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Healing PTSD with Ayahuasca

As clinical trials for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) move forward in making it an FDA-approved medication for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by 2021, some veterans are taking off to the Amazon to treat their condition with the jungle brew ayahuasca. While the empathogenic MDMA is better known, more common, and less intimidating of an experience than a full-on ayahuasca ceremony, for those who feel ready for it, the Amazonian concoction has the potential to dive much more profound, healing not just combat trauma but underlying childhood and ancestral traumas. Such a profound journey of self-healing can be daunting, but the bonds of brotherhood and mutual support before and during make it easier. After the ceremony, these veterans make huge improvements in attitude and physical/mental health.


A new feature-length documentary called Soldiers of the Vine explores this growing connection between veterans and ayahuasca. This independent film follows a small group of veterans on their healing journey in Peru. Organizing the trip is Ian Benouis, who is a veteran and plant medicine activist, who brings the group to a retreat center in the Amazon for a complete 10-day diet with three ayahuasca ceremonies guided by Shipibo shamans. As someone who has received enormous healing from ayahuasca, Ian hopes to encourage his fellow veterans to experience how ayahuasca can help break the cycles of depression, prescription antidepressants, suicidal thoughts, and the burden of chronic PTSD. After attending a Soldiers of the Vine screening in Austin, Texas, we sat with Ian to discuss his story.


Thanks so much for speaking with us, Ian. Can you describe your first ayahuasca experience?

My first encounter with ayahuasca was 20 years ago on the San Juan islands outside of Washington. My friend had gotten the brew from Terence McKenna, who was growing the constituent plants on the big island of Hawaii. We had no idea what we were doing. His wife and my wife were there, but it was just my friend and I who did it. My buddy thought you had to purge for the medicine to work and be activated, so after I took a cup of it and nothing happened, he suggested I drink more. So, within an hour, I drank 3 cups of that stuff and made myself purge, but I had the most fantastic time. The medicine worked great, and instead of getting my butt kicked, she was very gentle. I remember being able to take these Jedi holocoens of people that were important in my life and inspect them for hours. I was so happy later to realize that after 3 cups, I did not get my butt kicked from here to the other side of the universe. No facilitator either, just some psychonauts doing it DIY.


Take us from that initial experience to where you are now, using ayahuasca as a healing tool for fellow veterans with PTSD.

Well, I did my military service and got out. I was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot during Operation Just Cause in Panama right before Iraq and Afghanistan and drank ayahuasca three more times without knowing I was healing myself. It was not until a couple of years ago when I reconnected with veterans at a conference on veterans and cannabis, and they started telling their stories [that I realized I had been undergoing a healing process via psychedelics.] I already knew there were issues with PTSD, cocktails of pharmaceuticals that did not work for many people, and suicides. Still, when they started telling their stories, it was like a psychedelic to me, a medicine, and I started crying. I purged up all this stuff and asked, “Why is this happening to me? I do not have war traumas.” That started around 2.0 of my healing. I realized what psychedelics had done for me and how that healing had gotten me to where I could raise a family and be a good husband and father. And now, to complete my recovery, I could return to the medicine and share it with others.


I have been sharing it ever since. I started drinking again about two years ago, and since then have been taking fellow veterans and non-veterans to ceremonies to do the work.


The biggest thing on the map now for helping veterans treat PTSD is MDMA, which is entering phase 3 clinical trials. In your eyes, what are the differences between ayahuasca and MDMA when it comes to healing PTSD? What do they each have to offer?

That is a great question. MDMA was the medicine that opened the door to everything else for me when I got out of the Army in 1990. I will start by saying that we are all figuring this out simultaneously because of prohibition, which is one of the fundamental challenges here. So first off, MDMA for more medicine-naive people is an excellent entryway into the healing path. Stepping into a 3-day ayahuasca weekend is much more daunting than one deep MDMA session. You get so much fear reduction with MDMA, whereas ayahuasca can show you intense dark stuff that is very powerful. The MDMA will allow you to experience those things without the fear component, with the fear being turned off.


The answer is more about the particular triage for the individual, which is what we are figuring out. What are the protocols and pathways for people? For many veterans I am working with, the default is they come back from war, they are on all these meds, 20-30 meds a day, hitting alcohol, and trying to kill themselves because the side effects are suicidal thoughts. Then they find cannabis and start getting off all the medications, and so usually, it is cannabis that saves their lives, which is the first step to more profound healing. That next step might be MDMA, might be LSD, might be psilocybin, and it might be ayahuasca, but there is sort of a gradient. I would put MDMA on the pathway to ayahuasca or other medicines and put ayahuasca further down the line to do the more profound work. But there is no reason MDMA cannot accomplish the same things from a trauma perspective. So, it becomes much more about access to the medicine and facilitators, the person’s particular issues, etc.


What have you learned while working with ayahuasca for yourself and other veterans who approach it for healing their PTSD?

One of the most important things is that the money is in the integration. In other words, whatever you can do during the medicine work, is only as good as what you can integrate, and that is the real challenge of this. The more complex part was not going to Peru and doing the work together- it was when we came back, trying to support each other in the integration work because you are ripped open emotionally, physiologically readjusted, and trying to put yourself back together. That has been the challenge: trying to support each other with everyone at different points of their lives and on different steps of their healing path. You need to have a support system to be successful. You need to have a sponsor, at least one “battle buddy,” a person to count on to have the best chances of success. And you need access to other technologies to support it: yoga, acupuncture, flotation tanks, whatever works for you.


I can say that this stuff works and can work on the most challenging cases. Beyond treating PTSD from combat, these medicines can ultimately work on childhood trauma, which is the underlying source of most war trauma. The highest correlating factor to getting PTSD in war is childhood trauma. People can have many other challenges, too, that can make it more problematic and complex and take longer to be successful- addictions, other medications, and life circumstances can be a bar to true healing. Ayahuasca is not a silver bullet and will not solve all your problems. The different aspects of your life must also be in alignment and supportive of making it all work. It is a complete healing modality.


The focus on the importance of integration seems to be a relatively recent understanding. People in the psychedelic community are well aware of it, but for people who are just getting acquainted with these medicines, it is still news to them.

I had a super long conversation about that yesterday. It is important to ask, “What are the reintegration resources for these people doing these medicines?” If you cannot answer that question, you have a problem. That is like saying, I am going to take all these people and give these great life sermons but have no plans or way to teach them into their life. So, what is the point? It is like seeing a fantastic movie- it feels excellent and entertaining, but your psychedelic experience is only as good as your amount to integrate. To me, it is the metaphor of the tree and the fruit: nobody cares how many ayahuasca ceremonies the tree has been to or what its spiritual practice is; you care about the fruit. Does the fruit taste sweet?


That is great; I like that metaphor.

I love these metaphors and now understand the power of parables through my healing work. Because on these medicines, that is what you get: those are the gifts, especially on ayahuasca. It is a picture, a song, a symbol, or an abstract concept that has meaning to you that you can take back because it is a concept. You can not necessarily take back the 15-minute action sequence; that is hard.


Right, totally. The workings of neuroplasticity enhancement, neurogenesis, and lateral thinking seem to last. They encapsulate a more robust understanding, like “visionary chunking.”

Yeah, exactly: Psychedelic spelunking and visionary chunking!


Reference:


Thoricatha, W., (August 2017). Soldiers of the Vine: Healing PTSD with Ayahuasca. Psychedelic Times.






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