Are Psychedelics the New Prozac?
Was it the time travelers, the jaguar people, or the song from Pocahontas? All I know is that, as my exploration of psychedelics grew from a few campout mushrooms to full-on ayahuasca ceremonies, I felt better than I ever had in my life.
“Are you feeling the plants?” Pluma Blanco whispered. It was nearly midnight, in the darkened great room of a mansion in a nice neighborhood overlooking San Francisco. I was kneeling behind a makeshift altar arrayed with objects of spiritual significance set out by the twenty or so other houseguests lying prone on blankets and camping pads on the floor. Beneath the entire slumber party stretched a large canvas drop cloth that was soiled, like a cage-fighting mat, with mahogany stains from the previous night’s bodily expulsions.
“No,” I told the shaman, feeling a little ashamed.
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When the Uber driver dropped my girlfriend, Emma, and me off, it was a beautiful summer Saturday. The cars parked along the shady lane suggested a barbecue or dinner party. But inside the open door, we found an assemblage of alternative healers, PTSD sufferers, recovering opioid addicts, and wanderers padding quietly around the dimly lit spaces. Some were already friends through these gatherings. Others, like us, had heard about it via word of mouth. No one spoke above a reverent whisper, and we’d all been told not to engage with the neighbors when coming and going.
“There may be purging. Have you heard about the purging?” one of the shaman’s assistants asked. He showed us a stack of plastic painter’s buckets and what looked like an ordinary trash can. “This is a one-way sealed alchemical portal for what you’ve worked so hard to release.”
But hours later, after prayers, meditation, snorting a sinus-clearing liquid tobacco called tsaank, and finally ingesting a strong cup of ayahuasca—the psychedelic brew at the center of this ceremony—I felt nothing. Around us the others were in the throes of vomiting or deep in psychotropic stupor.
The shaman wore a purple cast on his right arm. He’d broken it a couple of weeks earlier while mountain biking. He was stocky and well muscled, in his late forties, with a close-cropped faux hawk and an embroidered short-sleeved white tunic that hung untucked over his cargo pants. He had a soft-spoken intensity about him and always made eye contact.
According to the bio that his assistant had sent prior to the retreat, the shaman was born to midwestern Christian missionaries in the Darién jungles of Panama, where he’d lived for his first 15 years. After college he returned to Panama to study plant medicine among the same indigenous Embera healers who had given him his moniker at birth. But friends here still know Pluma Blanco by his one-syllable American name, which I’ve agreed not to use. That’s because dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the active ingredient in ayahuasca—despite the brew’s use in pilot studies as a therapy for everything from PTSD to addiction cessation—is still an illegal Schedule I drug.
Ayahuasca is actually made from two plants, the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis shrub, both found across the jungles of Central and South America. The P. viridis leaf contains DMT, though if you ate it, your stomach acids would zap it before anything happened. The trick is in combining both the leaf and the vine, which contains an enzyme inhibitor that prevents DMT from breaking down immediately in your gut. The odds of anybody randomly combining these two otherwise inert plants—out of all the millions in the jungle—into a stiff brew are nearly impossible, something that would require divine inspiration, which is how indigenous folklore describes ayahuasca’s discovery and early ceremonial use across the Amazon basin since at least 1000 B.C.
Pluma came over and poured another ounce or two of the earthy liquid from a stainless-steel HydroFlask bottle on the altar. I put the cup to my lips and for a second time tasted the sweet, woody flavor. It went down like a comet and sat like a burning sphere in my chest. Still nothing. He poured another cup, then another. He lit tobacco, inhaled, and then exhaled onto my forehead. He sang soft, lilting songs in Embera.
Behind my closed eyelids, I gradually became aware of an animated ball of light that was drifting off in the distance. I followed it, bringing it closer until it entered my body and then exploded in the form of projectile vomit.
“Good,” Pluma said soothingly.
There was no nausea. It was just this sphere of energy leaping from my chest and then a wave of realization: the purge isn’t a side effect but the thing itself. I got the feeling that if I’d ignored the ball, I would have continued to feel nothing. But now I staggered to my feet, flaming jaguar patterns pulsating across my vision, and went back to my mat, where I purged again. A second later, Emma threw up as well. Then we lay back to see what the plants had to say.
If you've been paying attention to pop culture, you may have noticed that America is in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance. Burning Man—the epicenter of loosely tolerated drug use—isn’t even edgy anymore. The recent Ben Stiller vehicle While We’re Young traffics in the zeitgeist humor of a forty-something couple attempting to recapture their youth at an ayahuasca ceremony. Four-hour lifehacking guru Tim Ferriss has touted both ayahuasca and psilocybin, found in cubensis mushrooms, as a hard reset on your mental computer. On the Outside Podcast in August, he called psychedelics, without irony, “15 years of therapy in five hours.” Meanwhile, the buzz among young Silicon Valley types is that microdosing on LSD boosts creativity. And instead of making pilgrimages to Peru, where backpackers have long sought out ayahuasca ceremonies with indigenous shamans, tech bros are reaching enlightenment without even leaving their zip code.
Evidently, somewhere between This Is Your Brain on Drugs and legal marijuana, the narrative on psychedelics got flipped on its head. Instead of being a middle finger to an orderly society, as they were in the sixties, psychedelics have become this generation’s silver bullet of mental health and mindfulness. And rather than riding the wave of antiwar angst, as they did when Timothy Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project leaked into the counterculture movement, the drugs have grafted onto our collective obsession with self-improvement and lifestyle design. Leary’s fiery directive was to “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Ferriss just wants you to 10x your productivity, to “level up and reach a phase change.”
Until the mid-1960s, mushrooms, LSD, and DMT were all legal. Then, in 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and psychedelics became politically toxic as a research topic. Now, however, they are once again finding acceptance in academia. Privately funded research sanctioned by the FDA and DEA has been under way at Johns Hopkins, New York University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California at Los Angeles, among others.
Scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, led by professor of psychiatry and neuroscience Roland Griffiths, have used moderately high doses of psilocybin to arrest major depression and existential anxiety among terminal cancer patients. In 2014, Griffiths’s team released a study in which people trying to quit smoking achieved an unheard-of 80 percent success rate after six months using psilocybin and talk therapy. Now they are tackling softer subjects, like whether high doses of the drug—the equivalent of roughly four to five grams of dried mushrooms, several times larger than a recreational dose—will produce spiritually significant experiences among serious meditators and clergy members.
At the University of California at San Francisco, a preliminary survey is currently looking at whether ayahuasca has therapeutic benefits for people who are struggling with PTSD. According to faculty researcher Jessica Nielson—who I was initially unable to reach in early September because she was attending Burning Man—the survey makes a convincing case for more involved research into ayahuasca. “We aren’t totally certain what it is about ayahuasca that people find healing,” says Nielson. “But what the results hint at is the symptoms and severity of PTSD decrease. We’re seeing decreases in alcohol and prescription drug use.” Nielson plans to present these results at the Psychedelic Science conference in Oakland in April. She also believes that her team can create a synthetic version of ayahuasca that she hopes the FDA will one day approve for clinical trials.
And while the future uses of psychedelics are in limbo, researchers note anecdotally that they tend to generate a new perspective in the user. “I think the experience itself gives you the opportunity to change your daily practices,” says Nielson. “It shows you what you need.”
Her comments echo something that the late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his 2012 bestseller Hallucinations. “We need to see overall patterns in our lives,” he said. “We need detachment of this sort as much as we need engagement in our lives.”
That’s sort of how I ended up in the care of a mountain-biking shaman bro. At 38, I’d spent the better part of two decades attempting to outsmart adulthood. I’d been close to marriage and decided it wasn’t for me; owned a home and decided it was a crappy job, not a smart investment. I was averaging two beers a night because that’s what the people around me were doing. I wasn’t really depressed, but I also wasn’t using any force besides inertia to determine my daily routine, let alone larger goals. Life was starting to catch up, and I was trying to fend it off.
Pluma, a friend of a friend, was offering “a gentle and loving container for ecological and cosmological orientation and awareness.” I’ll be the first to admit that it sounded pretty fruity. My plan was, like most magazine writers covering ayahuasca, to rubberneck at the barfing and smirk at the cultish spectacle. Until it turned out that the drugs actually worked.
I never had a drug phase beyond experimenting with pot briefly in high school. It wasn’t until I was 36 and had ended a long relationship that I met Emma, who spent much of the past decade going to festivals like Burning Man. Emma is into glitter and horses and, when given the choice between wearing clothes and not wearing clothes, will generally choose the latter. She’s also working on a master’s degree in environmental management at Harvard. On a clear weekend last summer, we went to the mountains to scout elk for a fall archery hunt.
Emma brought a thermos of magic mushrooms ground into peppermint tea, and after dinner I got over my Nancy Reagan anxiety and we drank—about 1.75 grams each. I’d always been led to believe that shrooms were things college kids did to see pretty colors and that eating them was basically like poisoning yourself. More than a few friends have since told me that they tried them in college but had bad experiences, most often coinciding with a party, a rock concert, or some other stressful experience like getting lost in the East Village.
At first nothing happened. My expectations were low.
“These don’t work on me,” I said.
“Keep looking at your hands,” she said. “When it looks like they’re somebody else’s hands, they’re working.”
I waved my hand in front of my face looking for the tracer vision that Hollywood uses to signify that somebody is tripping.
Maybe 40 minutes later, there was a shift. It wasn’t clear when it happened, but my five senses melted together and I started absorbing the world directly instead of perceiving individual sensations. This gave way to rotating mandalas in the most high-def imagery I’d ever seen. Fractal cuboid designs superimposed over everything; a suspicion that the artists of Eastern religion weren’t imagining patterns but copying them; the Gaia hypothesis; the burning bush; whatever it was that Picasso saw in people’s faces; and a general feeling that I’d been let in on an old joke that had been told for years by people who were smarter than me.
“This is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual,” wrote Aldous Huxley in his 1954 classic of trip-lit The Doors of Perception.
Time stopped and started. Spaces grew and shrank. But most important, the universe, theretofore invisible, emerged clearly in pulsating outlines between the stars of the Milky Way. Along with it came a feeling of interconnectedness and the sense that many of the things I’d spent time worrying about up to that point were frivolous compared with health, friendship, and purpose. The inevitability of my own death visited me but seemed like it was part of the natural order, so I felt great comfort.
It’s the kind of thing that makes you seem a little crazy when you try to explain it, as Tim Ferriss attempted to do with actor Jamie Foxx last year when the two were interviewing each other for their respective shows. Foxx asked Ferriss about his spirituality, and Ferriss responded that he has experienced some things while on psychedelics that suggest “we could be living in a virtual reality” and that there might be parallel universes. Foxx immediately clowned Ferriss and killed the moment: “The bizarro of it all!”
And indeed, talking about your psychedelic trip is the kind of thing that can raise eyebrows. After all, there’s still a lot of paranoia over what constitutes drug abuse in a society as prone to stigmatization as it is to getting wasted on beer or prescription opioids. Add to that the fact that psychedelics’ effects on the brain are still hazy. Like other hallucinogens such as LSD, psilocybin, or the mescaline found in peyote, DMT is thought to work by interfering with serotonin receptors to put the user in an altered state, one that can differ significantly from person to person. Why some of these drugs produce common themes—like snakes, jaguars, geometric patterns, mandalas, and tessellations—remains largely a mystery.
First among the growing ranks of serious scientists trying to unlock the mysteries of psychedelics is Roland Griffiths, the Johns Hopkins professor of psychiatry and neuroscience. If he has learned anything from the mistakes of past researchers, it’s to move slowly and cautiously.
After Timothy Leary was fired from Harvard in 1963 for his psilocybin research, and especially after the CSA was enacted, psychedelics became a third rail in academic research. “In addition to the failure to get institutional approval or FDA approval, the ability to get any funding also dried up completely,” says Griffiths, who received approval for his first psilocybin study in 1999. “It was thought culturally to be too dangerous.”
What’s changed, in part, is a strange symbiosis between academic and recreational use—there now exist enough well-heeled people who have had transformative experiences with psychedelics (and private groups that see the promise of medical benefits) to bankroll research. These studies, in turn, give psychedelics the imprimatur of safety. But Griffiths cautions that psilocybin can be hazardous to certain people, like those with family histories of mental illness, and he advises against taking mushrooms outside of a controlled setting. “There are dangers,” he says, “and we certainly don’t want to be encouraging people who shouldn’t take these compounds.”
Extremely few of the more than 250 volunteers at Johns Hopkins have had serious adverse effects after oral doses of psilocybin. About a third did have bad trips. And in a separate Internet survey Griffiths conducted last year, 1,993 people said they’d had bad trips after taking a median dose of four grams. “Of the 1,993 respondents,” the study found, “10.7 percent reported putting themselves or others at risk of physical harm, 2.6 percent reported behaving in a physically aggressive or violent manner toward themselves or others, and 2.7 percent reported getting help at a hospital or emergency department.”
In the case of ayahuasca, participants follow a cleansing protocol designed to mitigate bad trips, avoiding red meat, spicy and fermented foods, alcohol, sex, and especially other psychedelics, hard drugs, and SSRI-type antidepressants that can interact badly with the drug. Surprisingly, children in some South American communities may drink the brew, and pregnant women are not discouraged by many practitioners from taking part in ayahuasca ceremonies. In fact, there was a pregnant participant at one of the ceremonies I attended. (Western medicine hasn’t weighed in on the subject, though there are heated debates over it in Brazil.)
Most of the headline-generating problems have arisen when Westerners trek into South American jungles to attend ceremonies with unknown shamans. Several deaths have been reported in Peru and Ecuador, but the circumstances are murky. In September 2015 in Peru, a New Zealand man suffered cardiac arrest after drinking a purging tobacco tea at an ayahuasca retreat. That December, also in Peru, a Brit was stabbed to death by a Canadian participant during an ayahuasca ceremony.
As for Leslie Allison, a Texas woman who died during an ayahuasca ceremony in Ecuador last January, very little is known. Nor are the details clear in the death of American Kyle Nolan, 18, who was found after a ceremony in Peru in 2012. The shaman had hidden his body.
It is extremely difficult to overdose on DMT—doing so requires more than 90 times a normal amount. But in these remote areas, you’re completely at the mercy of the shaman when it comes to what’s in the brew besides the vine and the leaf. Sometimes dangerous additives like toé, the toxic flowering plant brugmansia, are included to heighten the effects.
As ayahuasca has made its way north, the most serious trouble hasn’t traveled with it. The DEA doesn’t track ayahuasca use, but there have been no reported deaths in the U.S., even as the drug’s popularity has soared.
Some religious groups can use the drug legally. In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the narrow religious use of ayahuasca based on the same legal statute that allowed Hobby Lobby to deny its employees birth control in 2014. The União do Vegetal, a spiritist Christian church that regularly holds ayahuasca ceremonies, had sued after a shipment of the drug was seized by U.S. Customs in 1999. As a result, the DEA now has an official waiver form for religious organizations to apply for a Schedule I exemption to use ayahuasca, though in practice only the eight congregations of the UDV and one branch of the Santo Daime church, in Oregon, have actually received the exemption. The rest are hoping that the authorities keep looking the other way.
Mark Kleiman, a New York University professor of public policy who served as an expert witness in the Supreme Court case, thinks that religious exemptions for psychedelics could grow even more lenient. “The Johns Hopkins groups have shown that a fairly heavy dose of psilocybin with a little bit of spiritual preparation has a very high chance of leading to a full mystical experience, which is in some viewpoints the direct form of religious experience,” he says. “There’s an argument to be made that the freedom of religion should include the free practice of spirituality even outside of congregations.”
The takeaway I got was that ayahuasca isn’t legal in the U.S. but it might as well be.
For me the experience, as sometimes happens with first timers, was subtle. When, for a few minutes, the room was silent of purging and rustling, the shaman’s song would fill my head and my body would vanish. Then I was drifting along in the darkness through a series of hallucinations that felt as real as anything: plates of armor and fish scales, a scene of rotating lily-pad line drawings.
I was struck at how potent the stillness was, but also how fragile. Before the night began, I’d been skeptical of the rituals, the altar, and the singing. As far as I was concerned, we were doing drugs—why church it up? But now I saw that the songs, the setting of intentions, the need to actually find and welcome the plants, were all necessary parts of the process. Ayahuasca is, in a very real sense, work. You’ve gotta meet it halfway.
Having taken ayahuasca on three occasions now, and psilocybin a few more, it’s hard to say exactly what the effects of psychedelics have been on me. Many people will quickly call them an excuse to get high cloaked in the guise of cosmic enlightenment. Maybe. (And perhaps this is a good time to confess that I’ve grown a man bun.) But here’s what else has happened. Over the past year, I’ve gradually lost interest in alcohol. The same six-pack of beer has been in my fridge for months. I’m not trying to avoid drinking; it just doesn’t seem appealing. One of the latent effects of ayahuasca has been a heightened sense of the present moment. Alcohol tends to numb that.
Last October, I joined a CrossFit gym—yeah, another cliché midlife move. I’d never belonged to a gym before and had certainly never been disciplined enough to make organized fitness part of my routine. But after a year, I’m still going three days a week and have dropped ten pounds of fat and added another ten of lean muscle. My abs have reemerged after a decade-long hiatus.
I’ve also become less snarky, though I still have flare-ups. A few years ago, I was doing talk therapy with a psychologist who was convinced that in high school—the same pressure cooker of a New England boarding school that Ferriss attended two years ahead of me—I developed a sharp tongue in order to survive in that ultracompetitive world. It’s a theme that’s probably common in most high schools, and it followed me into adulthood. It’s only been in the past year that I’ve been able to let go of the sarcasm and embrace earnestness. Small slights and petty aggressions seem fleeting now compared with existential questions and actual gratitude for how much has gone right.
Most of all, I was convinced that in order to write well, I needed to be an angsty, unmedicated depressive. While it’s true that I struggle emotionally with every assignment, it’s become clear that depression—though it runs in the family—just isn’t in me.
“You’re depressed that you’re not more depressed,” Emma told me during that first ayahuasca retreat.
Ayahuasca was supposed to force a confrontation with that emotional baggage. And I have plenty. I walk around with fairly constant highfunctioning anxiety. I feel shame over failed relationships and missed deadlines, and I obsess over minor rejections. When my father died in 2007, I pretty much blocked out his death. His ashes are stashed in a closet at our family farm, awaiting a good time for me, my brother, and our mom to spread them.
One of the common forms of ayahuasca’s visitations is called a life review. The medicine sometimes comes on like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past, forcing people to confront in vivid detail every relationship they’ve ever destroyed and friend they’ve ever wronged.
I was convinced that ayahuasca still had a beating in store for me.
Besides being a home to the União do Vegetal church, my town of Santa Fe turns out to be a hub of American plant medicine. Emma and I signed up for a two-night ceremony with one of the city’s many shamanic practitioners, as ours preferred to be called and whose identity we agreed not to reveal.
As before, the demographic ranged from slightly hippyish to housewives to therapists. Also as before, our leader was a Caucasian who’d spent a significant amount of time in the jungle learning his trade. If drinking ayahuasca on hundreds of occasions has deleterious side effects, he showed no obvious signs of feeblemindedness.
Thirty people were arrayed around the room on camping mats, each with the now obligatory painter’s bucket. The leader said prayers, whistled and sang to the medicine, then poured it into small paper cups. We drank the strong liquid and turned out the lights, and the singing began.
This group had many practitioners who perform various “healings.” Feeling nothing after an hour, I got up and went to see one. The woman blew tobacco onto me and sang songs. It seemed a little woo-woo, but something about the ritual made the medicine kick in all at once. I started sweating profusely, and I was suddenly aware of a bright light shining through me and an open window with neatly illustrated children’s balloons rising against a blue sky.
I spent the next hour in a semilucid stupor, racing around sky-based freeways of a futuristic city in hovering spaceships. The ships gave me motion sickness, and I threw up into my bucket. Alternately, I was shown scenes of humans with jaguar faces. I’ve had no experience with jaguars or spaceships, which makes me wonder whether pre-Columbian tribesmen might have seen figments of cultures that weren’t theirs, either. The more you try to think about it, the more you realize that there’s nothing in your logic toolkit that can explain what you’re seeing.
When I came to, Emma was annoyed. The medicine hadn’t worked for her at all. “I want to go sleep in the car,” she said. “There are just a bunch of white people in here shaking rattles and singing off-key. I forgot my earplugs.” It was a valid complaint from one of the few sober people in the room.
But on night two, it finally clicked for Emma. Half an hour after drinking, she sat up, purged, and then lay back.
“Are you feeling the plants?” I asked, trying to sound serious.
“This is awesome!” she said, her eyes closed but clearly staring intently at something going on behind her lids.
I waited and waited, drank a second cup, and went up for a healing with a woman who told me I’d been an apprentice to a powerful shaman in a previous life (bonus!) but had my powers curtailed because I hadn’t used them responsibly (dammit!). Convinced that I needed to purge, I went back to my mat and willed the room to spin. Nothing. And then, when I gave up, this incredible weight lifted from me, and my breathing became clear, focused, and circular. There was no hallucination at all but the purest sense of being present that I’d ever experienced. It was like reaching a warp level in meditation.
Then the vibe in the room went from a solemn ceremony to something like an acoustic rave. It was well after midnight. A woman in her early twenties who’d been road-tripping across Colorado took a guitar down from the wall and launched fiercely into a familiar sounding song.
“The theme song to Pocahontas,” finished Emma.
“I should be snarking right now, but—this. Is. Amazing!” I whispered.
And it was. Twenty-nine tripping adults sat glued to their camping mats, barf buckets at the ready, right through the very last chorus of “paint with all the colors of the wind.” Somewhere near the end, I noticed that the room, just as Pluma Blanco had promised my first time, seemed like a gentle and loving container. I’m still not certain what cosmological awareness means exactly, but I’m pretty sure I experienced it. If ayahuasca can be the brutal enforcer of conscience, I haven’t seen that side yet. Maybe I’ve been lucky, or maybe the message is that I’m not as messed up as I’d hoped or feared.
Will I keep going back to ayahuasca? It’s hard to say. One thing other people tell me is that the experience produces more questions than answers. It’s not a truth serum so much as a way to shake up the snow globe or throw your wagon out of an old rut. To friends I’ve described the effects of DMT as like having my brain deposited into Roger Federer’s body to play a few sets of tennis.
When the experience was over, I still couldn’t play like him. But I did have an understanding of the level of mindful focus that’s possible. And having seen that changes the way you play the game.
Or it could just be frying my brain. Drugs are bad, right?
Grayson Schaffer (@graysonschaffer) is an Outside editor at large.