I lied. I’m a liar and as my mother warned me when I was little: the truth will always come to bite you in the ass.
My family, my friends, my therapist Lia: they all thought my relationship ended months ago, while I secretly kept running on its empty promises. I was so eager to neglect the truth that I covered up the lies of a man with those of my own.
I’m a horrible person. Who on earth lies to their therapist?
Lia had called out the abuse two years before I could acknowledge its reality. I don’t know if I had a different perception of what abuse had to look like, or whether I just had a hard time seeing myself as a victim. But I do know I gambled, and I lost.
“I’m so sorry,” I sniff. I’m actually happy for the distance between us. Lia sitting at her desk in Belgium, and me, sobbing behind mine in New York.
“I’m really sorry too,” she says, “I’m sorry you inflicted all this pain onto yourself.”
I’m confused. She must have misunderstood. He did this to me. I look up and see her compassionate eyes staring from across an ocean.
“You knew,” she says, simply.
I shake my head.
“You knew,” she repeats.
I just cry. The truth does hurt.
“This is an important pattern that we’ve uncovered,” she continues, “and to get to its root, I think you would benefit from an Ayahuasca –”
“It’s not for me,” I interrupt. It really isn’t. I hate losing control. I had a blackout once on alcohol and never tried any drugs beyond a joint.
But I know she believes in this journey. One she has taken herself many times. Work, she calls it, that can’t be achieved in years of therapy. A dive, not into the unknown, but into the very essence of everything that is true.
Lia is not your ordinary therapist. I’ve seen her read people like I imagine a blind person reading braille. She once entered my office, immediately lifting a hand to her throat proclaiming, “What has been going on in here?”, and I promptly admitted my burnout. She’s a healer, a teacher, an energy-reader, a lighthouse.
“Ayahuasca is the best thing I can recommend at this point in our work together,” she says, “and you don’t have to do it alone. Ellie and I work together. We’ll guide you, support you and follow up after.”
While she’s selling the idea, I weigh my options. I feel broken. I need to puzzle myself back together, but I don’t even know where any of the pieces are.
I need help. So, I cave.
A week later, I sit in my kitchen, ready for a Skype call. This mandatory intake with the facility in The Netherlands will determine if I’m a candidate for this trip. I’m hoping they’ll diagnose me as whole enough, label me enlightened and tell me I don’t need any more of that.
But talking to Ellie, who runs the house that welcomes small groups of people to participate in this ritual, I feel her love and compassion through the screen. Her words, in a familiar Dutch accent, comfort me like the hug I’ve been needing, and I can’t help wanting to be near to her.
She listens patiently to the tear-stained version of my story that led to this call. And when I’m done, she says, “Well, dear. It sounds like it’s time for you to come home to yourself.” And I can’t argue with a truth like that.
The earliest spot she has available is three months later, and I accept the invitation.
Once I make the commitment to go on the retreat, I get excited. As the weeks and days count down, I become more and more curious about what I am going to “see”. I read stories about how good the drink is for your skin. I envision myself glowing afterwards.
I learn that the Universities of Madrid, Spain and Tilburg, The Netherlands, are studying the medicine and its alleged benefits in treating PTSD. And so, I hope it will take my own pain away. More than showing me why I repeat the patterns of abuse and toxic relationships in my life, I hope it will end the nightmares and anxiety I’ve been dealing with. More than coming home to myself, I hope I’ll be able to escape.
I’ve told a lot of people about what I’m about to do, where I’m going. I need people to see how cool, courageous and badass I am. How well I’m coping on my own. If I can convince others of that, maybe I can start believing it myself.
But when I arrive and meet Ellie and her team – Gerard, her partner, Denise, her daughter and Nicolette – all dressed in white, my badassery slides off me as the ill-fitting mask it has been. I cry helpless tears, right there on a driveway in Holland, where Ellie assures me my tears are as welcome as I am.
When I’m cried out, I’m shown where I’ll sleep for the next two nights, and where I can change my colorful outfit for the all-white attire we were instructed to bring.
One by one, my thirteen fellow-travelers arrive.
That first afternoon, our little group goes on a walk. Looking out over a far-stretching landscape of Dutch farmlands, Gerard asks us to team up with someone. Mark is standing next to me, and we smile awkwardly when we face each other. I have a hard time looking him in the eyes. A lump grows in my throat and I urge myself not to cry, again.
We have to hug without touching, rest our heads on the other’s shoulder and just feel their support. And that’s when I break and can’t stop the tears. I don’t even know where it comes from, so much sadness flows out of me, it physically hurts. While Mark’s shoulder holds me, the people around me keep leaning into each other, holding space for my sadness.
But the more I cry, the more vulnerable I feel. The more vulnerable I feel, the more anxious I get for the journey ahead.
On the second day, as we’re about to embark on this adventure, we sit on our mattresses and share our intention for this day. And when Ellie checks in to see if anyone has any questions left, I can’t help but ask, with a tiny voice, if anyone ever decided not to move forward, last minute. To my slight disappointment, that has never happened, and I don’t want to be the first one.
So, I drink.
Ayahuasca is brew of two plants that have been cooking and boiling for hours. It’s uncertain when in history the ritual originated, or how the combination and synergy of the two plants was discovered, but according to legend, the plants told the Napo Runa of Amazonian Ecuador themselves. They believe this hallucinogenic plant medicine – the Vine to the Soul – gives us access to the spirit world and its insights. A direct line of communication with what they lovingly call La Madre. The Mother.
A week before this retreat, I started a diet to purify my body: no dairy, red meat, caffeine or alcohol. It’s a preparation to digest the muddy brew, part leaves of the Psychoteria Viridis – which contains high concentrates of DMT – and part Banisteriopsis Caapi vine – which slows the breakdown of DMT in the body and allows an Ayahuasca journey to last for up to eight hours.
Ayahuasca is blacklisted in many countries for its hallucinogenic properties, but it’s widely considered to be a medicine for its soul-healing qualities. It’s non-addictive, and the ceremony, led by a practiced shaman, is part of the ritual. The team I trust to guide me on my journey are healers and therapists with years of experience. Our four guides won’t drink. They’re here to support us, talk to us, comfort us. They’re here to keep us safe. This whole experience is textbook “don’t try this at home”.
When it’s time, we go forward one by one to down our little shot glass, accompanied by a blessing. The potion tastes sweet, bitter and sour, all at once, and is dark as molasses. Its taste sticks to my tongue. My body shudders with disgust.
Now that I’ve allowed Mama Ayahuasca to take my hand and travel with me to the depths of my soul, I walk back to my mattress, lie down and pull the covers up to my chin.
“Remember, everything you’ll see has already happened,” Ellie reminds us, and then the lights go out.
I lie on my back on a mattress in the darkened room, staring up a wood slatted ceiling. I’m vaguely aware of the people lying in this circle with me – someone starts whimpering – but I’m more interested in the ceiling, and how it’s changing. When I blink my eyes, it transforms into a plastered vault with geometric patterns on it. Then I blink again, and I’m back in the room with its wooden beams.
I giggle, as if I’m doing something naughty. I shift a little, clear my throat. The adult in me wants to do this right. I take a deep breath and close my eyes.
In the darkness behind my eyelids, a pair of eyes stares right back at me. The white of her eyes is piercing, and I know she’s as afraid as I am. I know my skin is as dark as hers. She’s talking about my baby in a language I don’t recognize but that I understand regardless. I’m aware of how pregnant I feel. Screams and moans are filling the space I’m in, its smells damp and moist. I’m inside a wooden, rocking belly. I know exactly where I am – as if history is a place I time-traveled to –and with that startling awareness, I crawl up and I’m back in the room, on my mattress, panting and confused. Uncertain if I had a vision or a dream, whether I actually time-traveled or witnessed a past life, I’m unwilling to dive back in.
“Hey, everything okay?” Gerard asks, kneeling on my mattress.
I don’t know what to tell him.
“I’ve been here before,” I try, and although it sounds so true, it can’t be.
“I came on a boat,” I continue.
“You came on a boat,” he repeats. His voice is so kind and understanding. He’s neither confirming nor denying my words, which terrifies me even more.
I didn’t come on a boat. I came here by plane.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I tell Gerard, who helps me up on my wobbly legs, walks me through the room and then back to my mattress when I return from my fruitless bathroom visit.
As soon as I sit down, I wave him over again.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I say. We repeat the routine. The only thing that happens in the bathroom is my realization that I feel disoriented, drunk… out of control. Which is the exact opposite of how I want to feel, how I ever want to feel.
I pull away from Gerard’s helping arm when we return. But as soon as I sit down, the urge returns.
“I need to go the bathroom!” I snap. And I return to the bathroom, again. The sunlight through the blinds is mocking me. Life is normal out there. I wish I never came.
“I shouldn’t have come here,” I tell Gerard, “I don’t like this. I’m done with this. This has to stop! Right now!”
In both protest and despair, I drop next to Ellie who sits by the door. Kind, understanding Ellie.
“I need this to stop, Ellie,” I plead, “is it over soon?”
I rest my head on her shoulder like we’re old friends. Once I calm down, I realize this is actually the best seat in the house, next to her, and I decide to just stay here, wait this thing out.
We sit in silence for a little while.
“Why don’t you go back to your mattress and lie down, dear,” Ellie eventually says. “Go back and stop resisting.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Her words cut deep, sharp as every rejection I’ve ever felt in my life.
“I am NOT resisting!” I scoff.
“Look around you, dear,” she says. “Everyone is lying down, except for you.”
It’s true. For some reason, I forgot that I’m not alone here. There is a circle of mattresses in front of me, shapes moving under the covers. There are cries, whispers, moans. I now hear the music that must have been playing all along – drums and rhythms foreign to my ears. Gerard is singing a song with words I don’t understand, but that resonate with my heart.
I’m hurt by Ellie’s words regardless, and I stomp back to my mattress. Stubbornly refusing to lie down, I pull my knees up, fold my arms around them and rest my forehead on them.
“You’re only magnifying the resistance you’ve been displaying in your life, dear,” Ellie states from across the room. I’m sure I roll my eyes. I’m done with her. I’m done with all of this. Angrily, I throw myself onto the mattress, pull the covers over my head… and I get pulled into the trip.
Mama Ayahuasca takes me on a dark tour through a village she built for the experience. Floating lanes connect the houses with their glowing orange rooftops. It reminds me of Dorothy, except I’m alone on this path and the bricks aren’t yellow.
I pass people I know and have known, each revealing their shadow side. It’s nasty. It’s ugly. I dream dreams I had forgotten about. I see the karmic pain in my family, the world and myself.
Everything you’re seeing has already happened.
I soldier on.
I crawl up a couple of times, vaguely aware of the room around me and the people in it. I dry-heave over the little bucket we all received. Ayahuasca purges. That purge is invited, welcomed, even, as it goes hand in hand with the surrender.
And every time I lie back down and re-enter my trip through the darkness that seems to resemble my life, another person is waiting to get stripped to their naked truth. From my parents to friends long forgotten. Until, finally, I meet a coiled snake, my Oz.
When I stand in front of her, she towers over me, her head unlike anything I’ve ever seen. “Kundalini,” I think. She smiles. And I know.
I lift my body up again, and while the room is filled with the sound of a million emotions and the cries and screams of my fellow-travelers, I feel elated. I feel so alive and vibrant. So wise.
“You guys!” I yell in English, even though everyone here speaks Dutch. “You guys, it’s okay!” When I get no reaction, I add with a joy I can’t remember ever having felt, “It’s all just love!”
“Nicolette!” I wave her over with urgent whispers. I’m so happy to see her, I can cry. “Nicolette, I get it!”
She smiles at me. She knows.
“I love everyone, Nicolette!” I wave an arm around the room, just to make sure she knows that everyone includes everything. I can’t stop smiling.
“That’s wonderful, dear,” she smiles back at me, “but do you love yourself?”
The question shocks me so I just stare at her. I lie back down, feeling so small, the covers engulf me and La Madre takes me down, again.
I’m wearing clothes that aren’t mine and yet they feel ridiculously familiar. “Salem,”I think. This can’t be true. Part of my psyche is telling me I’ve read too many books, that this is just my imagination.
I’m afraid, but this time, I’m not alone. The women who are with me look equally terrified. We’re whispering plans and plots. We know we must keep quiet, shut our mouths, not draw attention to ourselves. It’s better to bury it all now. It’s better to save ourselves and hide.
My mind keeps resisting these images, and Ayahuasca shows me a series of women, fast motion. They’re singers and storytellers. I recognize them all, throughout history, from Venus de Milo to Rihanna. The series ends with a bright red neon sign flickering in a dark alley, “#metoo.”
Startled, I open my eyes again and sit up.
In the soft light of the opening door, I see Gerard helping Ellie up from her seat. It’s such a loving interaction, I observe them with utter curiosity. I’m witnessing something important, something profound and beautiful.
It lasts less than a minute, this scene, but there is so much I finally understand. I feel like the entire universe has unlocked itself to me in that instant. I’ve witnessed love, how it should be.
“Gerard!” I whisper-shout. He walks over and kneels in front of me.
“Gerard!” I tell him in Dutch now, “I know everything!” He smiles, because of course I do.
“The truth is, everything is good and bad. Black and white. I get it now! Ying and Yang! Everything is beautiful and ugly. Like you and Ellie! Ellie is beautiful, and you are ugly. But it’s okay! It’s okay!” I stroke his cheek. I feel so oddly blessed. So incredibly right.
I see Denise getting up from comforting someone and call her over.
“You’re so beautiful, Denise!”
“Thank you!” She accepts the compliment. “So are you!” But I shake my head. I feel tears coming up now, clouding the euphoria I felt just moments ago.
“How can I do it, Denise” I whisper.
“Do what, dear?”
“How can I be beautiful like you?” I feel so small. I can literally feel the little ugly duckling inside myself, afraid she’s not pretty enough, not enough.
“Just be,” Denise says, “just be.”
I think about what she’s saying but being sounds really hard right now. I’m not sure I understand. Instead, I crawl up and run to Ellie, dropping next to her and putting my head on her shoulder.
“Everyone should have a mother like you, Ellie.” If she’s shocked or surprised by my statement, she doesn’t show it.
“You need to be that mother to yourself, dear,” she says. That oddly makes sense.
“I know. I know everything,” I say.
“You do. You’re an old soul.”
“I am,” I sigh and slouch under the heaviness of the centuries I suddenly feel on my shoulders. “I’ve been here for so long, more than 500 years. My god, Ellie, the suffering.”
“I know, dear. Go back. Ask Mama Ayahuasca to show you your voice.”
Her words hit me like lightning. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten about my voice. I stumble back to my mattress, this time to flop onto it and will myself to fall back into the place I was before. But by now, we’re well into the day. Although it was offered at some point, I was far gone when some people drank a second time, and that moment is lost to me.
My dose must have started to wear off. I’ll never get to see–or hear–my voice. Not even when I get back up and ask to go to the hallway to hit a stack of pillows with the carpet beater, and I release one mousy scream.
“You can hit, if you want to. Scream if you need to,” Gerard assures me. But I stare and realize that hitting is not what I’m here to do. I slide my back against the wall until my buttocks hit the ground.
“You know what I’d really like now?” I ask. “French Fries,” I reply to Gerard’s questioning gaze.
I thought I’d be fixed with one sip, and for two weeks that’s what it seems like: I feel wise and connected, my heart beats to the rhythm of the universe.
But I can’t help but fall back into life’s routine, numbing me into oblivion again. Most days, I forget to know, my pulse just my own again.
They say Ayahuasca keeps working long after the ritual. That the healing starts when you step back into your reality. That the lessons will reveal themselves in due time, and that is what happens.
It’s weeks later when I finally crash into my resistance: I’m so annoyed by the minutiae of my life, a prisoner of my reality. I hear Ellie’s words echo between my ears: “You’re only magnifying the resistance you’ve been displaying.”
Months go by and I float in and out of awareness, the swing of this pendulum near nauseating. I buy myself flowers and take long baths on weekends in an attempt to love myself more. But I know that, as long as I can’t say “yes” to myself, I’m only faking it.
I finally understand what Ellie meant when she urged me to ask La Madre to show me my voice: I’ve never used my voice for me.
I wanted a quick fix, but I’ve come to terms that there is no such thing. I needed time to grieve the girl who never felt good enough, and who was willing to settle for crumbs of love and bits of respect. The girl who was willing to walk through life, voiceless.
Slowly, sometimes painfully so, that girl and I are making our way back to each other. I brave my insecurities to hear hers, to claim her needs as my own. Little by little, I grow into the adult who loves that girl unconditionally, who assures her that she’s enough. Ayahuasca sent me off on a journey, one that led me home, to myself. And from here, there’s really no telling where I can go.
Debby Huvaere is a writer, and award-winning screenwriter. Her work appears in the Montclair Write Group Anthology, the Running Wild Press Anthology and is upcoming with Raining on Rooftops Review. Originally from Belgium, she lives in Montclair, New Jersey.