From Alabama to Colombia: Breaking Through to Yagé's Other Side

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Frog skeletons.

Thousands and thousands of frog skeletons.

I read some years ago that archeologists excavating a Native American site kept turning up shovelfuls of tiny amphibian bones. These countless white slivers puzzled the crew. They solved the mystery with another dig—this time into traditional tribal culture.

It turns out that some Indians of the Americas used frogs in ceremonial rites. Not the whole frogs, just their skins, which they boiled to release a powerful hallucinogen. Indian peoples drank the potion to achieve communion with the spirit world and to engage in quests of self-transcendence.

Prior to our modern, science-driven era, many cultures worshipped and practiced ritual ceremonies aided by perception-altering substances.

The Seminole people drank asi, a black drink made from yaupon holly. In the Southwest of the United States, peyote remains a key part of the faith experience in the Native American Church, whose congregants legally ingest the cactus button in religious practices. Peyote brings on astonishing, unpredictable visions that users believe deepen their understanding of the real world, the spiritual world … and themselves.

Here in Colombia, yagé (YAH-hey), a powerful hallucinogen used in traditional practices, gets more and more attention … for good and bad reasons.

The use of yagé, short for ayahuasca, goes far back before recorded history. Deep in the Amazonian jungles where climbing plants grow in abundance, native peoples brewed up the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis) to create a potent reality-bending elixir.

Certain Colombian and Peruvian tribes call yagé “the teaching plant,” and use it even today in tribal ceremonies. Its active hallucinogenic agent, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), has been outlawed in many countries, but not in areas of the Amazon where officials recognize it as a fundamental part of tribal culture.

During the psychedelic boom of the 1960s, word got out about yagé’s long strange trip. Backpackers climbed down from buses in remote Amazonia looking for local Indian shamans to enable hallucinatory experiences and guide them through their experimentation.

Recently, more and more psychedelic tourists have arrived seeking—what? The answer depends on who you ask. Some search for spiritual epiphanies. Some look for medical applications, like treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some simply want to buy a thrill.

Now and then, questionable shamanism has clouded the scene—in 2014, a British teen-ager died during a yagé experience. Some native people protest the experimental use of the substance altogether, believing it should be used strictly for religious/ritual practices, not for recreational/mercenary purposes.

The use of yagé in medicine, specifically for the treatment of depression, brings me to the subject of today’s column.

A friend

of mine in Bogota, whom I’ll call ‘C’ in this column, suffers from depression.

The condition waxes and wanes, but in the past few years the blues have troubled C so deeply that she finally went to a doctor. She takes two different widely used, medically accepted pills each day.

The prescription worked … for a while. Gradually, however, the side effects of the medicines—numbness, slowed movement, clumsiness, memory loss—took a toll on her quality of life. Too many of C’s days turned into struggles of a new kind.

Looking for help—even nontraditional help—C began to read widely on the Internet and in periodicals. She came across a story on yagé, and then she learned of a Colombian doctor who actually uses it to treat depression.

She made contact, and agreed to meet this man. For a second opinion, C took along a savvy friend, a practicing physician.

Here’s a paraphrasing of what they heard:

We will take the yagé together, the doctor told his visitors. I will take twice the dose you take.

When I am near you during the yagé treatment, we will be having the same visions. During prior treatment with a female patient, I learned that this happens. Observing my patient, I had a vision of a crowd of people, and a little girl. I went away from her, and when I returned, I once again saw the same people and the same little girl. ‘Are you seeing this?’ I asked the patient. ‘Yes, the same thing,’ she told me. We were sharing the same vision.

These are not hallucinations. These are images. These images are about the troubles inside that you can’t let out.

After you take yagé, you will vomit and have diarrhea. In these substances that leave your body, you will identify the sources of your depression.

Yagé is not addictive, because the event is not physically pleasurable. Those people who get into trouble with yagé are those looking for wild experiences and abusing other drugs. I take care of the person in the trance, so the person doesn’t encounter anything harmful.

The only risk you will encounter is that nothing happens.

Lives of some patients have been totally changed by treatments with yagé. Some continue to come for treatments so they can get totally clean of their problems.

Should you stop taking your current medication? I’ll say no. But don’t tell that to the shaman, because he will say yes, that you should stop taking any depression medicine after you use yagé.

[CM Note: A shaman from Putumayo partners with the doctor to administer yagé and monitor overnight treatments. These take place at the physician’s home, where patients roll out pallets on the floor and then ingest yagé. Sometimes, the doctor administers treatments at a farm in the countryside near Bogota.]

My friend

and the physician whom she invited left the yagé doctor with a number of questions and troubling perceptions.

They located the doctor’s office in an iffy neighborhood, a plain house behind a metal security fence. Four cars, by all appearances permanently parked, were crowded back of the fence. Paint buckets and spray-paint guns cluttered an open garage.

A plot of poorly tended plants, some dying, greeted guests at the door.

The physician found it very curious that the yagé doctor never asked—not one curious word—about C’s past medical history. No questions about addictions, current meds, health risks. Nada.

The yagé doctor also never described what happened biologically or systemically during the yagé experience, except the cathartic vomiting and bowel evacuation.

Did blood pressure rise, for example? Did sweating or rapid pulse rates accompany an event? How long did the images persist … and were flashbacks possible, as with certain other psychotropic drugs? What could a patient expect the morning after? (The doctor does prepare breakfast for patients.) Would C’s motivation or behavior be affected by yagé, even temporarily?

Finally, how—medically—did yagé actually counteract depression? How did yagé accomplish what powerful traditional pharmaceuticals do not?

Those questions, unaddressed and apparently of little importance to the yagé doctor, left enough doubt in the mind of C and the physician to convince them not to return.

Perhaps yagé works as well as the doctor claimed.

But to C, the risk of the unknown and unexplained seemed more frightening than what she already knew and could explain.

The challenging collateral effects of treatment for depression seemed safer, at least for now, than just what the yagé doctor ordered.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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