Aidan Reid: How a Peru drug experience made me quit a life of partying
It took a backpacking adventure to South America and an out-of-body experience with the controversial hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca to convince the Irish author Aidan Reid to turn his back on a binging, partying and excess.
It wasn't my idea. Then again, it never was. Other gringo backpackers roped me into their hedonistic, island-hopping adventures. In truth, I was more than just a passive observer. I instigated much of the carnage in the six months of South American travel that led me to my watershed moment.
Solo backpacking with the constant influx of new faces and weak friendships can become tiring. It was with renewed enthusiasm that a friend from back home decided to visit me on the final stretch of my journey across 14 countries.
Recently split from a long-term partner, "P" took the news hard. I was glad to welcome him to the Americas where we could help banish the memories of his ex, with dollar beers and plenty of hungry eyes from the locals, eager to nab themselves a gringo for the night.
After we had hit Machu Picchu, he suggested that we consider visiting a shamanic lodge to take a hallucinogenic medicine called ayahuasca - confessing that he was still emotionally raw from his break-up. The drug is featured in a new Netflix series which stars comedian Chelsea Handler (below).
Knowing nothing, curiosity led me online, where I researched testimonials about its veracity. About 99% of what I read were glowing reports of how people had been cured of depression, addictions and even cancers.
Shamans in the Amazon have been practising the custom for thousands of years with a booming trade in countries around the basin of the Amazon rainforest, where the ingredients are sourced.
However, a fraction of what I read online really scared the hell out of me. Several mainstream newspapers documented incidents where backpackers had choked to death on their vomit, drowned in shallow rivers and even cover-ups by management of these lodges, dumping overdosed backpacker bodies along deserted jungle roads, scrubbing evidence of that person's involvement with the lodge under police investigation.
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It didn't take much prodding from my friend to convince me to enrol. Both well over six foot and in our 30s, we felt that the punishment we had inflicted on our bodies through a binge culture lifestyle would make the experience quite tame.
Four days before our removal to the forest, we took part in the purging process to cleanse our insides and eliminate any foodstuff that could have interfered with our experience.
A local nurse connected to the lodge took our vital signs, and after my friend and I passed the check-up, she administered tall glasses of salted, cloudy warm water. This was a very difficult process, because we had to drink as many glasses as possible in quick succession, rubbing our swollen bellies to move the water around.
The nurse said that we could stop only when our faeces became transparent. That took 23 glasses on my side (around seven litres of water after 70 minutes).
We had to follow a strict diet for the next three days - no red meat/sugar/beer/bread/coffee. Advised to take it easy to prepare the body for the weekend experience, we were quite limited in what we could do.
We signed up for the three-day/two-night experience. Two chances to take the medicine, which I felt was sufficient if we were to get our money's worth (it cost in the region of $400).
The setting was picturesque. Our lodge was set high in the hills, with a beautiful backdrop surrounded by nature. We were in a group of five and left to our own devices during the day. Some chose to read, some meditated, and others slept to while away the time until our first experience with ayahuasca that night.
Around 8pm, we gathered in the sitting room for the ceremony. Sleeping bags were laid on the floor and everyone laughed at the presence of the vomit buckets at each side before claiming their spot on the floor.
The horror stories I had read were still swirling around in my head. Since the purging, I had felt much stronger and clear-headed, which seemed only to sharpen the danger in my mind as I battled with nerves.
I was well aware of what the procedure was, having hoovered up online content in the days before. Ayahuasca is slightly toxic and can't be held in the stomach for longer than 30 minutes. Puking, defecating and sweating are all common side-effects to release it from the body. Shortly after that happens, the visions are supposed to start.
We were told to think about a person, situation or goal and keep it fixed in our mind while the staff were fixing our drinks. I had absolutely no objective in mind.
My father had passed away seven years earlier, a death which was slow and painful. I was blessed to have had the chance to say my goodbyes while he was alive, but I had no real urgency to meet him, nor did I think I had any challenge in my life that warranted further insight.
A popular reason that people seek alternative medicines, like ayahuasca, is because of its mystical quality. Shamans believe it can open a portal to a higher plane of consciousness, a place that Western society, with its materialistic and stressful ways, has forgotten how to access.
Many people return year on year, to seek advice with their career, relationships and how to discover their passion. I harboured no such lofty goals and was happy to go with the flow - a tad sceptic, if truth be told.
The manager told us to down our glass in one go. It was like an apple smoothie, but the comparisons with a fruit drink stopped there. It was acrid, bitter, pulpy and absolutely foul-smelling. No wonder it induces vomiting, I thought after choking it back.
We waited in silence, dim lighting making it difficult to see the other shapes in the room. Initially, I felt strong, but my agitation grew after 20 minutes, shared by others around me.
Kicking off covers that were too warm, jostling the puke bucket closer, clearing the throat, it soon became obvious that we were all struggling to contain the brew we had ingested.
Like dominoes, when the first person went, we all went, heaving into the bucket. Soon after, the shaman started a throaty chant in a language I didn't recognise.
Some had a harder time than others trying to release the vomit, crying with the effort.
I lay back, emptied but satisfied, and watched the scene in front as a nurse attended to a woman who was in distress. She was in fits of tears for hours. I waited patiently for my own visions to begin, which would last anywhere from two to four hours.
Except, my show never started. Not even the opening titles.
Around midnight, if we were feeling strong enough, we could signal to the staff and say that we wanted to return to bed, which I was glad to do, more sceptical than ever.
The next morning, when we convened with the shaman to discuss our experience, the woman revealed that she had seen her deceased mother again. They had a fractured relationship which had never healed until her mother was killed in a traffic accident - something which had haunted her all her life.
Meeting again brought emotion flooding to the surface and she was finally able to say her goodbyes.
For the final night, I was determined to let myself go, hoping for a fraction of what the woman had experienced. After taking a larger dosage of the foul drink, I waited for the familiar stomach rumbles, but they didn't come.
Instead, after only 10 minutes, my nose started gushing blood. It began running down my face and pooled in my lap in a puddle.
Noticing my discomfort, the manager approached and asked if I wanted to take more. The last thing on my mind was a second glass, and he got up and left me, bloodied and confused.
I began shouting in my head, imploring him to come back.
"This isn't what I signed up for."
Oblivious to my panic, I looked around for help and found the others staring at me. The blood on my lap started shifting, and when I stared at it, I could see black eels wriggling around.
I heaved them off, grabbed the puke bucket and began retching hard, blood and vomit mixing into one ugly mess at its bottom.
When I pulled my head out, I looked down into it. There was an eye like Sauron from Lord of the Rings peering back up. It was strangely magnetic and held my focus.
I managed to glance sideways and saw the others in the group in the throes of an orgy, wriggling around under sheets with serpents. It was a disgusting sight and brought me back to the bucket to puke.
The manager approached again, asked me to take some water, which would help the vomiting. Something connected the eye, the ugly hedonistic behaviour of those around me and my own careless travels up until that point.
A part of me needed to feel the pain to understand what I was doing to myself. I refused the water and explained this to the manager, whose own facial features had bizarrely shaped into those of a wolf.
After an hour, I finally pulled myself away and lay back in a crumpled heap in my sleeping bag, exhausted. A whisper in my ear said that I should listen to the voice of the shaman. I hadn't noticed it, but as I tuned in, it seemed to carry me away from the room, away from danger.
I saw myself as a newborn baby, alone, naked and crying on the edge of a mountain edge. Rain pelted me from above. Again, the whisper in my ear told me to latch onto the shaman's voice. When I did, I found myself shooting up through the heavens, through the storm, high above and out of harm's reach.
A vision opened up to me again. A brunette woman I didn't recognise, holding a baby in her arms. Two children were at her feet and playing.
The voice whispered again and said that there were two options open - the road to destruction, which I was currently on, or the other - a path with heart where I could enjoy a future and raise a family. The choice was mine.
Something in the voice was familiar, and I asked if it was my father. It said yes. I asked it where it was. It said it was with the universe now.
We spoke about family, my career and my passions, and I received some hard home truths as well as some predictions. When I felt the visions begin to fade in intensity, I asked a final question - was there a message he wanted me to bring back?
"Just give your mom a kiss for me."
I broke down and started crying and didn't stop for hours.
The next day, I shared the experience with the shocked group. Something fundamental changed in me because of it and it is only now, 18 months on, that I realise what it was.
Now 33 years old, I can see that the decade of bingeing, partying and excess was catching up on me. It was a lifestyle that was shallow and without heart or purpose.
Taking the advice I received from the messenger in my visions, I've realigned my life around my passion for writing, no longer prioritising the pursuit of money as a path to happiness.
In light of recent negative headlines about ayahuasca in the mainstream press, I wanted to offer an alternative view of the potentially life-changing effects. But I encourage all to do their research in advance and choose a reputable outfit.
This is one area you don't want to cut corners.
It could be the difference between saving your life and ending it.
- Aidan Reid's debut novel, Pathfinders, is available now for digital pre-order on Amazon and is on general release from March 1