Drinking in the Desert with Strangers
My Story of Ayahuasca, Healing, and Letting Go
I leaned back onto the leather headrest, lowered the driver’s seat as far back as it would go, and stared out the open sun roof to the sky above me, stars dotting the inky blackness. Occasionally, a cluster of bats swooped past the open glass, snatching insects drawn to the single light shining from my dashboard.
I was still experiencing “tracers,” the laser-like visual trails that often accompany a psychedelic experience, and I marveled at the path made by my hands, waving them back and forth rhythmically. I heard what sounded like a group of screaming toddlers in the distance, and a rooster began to crow—I figured I had less than an hour or so until sunrise.
After staring up into the darkness for a few more minutes, it occurred to me that the noises in the distance weren’t toddlers, but rather a pack of coyotes somewhere in the pitch-black desert outside my car. The pre-dawn air was dry and already very warm, still nothing near the 110+ degrees it would climb to later in the day, so I relaxed further into my seat and shut my eyes. I prayed that the spaced out feeling in my head and the strange visuals would go away quickly so I could drive back to my rented cabin a few miles away, and never see this place again.
Called to Drink
I can’t explain why, but I felt drawn to Ayahuasca long before I knew much about the medicine and its full healing potential. I had a gut feeling about the sacred potion—brewed for centuries by indigenous cultures in places like Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil—that it could be life-changing for me. I have never been one to experiment heavily in psychedelics—a few mushroom and LSD “trips” with friends in high school and college, taken merely for entertainment purposes. I am not even someone who uses marijuana heavily—it took me 2 ½ years to get my medical card in California, and at night I take a few puffs before bed to help me sleep. Hardly someone you would expect to be so drawn to a plant medicine with such powerful hallucinogenic properties. I have read several articles, however, where the authors say the same thing: It is less about wanting to “try” Ayahuasca, and more that the medicine chooses you.
I applied to attend an Ayahuasca retreat center in the Peruvian Amazon on November 24, 2016, knowing I had to do some serious clean up in my life before actually taking part. The closing paragraph of my application read:
“… finding my life's purpose, continuing on this spiritual path and expanding and growing is essential to me and I have set the attendance at a retreat as my intention within the next 6 months. Hopefully this application will be the first step toward manifesting that dream. In the meantime, I wanted to have my application in your hands, ready to go, and would like to continue studying, saving towards it, and preparing myself so that I am ready when the next trip is announced.”
The retreat facilitator was Nimea, a woman I met through social media earlier that year, scrolling through Instagram on a flight home from Chicago. I stumbled onto her account and immediately felt as if each and every post was (almost eerily) meant to speak directly to me. I sent her a DM thanking her for sharing her wisdom, and we became instantly connected. I sent her the retreat application and asked her to hold onto it for now, knowing I would reach out again when the time was right. She agreed, and I mentally prepared a list of changes that I felt would better prepare me for the experience.
I was coming off of a tumultuous few months after taking myself off of a cocktail of prescriptions for everything from anti-anxiety and weight loss, to migraines and sleep issues. The withdrawal caused horrible anxiety and paranoia, and it took me four months to start feeling back to “normal.” Once I overcame that rough patch, I quit smoking cigarettes cold turkey after smoking off and on since college. A month later, I left my 6-figure salary corporate job—after 14 years at the same company. I said goodbye to my luxury doorman building with the rooftop pool and moved to a quiet hippie bungalow outside the hustle of Downtown LA. I was living a quieter life amidst gardens and fruit trees, surrounded by artists and a landlord whose only rental application had been a meditation in her garden after reading my aura over tea.
Just after the 4th of July in 2017, I finally felt it was time to reach back out about attending a retreat. It had been just over 7 months since I set my intention by submitting the application to Nimea.
My main hesitation was the travel to the Amazon required me to participate in the ceremonies. Having just left my job, I knew the hit to my savings could be tough, not to mention the fact that I was doing this 100 percent on my own—the flights to Peru and a boat trip down the Amazon might be an adventure with a friend, alone they sounded like travel torture. Still, I was determined to go, and I reached back out to my social media spirit guide to let her know I felt ready.
“I think it’s time for the Amazon,” I messaged her.
“I was JUST thinking about you,” she replied. “I have a Shaman friend who will be performing two ceremonies in your area NEXT WEEKEND, and I thought it would be perfect for you.”
And just like that, the Universe had provided for me in divine timing.
As I recently heard Gabby Bernstein say, “Fear is the resistance to what you desire, and in the absence of resistance you become a magnet for what you desire.” I desired healing, and as soon as I stopped resisting the call to the medicine, the Universe provided a perfect time, place, and opportunity. I jumped at the chance immediately. The few short days between learning about the weekend and leaving for four days in the desert meant that I didn’t have much time to overthink it, or to think about it at all.
I was given a woman’s name as a contact, and she provided the basic details. I knew there would be about 10 participants total, that the ceremonies would be held at a house deep in the desert, that I was to bring a yoga mat and a bucket (ugh), and… that’s it. I booked myself an Airbnb cabin for the weekend, not sure if I would need a place to sleep and shower between ceremonies, and a few days later I began the 3 hour drive out of Los Angeles.
After turning off of the main highway, near Joshua Tree National Park, the roads turned to gravel, and finally to red dust. I knew from the instructions I had been given that there weren’t GPS directions after getting off the main highway, so I was grateful for the remaining daylight as I wound around endless bumpy dirt roads. There were no street names, and several turns ended in a dead end that dropped off into a canyon without warning. I finally found a sign marking the last turn onto a half mile stretch of dirt that led up to the site and made my way up to the southwestern style adobe house with a circular drive. I put the car in park and took in a deep breath.
“Here we go.”
What had seemed like an awesome adventure a few short hours ago, now seemed like the opening scene to a Law and Order: SVU episode where households across the country watch and shake their heads at the TV.
“I mean, what was this woman THINKING?”
“Who DRIVES to a strange house in the desert to drink psychedelic jungle tea… WITH COMPLETE STRANGERS?!”
“DOESN’T THIS WOMAN HAVE ANY FRIENDS??”
I sent a text to my best friend Anna in San Diego, telling her I’d made it to the house, but I couldn’t give her too much info since there weren’t directions to get there. I made sure not to let my mind wander to a dark place, knowing that those things can come back to you at a later, less opportune time. I grabbed my supplies and walked up to the door, wondering what the hell waited for me inside.
I’m not sure what I expected to find when I opened the door to the house—maybe a small weathered Peruvian man in an alpaca cape, chanting silently in a corner, maybe some white people with dreadlocks in Thai fisherman pants passing a joint around. Okay—maybe I do know exactly what I expected. What I got was so very different.
I opened the door directly into a kitchen that was overflowing with food and supplies: bunches of bananas, something bubbling on the cooktop that looked to be soup, cases of water, veggies, loaves of gluten-free and sprouted grain bread, boxes of teas. I was immediately greeted by a pretty girl with sandy brown hair, wearing a tank top and cotton shorts with a wide smile—I recognized her as Sarah, the one I’d spoken to when getting the info for this weekend. She grabbed me in a tight hug, which was followed up quickly by another from a tall, good-looking guy who looked to be in his late 20s.
“We heard about you. We’re so glad you made it!”
More introductions and hugs came from a few others in the room, the man had come with his wife and sister. Also, a young couple from Orange County that looked like they had been pulled by a casting agency to play the jock and cheerleader. Another Asian man who looked to be older than me, but was in great shape for his age, and a younger guy—maybe early 30s—with dark tanned skin and a calm demeanor rounded out the group.
Seated in the center was the Shaman, a young guy with medium brown skin and long hair pulled back into a ponytail, rail-thin and wearing jeans cut off and rolled up just at the knee. He was half sitting/half reclining with his leg curled under him in that way you can only do when you have young knees and skinny legs. I shook his hand and couldn’t help chuckling at how completely different this group was from what I had been imagining the whole ride here. Nimea had told me that the Shaman was “pure love” and I felt that immediately—from the whole group.
About a half hour later the final addition to the group arrived, a girl named Missy in her early 30s who reminded me a bit of the folks I had worked with in my corporate life. She was dressed casually, in jeans and a t-shirt, and had kind eyes and an enthusiastic, helpful way about her. I later found out that she’d known Sarah, the organizer, when they were in college, and they hadn’t seen each other in 10 years. For whatever reason, her presence put me at ease instantly.
I looked around the group, wondering what kinds of things we would be going through together in the coming hours. I felt some anxiety start to bubble up as I realized that everyone had brought bags and suitcases with them to stay here at the house for the weekend. Someone mentioned the ceremony would start between 9 and 10 PM and I knew the trip lasted around 5 hours. I did the math in my head and figured that meant we would be “coming down” at some point in the middle of the night, and I had no clue what happened after that. I had my own cabin, but I wouldn’t want to be driving at 3 AM in the dark desert with a belly full of psychoactive tea. I also knew I would never be able to sleep in this house full of strangers.
Sleeping is one of my biggest vulnerabilities, and since I was young I’ve always feared the sleepover. I am an awful sleeper: I lay awake for hours, talk in my sleep, snore, kick, move around, get too hot then too cold, and generally make life miserable for anyone trying to sleep next to me. I can’t stand sharing rooms (even with my closest friends) because I know how annoying I am, which keeps me awake half the night, and the other half is spent making the other person miserable. I have to be super comfortable with another person to be able to sleep in front of them, and that was not something I saw happening in the next 5 hours… no matter how much Ayahuasca we drank together. I temporarily shelved the anxiety I was creating and sprawled onto the floor with the group to discuss what I was in for.
It turned out that some of the folks were on their second weekend of ceremonies together, the same Shaman had traveled through Orange County the week prior, and two of the women were first timers like me. One guy had lived in the jungle for a while and estimated he’d done 40 ceremonies. My eyes grew wide at the thought.
After chatting for an hour or so, the Shaman had us gather to walk through the process for the ceremony that night. No drinking water or eating from this point forward (about 7 or 8 PM), and once the ceremony started we would each be on our own mat in a circle around him. There was to be no talking after we began, unless asking for help to use the bathroom. Couples were advised to separate from each other to avoid interference with your own journey. He explained that instinct would drive us to want to curl up in the fetal position, but to try as much as possible to keep our posture and our energy open. We each had our own bucket, and could expect to purge in several different ways: the most common was to vomit or need to use the bathroom, but we may also experience other things like laughing or crying fits, feeling the need to shout, etc.
We began the half hour long process of setting up our “stations” for the night, and I couldn’t help but think this felt more like a summer camp retreat than the scary ceremony I had imagined. The room would be completely black so anything you needed had to be close by, and we all had a mini-flashlight to navigate to the bathroom if need be. The Shaman arranged, then rearranged, the positions of each one of us and I ended up between Missy and the cheerleader, with my back up against the sliding glass doors to the outside. Someone had brought thick, comfy futon style mats so I covered it with a thin blanket and laid out my essentials next to me. I was ready to get this show on the road.
Just after 9 PM, the Shaman called us together to begin the ceremony, and we gathered on our mats. He would be drinking Ayahuasca with us, as is the custom, and would be assisted by Sarah. She had spent time in Peru studying under the Shamans and was serving as an apprentice for these ceremonies.
The Shaman plays an integral role in the ceremony, especially for a novice like myself. They are there to control the tempo and vibration of the ceremony as a whole—through instruments, and songs called Icaros, but also to sense the energy of the group and address specific individuals at different times throughout the ceremony. They are trained to keep their energy and vibration high and out of reach of outside influence, so that they can prevent you from getting stuck in a low frequency.
Part of the role of Ayahuasca is to help open up the dark places, the spots where healing is needed, but the Shaman helps make sure that negativity flows up and out. Part of that process involves purging, which can happen in different ways: vomiting, sweating, crying, using the bathroom, and even deep meditative breathing can all be ways to allow the negative energy to flow out of the body. Having a Shaman that you resonate with is probably one of the most important aspects to a successful ceremony. I felt lucky to be in that place and surrounded by the group of people that were there.
The Shaman and his assistant began smoking mapacho, a rolled tobacco considered very sacred by Shamans in the Amazon. It is smoked throughout the ceremony, and I have to admit that the scent was calming to me after smoking cigarettes for so many years.
One by one, the Shaman called us to the center of the circle where he sat with a glass bottle of the brew and a cup, along with a small blanket covered in instruments and spiritual objects. We sat across from him while he poured small amounts of the thick brown liquid into the cup, sometimes pouring more, other times pouring some back into the glass bottle. He was told by his spiritual guides how much to give each person, and once the right amount had been poured he handed it to us to drink.
I was the second person to drink, and once he presented the cup to me I held my breath and drank it down in one gulp, then scooted back over to my mat to wait. After about 30 mins, the whole group had finished, and I laid back on my mat just as a wave of nausea hit me like a ton of bricks. The room was so quiet at this point—the last person had just returned to their mat—and I DID NOT want to be the first person grabbing their bucket to purge. I began to take deep breaths in through my nose, in that way you do when you’ve had too much to drink and just need to ride out the spins.
Gratefully, Shaman started the Icaros and he and his assistant began playing instruments, so at least there was some distraction. Icaros are traditional medicine songs performed throughout the entire ceremony by the Shaman. They set the tempo throughout the ceremony, sometimes loud and energetic with rhythmic shaking of the chakapa (a rattle made of bundled leaves) and loud, hypnotic singing, while other times they are melodic and peaceful. After a particularly frenzied song, the Shaman would take the tempo down to barely a whisper, so soft and quiet you could hear a pin drop. There were times that he would be completely still, with only an occasional mouth made sound of whooshing wind, and then silence.
After about 15 minutes the nausea began to subside a bit, and suddenly the roller coaster hit the top of the climb and I was plunged into the initial stages of the medicine. I began seeing hundreds of spiraling shapes, sacred geometry in the most incredible patterns in a never-ending spiral above me. I remember thinking I wanted to remember every shape and color, but just as fast as they appeared a new one took its place. I sat upright on my mat smiling, but also feeling acutely aware of a general uneasiness. Everyone around me was lying on their mat, lightly covered in a blanket, perfectly quiet and still. Meanwhile, I was nauseous, my head was spinning, and I was scared to death of laying back and making some weird noise that would pull everyone out of whatever beautiful experience they were so quietly having around me. I sat on my mat praying that someone would start puking or crying or reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb—anything!
One of my favorite explanations for the experience of drinking Ayahuasca comes from an article I read:
“Everything is energy, vibrating at different frequencies. Our brains are translators that allow us to perceive some of this energy, some of these frequencies, as physical matter. These physical frequencies are generally easy for us to access; we learn to see, hear, taste, touch and smell at a very early age. But there are many other frequencies, which aren’t physical, that we nonetheless have access to. And with a bit of training, we can teach our brains to access and translate these frequencies as well.What Ayahuasca does is open you up to these frequencies. Which ones you’ll access specifically is where it gets very personal. We each get exactly what we need in exactly the way we need it. When you get “attuned” to a frequency, you have access to information, which comes to you in the form of energy. Your brain then translates that energy into whatever form is easiest for you to understand. Some people receive messages in the form of words, some see images or visions, others hear sounds and yet others have feelings. Your messages may be rich in symbolism or very direct and clear. It differs for everyone but it’s always perfect for that individual.”—“What Happens During an Ayahuasca Ceremony” by Melody Fletcher (from the website www.dawnontheamazon.com)
That first night, I was SO completely tuned into the frequency of fear, being self-conscious, wanting to fit in with this group of strangers, that I spent 6 and half hours COMPLETELY MISERABLE praying for each second to go by so I could get out of this house and never come back. I fought against the medicine with every fiber of my being, much like I do when I’m in a group meditation class and I pinch my thumb with my fingernail, so I don’t fully relax and become one of the dreaded meditation room snorers, or in yoga class when I can’t focus on a pose because I’m wondering whether or not I’m the only one sweating profusely. My need to blend in, get approval, to not stand out at any cost, was stopping me from getting the healing I desired. That’s exactly what happened during the first ceremony… I muscled my way through the entire night, never once surrendering to the medicine.
I remember a few hours into it, sitting at the edge of my mat PRAYING the minutes would fly by, picturing myself curling up in the bed waiting in my cabin a few miles away. Everyone around me looked so damn peaceful, and I was in agony. At a certain point, I turned to lay on my stomach, staring out at the blackness outside of the sliding doors, wishing I could just get up and go lay out there by myself, alone. Another bad habit of mine… when shit gets rough, isolate. I stared at a large tree just outside the doors for so long that at one point it formed a bird’s face with an orange beak and long eyelashes. The bird face in the tree turned and looked at me with a smirk, and winked one of its long-lashed eyes at me. I just chuckled and shook my head.
“Thank you, bird tree. I needed that.”
There were several rounds of drinking more tea. I passed each time. I had zero desire to get nauseous again. Around me, people purged in their buckets, came back and forth from the bathroom, all the time looking like shadow figures in the darkness. I didn’t purge once. I sat lotus style at the end of my mat rocking back and forth in time to the songs, praying that the end was close. About 4 AM the Shaman called the ceremony to a close, and we slowly all came back to the center of the room.
“Thank You God,” I muttered under my breath.
Sarah asked us if we wanted mint tea, and we sat and sipped, quietly comparing stories with our neighbors. Once people started to get up and mill about, I found my escape out the front door, wobbling on the rocks and feeling around in the darkness for my car door handle. I was going to try to sleep for a few hours, head back to my rented cabin, get the fuck out of Joshua Tree, and never touch Ayahuasca again.
That was my plan, but Ayahuasca had a different plan for me, and I’m so glad it did. Little did I know I had only just started, and how transformative the next 24 hours would truly be.
Decisions to Make
Just after sunrise, I started up my car without saying a word to the group inside the house and headed out towards my cabin a few miles away. In another moment of synchronicity (or something else?) the song on the radio at that exact moment was “100% Pure Love” by Crystal Waters. I flashed back to Nimea telling me the Shaman was Pure Love, and I had to laugh—there is no such thing as coincidence.
“You saw a brand new high, thought that you could flyDid I hear you cry, or did you like the ride?You call my name again, no it’s not a sinI’ll show you how to win, and where I’ve beenFrom the back to the middle and around againI’m gonna be there til the end100% pure love…”
Driving through the deserted roads at this hour reminded me of my party days back in Chicago. I would crash at my friend Scott’s apartment after a crazy night out, sleep for a few hours to take the edge off, and then drive home to my apartment at 6 AM in that purgatory state between still fucked up and not quite hungover. Everything covered in the haze of a dreamy, alternate version of the city.
I pulled into the cabin driveway, stumbled into the front door, and folded like a paper fan onto the bed. I laid there for about four hours, before waking up to a text from one of the girls’ from last night.
“Hey, where’d you go?? We’re doing a closing circle around 1130a if you want to come back!”
“Came back to my cabin to sleep. C U soon,” I text back, knowing full well I had no intention to go back for Night #2.
I snoozed for another hour or so, and then, without realizing, I sent a DM to Nimea at exactly 11:11 AM.
“I have a question and I’m hoping your expertise may help me.”
“Send Away!” she replied.
I explained how difficult the night had been, how it was hard because these people were strangers, and how all I could do was picture laying in my own bed for the entire 6-hour ceremony.
“Yes, it’s a verrrryyyy common thing,” she answered back.
She went on to explain how learning how to let go in front of others will help me open up to be more confident in who I am. She compared stripping naked in front of a room full of strangers to what it felt like for me last night during ceremony,
“… you are stripping away the ego and showing up as you’re most authentic self and that’s like undressing all the baggage in front of others and learning how to accept who you are, even if not everything is perfect.”
Well, damn. She definitely wasn’t going to make this easy for me to back out of the second night.
I tried my best to fire back with all the reasons I just didn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t go back for another ceremony.
“The choice is yours,” she typed back. “However, I have a feeling you’ll get a lot from it if you allow yourself to do this. Remember this experience/block is helping you clear it so it can ripple out into your day to day.”
Then she sent me a black and white meme that I had seen on her Instagram a few weeks before:
WE NEVER SAIDIt would be easy,WE SAID IT DOESN’THave to be hard
“I know, I know,” I whined back, sending the cringing face emoji.
“Push past this and I promise it will help. When you go to the medicine tonight imagine yourself forming a bubble of support around you, call in all the people you do know to be there with you, trust they are there and that they will guide you.”
She reminded me that the easy route would be to walk away, but then I’m left with a "what if." She pointed out all the huge changes I had made to get to this point.
“… just a reminder at how STRONG you really are. Don’t let the fear of the unknown hold you back from letting go and letting in something that can assist and propel you!
The things you’ve been able to create in the last year has blown me away. I am so honoured to have seen your growth, to see your strength of will and determination to proceed. It’s mind blowing truly and that kind of growth knocks your socks off, but you’ve been doing so well with it! I promise I wouldn’t say that lightly!”
I lay there in the horribly warm cabin in the desert, alone, sobbing. My whole life I’d been guilty of running away, not finishing what I started. And now, the encouragement I was getting from someone who was 2,500 miles away, who had never met me, and who seemed to believe in me more than I believed in myself, was overwhelming. I was so conflicted about what to do next, but I reminded myself of everything I had overcome in the past year. If I quit now, I would be repeating a decades long cycle, and I had done so much work to get to this point. I meditated for a few minutes, took a deep breath, and grabbed my purse and keys to head back to the ceremony house.
I pulled back into the circular driveway of the ceremony house and turned the car off. I sat there for a few seconds, staring at the door, daring myself to go back inside.
“Uhhhh,” I sighed. “What in the actual fuck. How am I here again?”
I silently made a promise to myself that this was strictly a reconnaissance mission to get some of my questions answered and see how everyone else was feeling. Despite my miserable ceremony, you can’t help but feel bonded to a room full of people that had gone through such an intense experience with you. I knew, if anything, I wanted to explain myself and not just cut and run. These people were all super sweet and supportive. They would definitely understand that I wasn’t going to be able to drink again tonight.
I turned the knob to the front door, a bit apprehensive that I would be shunned, or made to feel like an asshole for leaving the house and missing the sharing circle earlier that morning. I should have known better, because as soon as I walked in, I was greeted with more hugs and smiles, everyone telling me how happy they were that I was back. I felt so comforted by this group, I almost felt like crying for the 1000th time that day.
I noticed a few people were missing: the wife, sister, and the Orange County couple had all left after the sharing circle that morning, for various reasons. There were six of us left, but someone told me that there were a few more people from LA that would be joining us later tonight. They were at a movie premiere and would be heading out as soon as they could, so the ceremony would be starting later tonight. That was comforting for some reason, as if the extra time would help me make the decision about whether or not to participate. My plan was to talk to the Shaman and let him know what had been going on with me, but at the moment I just felt emotionally drained. I just wanted to sit and talk to the remaining group. They made me a bowl of vegetable soup and some tea, and we spent the next several hours just lounging around the house, laughing and sharing stories.
There were a few bedrooms scattered around, so people would nap for a bit and then rejoin the group. The rest of us sat outside on the hot porch, feet dangling in the small fountain or swinging in the hammock, making small talk. It was July and we were in the desert, so the sun was beating down hard and the temperature was above 110 degrees, but I barely noticed over the nerves that were building with each passing hour.
At some point, around sunset, I was sitting in the living room laughing and relaxing, and took a look around the room at the faces around me.
“Hey, you guys, can I talk to you about something?” I asked the group.
They all nodded yes, and I took a gulp of my water.
“So, last night was really difficult for me, and I left thinking I wouldn’t be coming back tonight.” I couldn’t believe I was saying this out loud. “But sitting here with everyone again, I don’t see how I could leave now.”
Everyone looked at me with kind eyes, and a few of the veterans explained how they had gone through similar feelings during some of their ceremonies.
“Just remember,” the guy who had lived in the jungle told me, “everyone here is going through their own journey when we drink, and NO ONE is paying attention to what’s happening with you across the room.”
I started to laugh, suddenly realizing just how self-absorbed it was for me to think that anyone in that room would give two shits if I was purging or making noise or any of the 200 other scenarios I had imagined the night before. No. One. Cared. I let that sink in.
“You’re right,” I replied, laughing. “Well… let this be my official warning that I am going to GO IN tonight, and I apologize in advance if that involves anything that would otherwise be embarrassing in the real world. Okay?”
“Okay.” They all nodded back, smiling.
And just like that, I made the decision to stay.
Now that I knew I was sticking around, I figured that the best way to set myself up for a better night was to do some pre-planning before the next ceremony. I moved my mat and bucket to the other side of the room, away from the sliding glass doors that had made me long for freedom the night before. It was also closer to the air vent (not that it was doing much to compete with the desert heat), and there was a little nook in front of a doorway that allowed me a little more room to spread out. The previous night I could reach out and touch the girls on either side of me, so having some extra space felt like a good plan.
I did a little more investigation of the house to get a better lay of the land. The day before I had been using a bathroom located just off the ceremony room and hadn’t explored any of the other rooms. Now that the wife and sister were gone, there was an empty bedroom in the back with an attached bathroom. I immediately knew when I walked in that it would be my “safe place” for the night. It wasn’t necessarily a great idea to wander outside by myself at 2 AM but having a space that felt a little bit removed put my mind at ease. If I found myself panicking or freaking out at any point during the ceremony, I would come to this back bathroom and give myself a few minutes to breathe and calm down.
I went back into the main room to have my last bits of food and water before the cut-off, feeling a bit more relaxed about the night ahead of me. I picked up my phone and sent a DM to Nimea.
“Well. I don’t know what I’m thinking, but I came back.”
A few hours later, just before I turned off my phone for the next ceremony, she replied.
“To the medicine, or to your Airbnb?”
I looked down at my phone and smiled, “To the medicine.”
We had planned to start the ceremony around 9 PM, but the new participants coming from LA had gotten a late start and estimated they would arrive closer to 10 PM. The rest of us were arranged into a circle again by the Shaman (thankfully, he let me stay in my new spot), and he left three open spaces for the newbies once they arrived. Two were on the opposite side of the room, near my spot from last night, and one was immediately to my right. A light feeling of anxiety passed through me, wondering who the mystery guests would be and what vibes they would bring after the rest of us had done so much bonding.
Missy and I sat on the end of my mat talking while we waited. I really liked her and her energy, and with no lights on the room quickly grew dark again. I started to prepare mentally, closing my eyes and doing some meditative breathing and affirmations, when the Shaman received a phone call from the new arrivals saying their car was stuck.
After dark, the directions to the house are nearly impossible to follow and there are zero lights to give any indication of “road” versus ditch. Unfortunately, our new guests made a wrong guess about a half mile away and found themselves stuck in the sand. The guys in our group all grabbed flashlights and headed out to find them.
Just after 10 PM, the guys came back with our new guests in tow. The house was dark at this point, but I could make out that there were two guys and a girl, all attractive from what I could see. They were dressed up, having come from a premiere, and the girl went into one of the bedrooms to change. We were waiting on them to start, so they quickly grabbed spots on the available mats and we all gave a nod to say hello and welcome. The guy who took the mat next to me was thin, wearing jeans, and had messy, kind of wavy hair that was about chin length. He was introduced to me, but I didn’t really catch his name, maybe Igor? I didn’t pay it much mind, and went back to my breathing, more concerned about keeping calm and relaxed.
After giving them a few minutes to relax and settle in, Shaman reviewed the “rules” for the ceremony again and began smoking the mapacho and laying out his sacred tools. The glass bottle of Ayahuasca and the cup were placed on the blanket, and he motioned to the first person to join him on the mat to drink.
I was really happy to be right in the middle of the circle this time, so I wouldn’t be one of the first people to drink. I knew the other four people ahead of me would be well into their journey by the time the Ayahuasca hit me, so I wouldn’t be as paranoid right off the bat. I had also grabbed a down blanket from the bedroom and could actually use it now that I was closer to the air vent. I felt a little bit like a kid who needed a security blanket, but after last night I would take what I could get.
When it came to my turn, I once again slid on my butt over to the Shaman’s blanket and waited while he went about the process of pouring and re-pouring the Ayahuasca into the cup. It seemed like I was drinking about the same amount as last night, but it was so dark I couldn’t be sure. Once again, I held my breath and gulped it down all at once. The brown liquid was pungent and bitter and earthy, not delicious by any means, but no worse than some of the Kombucha or wheat grass shots I’d had in the past.
I slid back over to my mat once again and laid back, staring up at the ceiling, focusing on my breathing. The last few people drank and returned to their mats, and the Shaman and Sarah started using the instruments and singing the Icaros again. There was something strangely calming about hearing the songs this time—the previous night they had felt like torture, but this time they were soothing and beautiful. This felt like a good omen for my second ceremony. Also, even though the Icaros are all in Spanish, I knew exactly what each one was about and what the lyrics meant. I speak a little vacation Spanish in my normal life—enough to get by at a bar in Mexico—but after drinking Ayahuasca, I apparently became completely fluent. Just one of the magical effects of the ceremony.
I decided that for this ceremony I was going to lay flat on my stomach with the blanket lightly covering me. I tried to stay as open and outstretched as possible and laid with my forehead on my hands. The same initial wave of nausea hit me again, then the geometric shapes, but this time I stayed open to it all and didn’t let the visuals overwhelm me.
After that phase subsided I found myself in a sort of theme park style village of gnome-like characters, as if I had landed on a Candyland game board. They were singing and laughing and seemed friendly, but I knew they were there to bring me a message.
I spent some time with these little messengers and received a lot of powerful insight by listening to them. They told me to have more fun and get back my inner child, and it resonated with me after the intense two years I had just been through. I was reminded that I used to be silly, and playful, and laugh a lot, but sometime over the past 10 years I had lost some of my sparkle. They also showed me some of my friends, and reminded me that I needed to treat them with kindness and not just “put them to the side” when I didn’t need them. I remember singing songs with them, but have no idea if I actually said anything out loud… the whole time with the Candyland creatures had that same dream-like quality I had experienced the night before. I remember the messages, but the details are hazy.
After the visuals started to subside a bit. I sat up at the end of my mat and turned back into the songs the Shaman was singing. He was beginning to accelerate the pace and the Icaros were getting more intense. I felt my heart start racing in time to the music. I was having a flashback to the first ceremony. Before it could get out of hand and take me out of the ceremony, I grabbed my mini flashlight and felt my way around the corner to the back bedroom.
When I got into the bedroom, I quietly shut the door behind me and sat on the edge of the bed directly facing the closed door. My heart felt like it was beating so fast, and I closed my eyes and began breathing deeply… In… I am safe and secure… Out… Nothing can harm me… In… I am safe and secure… Out… Reeelaxxxx, Girl…
I opened my eyes, and reminded myself (out loud, I think) that I had promised myself to experience this, that this opportunity would be ending, and I needed to let go and get everything I could out of it. I continued my deep breathing, and at one point I just started laughing, imagining someone walking into the bedroom right now. I knew I looked so crazy sitting with my hands on my lap, feet on the floor, back straight, breathing like I was in labor. The laugh felt like a little release of the valve that was building up steam, and I felt instantly more relaxed.
I went to use the attached bathroom, and remember looking down at my hands and legs, and not seeing my physical body anymore. The closest I could come to describing it is that it looked like a screenshot from The Matrix, lines of computer code, pure energetic vibration that had somehow been slowed down enough for me to see it. It was beautiful. A smile came to my lips as I realized how lucky I was to be here again, experiencing this. I washed my hands and stared at myself in the mirror for a few seconds, but looked away after I remembered that it’s usually not a good idea to stare at your own face while hallucinating,
“Mirrors aren’t my friend,” I muttered quietly.
I walked back into the bedroom and decided to give myself a few more minutes before going back to my mat. I could still hear the Shaman singing, but it felt much less intense being a few rooms away. I sat at the end of the bed this time, so it wouldn’t be quite as creepy if someone opened the door.
Over the next few hours, I came in and out of the bedroom a few times, whenever I needed a minute or two to just breathe and calm down. On the second or third visit, while sitting on the bed, I heard a woman’s voice.
“You don’t have to carry all this sadness.”
I sat up straighter.
“You don’t have to carry all this sadness,” the voice repeated, over and over.
After a minute or so, the voice was joined by other women’s voices, and I looked down towards the floor to see a bottomless spiral of woman in two rows on either side of my arms. They were pulling what looked to be thick yellow rope off of me, one strand on each side. The voices became robotic, and got progressively slower, like a podcast when you accidentally turn it to ½ speed… They just kept repeating,
“You don’t have to carry all this sadness. We will take it from you.”
The women seemed to be from every possible nationality, color, and era. Some of the women looked African-American and were dressed in clothes that looked like they were in the pre-Civil War South. Bonnets, white aprons, long blue dresses with puffed sleeves. Some of the women felt familiar, but there weren’t any distinct faces that I could see. I didn’t feel scared, quite the opposite, in fact. Whoever these women were, they felt protective and safe.
I spent a few minutes here, with the women pulling the twists of rope off of me, before deciding to stand up and head back to my mat. When I got back, I sat up and looked around the room. This group felt more “active” than the one last night, more up and down, lots of people throwing up into their buckets, and the new guy next to me got up and went out the front door a few times. He would come back in a few minutes later and sit back down, and then immediately start heaving and vomiting violently. At one point, I remember getting a strong feeling that he was in a dark place. It seemed like he hadn’t stopped throwing up for hours, so I focused as much as I could on sending him loving vibrations.
I laid back down and was transported to a circle of women holding hands, the same women that had been with me in the bedroom. There were circles and circles of women as far as the eye could see, and in the middle, on the ground was a baby. I don’t remember if I felt like I was actually IN the circle, or just floating above it, but I had this sudden awareness. I looked at the women in the circle and realized that these weren’t strangers. Even though they didn’t have distinct facial features, I knew immediately that the two women closest to me were my grandmothers, both of whom had passed, and both of whom I was extremely close to. I also realized that the African-American women were also my ancestors. I am mixed race and was adopted by an all-white family, so it had never occurred to me that I had two more women who were my grandmothers, and one of them would be black. That lineage was being represented here in my vision too, and the baby in the middle of the circle… was me.
The women were swaying in a circle around the baby version of me, singing songs that felt so loving and protective. I don’t recall words or specifics, just that I knew that all of these women were a piece of me that I had been carrying without realizing it. I was familiar with the ancestral stories of my adopted family, my Mom’s family that came from Italy, my dad’s family of famous architects, but I had never acknowledged that I had a set of birth parents with a whole separate lineage. All of these women, generations and generations of them, were in circles around me, protecting me, letting me know that I didn’t need to carry their sadness anymore.
I was reminded of Nimea’s advice earlier that morning, to remember that I was in a bubble of protection, and I felt so overwhelmed by it all. I began to sob silently, sitting there in the dark on my mat. There were tears of joy, but also of release, sadness, exhaustion, just about every possible emotion welled up in my throat and escaped through my tears.
Even though it was pitch black and I wasn’t making noise, the Shaman stood up and came directly over to me. He was standing over me, wearing white linen pants and a loose white tunic, shaking the rattle around me and blowing smoke from the mapacho into the top of my head. I didn’t know it at the time, but blowing mapacho smoke over the head, hands, and body helps cleanse the negative energy from the system. It also positively attracts good spirits, as they are attracted to the mapacho smoke. He performed the same ritual to one other person on the other side of the room, and then went and sat back down. His guides had let him know who needed to be cleansed. Even though I didn’t know what the ritual was for at the time, I noticed that I was no longer crying. I just felt an all-encompassing wave of gratitude and bliss. I knew why I was meant to stay for the second night, and I had received the messages loud and clear.
The Shaman offered the group two more chances to drink if we wanted, and some people took him up on the offer. I was not going to test my luck, as I had come out of the intense portion of the journey and was feeling calm again. In fact, just after the Shaman had blown the mapacho smoke into my hair, I got up and went back to the back bathroom and threw up for the first time in two ceremonies. It truly felt like a purge, like the medicine had done its job and it was releasing all of that negative energy. The purge lasted less than a minute, and when I returned to my mat I felt relaxed. The rest of the night I spent just happily looking at the other people in the room and listening to the songs of the Shaman. The night before they sounded like torture, but suddenly they had become the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard.
The Shaman ended the ceremony later this time, close to 5 AM, and we all gathered at the ends of our mats and sipped on tea. Now that the lights were on, I noticed that the guy sitting next to me was one of the most beautiful men I’d ever seen in real life.
“Phew, glad I didn’t see that before we drank last night,” I thought, knowing it would have put me in my head big time. I silently thanked the Universe for making sure it was dark when he came in.
Missy came over to my mat with her tea and the three of us chatted for a bit. When hot guy walked away, Missy and I looked at each other with enormous eyes,
“What the fuuuuuuck?!”
“Girl, I know.”
We laughed at the fact that he had been in skinny jeans all night, which sounded like some medieval form of torture. A few of us decided we wanted to see the sun come up, so we sat outside on the patio talking and sharing stories. A few people snoozed inside or made food. At some point, Missy and the handsome man decided to jump into the cowboy pool just off the deck. I sat and talked with them and was surprised to find out that in addition to being gorgeous, the new guy was also very funny and had an accent. I mean… thank GOD I didn’t meet him before the ceremony!
The three of us hung around together for a few more hours, chatting with Sarah and the Shaman on the deck. Everyone was still full of adrenaline and we had the best morning laughing and telling stories while the sun came up.
Once I was feeling 100 percent again, I told the group I was going to head back to my cabin to just catch a few hours of sleep and a shower, but I would be back long before the sharing circle this time. Unlike the previous day, this time I couldn’t wait to get back to the house.
When I returned a few hours later, a few people were still napping, some had showered, and a few had gone down to try and retrieve the car out of the ditch. We put out a piece of paper for everyone to write down their contact info and sat in a circle sharing what each of us had experienced the night before. It was so strange to feel so close to a circle of people I had never met 48 hours before, but I did.
We cleaned up the house, packed up our cars, and said our goodbyes. I had reserved the cabin for an extra night so I could hang out a bit longer in Joshua Tree, and I wanted to get some more sleep before having to make the drive back to LA. We took a group photo behind the house, and I gave everyone a long hug before turning to walk out the front door. I shut the door behind me and headed towards my car, warm tears streaming down my face, knowing that the past two days would probably take me a year to fully understand.
It is just over a year now since I left the ceremony house that day, and as predicted I am just now starting to truly grasp the impact of my decision to drink Ayahuasca. So much so, that it has taken me a year to get the story written. Something that intense and life altering is hard to put into words.
When people ask me about my experience, the best I can do to explain it is to say,
“It changed my life.”
It’s a simple response to a complicated question. It wasn’t just the two ceremonies that impacted me. From the moment I set the intention to participate in a ceremony, I became dedicated to working on myself. Even before I had taken my first sip of Ayahuasca, the medicine was beginning the transformation in my life. Not only did I clean up some areas of my life where I had been struggling, but the whole process reminded me that I truly have the power to manifest my dreams. Having a ceremony pop up in Southern California with that amazing group of people reaffirmed my belief in the magic that exists when you desire something and get into proper alignment. Struggling the first night and reaching out for help the next day was probably the biggest test of my growth. Asking for help has never been an easy task for me, but deciding to humble myself and be raw and vulnerable with complete strangers was more evidence of the medicine at work.
I also showed up for myself, didn’t give into fear, showed bravery, trusted strangers, and let go of the need for perfection and on and on…and that’s all before the magical experience that came from interacting with my ancestors. Every aspect of the journey helped me see a new way to show up in my life.
I didn’t drive away that day an entirely different person, nothing is that simple, but I have continued to integrate so much of the experience even now, a year later. My depression and anxiety are much more manageable, and I sleep like a baby now. After having the experience with my ancestors, I decided to find and reach out to my birth mother. We have since established a relationship that is healthy for the both of us, and I know it’s been important to my healing. I have found myself establishing better boundaries and standing up for myself when I need to, but also becoming softer in other ways. I’m better at finishing what I start, maybe not always quickly—but I am dedicated to finishing. I can’t even explain all the micro changes that taking part in the ceremonies has rippled out into my life, but they are there… showing up when I least expect them, like magic.