Illustration by Seba Cestaro

I Took Ayahuasca at a Countryside Retreat and It Was as Profound as They Say It Is

It wasn’t scary. It was beautiful. Magical. Out of this world. It was bizarre and yet it made complete sense. And I was not alone. And I never would be again.

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Dec 3 2018, 3:32pm

Illustration by Seba Cestaro

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Burnout and Escapism Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

I was in a village hall in a secret location deep in the English countryside, about to take the Amazonian medicine ayahuasca. I had never done psychedelics before. I’m a 33-year-old dentist from London. Apart from smoking my fair share of weed as a teenager and doing coke a handful of times in my late 20s, I’m not a very experienced drug user.

Before deciding to do this I spoke to three people I knew who had done ayahuasca, and I was slightly baffled by the fact that even though they were all intelligent, articulate women, none of them were able to explain what the experience of taking this drug was like. I only got replies like “Ayahuasca’s intense,” “It shows you ‘you,’” or “It’s like ten years of therapy, but you have to be ready to do the work.” In hindsight, I now understand how the effects of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ayahuasca’s active compound, are impossible to explain.

I didn’t do this to get high; I was doing it largely out of curiosity. I wasn’t hoping for anything specific. I’m very interested in spirituality, our purpose as humans, our connections with others. So I was quite fascinated when friends told me they had experienced some profound spiritual insights on ayahuasca. I felt as though it had come into my life for a reason, so I went with it.

There were about 20 of us, people of all ages, ethnic, and social backgrounds. We set up our duvets and pillows around the edge of the hall, a place usually used for old people’s tea parties or cake baking competitions. The curtains were shut and the doors were locked by Shaun (some names have been changed to protect people’s identities), a psychotherapist who has used ayahuasca and is interested in exploring how he can use it in his clinical practice. Ayahuasca is illegal because it contains DMT, and the organizers couldn’t have local villagers finding out that this “meditation retreat” was something rather more than that.

We changed from our normal, villager-friendly clothes into all white and sat around to share our intentions for the evening. My intention was to surrender to the experience and allow it to show me what I needed to see.

The ceremony started, and one by one we went up to drink the “medicine,” which looked like a jug of coffee. The thick brown liquid was poured into a shot glass. It was slightly sweet, slightly bitter. I walked back to my duvet nest and soon I fell asleep. Then I woke up again and things were happening. Not comfortable things. I was freaking out. What the fuck had I done? Why had I done this to myself?

I called for help and Kay, one of Shaun’s assistants, came to the rescue. She lay me on my back and applied strong pressure to the center of my chest where my rib cage meets. “What are you doing? That’s uncomfortable,” I said. “I know,” she replied. “I’m de-armoring you, just relax.” Then the floodgates opened and I cried. Time was distorted. I curled into the fetal position and I was sad because I was alone. I was a baby and I was alone. And I didn’t want to be. “This is your healing,” Kay said. “Enjoy it.” Was she fucking kidding?

Despite having incredible, loving, caring parents, I related strongly to this feeling of aloneness. The disconnect. I’m probably the least alone person I know. But often throughout my life I have felt alone. Not understood. Different.

I opened my eyes and an arm wrapped around me from behind like I was being spooned. The fingers interlocked with mine and the connection was beautiful. I watched the hands softly intertwine and twist around each other. But no creepy neighbor was taking advantage of my out-of-my-head state. This was all me.

You’re still you, she told me. Open your eyes, take a look. I did. I was still there, lying peacefully now. Then I closed my eyes again and I was back with her. It wasn’t scary. It was beautiful. Magical. Out of this world. It was bizarre and yet it made complete sense. And I was not alone. And I never would be again.

I was aware of another presence and it was Morgan, my three-week-old nephew. But his name wasn’t Morgan now, it was Nathaniel. And he was calling me Anya, not my real name. I got some clear messages about Nathaniel. He is going to have many of the same challenges in his life that I have had. It’s my job to help him struggle less. While he is on his own journey, I can help fast-track him through the pain because of my experience. Later I googled the names Nathaniel and Anya and discovered that they are both of Hebrew origin. Anya is a Hungarian word for mother.

I’ve felt a strong connection to Morgan since even before he was born. The day my sister went into labor I was due to fly to Ibiza. I drove to the airport but every fiber in my body was telling me not to get on the plane, so I turned the car around. Later that night my sister went into a 20-hour-long labor and Morgan was born.

Now it was Saturday morning at the retreat and I was back to reality. I wanted to get to Morgan. This was a two-day retreat with a second ceremony scheduled for that night, but I needed to get out. I made out like I was going to the loo, leaving my yoga mat and bedding in the room. I jumped in my car and sped away.

I drove two hours from the sleepy village to my sister’s home in the Cotswolds. I looked at the sweet baby boy in his cot. “Nathaniel, it’s me, Anya,” I whispered to him. But he’s a baby and he was fast asleep. And his name is Morgan. Before I knew it I was glossing over my meditation retreat and discussing feeding patterns with my sister.

Part of the work people talk about that’s involved in taking ayahuasca is integrating what you learn into your life. As the days and weeks pass, the learning and visions I experienced will no doubt fade. But one thing everyone says about the medicine is that you get a clear message. I got two. The first: I’m not alone because I’ll always have me; I am complete, whole, two in one and able to access her wisdom through deep meditation whenever I need to. The second: It’s now my duty to support Nathaniel on his journey in this life; while remembering that his name is actually Morgan and that his earth parents probably don’t need to know too much about all this.

Will I try ayahuasca again? I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule it out. I do need time to process what I’ve discovered; to allow it to integrate. I guess the question is, how far down the rabbit hole do I want to go?

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