My trip to the edge of sanity

    5 December 2015

    A single flickering candle is the only source of light in the living room of a house in Wandsworth. Six of us are seated in a circle, each occupying an armchair or a spot on a sofa as the shaman, Adam, sings a rhythmic tribal chant in Spanish and shakes a rudimentary rattle made from dried leaves. We’ve all knocked back a dose of ayahuasca, a powerful Amazonian hallucinogen, and are anxiously waiting for the drug to take effect.

    I’m doing my best to relax, but I can’t help noticing Jess, an Australian charity worker in her twenties, out of the corner of my eye. Seconds earlier, she buckled over and rested her chest on her lap, burying her head into her knees. I’m about to ask her if she’s all right when she lifts her head and is violently sick. I think of that Bette Davis line in All About Eve: ‘Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.’

    I first met Adam several weeks earlier when I was trying to find out more about ayahuasca. A concoction made from particular leaves and vines by the tribes of the Amazon for many hundreds of years, it suddenly seems to have become all the rage among fashionable types in London and New York. Celebrities from Paul Simon to Sting, Miley Cyrus to Lindsay Lohan, have spoken about its benefits, and it featured prominently in a recent film about the lives of Brooklyn hipsters called While We’re Young.

    But the drug’s recent surge in popularity has brought controversy too. A 19-year-old British backpacker died in Colombia last year from an ‘allergic reaction’ and in Brazil ayahuasca was implicated in the murder of a prominent newspaper cartoonist — both he and his attacker were members of the church of Santo Daime, which administers the drug as a sacrament (and has a handful of outposts in the UK). And there’s no shortage of anecdotal reports linking it to seizures and mental illness.

    On top of all this, the active ingredient in ayahuasca is dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a Class-A drug. Although there has only been one ayahuasca-related conviction in Britain to date, anyone supplying or dealing the drug could in theory face life in prison. So what is the attraction?

    It’s not always obvious. Some initial research revealed first-hand accounts of people who had taken the drug and experienced vivid, sometimes bizarre visions — mind-boggling colours and patterns, a swarm of malevolent red-eyed bats, or a personification of the brew in the form of ‘Mother Ayahuasca’. One man even described seeing his own penis take on the form of a towering building, ‘rendered from solid, impenetrable stone’.

    More intriguing is the claim that it has therapeutic properties. Some users report temporarily heightened powers of introspection that allow them to consider their lives in a deeper, more meaningful way. Others speak about an increased sense of connection with the natural world; and there are claims (credible ones, according to Professor David Nutt, a former government adviser on drugs) that heroin users have been cured of their addictions after just a few supervised sessions.

    I got in touch with Graham Hancock, whose books about archaeology and ancient civilisations have sold in excess of five million. He also gave a TEDx talk about his experience of ayahuasca in which he described how his encounters with ‘Mother Ayahuasca’ helped him kick a 24-year cannabis habit and re-evaluate the impact that his actions were having on those closest to him. He suggested that by stopping people using the drug, we might be ‘denying ourselves the next vital step in our own evolution’. Administrators removed the video of Hancock’s talk from the TED website amid accusations that he was pedalling ‘pseudoscience’ — which seems slightly unfair, considering that accusation could be levied at 99 per cent of TED talks.

    However, when Hancock welcomed me to his beautiful Georgian home in Bath, he told me this move did him ‘a huge favour’. Footage of the presentation was reposted on YouTube, where it has garnered more than a million hits. When it was revealed earlier this year that Hancock would be giving a free-to-attend talk about ayahuasca at Waterstones on Oxford Street, the initial response was so overwhelming that the organisers asked him to tell his 84,000 Twitter followers to stay away.

    Hancock’s view is that taking ayahuasca ‘might just shake us up so much that it allows repressed memories to be released, and allows us to empathise with people in ways that we normally block ourselves off from’. But, he added: ‘The sense of entering a seamlessly convincing parallel universe inhabited by intelligences is overwhelming. It is very hard to convince yourself that, at some level, it’s not real. I think it’s premature of science to say: “That’s just your brain on drugs.” I think it needs to be investigated much more deeply.’

    It is in the cause of investigating more deeply that I find myself at the house in Wandsworth on a Friday night, where Adam, who runs the Facebook page ‘Brilla Medicina’, is to guide us through the ayahuasca experience. Also in attendance are two charity workers, a former schoolteacher and a nurse-turned-homeopath. Each of the guests has made a ‘donation’ of £100 and we are all supposed to be midway through a strict regime that forbids pork, alcohol, drugs, dairy products, red meat and sexual activity for up to a week before and after the ceremony.

    There is some nervous small talk before we take our seats and eye up the cavernous black plastic sick buckets that have been provided. Adam, who is extremely tall and wearing jeans, shirt and a pair of Nike trainers, dons a brightly coloured tunic and a necklace decorated with animal teeth. He then lights a pipe filled with tobacco and sets about ‘purifying’ the candlelit room with smoke, pacing around and chanting between puffs. Next, he takes a plastic litre bottle filled with the ayahuasca brew and shakes it. The bottle hisses gently when he removes the lid and pours about 25ml into a small cup.

    After some more blowing of smoke, chanting and hand gestures, Adam finally offers me the cup before repeating the process with each participant. We sit with our eyes closed as he sings tribal chants, shakes a rudimentary rattle made of dried leaves and tells us to ‘open our hearts to love’. The homeopath, Moira, has also spent time in Peru and she joins in, adding her delicate voice to Adam’s deep timbre, creating rather a beautiful harmony.

    After an hour, apart from feeling very mellow, I haven’t noticed any effects. So when Adam asks whether we’re OK and would like a second cup, I say yes.

    It’s after the third cup that I really achieve lift-off. To start with, I see a spectacular galaxy of moving, brightly coloured geometric shapes, which gives way to images of exotic jungle plants growing and sprouting new leaves. But these disappear if I open my eyes, which I do when I hear Moira move over to help Jess, the Australian charity worker who is bent double beside me at the other end of the sofa.

    Moira kneels down in front of Jess and whispers: ‘You are carrying a great sadness.’ She then rises to her feet and blows smoke from a hand-rolled cigarette through her cupped hands and on to the top of Jess’s head. Instantaneously, Jess vomits into her bucket and begins to sob. ‘That’s good,’ says Moira. ‘Let the sadness out.’ After a while, Jess stops crying audibly, brings her feet up onto the sofa and goes quiet.

    I close my eyes again and soon the visions give way to a strange, profound feeling — as if I am teetering on the edge of an abyss within myself. Below, madness awaits. Fortunately, I am still lucid enough to know that going insane would be a very bad thing indeed and so resolve to avoid that fate by focusing on happy thoughts with laser-like intensity.

    This, rather soppily, leads me to think about my mother. I’m not usually given to sentimentality, but I begin to consider how much she loves me and how every-thing I have, I owe to her. But then I start to worry: maybe the reason I haven’t yet found a nice girl to settle down with is partly because of the strength of that relationship. Perhaps I expect too much? No, I tell myself, one day, I’ll find The One, and we’ll be able to make our own children feel as loved as I did growing up. This seems to do the trick, and I allow myself to bask in a feeling of contentment.

    Eventually, as the effects start to wear off and I sense my grip on sanity becoming a little firmer, people feel ready to discuss their individual experiences. Jess says that she met Mother Ayahuasca herself and, overall, felt positive about the experience — even if, at one stage, it was as though she could feel the sum total of ‘all the sadness in the world’.

    No one knows what time it is, but once mobile phones are retrieved and switched back on there is some surprise that it’s almost 5 a.m. — nine hours after we first arrived. Blankets and mattresses have been laid out on the floor to accommodate anyone who wants to sleep at the house, but most are keen for their own beds, and cabs are called.

    As Adam leads the group into the garden to pour the contents of the sick buckets into a hole, my phone signals the arrival of an Uber. And somewhat gratefully, I begin the next leg of my journey back to reality.

    Some names have been changed.