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I wasn’t depressed, an addict or battling PTSD but ayahuasca still changed my life

I emerged two weeks later into the same world but seen through completely different eyes.

By Charlie NicholsonPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
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Photo by Charlie Nicholson

In the treacle darkness of the maloca, surrounded by sighs, belches, yelps and giggles – there was even barking – of people I’d only just met, as the medicine wound its way through us all, I suddenly had a strong urge to stick my hand down my trousers and stroke the flesh of my right thigh. “So soft,” I murmured aloud, “so warm.” I wriggled my fingers in between my toes, noting the rainforest sand lodged between them, and then — the touch receptors in the skin of my palms dancing — stroked up and down my legs, traced the hard-soft-hard contours of my abdomen, chest and arms, the grooves of my throat, raked my fingers through my hair — as a lover would, or an obsessive cartographer confronted by pristine landscape. Everything felt like a miracle; every square millimetre some newfound treasure. I wanted to nuzzle against my own skin, climb inside it and finger the surfaces of my bones.

“I love you,” I murmured, “I love myself; I love this body.”

I took off my watch, my necklace, tied up my hair so that my skin would be bare, pure, nothing in my way. I turned my face up towards the roof of the maloca, to address something vast I sensed gazing down at me — the cosmos perhaps: “It’s a gift. You entrusted it to me and I haven’t taken care of it. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said. Sorry especially for a decade of bulimia during my teens and early twenties. And then I did something powerful: I forgave myself. “I forgive you,” I whispered, over and over, curled into myself, cradling my belly with one hand and a plastic bowl full of sick in the other, sobbing and rocking on a mattress in the Amazon jungle, as night thickened and set.

I’m a TV executive from London. How did I get here?

I had gotten divorced five years earlier, which had punched trauma deep into my tissues. One day, it seemed I ‘had it all’. A lovely husband who was successful and adored me. A big house. Invitations to some pretty lavish London parties and expensive holidays. The next, I’d hit the button on the ejector seat and launched myself into crystal clear uncertainty, landing alone in an empty one-bed ex-council flat in an area of London I didn’t know with just a futon, an iron and an ironing board. (Somehow, to my military-child mind, having crease-free clothes hammered a little tent peg into the billowing chaos). Add to that no steady income. I was a junior TV producer at the time, and between jobs.

But I had wanted out of the marriage. It had resolved itself into little more than a companionship, housemates, the pure understanding of intimacy — of being seen beyond all else — slipping further and further away, no matter how much I tried to keep it alive. I’d also dived so deeply into his world — the expanded world of someone a bit older, with a decade more life experience — that I’d left my fledgling identity on the shore somewhere behind me. I yearned for freedom more than the (very high spec) white picket fence. Something in me whispered that there were depths beneath this glossy surface that I had to access.

And then I fell in love with someone else. Someone who offered intimacy beyond anything I could have imagined. It was over. My mother called me a ‘bloody fool’ and swathes of friends never spoke to me again. I didn’t get a happy ever after with my ‘someone else’, though. He chose not to leave his marriage, because he had children. As my divorce was finalised, my wonderful father — who’d offered nothing but love and support — was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer. Fortunately, it turned out to be treatable, but I watched round after round of chemo and radiotherapy squeeze something vital out of him.

This is a lot to have faced. But in the couple of years prior to packing up for the jungle I had been doing the work of processing it. Once I’d gotten my career into a good place, I began to dig through my trauma and rebuild my confidence. I went to India to train as a yoga teacher, wanting to share with others a practice that helped me find resilience. I took some time out from work to travel and teach in Asia. I had psychotherapy, CBT, cognitive hypnotherapy and trauma release therapies, including EMDR, EFT and reiki. I did The Artist’s Way. Twice. I developed a lot of insight, did a lot of healing. So by the time I started seriously researching ayahuasca in early 2019, whilst developing an idea for work, I had for several years been sketching the outlines of who I am, and patiently shading them in.

But self-love was always the straggler in this marathon. I had those feelings of not being good enough, not having achieved enough in my life, of not being impressive enough — or just not being enough, full stop. And there was a sense of imminently being found out. What was my purpose? What would I have to show for my life, in the end? What would my legacy be? I know you know those feelings, because whenever I took a moment to ask, just about every second person in London felt besieged by them too, pelted by their inner critic from a pile of sharp stones that never seemed to go down. Yet in the darkness of that maloca, I deeply loved myself.

So, I thought, if I leave the jungle now, having had this one experience, it alone would have been worth the journey. But the ayahuasca had much, much more to teach me.

A couple of nights later, back in the maloca, I felt the vomit rising and grabbed my trusty plastic bowl. Whenever I heard someone else being sick, I silently congratulated them. Vomiting in this context is not a thing of sickness, but a cleansing, a release of blockage, whether emotional or psychological — a thing to be cheered on, a ripple of imaginary fist bumps. So as I emptied my gut, I imagined one of my neighbours thinking: “Ah, Charlie’s turn to be sick, good for her”. But suddenly the sense of being this entity called ‘Charlie’ felt strange, ill-fitting. I was thinking — and saying aloud —

“I’m not Charlie, this identity that has been handed to me. I just am.” And then I wondered: “but what is ‘am’?” Over and over I muttered, to the room in general, “I don’t know what ‘am’ is. What is ‘am’? How do I ‘am’?” And then: “But there’s no ‘I’ either’.”

Then my vomiting became about getting this ‘I’ stuck like a fishbone in my psyche out, retching out my ego. It might sound awful, but I was fascinated, elated, relieved of what felt like a burden. This went on and on, ‘I’ joined by the word ‘me,’ floating around in my sick bowl like the beginnings of alphabet spaghetti à la jungle, as I endeavoured to disown my sense of self. Awareness bloomed from within me that there was only ‘we’; that ‘I’ am not a separate entity. We are all connected, all of the same consciousness, each entity in the room around me — and sleeping in their huts, trees or burrows beyond — just an island of concentrated consciousness in a fathomless sea of consciousness that envelops everything.

I was profoundly lucid, aware of everything and everyone, the outlines of the maloca, the jungle and the rain falling outside. No visions, nothing warped or whisking me away. I knew where each person lay, crouched or writhed in the room. With the piece of consciousness that my mind could direct, I visited each of them mat by mat: ‘The consciousness that calls itself Michael’, ‘the consciousness that calls itself Alex’, ‘the consciousness that calls itself Charlotte’ — and so on around the room. I felt each of them in my heart — there is no other way to describe it, that is where I gathered the felt experience of them. I felt them as a part of me, attached by an umbilicus. And this state of feeling others was how I wanted to stay — no thoughts, just a steady thrum of unconditional love. But occasionally a thought would appear containing the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ and I would feel frustration.

“I don’t want the words, I don’t want the words,” I implored the darkness, and one of our healers as he sang his icaro for me at the end of my mattress and I dissolved into him, losing any sense of where I ended and he began.

What I wanted was to retreat to some sort of primordial state of being that existed without, or before, words or thought, that was just pure feeling and consciousness, innocent, uncorrupted by vocabulary and grammar, tense and syntax, subjects, objects and pronouns. I arranged myself into a posture of kneeling and leaning back on my arms, so that my heart was thrust out towards the room, gathering. I stayed there I don’t know how long, just feeling. Finally, after my second icaro from our other healer, I lay down into a fuzz of sweet-tasting peace.

In December 2019, I travelled to The Temple of the Way of Light, an ayahuasca retreat centre in the Peruvian Amazon, following some kind of gravitational pull, a sense that under that canopy dwelled something — some knowledge — that I needed. I emerged two weeks later into the same world but seen through completely different eyes. Whilst yoga teacher training and the study of Eastern philosophies had taught me about concepts like universal consciousness, the one-ness of all things and the illusion of self, and a nascent meditation practice was beginning to lift these ideas off the page, ayahuasca just rolled its sleeves up and made me feel them as lived experience, feel their truth. I found those depths — not just depths, but other dimensions — that I’d had an inkling about. I don’t fear death as I once did. I love so much more openly. I have pockets of peace where once there was grief, hurt, self-loathing. I have a new family — the other ‘pasajeros’ I journeyed alongside — and a desire to serve our extended family wherever I am in the world, and in whatever ways I can. And these were the gifts of only two ceremonies; I took part in three more.

Returning to the hard-angled punch and kick of London life has been a challenge that I have to rise to, day after day. But I will never be-think-live-love the same way again. And I am grateful.

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About the Creator

Charlie Nicholson

Yoga teacher. Trauma sensitive yoga teacher. Freelance writer & copywriter. Freelance documentary development executive. Passenger of plant medicines. Follow me on IG: @charlienicyoga & find out more at charlienicholsonyoga.com

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