Ayahuasca: An Ancient, Healing Tempest in a Teacup

ayahuasca vision

Illustrations by Kat Murphy

“This is your invitation to wake up.”

Those were the words Mother Ayahuasca spoke to me during my most recent ceremony.  

There were no visions, no jaguars, no hummingbirds, no technicolor dreams like the first time. The plant medicine did not jump-start my internal organs, and the darkness was not as dark as the second time.

It wasn’t a whisper. It wasn’t a scream. The voice was calm yet stern, like a mother urging her child onto the school bus for the first day of kindergarten.

The words were fitting because for so many years, I had been sleepwalking through life. Or just sleeping. Lyme made sure of that.

Read more about writer Kelly Ann Smith’s experience with Lyme disease here.

My brain feels like a mummy wrapped in an ancient tomb. My nervous system is shot. Lyme affects all systems of the body. Many times, I thought I was going to die—from the pain, the hopelessness, the fog.

But as the saying goes: “Lyme doesn’t kill you. It makes you wish you were dead.” Ötzi, the Tyrolean mummy, is at least out of his misery, only 45 years old when he died with Lyme in his system 5,300 years ago.

Ticks and their blood-sucking ways go back much further. Embedded in a piece of 100-million-year-old Burmese amber, “Dracula’s terrible tick” felt the vibrations of its prey and clung to the feathers of a baby dinosaur as small as a hummingbird.

We didn’t even know Lyme existed until Willy Burgdorferi “discovered” the bacteria, named Borrelia burgdorferi, while studying an outbreak of juvenile arthritis in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1982.

In her new book, Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons, Kris Newby claims that the esteemed scientist confessed at the end of his life. He had been experimenting on ticks in his lab, in the name of biowarfare.

We have barely scratched the surface of naming all the pathogens the arachnids, part of the order Parasitiformes, can transmit to humans. Ticks can feed on us unnoticed for up to a week.

Lyme can go neurological quicker than you think. The stealth infections hide from your immune system while systematically taking you down. Yet it can take years before you notice.

I’ve tried everything to get better. Long term IV antibiotics, more herbs than I care to count, ozone, rife machine, infrared saunas, acupuncture. Some people travel across the country to see cutting-edge doctors, or further, to try stem cell treatments or hyperthermia, but they are too expensive for me and never guaranteed.

I have made plans to go to the jungles of Peru to continue working with the one thing that has helped me the most. Like the therapies mentioned above, it’s not entirely legal in the United States, although a massive underground movement has been underway for years.

On three separate occasions, I’ve worked with the plant medicine known as ayahuasca, made from the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaf Psychotria viridis. Indigenous to the Amazon basin, the tea is usually cooked over an open fire for hours. The thick sludge tastes like hell, and at times, she may personally introduce you to hell.

The brew contains harmala alkaloids that are antiparasitic and purgative. “Many people vomit and/or experience diarrhea for a short time while under the effects of ayahuasca. It is as if the plant medicine performs a rapid house-cleaning in order to facilitate easier access to the spirit world,” says Hilary Thing, an acupuncturist, master herbalist and founder of Uprooting Lyme.

“As a result, people with Lyme or other chronic health conditions may experience a sense of lightness, clarity or pain reduction following a ceremony,” says Thing, who has been treating Lyme holistically for 20 years, but not with ayahuasca.

Shamans of the Amazon lead ceremonial ritual with icaros, songs to Mother Ayahuasca, in order to guide the inner experience of the participants.

There are many compounds within the two plants that work synergistically with each other to create hallucinogenic, spiritual and medicinal effects. Like the pathogens in ticks, much is unknown about this entheogenic brew.

What we do know, is that ayahuasca contains the psychoactive N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. Without the monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs, in the vine, DMT in the leaf would not have long-lasting effects.

The psychedelic effects of ayahuasca generally start within 60 minutes, peak at 90 minutes and remain approximately four hours, studies have noted.

ayahuasca flower
At the end of a six-hour ceremony, I am a completely different person than when I entered, my husband has noted.

The changes are profoundly for the better and remain that way for weeks on end. Not forever, but each time I have done it, the effects last longer.

Those effects include a sense of calmness, gratefulness, compassion and even joy, something that rarely creeps into a chronically ill patient’s life. I have no urge to drink wine, smoke weed, self-medicate. I see things through a brighter lens.

The shaman stood, said a few prayers and spit tobacco in four directions. Once seated, the medicine is offered in a clockwise movement. Everyone takes a turn and sips from the silver cup. The dose depends on a personal consultation with the shaman, who uses a small flashlight to peer into the cup, then wipes the rim clean.

The weather changed a million times that first day I tried ayahuasca. Warm and sunny and stormy, almost at once. I wanted to be outside, even though it was highly discouraged. A young woman stayed with me. “You’re going to feel it soon,” she warned. “But relax. I’ll be right here when you want to go back inside.”  

On my way back, the shaman, who was seated on the floor, in a poncho, turned into a black jaguar. Her emerald eyes shot neon laser beams, as if to scorn me, in my virgin whites.

In 90-minute increments, the shaman would stop the icaros to ask if anyone wanted more medicine. I went up once more.

A hummingbird came to me, during this first ceremony. I had met this hummingbird before, in real life. I was in bed, as usual. I had planted flowers on my porch, so I could see the tiny creatures flit, from inside my home.  

The first ruby-throated hummer to arrive was golden. “What a strange color,” I thought. “It must be the way the porch light is hitting it.” Nevermind that hummingbirds are not normally seen past nightfall.

In my vision, the little bird, beating his wings in all directions, told me he was golden because he was our dog Popper, a 12-year-old malamute mix, who had recently passed. It’s true. Their coloring was the same. Yet, I had always rolled my eyes when someone suggested their loved one came back as a bird, or a butterfly, or ladybug.

Was Mother Ayahuasca whispering sweet nothings in my ear, telling me what I wanted to hear, deep down inside? Did I need to hear it? That my big goofy dog was now a graceful, golden hummer.

Each breath in the room was palpable, in unison, the earth’s heaving breast. When the shaman asked again, “Does anyone want more medicine?” I puked at the mere words.

ayahuasca flower
People tend to romanticize the ayahuasca ritual. Bernd Brabec de Mori, a musicologist who specializes in indigenous music of the Ucayali valley in eastern Peru, notes, “The use of ayahuasca is probably less than 300 years old.”

Furthermore, the “current formula of mixing Banisteriopsis with Psychotria leaves has been introduced about 50 years ago among the Matsigenka of Manú,” in the southern Peruvian lowlands.

“With the Matsigenka, you never know, because the people who are shamans never say they are,” anthropologist Glenn Shepard warned National Geographic reporter Emma Marris in her story “The Anthropologist and His Old Friend, Who Became a Jaguar.”

In other words, be wary of people who say they are shamans. Becoming a jaguar is not always a good thing. Each tribe, village, gathering, belief, brew, personal experience is different. Mother Ayahuasca knows how to switch it up.

There are many shared experiences and symbols, such as hummingbirds, jaguars, serpents, geometric forms, love, death and a deep sense of gratitude. Interpretation and integration is everything.

Ecuadorian geographer Manuel Villavicencio was one of the first Westerners to drink ayahuasca. “Its action appears to excite the nervous system; all the senses liven up and all faculties awaken,” he wrote in Geografía de la República del Ecuador, in 1858.

“They see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favorable things they want to hear,” notes anthropologist Alex Gearin on his website, Kahpi: The Ayahuasca Hub. “When this instant passes they begin to see terrible horrors out to devour them.’”

The mountains were misted, a light snow clung to the ground. Winter was holding on, reluctant to shed its old skin.

My second ceremony was all women, exactly one week after a close friend had passed from breast cancer.

The last to arrive, I squeezed into a corner to the Shaman’s far right. “Excuse me,” I said to the two women next to me. “I may have to jump over you at some point.”

I was obsessed with finding a box of tissues to keep alongside my puke bucket. I thought I was going to cry a lot.

“Take a grape or two, after you drink, to take away the taste,” my neighbor, a middle-aged woman in a cashmere twinset from Connecticut, said.

Not an hour later, the woman became a lion, prancing on her prey. Jumping on all fours, she roared, projectile vomiting straight into her bucket.

Inside of me, Mother Ayahuasca was the lead surgeon in the operation of my life. Red sparks flew off cobalt electrical lines, as the vine explored each organ like a skilled surgeon.

I found my doctor. One who listened and understood what was happening within me. I barely thought of my friend who died. I never cried. Everyone else did that for me.

ayahuasca flower
Gut-wrenching purges and cries of pain from the other women permeated my being. The shaman had told us in the beginning, “Don’t get distracted by what’s going on with others.” I curled up in a ball, in my God-forsaken corner, frozen in fear.

“I’m going to die! I’m going to die,” one woman screamed as though she were entering Dante’s Inferno. “I’m going to DIE!”

There’s no denying the uncontrolled sobbing of some 30 women is hell. My intestines wanted so badly to unleash hell, but I held it in. I was afraid of the dark.

“You were so quiet,” my neighbor said afterward.  

“So were you,” I said. From her mindful breathwork, I could tell, she was fighting demons. Her deliberate breathing kept me calm during my own interior storm and I was thankful for that.

Ayahuasca called me when I got sick. It wasn’t until years later, she came knocking on my door. It’s not like a trip to the North Fork, or even Sonoma. I wouldn’t recommend it for a girls weekend get-away.

“Why am I putting myself through this?” I asked my husband when he came to pick me up 10 hours later.

“I don’t think I’ll do that again,” I repeated. “What good is suffering like that?”

Then, the strangest thing happened. I felt better. I felt new. My bones or bladder didn’t hurt. I didn’t sneeze or wheeze. My head was clear. I could think! I had no desire to drink wine, or smoke weed, or take supplements. I felt strong, and happy.  

“Have a grape,” I said. “Just one, after you drink, to take the taste away.”

“It tastes bad?” my neighbor frowned.

At my third ceremony, while waiting for the shaman to complete the circle, I noticed the setting styles of the participants: shrewn sheepskins and Shipibo pillows, to bare mat minimalism, like the guy to the left, who had never gone through the experience before.

The woman on my right side, was flossing her teeth.

On the opposite side of the room now, I had set my intentions firmly before arriving and was one of the last to drink. The soft snow fell outside. Things were calm.

“This is your invitation to wake up.”

A song I was familiar with but could not repeat, relieved the shaman’s strict icaros, a sign that we were three-quarters of the way through the ceremony.

I jolted upright and was brought back to a dark night when I was nine. My younger brother lay next to me, asleep in our parents’ bed, but our parents were nowhere to be seen. Strange men were outside the front door, in the middle of the night.   

I let out a cry out like I have never done before. Sobs which had made a quiet home inside of me were finally let out, during the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. As the song neared its end, my wails turned to giggles.

“If anyone wants more medicine, now is the time.”

“How could you leave us like that?” I asked my mother later.

“I would never, ever, leave you alone,” she said. “Always with a babysitter.”

“I think the cops were at the door,” I said. “I was petrified. Frozen, like, forever.”

“Well, I did call the cops a couple of times, when your father and I had a fight,” she said.

“No wonder you’re so paranoid of cops,” my best friend said when I told her of my breakthrough. Who knew I was paranoid of cops? My husband knew.

If Mother Ayahuasca magnetically pulled me to her bosom, I can tell you, she doesn’t preach. She lets you be the judge.

“You seem better,” my mother said. “You’re not so uptight.”

A hummingbird wilts on cold nights and comes alive with the hot sun, a symbol of rebirth. A jaguar is still in order to sense the vibrations of its prey, pouncing confidently in the chaos of the dark jungle. Both are agile in their own ways.

Studies say ayahuasca may reboot neurons in the brain, lower chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, signifying widespread therapeutic actions. I say, I’ve finally found something smarter than my illness.

Thank you for your invitation, Mother Ayahuasca. I accept.