My 6-year journey with psychedelic medicine
June 10, 2023
I took my first sip of a psychedelic tea called Ayahuasca about six years ago at a retreat in the Netherlands. I was depressed, and I’d read research that psychedelics could help.
I’ve drank Ayahuasca at least 30-40 times since, so I can’t quite remember too much from that first experience other than laughing uncontrollably a few hours in when I realized just how amazing my life really was. I had a fiance who loved me; she was pregnant (we lost the child, more on that later), and I’d just given my first-ever talk at a conference the day before. A few months later, Microsoft hired me into their newly formed Developer Relations team as a speaker, and my boss told me that talk was the one that convinced him - it was a great first talk. I was also lucky enough to be in a situation where I could go to retreats like Om Mij. So, what exactly did I have to be depressed about? Life was pretty good!
Funnily enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve spoken about psychedelic medicine; the bulk of this article is from an internal talk I gave at Microsoft in 2018. I remember standing up and telling my friend, “Pretty sure I’m going to be fired in 30 mins”. That didn’t happen. We were a very rowdy bunch, it was a racket at the start, but by the end, you could hear a pin drop. Proud of myself for giving that talk. Bravery is a muscle. Use it or lose it.
Let’s rewind about one year from that first sip of Ayahuasca to 2016. I was 39 years old and had been living with depression for as long as I could remember. It had affected almost every part of my life; my career, my friendships, my family, my love life - enough was enough. I decided to explore every avenue to find a solution. I was very tempted to explore anti-depressants; the appeal of a “solution” that would not actually make me confront my fears was strong. However, a close friend convinced me otherwise, and to find ways to identify and solve the root causes. Anti-depressant medications treat the symptoms, not the cause, and have many side effects. Putting an engineering spin on it, they are a workaround. I was interested in fixing the underlying bugs.
I used to listen to the Tim Ferris Podcast. I read his book, 4-hour work week, a long time ago, and he’s someone whose opinion I grew to respect. I once read somewhere that he helped fund research into the use of psilocybin (the main ingredient in magic mushrooms) as part of what is now a famous research study at Johns Hopkins University into depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer. That piqued my interest; what was going on here? It sent me down a year-long rabbit hole of research.
My first Ah-has!
The first surprise was learning that this form of medicine is not new; psychedelics have had a long history with humans since prehistoric times. Indigenous communities have used them in folk healing rituals for millennia, such as the ergot fungus from Eurasia, morning glory, and peyote cactus from Central and North America, and the one I’m most used to is ayahuasca from the Amazon.
The second surprise for me was that in the 50s and 60s, in the hey-day of psychedelic medicine research, over 1000 scientific papers were written, and over 40,000 patients were treated with LSD, a modern synthetic psychedelic substance.
Psychedelics for medicinal purposes wasn’t some fringe idea. On the contrary, these medications had plenty of rigorous scientific research and a relationship to humans going back, probably since the dawn of human civilization.
So why the hell was an area as promising, as well researched as psychedelics not being actively explored, promoted, or shouted about from rooftops?
The main reason is that psychedelics were made illegal by then US President Richard Nixon in 1970 in the Controlled Substances Act. They were illegal and alongside cannabis, categorized as Schedule 1, meaning they were classified to have “no medical value at all.” To compare, Cocaine is Schedule 2 since it has some medical usage. Being Schedule 1 meant all research in the space stopped immediately. This idea spread, and the UN signed the Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1971, which led to a domino effect and country by country, psychedelics got outlawed.
I’ll remind you that by this point, there had been over 1000 scientific papers on the efficacy of psychedelic medicine, and they are some of the least harmful drugs in the world. So a Schedule 1 classification is indefensible. Moreover, according to one of Nixon’s top aides, we learned that the Controlled Substances Act was an act of retaliation to arrest civil rights and anti-war activists challenging his presidency.
Over the last 50 years, through the tireless efforts of many people and organizations, the door has cracked open to allow psychedelic research again. The legal landscape of psychedelics is changing. In the US and other countries, regulators and governments are now approving psychedelic studies, decriminalizing, and even legalizing the use of psychedelic medicines.
The research is still ongoing, we’ve barely scratched the surface, but one effect of psychedelics is reducing the Default Mode Network (DMN) function. The DMN refers to an interconnected group of brain regions associated with introspective functions and internally directed thought, such as self-reflection and self-criticism. Put another way, it’s that voice in your head, the voice that narrates the world around you that creates a consistent story about yourself. You’re fat, thin, poor, rich, ugly, pretty, clever, stupid, happy, sad. The voice that worries about the past or feels anxious about the future. The voice that tells you who you’ve been and who you want to be. The voice that tells you what’s happening as you’re reading this article.
Depression, PTSD, ADHD, autism, and yes, chronic pain have all been linked to hyperactivity and disrupted activity of the DMN (that voice). Studies have consistently shown that psychedelics significantly reduce DMN activity, and this “resetting” of the DMN could be the cause of anti-depressant effects from psychedelic use.
I think that’s a tiny part of it, but it’s enough to justify much more research and a change in the scheduling of psychedelics.
Research has also shown that set and setting play an essential part in the effect of psychedelic medicine; in other words, your mindset and the environment where you consume psychedelics matters. This is where psychedelics get a poor reputation. Taking them at clubs, parties, and raves often results in poor and even harmful experiences.
You wouldn’t have recreational surgery; there is no such thing as recreational psychedelics.
Let’s talk specifically about Ayahuasca, the medicine I’m most experienced with. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic tea made from boiling the ayahuasca vine and the leaves of the chakruna plant. DMT is the primary psychoactive ingredient of chakruna and is abundant in nature; in 100’s of plant species and it’s produced in the mamalian brain. DMT is all around us and in us. However, the human body is very good at processing it before its psychoactive properties take effect. That’s where the ayahuasca vine comes into play. It acts like an MAOI inhibitor, which means it slows down the processing of DMT so its effects can be felt. To have a psychedelic effect, you must consume both the ayahuasca vine and the chakruna leaf typically as a tea.
More recent research has shown that the mamalian brain is capable of synthesizing and releasing DMT at concentrations comparable to existing neurotransmitters. DMT might act as a neutransmitter like serotonin, it might be far more fundamental to the human experience than we think.
I’m as skeptical as they come. I grew up in a religious family but never subscribed to any aspect of spirituality. You can take the spiritual part of this medicine or leave it; it’s up to you. It doesn’t need you to believe for it to work. That’s how I started in this space. I thought of it just like a drug, like ibuprofen or coffee. Over time, I’ve come to believe in the spiritual aspects of Ayahuasca.
In Ayahuasca ceremonies, at least one guide, a curandera or shaman, leads the ceremony. Before the ceremony, you tell them your intentions, why you are there, and what you want out of the experience.
During the ceremony, you drink the tea, and about 30 mins later, the medicine should start to take effect. Interestingly, the dosage has little impact; sometimes, all it takes is one sip to reach an elevated state of consciousness, and other times it takes a few cups.
I’ve always done ceremonies in groups; everyone is together in a room with the guides. You start as strangers, but the shared experience turns you into friends. Once a ceremony begins, you don’t interact with each other. If the person next to you is crying, don’t hug them. That’s their experience, and you can ruin it by breaking into their bubble (and vice versa). The guides work separately with each individual. The idea is to stay focused on your unique experience and deal with your own stuff; you’ve got plenty of it.
Music is a large part of the experience. We start with Icaros, medicine songs given to the guides by plant spirits. Historically the shaman used to be the only person who drank. Then they would sing Icaros, and it’s the Icaros that heal the patient. These days everyone drinks.
As the Ayahuasca takes effect, the world starts dissolving. You enter a field of shared consciousness; you’re outside the box, with no frame of reference to understand or control your experience. That voice in your head constantly trying to convince you that you are separate from everything else becomes quiet. You shift into what I believe to be the default state of existence, a fundamental and deep connectedness to the universe, everything, and everyone around you. At this stage, you have one job: surrender to the moment, accept the medicine, and give yourself permission to take the journey.
Part of the journey is to purge. Purging releases negative energy from your body. It’s a step towards moving forward. Purging can take many forms. I often yawn, like animalistic 30-second-deep yawns; they feel great! Sometimes I sweat, sometimes I sing, sometimes I play the flute; it’s all purging. For many, it’s puking; everyone gets a bucket, and once one person pukes, it creates a chain reaction. For some people, it’s the toilet and what I call “bottom purging.” I recommend not locking the bathroom door; you might forget how to open it. I also recommend taking the bucket with you because sometimes, it wants to come out of both ends. Trust me, you’d rather have that bucket and not need it. Sounds pretty disgusting right? You get used to it. Don’t fight it, it’s part of the process; try saying thank you after every purge; it helps.
Ayahuasca is not for the faint of heart. It unveils what we have subconsciously suppressed. You’ll experience, see, hear, and feel challenging things; that’s part of the healing. But, sometimes, you’ll feel, hear, and see awe-inspiring, beautiful things. I’ve learned that if I’m being shown beautiful things at the start of the ceremony, it’s to psych me up because I’m about to face something brutal.
At an Ayahuasca ceremony, the guides might offer you more cups, but about 6-8 hours later, things wind down, the ceremony closes, and people slowly start interacting and talking to each other again. And, at the end, you might eat some food. The next day there is a sharing where you sit and talk about your experiences if you want.
Next up is something called integration—a period of time after which your experience connects with your life. I’ve had epiphanies in the middle of a deadlift in the gym weeks later. It’s good to chat with the people who attended the ceremony with you, or your guides. Afterall, that’s the benefit of having a shared experience.
Trust that you’ll get everything you asked for. Trust that what you asked will never come in the form that you expected. Trust that the lessons will be blindingly obvious when they arrive.
If you are interested in going to an Ayahuasca retreat, I’ve asked the guides I trust what questions you should ask. This is what they said:
- How long have you been drinking medicine? It takes years.
- How many dietas have you done? A dieta is “training” that guides undertake to build a closer understanding and affinity to a plant. They restrict food, contact with outsiders, and consume the plant. A dieta can be months or years long.
- What are the diet preparations for participants? If there are none, they’re not taking the medicine or safety seriously.
- Can anyone take the medicine? If they say yes, it’s unsafe to be in the space.
- Do they screen everyone that comes? If they say everyone is welcome, it’s not a safe space. The energy of the space is important.
My Ayahuasca experiences
My personal experiences are very reflective. I remember things, imagine things, make connections, and gain understanding. I peel back layers of myself and start seeing how I work and why I behave and think the way I do.
I once watched my son, whom we lost in a miscarriage, grow up, live a whole and happy life, and die of old age. I had completely buried the grief of that loss.
Staying on the baby theme, I once gave birth to myself in a toilet– do not lock that toilet door! I experienced life as a newborn, cried because I was thirsty, and thought I would die if I didn’t drink. Babies cry because they believe they will die, pick them up and hug them. I watched my ego slowly rebuild itself. I remember the moment I realized I had hands and feet and could interact. I understand newborns.
I remember looking around the room once and seeing streaks of color across people’s faces and clothes, pulsating with the music they were playing. That was my musical awakening. I now take singing lessons and practice the flute and guitar. Vibration is part of this; we are all vibration. I suspect one day, quantum physics will explain much of this, or one day much of this will explain quantum physics.
My family had it pretty bad during the partition of India. My mum once described it like this: “everyone said to be worried, but your neighbors were your friends. Then one day, neighbors started killing neighbors.” People dropped everything and ran. People had to choose to leave their parents to die by the side of the road or save their children. My grandmother thought my father had died of dehydration; they were burying him in the ground when his uncle saw a finger move. My dad didn’t really know how old he was or when his birthday was; he celebrated it on the 1st of Jan every year, why not! Birthdays were not important for a while after, it was all about survival. That kind of trauma doesn’t end with you; it gets passed down to your kids, and they pass it down to their kids, and I was passing it down to my kids. Ayahuasca helped me understand it all. It was one of the most powerful healing experiences of my life. That generational trauma ends with me.
Overnight I cured a decades-long chronic shoulder pain that several specialists could not resolve.
I’ve re-parented the angry 16-year-old child sitting at the control center of my life, pressing the big red self-sabotage button every time things are going well. Since then, the voice in my head says really nice things about me… to me. My inner critic was intense and constant, the cause of most of my ambition and depression. It drove me to achieve big things, then allowed me a solid 5 minutes of appreciation before starting up on the criticism again. Now it just says nice things about me all the time. “Writing this article is so brave of you,” “You can totally lift that weight,” “Meh, you screwed up, but that’s alright, they will get over it.”
I’m not the same person I used to be. People treat me differently, I’m more approachable, I exude an energy, and it attracts positive people towards me. Strangers approach me on the street, and we have random, casual conversations. Every fiber of my being, every cell in my body, every thought in my head feels better, brighter, and warmer.
Why am I talking about all of this now? Partly because I think everyone is ready to hear this now. The broader culture is changing; you can’t open a major newspaper without reading an article or two about psychedelics.
My journey with the medicine is now taking me to the next level. I want to be more intimately involved with the space, which means talking openly about my experiences. I hope those of you that have known me for years read this and are inspired.
My calling is to advocate for psychedelic medicine, spread the word, educate, help, change the culture, raise consciousness, and normalize conversations about psychedelic medicine.
The world is in a pivotal moment, everything is changing, and change is traumatic. It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be very difficult, and there is going to be a lot of suffering. I strongly believe psychedelic medicine is a tool that humanity needs if it is going to survive this transition. It will bring us together at a time when forces work to keep us polarized. It shows us how much we are connected, not how much we are separate.
Humanity has rediscovered psychedelic medicine, just when we need it the most.