A former heroin addict tells us how ibogaine saved his life.
Trippy therapy. All collages by Félix Morel.
We reached the Healing House just outside of Vancouver in a top down convertible. I didn’t drive, but the cold wind thrashed me as I wondered how healed I was actually going to get. I was badly addicted to heroin and dilaudid, and I was searching for help. At the first rehab clinic I visited, I told the doctor that I was banging 20 dilly 8s ($200 worth of 8mg pills) a day, and his jaw clacked. I relapsed shortly after and my habit got bigger.
It started with a movie script I’d been working on. One character was an addict, and I used insight into her as an excuse to sequester my curiosity about shooting dope. I started shooting intra-muscularly into my shoulder or the top of my leg (thanks for the tip, Keith) and after an experimental month decided I had gotten the point. A few weeks later, however, I decided I needed another go because quitting had been so easy the first time. By then it was already too late, because heroin will never be casual.
I kept my job at the barbershop for 18 months, shooting dope in the bathroom throughout the day, and I still burned through $28,000 worth of savings. I got pretty desperate, trying numerous times to quit, failing cold turkey, tapering, Suboxone, Methadone, rehab, AA/NA, tough love and the rest of the institutional bullshit. Things started to close in around me, and the pleasures got harder and harder to come by.
I called a friend one night, late, desperate. “Well, drugs got you into this mess, maybe drugs should get you out,” he said.
I spent days online researching methods, eventually coming to a house administering a plant root known as Tabernanthe Iboga, and I called them. I read that Iboga or Ibogaine was effective against addiction, depression, and was championed specifically against opiates.
I remembered hearing about Ibogaine years ago in reference to another therapy house set up on the Sunshine Coast. Marc Emery had a site there, and he’d been treating addicts without cost, using profits from his seed enterprise. He’d seen Ibogaine work for his own son, who’d been using heroin three years and the results basically blew his mind. Unfortunately, his therapy house was brought to a conclusion when he was sent to the squealer. Although he was just released this month.
I meet Tarquin (one of the Ibogaine providers at the House) over the phone. We discuss my situation. I explain that I am desperate and in trouble. He’s factual, kind, understanding. I get a zero bullshit vibe from him pretty quickly as well.
He asks me what I know about Ibogaine so far and I tell him.
It is psychoactive and dissociative when ingested. It causes ataxia. It’s been regulated in Canada and Mexico in 2009 and is illegal in a lot of places (the USA for example). It is viewed as radical in regards to getting off drugs (even though it isn’t).
He informs me that Ibogaine comes from an ancient spiritual discipline known as Bwiti, a tradition of both the Babongo and the forest dwelling Fang People of West Africa. The root bark of the plant is ingested in large amounts ceremoniously as a rite of passage to cure ailments and to communicate with the dead. Among the African people Iboga is a sacred medicine. This is quickly being recognized around the world. He also mentions an Iboga shaman named Gorilla Axe.
Iboga has been called the grandfather of all plants on earth and, more specifically, psychoactives. Its effects have a reputation. But like its sister plant Ayahuasca, the Ibogaine experience is much more than the trip one might parallel to psychedelics. Ibogaine is a spiritual quest. It provides users with a window, enabling them distance from the addiction that controls them. They get the chance to see themselves, and their situation without the normally inescapable influence of their addiction. The medicine is also known for its capability in rewiring parts of the brain involved directly with dependency and depression.
While I wait for my session to get underway, I hold my breath. I keep thinking about the fact that the experience is entirely non-recreational, and not exactly for kicks. But I also remember the ancient Bwiti belief that the Iboga plant is said never to grant the user more than they can handle. And although it is a very personal experience, differing greatly from person to person, the plant is said to work with those who take it (if they are determined and surrender to it in turn). This is spiritual shit, friends.
The Healing House I am in normally takes one patient at a time. But as a rare exception, they agree to take me at the same time as another treatment because, well, I begged them for days. Shortly after, I was told that such a thing would never happen again, as my counterpart and I together were a lot to handle.
A 42 year-old, tattooed up punk called Emmett and I get picked up together in the downtown eastside. I quickly find out that Emmet is coming in from SALOME, a project legally supplying addicts with either free pharma-grade diacetylmorphine (heroin) or liquid dilaudid (hydromorphine). The program monitors its distribution closely, relieving addicts of the constant hunt for their next fix. It also monitors the effects of dilaudid vs. heroin (apparently 99 out of 100 addicts could not tell the difference, or they just didn’t care to). There is also addiction counseling, and SALOME is the first program of it’s kind in North America.
Emmett tells me how perfect it was initially, getting the call. A steady, heavy dose of liquid dilaudid 3 times a day was a fucking dream he told me, fluttering his eyes towards the blue sky. The very idea of such a thing made me hard. Why would you need anything else? Then Emmett was serious. “But even free, high quality dope is getting me nowhere." It had been three years and Emmet told me he was crushed, desperately unsatisfied.
He received 220mgs of liquid dilaudid 3 times daily, plus two street grams of dope to get through the rest of his day and night, having to wake to shoot up at 4:30am in order to continue sleep. The four and five dilaudids I was injecting at a time hit hard and square, but only lasted 4 or 5 hours. It took a constant supply to keep me going, the tolerance building fast. Dilly withdrawal can also be worse than that of skag.
We see a doctor, a friend of the House. She uses tables and charts to prescribe us pilled morphine to placate us from injecting our dope to swallowing it. The switch is difficult, and our providers prefer us comfortable, not sick and panicking. The doc’s scripts are no doubt large, even if only for a few days. Three pharmacies in a row don’t have as much morphine as we need and we end up having to combine all three.
The sunny house sits connected to many others like it. "Do the neighbors know about this place?" I ask. "Not really," they return.
We are shown inside to our rooms and told about the coming days, the available facilities, the hot tub and we get to know our hosts. Tarquin is active and loving. He is very passionate about what he does. He’s also interested in other forms of psychedelic therapy and there are books and documentaries around on the subject. His partner Gio is from Bristol and used to run with the Crass commune. He still skates at 48 and is extremely knowledgeable about Ibogaine and its process. He’s cured his own alcoholism with LSD.
That night they screen a doc on Lysergic Acid research in Saskatchewan in the 1950s. Dr. Humphry Osmond invented the term psychedelic there. I remember thinking that he and I are of the Saskafari.
We take our morphine pills and settle in to another documentary about the life and laboratory of Alexander Shulgin (RIP).
We wake up, have breakfast and are instructed to wait for withdrawals. It’s been 11 hours since my last opiate. Early symptoms come from returning histamines (runny noses, uncontrollable yawning, wet eyes, malaise) and the House prepare our “test dose” to introduce the Iboagine medicine to our system, and to break us in for the coming days. The dose is measured according to body weight per Kilogram.
Emmett is dusted within 45 minutes of taking his. My dose comes slower, and seems to hit less hard. The high weighs a ton, hits like a train and is like smoking a pile of hash. But it isn’t entirely unpleasant. We’ve still only taken a small amount of antidote and neither of us have fixed in a long time. Cohesion starts to dissolve. I see dogs with tractor tire legs. Images have no rhyme of reason and keep coming on. There are subtle withdrawal symptoms, though they are much more civil than anything I’d experienced previous. Eventually I am completely laid out on the futon by what little Iboga we took. Planet Earth moves in the corner and I drift to the sugary narration of Mr. Attenborough.
Psychedelic Witch Fire.
That night a male nurse arrives covered in tattoos and blonde highlights. He comes from out of town. He is there to monitor our vitals. He is warm and personable to us. I see the different between here and rehab. I don’t just feel like a junky. I swallow the last of my morphine pills.
Between days two and three, my habit is cut down from 800mgs to 165 in a single day, with only a very small dose of the Ibogaine medicine.
Emmett and I wake and again wait for withdrawal. Day three is the big one. Today we are given five times the measure of medicine as yesterday, enough to level us anywhere from 12 to 36 hours. It is known as the flood dose. We take anti-nauseants to counteract the mama birds and I try to relax. Our distributors prepare our rooms by blacking out the windows. It is ritual. Increasing vibrations. I try to meditate, to breathe. Tarquin and Gio grind up dark brown medicine from rust glass bottles in a bud buster. Gio holds it under my nose. “All alkaloids my man… so nice”. He smiles.
The medicine is not cheap and is imported and distributed within Canada. I also hear that it is not easy to harvest. Our ground up meds are put into gels and set aside on the kitchen table.
Gio tells me that there are going to be what seem like a lot of pills, but not to worry or argue, to just take them. He tells me to trust the process.
Tarquin comes into the dark room, trailed by fragrant purple smoke. He smudges Emmet and I, Gio and then himself, ridding the place of bad spirits. Somehow it eases me a bit. I don’t know what I think about spirits but I dig the gesture. Next there is quiet chanting and prayer. Everything is completely dark. I’d spent last night and all of that day in fear, but that was changing into something else now. My anxious fear felt a bit like I was part of something significant. I also see now that before an experience of this magnitude, out of respect, one should be afraid. I was there to win a battle I’d been losing for too long. I desperately wanted to get it right. I wondered if I was ready.
Tarquin very seriously instructs that we lay on our backs, “palms open in order to receive.” He adds that one cannot receive in the fetal position. The fetal position? I think to myself.
The nurse is there to take our vitals, and we start swallowing gels.
Gio is in my room every 15 minutes with pills and coconut water. At one point it feels like I’ve taken 16, maybe 20. Then he hands me more. We are warned against sitting up, but I do it anyway. I lift my sleeping mask off my eyes and look into the heavens. I am already feeling the beginning of the pills. Those are the last of ‘em mate, you’re all done. I quietly thank Jehovah and lay down. But Gio comes back 20 minutes later with two more capsules, “just to make sure." I swallow them without comment feeling things loosen. I am starring into psychedelic witch fire. Insects, tiny army men. The colors all separated and mixing, everything moving, vibrating in wider and wider tremolo. I remember thinking to myself that it was less terrifying than totally insane and I even laughed for a while. But I was nowhere near what was coming.
Someone put on the strange drone of traditional Bwiti music in the hallway. Folks, it is trippy as fuck. I leave for beautiful islands in space.
I’m not going to get too far into trip specifics because I feel it’ll be like when someone is telling you about a dream, and even though you’re their friend, you just can’t care what they’re on about.
I was escorted to “the best midnight party around” by some creature that I think looked like Behemeth, wearing nothing but a red bow tie. There were a host of characters partying like out back the tent in the Nick the Stripper video and festivities went all night. I met all kinds of other creatures, and entertainment and it was undoubtedly the best midnight party I’d ever been to.
A form came to me, spoke in a series of vibrations and images, telling me that I’d been dead a long time and that it was going to give me the pain I’d put my friends and family through (I’m guessing through my addiction). I tasted copper for a long time. My heart was weighted and in complete anguish. After what I thought were hours, the form came back. It removed the pain from me, which started me on a path of light and I felt new or something, reborn almost. The message was received (zero distortion).
I remember that there was someone watching over me all night, and the nurse came and gently took my pulse literally every 15 minutes for the duration I was out. It was gentle and reassuring.
There is literally nothing quite like your own mind turning completely against you during withdrawal. Terrifying threats, then soothing rationalizations and complete inner betrayal. You’ll do absolutely anything unless (like Nick Nolte) you handcuff yourself to a wrought iron bed frame with no key. I’ve tried this also.
I only remember Emmet asking if he could text his girlfriend. We’d been without dope a long time and his mind was climbing itself inside. Everyone reacts very differently. I had no urge for dope at all.
We were both still very under the influence of the flood, but basically able to get out of bed now. Gio gave Emmet his phone, Emmett slowly poked at it a while, and got distracted by something out in space. Gio watched, waited a while and patiently asked if he could have his phone back. Emmet looked up, had no idea what he meant, so Gio asked again, motioning to the mobile phone in his hanging hand. Emmet decided he was eager to get rid of whatever he was holding and had completely forgotten about the text. Gio went to use it and saw the text to Emmet’s girlfriend. It said “HELPHELP H ELP!!!” with “Message Unsent.” Later Emmet told us that he only remembered giant red letters in his head that said “R U N." Gio tells him he shouldn’t scare his girlfriend like that.
I open my eyes to bright light. I feel like I haven’t pooed in weeks and I probably haven’t
There are bright white tracers coming off the doorknob, corners of the window, my hands. I am still pretty dusted. Walking takes concentration, but it’s more doable than before. Sickness and pain are gone except minor aches in my back. I feel dazed, but at peace. How long was I out?
I eat butter and honey toast all day to try to regain strength. None comes. I am given more Ibogaine. A booster. Smaller by amount, but more.
Tarquin and Gio take turns cooking. They’ve have been supplying us with healthy food at night and freshly squeezed juices in the mornings and coconut ice cream. But I have no appetite. I am a jellyfish.
I drag myself out into the sun and try to walk around the block. It takes everything to get halfway and back. People stare. The medicine is still working on me.
Things move slow now. There isn’t much sleep. I try to write, but find I am too weak to sit up at the table. It strikes me that I haven’t had a cigarette in five days. I do not want one, maybe ever again. I’d quit without even realizing. I keep repeating to Gio, “Jesus, why am I so weak, why do I feel like this?” He says to me, “It’s from the great big heroin habit you came in here with mate.” And I’d say, “Ooh right…I’d forgotten.”
Music is starting to sound good again today.
I lay around, recover and relax. At this point, I can’t imagine doing much else but giving my body chance to repair itself. We hit the hot tub. My muscles and bones are sore. I am still so weak that I just float. I feel early tingles of what I think is my libido attempting return.
After one week, the medicine has run its course. I feel zero sickness, or withdrawal symptoms. I also feel no urge whatever to touch heroin. This is the first in a long time.
I am told my weakness is due to fried endorphins. I am told it will get better slowly, and that I can go home the next day if I would like to. I would.
Basically I came to that House in pale shambles. I wouldn’t call Ibogaine easy, but I would call it a superior way to deal with an addiction. I walked away from that experience clean. And though I risk sounding schmaltzy, I left that house an entirely different person, without a crutch. No methadone and no Suboxone. No shame, zero guilt. I felt like a better version of myself. I came to that house empty and left with rosy cheeks and my imagination returned to me. For the first time in years, I loved music again.
And even when I thanked Tarquin and Gio over and over, they were pretty sincere in repeatedly assuring me that I had done all the work.
Emmett kicked his habit too. He walked out beside me the same day, the same way
It has been 3 months and I’m very into having my life back. I’m still clean and sober thanks to the granddaddy of all plants.
For information on Ibogaine and its traditions, myeboga.com is a good source.