‘A Hail Mary’: Psychedelic Remedy Attracts Veterans to Jungle Retreats

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GIGANTE, Costa Rica – Rudy Gonsior, a former American Special Forces sniper, had a ghostly quality the morning he arrived at a jungle retreat See you whether a vomiting psychedelic brew could undo the damage years of fighting had inflicted.

With glassy eyes and withdrawn, he barely spoke over a whisper and was much quieter than the six other veterans who had. Come for painful memories of comrades who had fallen in combat, thoughts of suicide and the scar that left one Life on the psyche, to be dredged.

"I have traveled across continents to get into the jungle to do psychedelics," I marveled at Mr. Gonsior, who had stayed away from drugs all his life. "I think this is what could be called an Ave Maria."

You had come to western Costa Rica to try ayahuasca, a substance that people in the Amazon rainforest had ingested for centuries. Some indigenous communities consider the brew, which contains the hallucinogen DMT, to be an effective medicine that will keep them mentally resilient and in tune with the natural world.

The lodge the Americans visited late last year was a far cry from it, with a gleaming swimming pool and expansive deck anchored to well-appointed cabanas with great ocean views. The lodge costs between $ 3,050 and $ 7,075 per person for a week-long retreat and is one of the newest and most expensive additions to a booming alternative healing sector.

Until relatively recently, only a few botanists, hippies and spiritual seekers had access to the world of Amazon shamanism, which missionaries drove underground during the colonization of large parts of the Amazon basin to bring indigenous groups to Christianity to convert.

But now thousands of people from all over the world pilgrimage each year to more than 140 ayahuasca retreat centers in Latin American countries where the use of the substance in ceremonial settings is legal or, as in Costa Rica, not explicitly forbidden is.

In addition to psychedelic ceremonies, which are often physically and emotionally demanding, retreat organizers offer group therapy sessions, yoga classes, art therapy, meditation circles and warm flower baths.

Together these centers have become an unlicensed and unregulated mental health market for people looking for an alternative to antidepressants and other widely used drugs.

The number of psychedelics has increased in a growing body of scientific research building on promising studies in the United States and Europe from the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this earlier research was halted after psychoactive substances were banned during the Vietnam War in response to concerns about widespread drug use on college campuses.

In recent years, however, the Food and Drug Administration has been calling psilocybin, the psychedelic component in so-called magic mushrooms, and MDMA, the drug known as ecstasy, as "breakthrough therapies". This rare name allows scientists to accelerate larger studies that could pave the way for the administration of psychedelics as medicine.

Drinking ayahuasca can be dangerous, especially when taking certain drugs, including antidepressants and high blood pressure medications. It can also trigger psychotic episodes for people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

And while some retreats have strict rules and protocols developed in consultation with medical professionals, the ayahuasca boom has sometimes been taken advantage of by scammers and charlatans, and cases of sexual assault on vulnerable or disabled participants have been investigated, including cases in Peru.

"You have to recognize that there is a Wild West element," said Ayahuasca Retreats Dr. Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying psychedelics since 2004.

In a controlled environment, the release of the brain could help the patient to look at suppressed trauma again and to gain new knowledge. The medical establishment, once deeply skeptical of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, is grappling with "an essentially new area of ​​medicine," he added.

Dr. Johnson feared, however, that psychedelic retreats in general might be ill equipped to screen people for whom travel could be dangerous. In extreme cases, people have tried to commit suicide while heavily affected by psychedelics or experienced psychotic episodes that required hospitalization.

"These are powerful, powerful tools that can bring people to a very vulnerable place," said Dr. Johnson said. "That is not to be underestimated."

Still, the growing interest in psychedelically assisted healing, which has been heightened by writers, celebrities and influential podcast hosts, has set up places like the Soltara Healing Center, where veterans have been on the forefront to the conventional psychiatric Questioning care.

Melissa Stangl, co-founder of Soltara, argued that responsible ayahuasca centers could be the seeds of transformation.

"We are on the verge of adding psychoactive drugs to the general health system," she said. "As soon as science really knows how effective this is for people who are not cared for by the current medical system, we can become allies."

Before their first ayahuasca ceremony, the veterans met individually with two Peruvian " Maestros ”or healers from the Shipibo community in Peru.

“Their hearts are hardened,” said Teobaldo Ochavano, who leads the nightly ceremonies with his wife Marina Sinti. "They didn't seem able to experience love or joy."

Ms. Sinti said years of interaction with foreigners on retreats made it painfully clear why these rituals are so popular.

"The people of the United States and Europe are very disjointed," she said. "From each other and from the earth."

Like many members of his generation, Mr. Gonsior said he had joined the Marine Corps to avenge the attacks of September 11th, which happened while he was in the High school was.

In 2006 he said he had been sent to western Iraq on the first of several combat tours. He and his men were constantly being ambushed with powerful roadside bombs and shot at by snipers, he said, and 17 service members he dispatched returned home in body bags.

The experience, said Mr Gonsior, made him one of a ruthless warrior.

"My only goal was to survive," he said. “I've done a lot of things that I'm not particularly proud of.”

Instead of relief for survival, he felt an overwhelming feeling of shame.

"It was just bad luck I was neither shot nor blown up," he said. "Like to the point where statistically I should be dead or at least seriously injured by now."

In 2007, Mr. Gonsior said he joined the Army Special Forces where he served as a sniper. He felt he had joined a "death cult," he said.

"In the last 17 years of my life, my job has revolved around death in one way or another," he said. "When I get older, it weighs heavily."

Killing became banal. But a life he took in Afghanistan in 2012 haunted him for years.

During a routine operation, Mr. Gonsior opened fire on a man on a motorcycle believing he was an insurgent. Soon after, Mr Gonsior learned that he had killed an Afghan intelligence source who was working with his unit.

Mr. Gonsior said he did not allow himself to properly mourn this death or come to terms with the guilt until years later he was gripped by depression and fits of anger, sometimes triggered by trivial things his children did.

Summary Thoughts about suicide eventually became frighteningly specific, he said. At the Veterans Affairs Hospital where he sought help, 35-year-old Gonsior said he had been told to take antidepressants. He said he refused, based on the side effects fellow soldiers suffered.

Last year after hearing a story on the radio about ayahuasca and trauma, he was intrigued by the idea that deep wounds need to be healed.

"There is a lot of emotional debris, shipwrecks that are kind of down there," he said.

When he and the other veterans walked into the dark ceremony room with its networked windows and conical roof they had signed a long indemnity agreement.

He warned of the "unlikely event of a psychotic episode", the danger of drinking ayahuasca while taking antidepressants. and that some people feel worse “mentally, physically and emotionally” from psychedelic travel.

In traditional outfits the Peruvian maestros blew tobacco smoke into the room known as Maloca by candlelight. Participants, who sat on cots arranged in a circle, kicked a shot glass of the dark brown, muddy ayahuasca brew.

Chris Sutherland, a 36-year-old Canadian soldier, who said he recently retired due to full disability post-traumatic stress disorder had emerged after years of panic attacks, binge drinking and taking antidepressants that made him feel gave, "I was no longer a person".

David Radband, a former British Special Forces soldier, said he had come to the jungle in hopes of drowning out the anger that had engulfed his life after leaving the army. He said it cost him custody of his children, took him to jail for assault and pressured him to commit suicide twice, once by hanging and once by stabbing.

"I blocked emotions with anger," said Mr. Radband, 34. " I've been building a wall all along. "

Juliana Mercer, 38, a Navy veteran, said she developed an illness called nurse fatigue after four years of caring for wounded service personnel in San Diego. When she was posted to Afghanistan in 2010, she said she every time she saw young, healthy Marines drive off the base, I was paralyzed by fear.

"I was just so desperate to get everyone to safety," she said.

It was quiet in the room when the maestros blew out the candles, except for the gentle lapping of the waves from the nearby beach, but the silence was short-lived.

When the ayahuasca arrived, the Peruvians slowly walked through the room as they sang Icaros, high-pitched songs that the Shipibo consider to be the core of the healing process.

Sometimes their rhythm and cadence can be soothing and hypnotic, like a lullaby However, tones and quick sequences can feel mocking or angry.

When ceremonies reach a crescendo, the room often feels like a state of controlled pandemonium. Fits of loud vomiting pierce the song. There is sometimes audible crying in one corner and ecstatic laughter from all over the room.

As dawn approaches and the ayahuasca wears off, the participants come out of the room looking gaunt and dazed while the rational mind struggles to regain control.

"These experiences have an opportunity to completely chase people out of the mental rut they are in and examine a wider range of possibilities," said Dr. Johnson of Johns Hopkins, one of several senior university clinical trials.

Unlike antidepressants, which when effective, numb the symptoms of stress, psychedelics seem to boost the healing process that results from psychotherapy, he added.

But he and other experts who cite The Psychiatric Promise of Psychedelics are concerned about their use in retreats or other institutions without proper controls.

"The room for error in the rare Insta is insufficient medical support" when people experience serious side effects, said Collin Reiff, a psychiatrist at New York University.

Even so, according to Jesse Gould, a former Army Ranger who brought the veterans to Soltara, the benefits of the jungle retreat experience outweigh the risks.

Mr. Gould said he started the Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit group that raises money to send veterans on psychedelic retreats after stumbling into one at a low point in his life.

After leaving the army and traveling a little, he Traveled said he got a comfortable job in finance that made him drink a lot and made him "feel afraid of everything" .

When seeking help from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Tampa, where he lived, Mr. Gould said he was encouraged to take antidepressants, which did not appeal to him. In 2016 he quit his job and booked a retreat in a center in Peru.

The decision was for Mr. Gould, 33, a tight laces veteran who said he avoided drugs altogether for life.

"I definitely grew up in the DARE generation," he said, referring to the anti-drug advertising campaign that began in the 1980s. "I was very fond of 'just say no'."

His first ceremonies were brutal, Mr. Gould said, calling them "an all-out war" in which he vomited up to 20 times. One night he felt "pushed to the edge".

But in the months that followed, he said his depression had eased, his crippling social anxiety was gone, and his mood fluctuated like it felt like a "tug of war in my brain" stopped.

"It almost seemed to rewire my brain," said Mr Gould.

Since then, Mr. Gould and his team have raised more than $ 250,000 for psychedelic "grants" for dozens of veterans. And they've provided testimonies to the psychedelic decriminalization movement who believe the stereotype of the New Age stoners.

“People immediately have the image of a hippie,” he said. "But because of my ministry, a lot of people who are in a completely different group of people tend to listen."

When their week-long retreat came to an end, Mr Radband, the British soldier, said the ceremonies had revived his desire for life.

"You know, I've tried to kill myself twice, but I'm not ready to die," he said. "I have so much more to give."

Mr. Sutherland, the Canadian, said one of the ceremonies was "the most terrible night of my life, more terrible than any fight I have ever been in". But overall, he said, the trips helped him overcome a longstanding fear: “I'm not a sociopath,” he said.

"I've always worried that I was angry, but I was shown where my compassion lies," he said.

Mr. Gonsior, the American sniper, compared the experience with a “final surrender” that was exhausting but relaxing.

“You have had so many experiences that range from absolute terror to pure joy,” he said. “You realize that there is another Level of understanding. "

On the last day, when Mr. Gonsior became poetic about the universe and the connection of all living things, Mr. Gould couldn't resist getting into a little bump.

" There's a hippie in every veteran, "he said.

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