That was when I realized I had lost my fucking head, the depth of willful blindness, the power of my word, the extent of my influence, the weight of the responsibility I had fought to bear. I couldn't even press send on the email to her. I couldn't stop looking at her face online. My throat closed and I went cold.
We pulled the episode.
I posted a letter to our private Facebook group.
Then I got in my car, drove to my sisters, all the while thinking, This is how you lose everything, Holly.
The Longest Backstory Ever.
Let me start from the beginning. Have you heard of Ayahuasca? I hadn't, not until after sobriety at least. Surprisingly (or possibly not), I heard about it in Kundalini training. A friend from training had done it some near 20 times. He came to my home one day after a weekend ceremony. I'd just had sex with Justin, they'd passed each other on the elevator. He was so lit, and I was so lit, it was as if we were stealing each other's experiences. We were porous. I could feel his drugs, felt like I was on his drugs. I guessed he could feel my sex. We went to a café and sat in the San Francisco sun, and we ran into people we knew. I remember thinking so clearly, They must think I'm on drugs.
This did not make me want to try it. This made me NOT want to try it. My highs were safer and more expansive than whatever it was I picked up on that day.
The second time I heard about Ayahuasca was again in Kundalini training. A different training, a different man. This guy, too, had tried it some 20 times, was training to become a Shaman. I noticed he had the same ease and kindness and lightness as my other friend, which I wondered about. I asked him what his experiences had done for him one night as we thumbed through racks of second-hand clothing on Haight, and he told me it had saved his life. Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts - all of them erased from these experiences he'd had.
This was January 2015, and I was depressed. I couldn't write. I couldn't get out of bed most days. Smiling made my face hurt and being around people just made me feel raw. Most days I woke up asking God to split me open down the back, let that part of me that was just using this body fly out. I had done everything I knew to do to move depression. I meditated and did yoga for hours on end, I had a psychic, I'd had past life regressions and energy clearings, I took Epsom salt baths most nights, I regularly got massages, I read good books, I'd finished two fucking yoga trainings for Christ's sake. And still the darkness in the pit of my stomach remained. Desperate, I asked Shaman-in-training if he could help me find a ceremony.
As these things go, the second he said yes I wanted to take it back. No, I can't, I thought. But I smiled through my depression and nodded my head, Yes. Over the next week, he texted me a few times. Has she called you yet? She being the woman who, for $500, would give me drugs in a circle of other desperate broken souls, and hold the space through an evening where I would - supposedly, hopefully - vomit that black knot out into a ceremonial puke bucket. I could see it in my mind's eye. A yellow plastic container, a pool of bile, a dead black leech of a snake, fangs out, eyes wide open. But my phone hadn't rung. I told him so. She will, he said.
And she did. Eventually. A day before the ceremony, but I had already written it off with a sigh of relief. By the time we connected, my God was saying No, and so I said No. What I think I meant, though, was Not yet.
I don't know how Ayahuasca started to creep back into the picture. I want to say probably in Hawaii last year when I did a 10-day silent meditation retreat. There was something so transcendent in that experience, I had touched the edge of something and I wanted to keep going. That same longing I get when I hear of people doing extreme things to break through to the other side of their fear and their limits and their own sense of reality set in. How long can you hold your breath? How long can you shut the fuck up for? How long can you meditate? How much pain can you withstand? I often reflect on that sixties-era picture of the monk sitting sattvic in the middle of a Vietnam street, his body on fire, his face at peace. Self-immolation. I wonder, How does one get there, what must it take?
I was tapped into that part of me that will do anything, and everything, to go beyond while I'm still here. And for some reason, Ayahuasca just seemed to be part of that journey.
In the winter of this year, I finally read a book I'd been trying to read for some time High Society, a book that traces the role of mind-altering drugs in history, science and culture through about the last two thousand years. Which, thinking back, just watered the seed that had been planted in Hawaii, and before I knew it, somehow my mind was made up. I was ready to do this thing. And not half-assed, mind you. Not on some living room floor in the middle of the Valley with a bunch of Prius-driving-farmer's-market-shopping white folk. None of that shit. I was going to puke my way to transcendence legitimately, in Peru. With a girlfriend. I texted her. You still in? Yes, she said. Let's do it, she said.
We decided we'd go in April, between my SOBRIETY SCHOOLS. And also, like, maybe hike Machu Pichu while we there.
So this is what happened. Laura found a dude on the internet. A sober dude who was a singer-songwriter writer-writer, who she found fascinating. She wanted him to come on the show, and I wanted her to be happy, and so we agreed and calendared him in. And because I'm a stubborn judgy asshole who forms strong opinions before meeting people based on my sometimes wrong/sometimes right Jedi sense, I *might* have refused to research said guest. The day of the podcast, we start to record, and I hadn't read any of his work, had only listened to one of his songs. But I had gone through his Instagram account, and there it was, the one thing I definitely want to discuss: He still does mushrooms. This is all I write down, on a sticky note. Mushrooms. We have a good conversation, and Laura says she feels like she's hogging all the questions, and I think, that's fine because I only have one. I ask him, Tell me about mushrooms, and I ask this because I HAVE TO KNOW. Because I've mentally carved Ayahuasca into my sobriety, for the healing, and because now I'm thinking, maybe I can carve in all the hallucinogens. As if this is an evolution. As if I am now so enlightened, this would certainly be the next logical step.
The conversation is great, in that it feeds the part of me that has stepped back into drug culture. I'm enthralled, hanging on his words, as we talk about this for twenty minutes. I ignore Laura when she says it's making her feel sick. Oh grow up, I want to say.
A few weeks later I'm excited to release this episode. Laura is nervous. There are wonderful discussion points throughout the entire podcast which she is supportive of, which I think are a distraction to all I remember of the conversation, which is the part where he says You can't get addicted to hallucinogens, and I willfully, greedily, agree.
The day we air it, I text a good friend of mine, a sober friend, who says something along the lines of Let's do mushrooms! and fuck, this is where everything starts to feel wrong. A thread appears on Facebook, and women I have been convincing for years that we don't need anything outside of us to find what is already inside, start saying things like, I had been on the fence about this LSD/molly/[insert drug here] but after hearing you…maybe... So basically what I'm saying is, um, my words count, and when my words start saying one drug is okay, where the fuck do we start drawing lines? Where do I start drawing lines?
We let the show ride anyway. And then an hour later, I get this letter, and my throat closes.
I am not concerned about his use of hallucinogens, or your interest in Ayahuasca. I guess I just don't understand why a podcast that focuses on recovery would spend over 20 minutes talking about the positive effects of using hallucinogens. You are very grounded in your recovery and I assume you would use Ayahuasca for a sort of spiritual awakening as opposed to getting 'high'. I get that. But a lot of people who read or hear this conversation are not necessarily on that plane of awareness and may see this conversation as essentially condoning the use of hallucinogens because it's not alcohol - and sobriety is related to 'alcohol only'. I think that may mess with people's heads. It messed with mine for like five seconds and I am a woman who is totally clear and grounded in my own recovery. I had a spark of 'ohhhh, huh, maybe 'shrooms someday.' Then i snapped the fuck back to my heart and knew that taking any sort of mind altering substance would take me far away from my authentic self I have finally found and fallen in love with, and put me right back in the mind-fuck of wanting to escape. So, obviously, I will not be doing 'shrooms anytime soon - or ever.
Not everyone is secure in their recovery, though, and not everyone can come back easily from a thought. You know you don't have to believe every thought you have? Well a lot of people haven't gotten to that place, yet. Especially people new to sobriety/recovery. They may take it as a green light. Especially if they respect your work and look up to you. I HOPE people are more secure than that, but I have come across a lot of people who still look for those 'outs' or 'green lights' or anything to justify a temporary escape.
I realize that you and Laura present a variety of topics which can, at times, be controversial, but this topic didn't go in a neutral direction of 'all sides of the coin.' It was basically alluding to the idea that it's ok to use hallucinogens in sobriety. There was no person who said, 'actually, using hallucinogens in recovery may NOT be good for x, y, and z reasons'. It's fine if people choose that for themselves, but I don't think that is really the audience that tunes into your podcast. We are people who are trying the heal and learn and feel part of a sober/recovery community. A sober-from-everything community, not a sober-from-alcohol-but-hallucinogens-are-ok community. Maybe I am totally wrong and people loved hearing about using hallucinogens in sobriety. The whole thing just made me feel off.
I have, over time, developed a pretty big fuckit mentality when it comes to criticisms of my work, because they come so often. I don't aim to please everyone, and I don't aim to be perfect, and 99% of the time I stand 1,000% what I put out there. But this got me and this got me by the throat. I knew this woman, I respected this woman, and this woman respected me. But of course, Ayahuasca was different, right? I tried that angle. I sat for an hour and I typed out responses to her, responses that justified this, made her wrong, made this different, made me different, made me right. Clearly, she just missed the point. But every word I put down was like a nail in the coffin that was my lie. I wasn't right. I was wrong and deluded. She was right.
I was a self-proclaimed sobriety queen, and I had just spent 20 minutes on a podcast that reaches 40k people a month, a podcast dedicated to recovery, PROCLAIMING THAT DRUGS WERE OKAY, GUYS!
Do you know what this moment was like? Can you imagine what this moment was like? Everything I have worked for, stood for, cried for, screamed for, sacrificed for - sitting in the corner like a piece of discarded shit. Of course that sounds dramatic. But I'm dramatic and that's exactly what went through me, was staring at me. Hip Sobriety Lite. I preach for the kind where you can still do some drugs. Here is my mantle, dismantled.
I sat in the exact spot I sit right now typing this to you, the same place I have penned post after post on sobriety, covered in a film of shame, fear, doubt, disbelief. I wanted nothing more than to cover it up, like a murder. This cannot get out. They cannot know about this. They will never trust you again.
So I sat here and I thought, maniacally, through the many ways I could bury it, lie my way out of it, pretend it didn't happen, make it go away. But not long after that, in the span of mere minutes, it occurred to me that I had to do the opposite of that. Because I know from past experience that the burying is always worse than the original sin. The burying is the disintegration of integrity, the burying is the part that erodes the most, does the most damage, owns you more than you own it. I knew that if I wasn't allowed to make mistakes, and that if I presented an exterior that was decidedly different than the interior, that this would eat me alive, and just lead to bigger lies and more damage.
And so, I owned it.
We pulled the episode, and in the thread on Facebook where there had been the talk of maybe us sober folk doing all the drugs, as well as condemnation of the episode, I posted the following.
I got an email from a reader a few hours ago who said there was a five-second detour in her mind listening to the pod where she said "maybe 'shrooms someday." She looks up to Laura and I and she said this felt like a permission slip. We run a recovery podcast, our listeners are some of the most vulnerable people on the earth, and here we are talking about drugs in a way that starts to cut in exceptions. Mushrooms are okay. DMT is okay. Ayahuasca is okay. "Because you can't get addicted to it."
I started to respond to her and realized I had no good answer. And realized that part of my draw to talking about it with x is because I've been looking for the answers to the hallucinogen question ever since I started thinking about Ayahuasca at a meditation retreat last year. I've said things like "Gabor Mate does it!" and looked to understand if Ayahuasca is okay and at some point decided to do it.
When I started to respond to her, and actually had to sit with the truth of what that would mean, what I was actually saying, I realized that I have been looking for some expert to tell me what is okay and isn't okay for me. Instead of coming up with it on my own, and understanding what is in line with my truth.
And my truth is that for me - personally - drugs are out. All drugs are out.
I am happy. For once in my life, I'm fucking happy. And I am happy because I am free, and I got free crawling on my hands and knees, and I didn't fight this hard to get to a point where I start making exceptions to my truth. I personally don't care if Ayahuasca will get me further or whatever it may or may not do. Because what it will for sure do is steal the one thing that I already have, which is my integrity - meaning, the alignment I have between my words, thoughts, actions, beliefs. It would disintegrate me to start saying this one is okay because x,y,z, and that one isn't. It would be a trap door.
Laura and I work so hard to make sure everyone understands that their sobriety is only defined by them. We never want to be in a position where we start down the path of saying this means your sober, and this doesn't. That's bullshit and it's harmful. I claimed sobriety while I was still doing drugs because I wasn't drinking and that was MINE and no one could tell me otherwise. There's only one person that matters when it comes to deciding what you are. But we also work really hard to lead by example. And our example is based on a principal of using our own perfect chemistry, to stay with ourselves, to stop escaping. We don't get sometimes the responsibility and the burden this carries. And today, releasing this episode was one of those times where I think we fucked up and let you guys down. I'm learning, we are both still learning. And I will always be learning. Thanks for sticking through this with us.
Parting thoughts on Ayahuasca.
The truth is, when I was deeply suffering from depression in 2015, Ayahuasca was on the table for one reason and one reason only: I was in pain, in a rut, in a darkness I couldn't escape, no matter how hard I tried. For that and that alone, it was an option and one that I would probably still consider if I was there. And back in 2012, when I was cycling down the path of self-destruction, binging and purging close to $1,000 of food a week, drinking up to three bottles of wine a night, smoking as much tobacco and pot as my lungs would allow - this was possibly another great time for a psychedelic intervention. The studies are clear…things like psyloscybin are showing in study after study that when medically dosed along with a therapeutic element (read, not taken when you're bored on a Friday night), people are able to release themselves from some of the underlying conditions of addiction and depression. In one study done by Johns Hopkins, the efficacy rate of using psylocybin for smoking cessation was 80%. Gabor Mate famously uses Ayahuasca when treating his patients at the Portland Hotel in Vancouver's skid row, and has used it himself.
But here’s another fact that can't be overlooked - I didn't use these interventions. And I'm sober, and I struggle with minimal depression, at least compared to the level with which I used to. I actually, through a shit ton of work, made it to where I am without using drugs. Which is not to say it would have been wrong had I used them - we each have our own path to follow and each of us start in different places. To say that I made it to where I am without using therapeutic MDMA, psylocybin, or shipping off to Peru for an Ayahuasca ceremony is basically, in my mind, the same thing as saying I didn't use anti-anxiety meds, sleeping aids, or anti-depressants in recovery. Which to me just is another way of saying, some people aren't as lucky as I am. Some people need medical intervention. Some people die without medical intervention.
And also, let's be clear - my trip to Peru was planned for next month, and my justification for doing it was to transcend and do some field research so I could report back on it. But I'm okay, I'm sober, I'm happy, I'm finding God on a meditation pillow and on Roman streets and in my tattoo artists chair and when I read your letters, and I don't need extreme measures to feel that anymore. Which basically just means that I would be remiss if I didn't tell you the truth, which is that part of me just wanted to get fucked up.
And also also, I must report that to date, I have received too many letters from readers who unintentionally found relief from addiction through recreational Ayahuasca ceremonies. They most always go the same way, I didn't mean to want to stop drinking/smoking/whatevering, but I did. Can you please tell your readers this? Can you PLEASE let them know?
So I guess this is where I'll end this piece, and I want to do it Like Oprah would.
Things I Know For Sure.
1. I am capable of making grand mistakes and, as painful as it is to admit, a part of me wanted - does not still want, but wanted - to get fucked up. It's a beautiful thing to admit to. It's a beautiful thing to own. Life is fucking hard, and while sobriety has offered me endless gifts, I will never pretend that being awake for my life is a some straight line that moves up and to the right. It is a fucking plot graph, and it swings as low as you can imagine, so that it can also swing high. That’s the deal. And I'm fucking proud of that deal. I'm PROUD of how stupid I can be, still. And I'm even more proud that at my stupidest moments, integrity is actually worth something now, has it's own heartbeat, is it's own life inside of me, is mine.
2. At points along this journey, I have had some really responsible thoughts about Ayahuasca, and considered it at times when I was desperate, yes. But the thoughts I had about it, especially on the recording of that podcast, were not coming from that place. They were coming from the part in me that wants to get closer to God, yes, for sure. (But as one of my friends so aptly pointed out, she thought wine brought her closer to God). And they were also, undeniably, coming from that same place in me that once compelled me to ransack my apartment night after night, shaking out carpets, emptying vacuum bags, scouring for the last morsel of pot, the overlooked nugget, so I could escape; the same place in me that compelled me to learn the schedules of every liquor store worker so that I could buy multiple bottles of shitty red wine in a day without being detected.
3. My truth, my ultimate truth, is that I don't want to use drugs to escape. Never, ever again. I did that for over half my life, 20 years of that!, and it did not work for me. It smothered me and buried me and strangled me and choked me, it took up all the room where my life was supposed to be, the part of me that now runs through fields and prays in graveyards and dances in ruins and cries in the moonlight is only alive because I killed that fucking thing and I killed it all. And fuck you, drugs, you will never have a home here again. Where you once were, there is now me.
4. Only YOU get to decide what your sobriety means. And when we start saying things like this or that means you aren't sober - like, um, psych meds and coffee and sugar and men, to name just a few - that all we are doing is laying judgment on a soul that needs no more of that nonsense, that needs no additional shame or separation or sin in their world. Only one opinion of you matters, and that is your own. And so only you get to decide what you are. End of story.
5. Psychedelics have shown to provide some great efficacy for breaking addiction when used in specific, intentional ways with the guidance of experienced professionals (be they Shaman, be they therapists). Exactly the same as conventional western meds have shown efficacy. Exactly as meditation, therapy, Somatic Experiencing, being in nature, finding purpose, and a shit-ton of other things have shown. All paths should be considered, because we need everything we have.
6. With that power to decide your own story comes the great responsibility of being honest with yourself. It's a bitch of a liberty, and one I will never stop cherishing. Only I get to decide, only I know if I'm bullshitting myself, only I wear this burden. Only you get to decide, only you are the expert, only you know the true cost of your decisions, only you live this life. Make it count.