Well, I did it. I underwent a week of disconnection from social media and the outside world and deep into a psycho-spiritual journey with a shaman and a psychedelic plant medicine. The only way I can describe the experience is to liken it to about 40 years of extraordinary and primal therapy squeezed into two nine-hour sessions. At first I was nervous about the judgment I’d receive in sharing this post, but then I remembered the wise words imparted to me from a cedar tree I spoke with during my journey: “Don’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks.” I’ve decided to heed his sage advice.
What I’ve come to understand is that plant medicine culture is just another modality for spiritual and higher-self development. These people are facing their demons, working on themselves and trying to be better via a means that is appropriate for them—just like I’ve been doing for myself with the twelve steps for the last 17-and-a-bit years. Plant medicine is understandably misunderstood by other modalities because it uses a substance to facilitate healing. I get it. I was apprehensive for the longest time because I thought I could have only one or the other: abstinence with twelve steps, or the ‘other way.’ Safely on the other side of a deeply healing experience with Iboga, however, I can say confidently that the line is not so hard and fast, and surprisingly, this psychedelic experience was the icing on the healing cake of my many years of soul-searching and recovery from the homophobic, coming-out trauma that I only vaguely knew was hurting me still.
My mentor in my recovery program wasn’t onboard with me choosing this approach, but my need to find deeper healing that the twelve steps wasn’t addressing outweighed my desire to remain safe in what I’ve known for the better part of two decades. So I took the chance, and I used plant medicine ceremoniously within my program of abstinence. And I’m here—safe and sober still—to tell you that both methods can be used beneficially in a more syncretistic approach—so long as your motives are in the right place.
When I sobered up, I met a guy named Michael Cassidy who shortly thereafter left the twelve step life and moved into the jungles of central and South America and into the plant medicine world where he eventually found his calling in working with Iboga.
The root bark of the Tabernanthe Iboga plant is a psychedelic used by tribes in Gabon, Africa that follow the Bwiti spiritual path—one of three official religions of Gabon. Iboga is used ceremoniously by Bwiti tribes during rites of passage, initiations, to resolve pathological problems, and to promote radical spiritual growth. The tenth generation Nima (shaman) Moughenda is the spiritual leader of the Missoko Bwiti, and the first of his tribe to bring Iboga into the Western Hemisphere. My friend Michael apprenticed with Moughenda for several years in Costa Rica and Gabon before being authorized as a Nganga (healer) in the Missoko Bwiti tradition to lead Iboga healing ceremonies. Several years later, Michael DancingEagle, as he is known, is the eyes, ears and voice of Bwiti/Iboga healing in the west.
Michael and I have kept in touch over the years, and have always supported one-another on our individual spiritual journeys. Michael had reached out many times to see if I had any interest in the ceremonies he was leading, and I had always declined because of the line I had drawn between his method and mine. However, over the last year of me writing again and uncovering some of the core issues that were keeping me stuck, I decided to follow what seemed to be a calling, and I registered for one of Michael’s early spring retreats at Crystal Roots Healing Centre in Shelburne. There were six other souls ready to journey with me—including my two good friends Ivano and Andrew.
Immediately, when I made the decision to follow my heart and attend the retreat, I began to feel the sense of self-love that I was seeking by going through with this process. When I told Michael this, he said that is exactly what happens; we commit to the process and the medicine begins to work. It may sound strange, but I truly felt this was real.
Now that I’ve done my best to outline the legitimacy of my experience, let’s get to the ‘trip’—because I know that’s why you’re really here reading this!
For me it was incredible and profound; at times extremely emotional, and it was definitely enormously healing.
And if you’re wondering, there was no fear. I actually believe that the condition induced by Iboga is a fear-free, stark and objective state that promotes the ability to look upon whatever thoughts, memories and traumatic experiences you might be hanging onto—whether you realize it or not. And when you recognize these, you kind of inherently know that you’re purging them as quickly as they pass through your mind—or before your eyes. Also, I didn’t vomit. Two of the seven of us did. Only about twenty percent of participants do purge physically with Iboga—so Michael told me.
When I was led to my mattress about an hour after taking the medicine and sitting around a ‘fire’ circle, I placed my blindfold on and laid face-up waiting for whatever was to happen.
Michael and his assistants (Sherry, Jonathan and Erik–who are Missoko Bwiti initiates) put on traditional Missoko Bwiti music (intense) that was composed by the tribe after having been directed by insights received from journeying with the plant medicine themselves. This music is believed to help enhance the healing abilities of Iboga.
The first thing I saw—or more so thought-hallucinated/visualized—was a group of African women in the jungle singing the music we were listening to, who were eventually joined by my late grandmother. I then saw all the grandmothers of my friends joining in the chanting. It was later explained that these are our ancestors who come to assist us on our journey.
The second stop on my trip was my arrival in the laundry room of my family home on Brock Street in Thunder Bay where I came out of the closet to my parents during a particularly nasty fight. It felt as if I was really there—and I heard my mother’s reaction clearly. However, her response to me stating that I was gay was completely different from how I had remembered it over the last 27 years. I won’t get into the details, but instead of the feeling of partially dying inside because my mom rejected me, in this revisitation, I heard what she actually said, and I felt compassion for her because she actually believed at the the time that I was saying I was gay for attention. She actually wanted to help me avoid heading down a difficult path. Obviously she was ignorant about the truth of homosexuality, but she didn’t want to hurt me, and she had never stopped loving me. 30 years of therapy would never have brought me to this intricate memory that instantly revolutionized my interpretation and perception of my own life and relationship with my parents.
Overwhelmed with new compassion for my mom, I started weeping and I cried out loud that I missed my parents—I missed them the way we had been as a family when I was young.
My mind was next flooded by all kinds of happy memories of my childhood that exemplified just how great my parents actually were; memories I had long forgotten after I had come out of the closet.
Suddenly, I was floating above my bed in the house I lived in on Gardner Road just before I had moved to Toronto. I was in my late teens and lying on my bed. I could see my overweight self on my mattress, beneath which was a gay magazine. I wondered why I was seeing this, and then I was sort of pulled back so I could see other neighbourhood teenage boys lying on their beds with Playboy magazines beneath their mattresses. A voice in my head said, “See Michael, you’re one of the boys, you just had a different magazine beneath your mattress.” I immediately knew this was self-acceptance.
So many more memories filled my mind of times when I was ashamed of myself, or when I experienced things that I’ve carried with me over the years that had compounded my lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. As each thought-visual entered my mind, I instinctively knew I was letting it go.
Next I saw Madonna. I know—not all that surprising. I didn’t see her through the eyes of an obsessed fan however; I saw her objectively from her birth and growth into such an impressively strong, ambitious and inspiring person who I could model my sense of self after.
Madonna had barely left my thoughts when I found myself onstage with Ellen DeGeneres while promoting my new book. After a quick chat about my book, Ellen announced that she had a surprise for me, and she then welcomed Madonna onstage to meet me. Madonna was wearing a pink pant-suit and smiled as she leaned in to hug me.
Shortly after this stage of my journey, Michael came over to do some psychotherapeutic/spiritual work. He sat near my head and asked how I was doing. Satisfied with my descriptions of my experience thus far, he continued through a process of having me visualize myself in one of my yoga studios and to walk up to myself and ask the burning questions I had become clear on and had written down prior to this ceremony. The gist of the insights I received from my ‘self’ was that part of me believes I am unlovable and therefore I have difficulty believing that anyone likes or loves me just for me. Almost instantly, I understood that I could let this belief go and finally be able to trust people.
Michael had me visualize myself going inside my body and scrubbing and polishing it up inside until it was shiny and new, and then he prompted me to go up into my brain and find the parts that are responsible for shame, depression, addiction and the like. Impressionable, I was able to see evil, weed-like growths attached to my brain—which for some reason looked like a bright orange, psychedelic swingin’ 60s-style diner. Each time I identified one of these destructive parts of my brain, Michael instructed me to get rid of it. And I did!
After ‘fixing’ my body and mind, Michael asked me to fly to the moon, which was surprisingly easier than one might think. When I landed on the moon, and after sifting some moon dust through my fingers, Michael asked me to call out to my grandmother. And she was instantly there—exactly as I remembered her before she became sick. She wore a striped mint green and white sweater and shiny silver hoop earrings. I asked her how she was, and she squeezed my hand and said, ‘I’m just fine.’ I asked if she had any advice for me for my life, to which she replied, ‘You just be yourself.’ Michael then had me hug her—and in real-time I burst out crying. She smelled the same as when I had last hugged her before she passed away. I cried from the pit of my stomach that I loved her so much and missed her with all my heart.
Next, I visited my friend Glen whom I used to do shamanic sweat lodges with, and who had taken his own life nearly six years ago. We were ‘spiritual sisters.’ Glen was wearing a leather biker’s jacket and a white tshirt and jeans. His words of life advice for me, with his usual playful sneer, were, ‘You got this, Hotgirl.’
After hugging Glen goodbye—and crying some more, I returned to the laundry room where I came out and reminded my younger self that my parents simply didn’t understand, and that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with who I am, and that I could go forward and be happy and know that I deserved love.
There are so many more memories and experiences that came up over the course of the ceremony—which lasted roughly nine hours. Mostly, it was a parade of old obsessions and unrequited loves that passed my field of vision and just sort of left me.
After Michael finished his work with me, I asked many more questions to whatever the source of the insights was, and these were answered almost immediately by a kind of ‘thought voice.’ Occasionally, I would see the words of wisdom appear in front of me and then dissipate after I had absorbed them.
Some rather grim visuals of a wonderful old friend’s decent into relapse showed me that the true nature of addiction is death. I witnessed an equally bleak scenario of someone being hanged that illustrated the identical nature of racism. These were clear reminders to do everything in my power to move in the opposite direction of these two destructive habit energies.
After the official ceremony, we were brought back to our rooms where we were checked on every fifteen minutes for the first couple of hours, during which our nurse, known as Awesome Donna, also came to check our vitals.
The recovery was challenging and long. But during this stage, I was still receiving insights and clarity on my past life and potential future life.
The ceremony began on Tuesday evening and ended on Wednesday morning. The recovery lasted throughout Wednesday. On Thursday we left the centre and went to the Scandinave Spa at Blue Mountain where we relaxed and had a nice lunch.
After a hearty dinner and restful sleep on Thursday, we prepared Friday afternoon for our second ceremony that evening. I won’t go into detail of my second journey, though it was more of the same of recognizing what doesn’t serve me, letting it go and knowing what to do moving forward. I was also blessed with clarity and insight on the negative self-talk patterns that kept me locked into low self-esteem. An example being when I would invite someone over to my home and shamefully refer to it as a ‘messy little bachelor apartment.’ This phrase has since been deleted from my vocabulary.
Michael had me talk to Madonna once more and to visit and ask the cedar tree outside (whose leaves I had used in a fire ritual before the ceremony for clarity) what advice he had to offer me for my life moving forward. He’s the one who suggested I no longer give a fuck what anyone thinks. Smart tree. He also said he had been lonely sitting and staring at the pond all day, and all year, and for the last many decades. Funny tree.
Strangely, as a longtime and hardcore coffee-drinker, after the first ceremony, trying to have a cup of coffee made me sick. I haven’t had a cup since.
We convalesced again throughout Saturday, and after breakfast on Sunday and an inspiring chat with Michael, we packed and headed home.
Usually, with the novelty of having undergone a spiritual journey, I’ve experienced a slight mania and euphoria. But in the one-week-and-a-bit since my journey with Iboga and Michael, I feel more grounded than ever. I feel as if the trapdoor of my insecurities has been removed from my being. I can look at my past with new vision. Where I used to dwell on the shameful things I’ve done or the traumatic events that I believed negatively shaped who I am, I can now see clearly how strong, ambitious and inspiring my character is. I’m a survivor. And for the first time in my life—I’m truly not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks. Thanks, cedar tree.