Challenge By Choice – My First (and Second) Ayahuasca Experience

En route from my Caribbean island home in Panama, to the mountain destination of New Life Ayahuasca retreat Costa Rica, I sat in the tiny plane staring out the window at the view below. Having lived here, on this island, for the last ten years, I have taken many flights to and from it. What marked this flight as different than all others is that, at first, all my depressive mindcould think of is, “What a shame, look at all the recent over-development of this majestic, beautiful archipelago. So many new houses/hotels/resorts that have sprung up even since I last flew, less than a year ago. It’s obvious the coral is bleaching. It’s obvious rainforest has been cut down to accommodate the growing population, it’s obvious that the jungle is so dry, from climate-change, that the canopy top is actually brown instead of it’s usual lush, verdant green”. How disheartening. Stay with me, please, dear reader – I promise you it gets better.  After recently coming clean off of of a decades long dependence on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals, I am open to alternative, natural therapies (that actually work).

There comes a point in these little “puddle-jumper” flights, where the plane dips and you actually come a bit out of your seat. It’s a heart-into-the stomach kind of drop that you feel. In the past, I would secretly hope the plane would crash because it would mean that I could check out of this world, without leaving a legacy of guilt. It would be an easy way to go, without causing my family pain, as I would not to be at blame for fault or the death. I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts my whole life. I recently found a diary I wrote as a 12-year old girl and all it talks about is suicide – really, Laura? That’s fucked up. So, on this recent flight, when the plane dipped and thoughts of “wow, we could crash” inevitably came, instead of thinking, “Yeah, let’s do this, let’s go down in a blaze of glory, guilt-free” I quite conversely thought, “No, we are not going to crash, I do not want to crash, I am venturing on a healing path, about to explore new horizons of consciousness, and there actually could be so much to live for”. Hmmm…who knew?

With this newly found attitude of gratitude, even in a world out of control, I looked out the window with a slight smile on my face, and new taste in my mouth – it tasted like optimism, how foreign. My guides, Matt and Jeanae, personally picked me up at the San Jose, Costa Rica airport and drove me an hour up into the mountains to their magical retreat center located on 20 acres of wonderland. Butterflies fluttering, hummingbirds whizzing, raptors circling, breezes singing all combined to enliven the senses. Even the experience of the brain seeing mountains instead of the constant flat sea, and limited range of small island living felt to refreshing and healing to my brain post-concussion.

Having experimented with psychedelics (LSD and psilocybin mushrooms) only in recreational settings, starting when I was only fifteen years old, attending Grateful Dead concerts, it is only now, at age forty-seven, that I have been studying the benefits of psychedelic therapies, especially ayahuasca, as a treatment for anxiety, PTSD, depression and addiction. The difference in experience between recreational and therapeutic is the setting and intention. Used therapeutically, this plant medicine has massive potential for exploring new ways of thinking, breaking old patterns of thought-rumination, in order to create space for true healing and brand new, positive perspective on life and love. This is all flowery talk – and I use this flowery talk when teaching yoga. However, the thing with flowery talk, and “think positive” new-age, woo-woo affirmations is, hey, EASIER SAID THAN DONE. Ayahuasca doesn’t just suggest affirmation, it makes you LIVE it, it puts you there with clarity. You are in it. You are living it. It is real. What is “it”? Just like yoga, it is a personal journey for each individual. Allow me to share with you my journey to gratitude and, finally, a love for life.

Late afternoon started with a “spiritual flower bath”, where we had a bucket of perfumed water, and a pile of flowers. We were to rip the flowers and put them in the bucket of water. With each flower put into the water, we were to set an intention of what we wanted to get out of the experience. The theme to each impromptu intention I made, seemed to revolve around forgiveness. Forgiveness – of myself and others – and to make peace with traumas in my life. As I ripped each flower, tears welled up. After all the flowers were in the bucket of water, then we scrubbed our bodies with the flowers, then poured the water over our heads, with the mountains above us and the valley below. There was only one other participant, so it felt very intimate, private and personal, and the anonymity felt really nice – no one had expectations of me, so I could truly be myself. That Matt and Jaenae are both recovering addicts made me feel non-judged and non-paranoid. The feeling of nurturing and being cared for, and professionally looked after was very prominent and prevalent. I can not stress enough the importance of this safe, comforting environment when you are traveling into the inner recesses of your mind. I was able to tap into memories LONG FORGOTTEN – both good and bad memories. In being able to tap into them, healing occurred. I explored levels of consciousness that I didn’t even know existed! I’ve studied my fair share of psychology, both in college and in personal study just in an effort to try to figure myself out, and I’ve gone on bizarre pilgrimages to places like Rishkesh, India, and this plant medicine showed me parts of my brain/body/mind/consciousness that were beyond anything I even thought was possible in this Universe.

As I lay on my cushioned mat, covered in an abundance of blankets and pillows, at the edge of a covered, outdoor patio, I laid on my side and stared out at the trees and valley below. The stars came out, and an owl was hooting in the trees. I drank my first dose of the ayahuasca, and laid there waiting. I started to feel some slight tripping and thought, “Oh, this is cute, it’s very mild, reminds me of when I was a teen-ager” and it came to my mind a girl I used to trip with, on acid, regularly, Sarah Powers, who is dead now. Not sure how she died – at my 20th highschool reunion (ten years ago) it was speculated drug-overdose. I was never friends with him, but I will never forget the hauntingly, expressive big eyes of my classmate, Christopher McCanldess in the hallways of high-school (Chris, as in the book & film “Into The Wild”). So, I’m laying there thinking, oh, this is nothing, it’s just a little acid trip, no big deal. Ha!!!!! How naive of me. Also brought to mind another high-school friend, Rob Swan, also dead, also suspected drug-overdose. I haven’t thought of these people in decades, and suddenly they were WITH me and it was sweet. It wasn’t macabre at all. They were with me and it was benevolent. This is coming from someone who does not believe in Heaven (or Hell) or reincarnation, or any of that, so this was weird for me.  By the way, if you think you know Chris McCanlesses’ story, you don’t – you need to read his sister, Carine’s book “The Wild Truth”.

Approximately a half an hour after my first dose of the plant medicine, lovely Jeanae (who did not drink the medicine that night, who was our designated care-taker) I saw her increasingly in my vision, through the night I saw as a stunningly beautiful light and airy, prancing fairy woodland nymph pixie creature who brought me my natural lip-balm when I needed it (which served as a pacifier I clung to and reapplied all night) – came to me and whispered, “Do you feel it? Do you want more?”. If I am here the answer is resolutely YES. This is not for the faint of heart, but if I’m going to do this I’m going all in. So far no nausea at all either! Living on a plant-based diet since 1982 has really paid off! So grateful for a super clean digestive system, which I feel helped me digest the medicine more effectively. After the second dose, I lay there with my eyes closed and Matt (who also drank the medicine) started playing a large gong. It reminded me to the gong therapy – that I completely forgot about! – in Kundalini Yoga classes I used to take every Friday night in Tucson back in 2007 with my now-dead friend Carrie Stover. The vibrational waves of the gong washed over me, and I was INSIDE the Tucson yoga studio, called Anjali yoga. It’s not like I was simply remembering it. I was THERE. That’s when I remember Carrie used to be on the mat next to me. Every Friday night. We went through our very first ever Yoga Teacher Training together, and our Friday night Kundalini class was our way to de-stress from the YTT. Going through your first ever YTT is a very intense, stressful, challenging thing. Carrie was still a police detective at the time, wanting to get out of that profession and I had just months prior retired from my stressful profession of full-time exotic dancer. When I say dancer, just know I have an addictive personality, so if I did it, I took it to the extreme. So, Carrie and I (cop & stripper) were both in a place, of wanting to shift into a better, healthier path, which was not easy. Our Kundalini Friday nights were our refuge from the demanding YTT classes. Again, I was not just remembering Carrie. She was WITH me on that mountain top in Costa Rica, even though she’s been dead for years.

The presence of a yoga teacher of mine, who played in big part in the formation of me as a professional yoga teacher, she taught me the power of being a boss-lady. That presence of Benita Wolfe Galvan. I haven’t seen her since Amsterdam four years ago, since my studies have taken me elsewhere of late. I’ve studied all over the world with that woman and I love her immensely. I wore a shirt that she gave me during the retreat so I felt close to her warmth. I did not tell her this until the morning following my first trip, I got in touch with her, after months of not being in touch to tell her I was thinking of her during my trip, and her response was, “I knew that!! Last night I was sitting under the stars thinking of you!!! I love you!!! I love you, I felt you.. I was there with you..or visa versa..” So, that was a strange synchronicity. The sort of which I’ve always been skeptical of.

Any of you who are familiar with my writing, know that I am a huge Carl Sagan fan, especially of his “bullshit detector kit outlined in his 1995 book“Demon-Haunted World”. I have always been a staunch atheist and very vocally against any sort of pseudoscience woo-fuckery. I don’t even believe in astrology. So, when I say my dead friends were “with” me – it’s hard to explain. I do not believe it was a supernatural experience, I believe it was a new level of consciousness and pathways in the brain being opened up, whereas in the past these neural pathways were blocked and synapses were not firing. The Pineal Gland (called the “third-eye” in yoga speak) was switched ON.

With DMT (Dimethyltryptamin) my synapses were firing like all the cannons of every war ever fought on this earth, yet the result was not death and destruction, the result of the canons ablaze was love, and a feeling of interconnectedness with nature, and in saying nature, I mean not just trees, but with fellow animals/humans. I felt I was the Mother of Dragons. In this way I was able to tap into being with places and people I needed to address. Long-suppressed issues and traumas were brought to the forefront.

After the gong bath, Matt started singing a guttural, melodic, improvisational song with no words. It was so profound, his singing, it was obvious he was utilizing his voice as a tool to help guide the trip, and in doing so it was a gift to us participants that helped us stay somewhat grounded in “reality” when our minds were traversing the Universe and beyond.

At the beginning of the trip, I whispered to the sky, “Please teach me how to love this world”. Since 1982, at the age of thirteen I have been so disheartened by the state of animal agriculture, since the book “Billions & Billions” came out in 1997 I have been so saddened by the world’s over-population and the ensuing destruction of the planet as a result, to the point of having myself surgically sterlised at age 32 (no kids and no regrets). I just wanted the medicine to teach me how to love the world despite all the violence, destruction and greed…and it did. Before I could love it, I had to let go of long-held resentments, anger and guilt that I have worn as an amour with stubborn pride my whole life. During various “visitations” from important figures that played a large role in my life experience, including a knighted rock-n’-roll legend. I also made peace with a man who contributed so much to me, who committed suicide, I was able to let go, to release, to not hold on, to not be strong. To give myself permission to be soft, be humbled, to be yes, weak as I finally did vomit (very briefly, and into a bucket next to my mat) to get rid of it.

The role that Jeanae played was nurturing, yet silent. She didn’t ask questions, as say a psychotherapist would do. There was no prodding, or steering of the trip from an outside force. It was all in silence – no words. Unlike traditional psycho-therapy (which is VALUABLE) where one is slowly asked a multitude of questions, to try to piece together a puzzle in baby-steps, during the ayahuasca trip, it is all LAID OUT on the table and the plant says, “DEAL WITH IT – THIS IS YOU, and you know what? You are a good person despite what you’ve been telling yourself all these decades”. There is no tip-toeing around any issues. You are laid BARE and vulnerable. There is such a deep humbleness, as in reduced to nothing, that the only way to go is UP.

After approximately four hours since drinking the medicine, there was an hour-long fire-ceremony which was amazing.  Huge pit-fire, which Jeanae impressed me to both tears and laughter, with her fire-building skills under the stars, and the twinkling lights of the city of the valley below. The fire ceremony was a nice way to come down. Through that first trip there was a generous amount of free-flowing sobbing, as well as hysterical laughter. All in all, a good trip. During it my mother was very present. I just remember staring up at the clear stars and saying, “I just don’t want to cause my mom any more pain, she doesn’t deserve it and I’m sorry, Mom, I have always loved you”. I felt at one with my mom and warm in her womb that night.

Two nights later, the second trip…. I would not characterize it as a “bad” trip, however it forced me to explore all the stuff that I glossed over on the first trip. The first trip was profound, but the second was like terror at some points. Terror for which I am grateful I faced, because the result was so much CLARITY of the pattern of my mentally ill behavior over the course of my life. First of all mental illness/depression is not a choice. Mood disorder is not a choice. Addiction is not a choice. There is no shame in it, and all this time I felt doomed by it and attached to stigma. I now see it can be managed.  Although this second trip was so scary at some points, there were absolutely no tears during it, which was strange considering the places I went to in my mind. Once I was able to CLEARLY see what started my self-destructive patterns (especially in the choosing of romantic partners, a prime example being the swirling vortex of glamourous disaster that was“Bizarre Love Triangle”), by addressing the ROOT CAUSE then I feel optimistic I have the power to break the pattern. I am not a slave to the root cause. I see it, I acknowledge it, and now choose love.

Something I have buried so deep within me – I will spare the details, but it has to do with at eighteen years old being falsely imprisoned and sexually assaulted. All this time it’s been buried I felt I deserved it. And I can see clearly how that feeling has been reenacted and carried out by myself over the years. Although I absolutely do NOT regret my days in the sex-industry, I can now see how my dancing days were a form of self-abuse. I was re-enacting trauma to my body/mind sexually. The difference though was CONSENT. Dancing I not only was consenting to it, I was being paid rather handsomely for it, which actually led to quite an addition to it. If you are given positive reinforcement (lots of money and a feeling of superficial, yet real-feeling sense of power) for a toxic behavior, it makes it all much more hard to stop. I didn’t treat my body and my sexuality with respect because damn it, the revisiting the sexual assault, during the ayahuasca trip, as horrible as that was, showed me that I didn’t deserve it. The ayahuasca taught me that NO, that was messed up – I did NOT deserve it. That I am a creature of love and goodness and light and deserve to be treated as such, especially by myself. Not only did I find it in my heart to forgive my abusers in my life I found it in my heart to, more importantly, forgive myself for constantly beating myself up. I am now happily single and can say one thing for certain – I do not want a “bad boy”. I want a good man. And if I never find one, I am content with that, as I now see that I am WHOLE on my own. If love and companionship comes, it comes. It would be nice – it really would be. If not, I am not less of a person. Self-professed bad boys and/or wanna-be sugar-daddies beware – I want none of it. I am on the path of healing and recovery and if that is not honored, I will show you the door. I am not damaged. I am worthy of compassion. There is no more penance to pay for being me, therefore I will only allow in love and understanding and a willingness for true emotional connection. I lay myself bare and want it in return. Otherwise, I have a perfectly wonderful German-made vibrator that keeps me quite entertained on occasion.

A really wonderful part of the whole experience is that the day after each trip, on severe lack of sleep, I received a really high-quality professional massage by a Tico (Costa Rican man) that came in to the facility.  He was very intuitive as to where to go on my body, without me telling him.  It felt purging.  He went so deep into the muscle, precisely where I needed it.  It felt like love, compassion and healing going into my body, and painfully releasing all the trauma stored in my muscle-memory.  I drank massive amounts of water afterwards to pee all the lactic acid out that was released from the muscle tissue.  The rest of the day I kind of walked like a zombie, shuffling my feet, on barely functioning legs.  It felt like being reborn in a way, like when you see baby calves first finding their legs – that was me.  Truly humbled, happy and grateful.  I must add, the freshly prepared food (very accommodating to my vegan lifestyle) was very healthy and good.  I never felt hungry too.  I’ve been at retreats all over the world, and I’m usually starving.  Not here.  I felt satiated and content.

The most beneficial and historic outcome of this trip, has to do with me making peace with my father. I rebelled against my military father most vigorously my whole life. I would go years without speaking to him, steeped and stewing in anger. During this second trip I found peace with him and with myself. As a result, he and I are making plans for him to come visit me in Panama. As I sit here writing this, he just booked his flights. This is truly historic. I am pushing 50, and he is pushing 80 and isn’t it about time we make peace before one of us dies? Hey, I’ve already had one near-death experience – it could happen. Time for peace. Time for love.

As I came to the above realizations, there was a point when I was in such a dark place, humbled and felt like just dust on the earth, could visualize me being washed down a drain, that I vomited all the darkness up. It was just a brief vomiting, but it felt truly PURGING. Not some hippy-dippy, juice-cleanse type of detox for your liver (which already does a pretty good job on it’s own if you don’t drown it in booze & pills), but a TRUE PURGING of the psyche manifesting itself in the vomit. Toward the end of that trip, I also made a trip (assisted with standing and walking by Jeanae) to my private bathroom, within my private bedroom, to take a really satisfying shit. I didn’t defecate during the first trip. I did toward the end of this second trip, and again it was purging, cleansing – like all that stuff I explored, all the darkness I addressed (the most twisted, violently sexually fucked-up shit) was LEAVING me and it felt good.

While I was exploring all that dark stuff, I admit I started to panic. Once you’re on the trip, you are ON IT and no turning back. As panic gripped me, I forced myself to think of the one thing that’s been a bright part of my life – my Little Lexi Lou, my rescued street-doggie that recently died. Actually, she is the one who convinced me to take this journey. After she died I was a bit nihilistic. It was during Savasana in a yoga class that I was teaching, when all my students were in their Final Relaxation Pose, and I sat there quietly monitoring the class, when Lexi came to me and said, “Mom, I know I saved you from killing yourself, but if you off yourself now, you will leave me with a tarnished legacy, so please, I beg of you, choose to LIVE, so that you can honor me to the highest, give yourself permission to enjoy this world”, and that’s what I am choosing. She is the reason I chose to retreat to New Life Ayahuasca – I wanted something radical to get me over the loss of my Lou. I no longer have to pay a penance for my past – I have been given permission to love this life. This one’s for you, my Sweet Girl.

Epilogue:  I returned for two more ceremonies in September, 2016  and filmed a video at the ayahuasca retreat center, the morning after a ceremony.  I’d be honored for you to check it out – it’s very intimate:

Laura Kay