How Ayahuasca Can Revolutionize Psychotherapy

A look at the psychoactive brew that brings users a spiritual payoff for their "work"

As Yeo reduced her dose, her body started breaking down. Doctors told her that quitting the methadone was dangerous, and advised her to just accept it as a fact of her life. To Yeo, the thought of staying on methadone was unbearable, and she began contemplating suicide.

Then she heard of a famous Canadian addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate. Yeo set up a meeting.

"I told him this big long story, and at the end of it, he said, 'Lisa, I think I can offer you a potential way out of this,'" Yeo remembers. "It was just like, really?"

First, Yeo spent a summer at a treatment clinic in Mexico, where she used other traditional plant medicines, iboga and ibogaine, to help wean her body off opiates. By October 2012, Yeo was ready for step two, and boarded another plane to Mexico, this time for a week-long ayahuasca retreat.

The night of her first ceremony, Yeo walked onto a round platform with a roof open to the jungle around it. Not long after she drank – "it tasted bitter, but it didn't taste as bad as some of the things I'd ingested in my life" — Yeo began to feel something prodding at her liver, damaged by hepatitis C.

"I felt what I thought of as a vine going into the area where I had the pain, and circle, circle, circle," Yeo remembers. "Then there would be this release, and the pain would be gone."

The night of the second ceremony, Yeo's experience shifted: This time, she saw a slideshow of people who had shown her kindness, "babysitters to social workers to prison guards," Yeo remembers. "It was like flash cards, and at the very end was my mom."

Yeo has since done a second ayahuasca retreat with Mate, and credits the vine with helping her discover who she is without substances.

"It has given me a go-to place of safety, and a knowing of how to be gentle with myself when any tormenting thoughts creep in," Yeo says. "It just lifts the trauma, it lifts the pain."

Treatment for addiction disorders is one of the most promising areas of therapeutic ayahuasca use, in part because doctors still don't have many other good options.

"Someone walks in your office today, you're going to basically say the same thing your predecessor might have said 50 or 60 years ago, which is, 'Find a 12-step group, and if you're lucky and it's a good fit, maybe it will help,'" explains Grob. "Otherwise, we don't have a whole hell of a lot to offer."

The psycho-spiritual experiences that ayahuasca provides — "like a mystical-level state," Grob says — seem to offer an effect similar to that of certain faith-based aspects of 12-step groups: showing addicts that there is a power greater than themselves.

When Mate first heard of ayahuasca, he had recently published his book on addictions, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. People kept writing him, asking if he knew about "this weird plant," Mate remembers. Eventually, he decided to try it himself.

During his first retreat, Mate saw the connection to treating addiction right away.

"The ayahuasca experience just dissolved my defenses," he says. "I experienced a deep sense of love, tears of joy racing down my face."

Mate began organizing retreats of his own. He brought in shamans to lead the ceremonies, and used his own training to help participants prepare for, process, and integrate what they experienced.

"It's not a question of, 'Here's a drug that's going to fix you,'" Mate explains. "It's, 'Here's a substance under the effect of which you'll be able to do a kind of self-exploration that otherwise might not be available to you, or otherwise might take you years to get to.'"

In 2011, a Canadian First Nations community contacted Mate to treat some tribe members with chronic substance-dependence problems. Mate agreed, and in June, arrived at a remote village for the first of two retreats. A team of researchers, led by the addiction specialist Dr. Gerald Thomas, came along.

Since Grob and McKenna's study in 1993, some limited research had been done on ayahuasca: Scientists had performed brain scans of ayahuasca users, and administered freeze-dried ayahuasca in a lab. But no one had followed up on ayahuasca's therapeutic potential. Thomas and his team were ready to continue the work.

The group set up in the tribe's longhouse, a spacious wooden structure with a stove in the middle and straw on the floor. Twelve members were participating in the first ceremony, and that night, before they drank, Mate led them in conversation about their addictions.

"When they were talking about trauma, for many of them, that was the first time they ever shared that with anybody," Mate says. "They were entering into deep pain."

Before the retreat, Thomas and his team administered psychiatric evaluations to measure the 12 participants on factors like hope, quality of life, mindfulness, and emotional regulation. After the ceremony, researchers repeated the tests — first two weeks later, then four weeks, then once per month for half a year.

The results, which they published in June in the journal Current Drug Abuse Reviews, came back promising. Alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine use decreased among the participants. On the psychological surveys, the subjects' quality-of-life scores increased, as did the ratings for mindfulness, empowerment, outlook, and hopefulness.

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ESCouncil
ESCouncil

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