turkus' article was #13 on my reference list) because there is STILL a part of me that did not want to believe that anything bad could have ever happened to me. My mom claimed as much - she said I used to run to her for a band-aid with even the smallest little boo boo , and she was sure I would have told her if something had happened to me. But I know I didn't tell her about my problems in the bathroom. I think, looking at the two lists, even a skeptic like my mom would have a hard time dismissing the correlations.
It is not my intention to prove anything to anyone here, anyway. I know because of the prevalent attitudes towards psychoactive substances there are people who theoretically would (and probably will) categorically dismiss this accounting as drug-induced blathering. I would love it if this blog could open the doors of perception to just one person in that category! Unfortunately the skeptics are missing out on one of the most profound opportunities for healing in this day and age, with a sacred plant teacher that is definitely the medicine I needed and that has helped thousands (probably at this point hundreds of thousands) of people in their lives. I know what the medicine allowed me to let go of, and what it brought back to me. I know that after that night I experienced a greater sense of my own life force. I felt stronger and more positive. I felt more present, with my children, husband, relations, in my job, and in my community. I felt more compassionate. Having relived some of my own suffering, I definitely felt energetically 'lighter,' a feeling that has never faded. And I think just knowing that my suffering somehow made sense - this was the biggest relief of all.
This initial experience with ayahuasca prompted me to proclaim to God: "Great Spirit, if there is ever any way I could express my gratitude for what you have given me - if there is any way I could be of service to help others receive help from this plant teacher - please sign me up! I am willing to dedicate my life in service to this path of healing, according to Your will." Almost exactly one year later, my musician friend asked me if my husband and I would be willing to host medicine ceremonies with a new teacher from Colombia at our healing center. I helped organize these ceremonies in the fall of 2006, and have been helping this same teacher ever since, until this spring, when I resigned to begin this book project. So you see, God took me up on my offer!
I have been privileged to watch hundreds of people every year come to ceremony and ask the medicine - which comes from God - for help, and watch them receive that help, even more than they could have imagined. Personally I have found more clearing, more releasing of the past, more lessons in humility, more presence, and more "harmony" than I would ever have believed possible. Of course, to be clear, this medicine is not a cure-all. I mean, I still get depressed. I still go through shitty times. I still doubt myself and feel lost. I think drinking medicine needs to be accompanied by other methods of self-development in order to be the most beneficial (some would disagree). One thing I can say with absolute certainty: beginning with this experience in 2005, I actually perceived the birth of my ability to experience joy, and watched it starting to grow. It was - and still is - a true miracle.
(1) "Soul Loss," by Jill Kuykendall, on the Shared Wisdom website, http://www.sharedwisdom.com/page/soul-loss
(2)"Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone," page 2 An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie Horrigan © Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No.1, retrieved at http://www.shamanism.org/articles/article01page2.html
by Joan A. Turkus, M.D. Retrieved at http://www.fortea.us/english/psiquiatria/spectrum.htm