By the time I arrived in AA in September 2001, I had been in rehab three times, a halfway house, a psychiatric hospital and had still found myself on my knees—strung out—on a street corner—crying to a police officer. I had been robbed by the two men I had been smoking crack with for the previous four days. I didn’t know what to do with my life, and I had nowhere left to turn. A friend who struggled with alcohol abuse brought me to my first AA meeting that very night. The structure of the twelve step program throughout the better half of two decades—the accountability—and community love—that AA provided, without a doubt, saved me and put my life on a very stable and healthy trajectory. So, if you’re looking for an article that bashes AA, you’re not going to find it in these paragraphs. Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life—and the countless lives of many others—so I have only the utmost respect for the safe haven and rehabilitation that AA can provide.
That said, it’s been a year and a half since I made the decision to veer from my 18 years of strict abstinence in AA to trying first iboga and then ayahuasca as alternative methods of healing. This was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, because no one that I’ve heard of had ever publicly legitimized this path as a viable means of living in recovery. And what I had been warned about in AA—and came to believe and fear for myself—that I can’t use any substances safely without falling right back into the depths of my addiction, had me questioning my decision for quite awhile even after my first plant medicine ceremonies. I suppose—in a sense—what I’m hoping to do with this article is begin the process of publicly legitimizing my path as a viable means of recovery and self-development, when approached with a pure intent of growth and healing.
Some feel that I’m simply trying to rationalize what I’m doing. Some have made it clear that they believe I’ve ‘gone out’, and that I’m in active addiction and have found a loophole by considering drugs as medicine. I get it—I had these beliefs as well. I believed AA was the only way to truly be sober and happy. But, I’ve changed my mind.
The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous—in general—while overall welcoming and loving, can be just like any other fellowship or religion: collective beliefs can prevail and non-malicious demonizing of alternative methods can somewhat ostracize people that choose to veer from the strict path of abstinence. Of course these are generalizations, and I believe the intent is for these people only to reinforce that their own belief is what is right; we are drug addicts and alcoholics who are terrified to end up in that vicious cycle of addiction once more. We will do what it takes to remain sober—even if that means closing the door on alternative methods.
I have not had a drink in nearly 19 years; nor have I had a recreational drug in that time. I have, however, used ayahuasca, iboga and cannabis in controlled healing circles with officially appointed shamanic practitioners. This has led me to reflect on what ‘sobriety’ actually is. Abstinence is an extremely limited way of viewing sobriety. I’ve known scores of abstinent people who claim sobriety while running in active food-addiction cycles, chain smoking and falling victim to sex addiction. While in an active food, sex, gambling or spending addiction etc, despite being abstinent from ‘drugs,’ I don’t personally believe one could call themself ‘sober.’ Sobriety for me means to not be trapped in an addictive cycle. And although I’ve been smoking cannabis (prescribed) to help with the herniated disc in my back and ingesting ayahuasca with a shaman to relieve the years of emotional trauma I’ve stood upon, I remain clear-minded and balanced in my life. I’m not addicted to these substances.
Minds will snap shut upon reading this, and I suppose that is just people’s intuition letting them know they’re not ready for this path.
I’ve been scared that I was deluding myself, so I met with a very open-minded sponsor and honestly explained everything I was doing to get an objective point of view. Originally, it was also my intention to continue to attend AA meetings while using these plant medicines. However, in being a person who shares his journey, I experienced an unfavourable reaction from my community. From a sponsor all but ghosting me, to friends backing away from me, to a member of my home group essentially campaigning against me and suggesting that the group no longer allow me to do service at the group level because I’m not ‘sober,’ I realized this was no longer the path of least-resistance for me. So I left AA.
Side note: AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson used LSD and magic mushrooms extensively in a controlled environment to help with his depression, and because he believed that under the influence of psychedelics the ego is temporarily suspended, and we can accelerate our spiritual awakenings that are necessary to achieve sobriety. Ponder that one for a bit…
I was very active in AA; I sponsored lots of guys, and I did general service and held almost every service position there is during my tenure in the fellowship. I’ve spoken internationally, and I’ve taught yoga at North American sober conventions.
The decision to change the way I’ve done things for so long came when a friend that I trust—who is a type of shaman—offered for me to experience this West African healing modality (iboga) as an energy exchange if I would write about it.
The decision to move forward with the experience despite the disapproval of my then-sponsor was the first push on the flywheel of me taking my life into my own hands, honouring my intuition and trusting the whispers of my own spirit.
The iboga journey really helped to heal some complex post traumatic stress that I didn’t even know I had. Complex PTSD—for reference—is a type of anxiety disorder. PTSD is generally related to a single event, while complex PTSD is related to a series of events, or one prolonged event. Symptoms of PTSD can arise after a traumatic episode, such as a car collision, an earthquake or sexual assault. Complex PTSD is hard to diagnose because it can be simply a way of life we’ve grown accustomed to and recognize as anxiety, depression and identity issues.
For me, realizing I was gay during probably the most homophobic time in North America (late 80s and early 90s in the height of the AIDS crisis) and coming out during this dangerous time, prompted an identity crisis that I’m still—to this day—trying to move beyond. I didn’t recognize this as trauma because there was no one individual horrible experience. Mine was a teenage life full of micro-aggressions and threats and being taken advantage of by older men. I had no sense of self, and without even knowing it, I was deeply ashamed of being gay. I even played roles that would hopefully make me less gay in the eyes of the world around me, and I did everything in my power to become famous and receive acknowledgement. I suppose I was trying to reassure myself that I was lovable and worth something. This trickled over into seeking validation and approval in every aspect of my life, which in turn, fed my body image issues, food addiction, drug addiction and my seriously damaging low self-esteem.
With the help of plant medicine, I began to uncover and heal this trauma—which I believe to be the catalyst to my addictions in the first place. Feeling better about myself and less attached to negative thinking, the AA program seemed less appealing and not as necessary as it once was.
AA (the twelve step program) does a great job at arresting the cycle of addiction when we are able to come into the recovery rooms and ‘surrender’ our addictions. Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-Born Canadian physician who specializes in trauma and childhood development and their potential impact on physical and mental health—including addiction—says that addiction begins with pain (trauma) in early life, and addiction ends in pain when we ‘hit bottom’ in the cycle. He believes that because the twelve steps of AA help to arrest the addiction, they therefore treat the ending pain of addiction. But what about the traumas that were the impetus of our addictions in the first place? How do we treat the root cause?
AA set up the structure I needed in my life and the fear of relapsing that kept me within that structure and accountability until I was strong enough in myself to make a decision based on my intuition. That means that AA does work, and most people that experience sobriety within this structure find no need to leave it.
I felt, though, like there was something else that needed fixing. Not just my sobriety. AA describes addiction as an incurable illness that gets only stronger (doing push-ups) in the background while we stay sober. Our meetings and step work and working with others are the treatment to keep the chronic illness from becoming active again. In my experience and observation, this belief prompts a fear of relapse that keeps most people in the active circle of recovery and going to meetings and working the program. This becomes a non-deliberate form of programming—which is good; it keeps people actively helping others and, in turn, staying sober themselves.
For me, there were times within my 18 years of AA abstinence where I believed I was truly happy. There were also many times when I knew that there were some things that were missing in my life. I had lost my sense of identity when I was largely rejected by the homophobic world I grew up in. Without a sense of identity, I was never able to connect with anyone intimately, because I didn’t know how to be myself—because I didn’t know who that was. This is also why I’ve spent most of my adult life seeking God and higher levels of spirituality. I’ve been trying to find myself.
The twelve steps have us look at ourselves and our ‘character defects’ when we take a Step 4 moral inventory of ourselves. I did this numerous times and became quite self-aware of all my negative traits. Never was there a focus on nurturing my strengths and skills. This is my one criticism of the twelve step program that I think could be updated: There’s a lot of emphasis on always being hard on ourselves because we are selfish, and that’s what causes our addictions. I understand that I’m selfish and self-centred to a considerable extent myself, but not in the ego/greedy sense of the word—which is the way I interpret the AA literature’s way of presenting it. I am the depressive type. I’m always thinking about myself and how I’m feeling, and that’s almost always rotten.
Despite the amount of work I did within AA and on myself, I was never able to just relax within my sober life. There was always anxiety and a sense that something still wasn’t ‘right.’ Although I was praised and congratulated on how well I had developed and how far I had come, I still felt as though I was standing proud on top of a giant heap of disfunction and unresolved trauma. My experiences had made me stronger and forged me into a survivor, but the emotions stirred and compounded by the traumas of my younger life had never been expressed and/or resolved.
All of that began to heal when I made the decision to do iboga. And then ayahuasca.
I thought long and hard and consulted many people before making this decision. I also did extensive research that yielded solid evidence of psychedelic plants being used for accelerated spiritual growth and self-development—for at the very least—one thousand years. A lot of these medicines and traditions were all but lost in the colonization of the Americas, and many were/are demonized and criminalized to this day. Cannabis can be thrown into the works here as well—it’s a proven medicine, and yet it’s still illegal at a federal level in the USA, and it was in Canada as well until only recently.
As I mentioned earlier that I had to rethink what sobriety means to me, I also decided to rethink what medicine means to me. I no longer look at pharmaceutical antidepressants, anti-anxiety pills or opioid painkillers as medicine. They are treatments for chronic conditions, but they do no healing. Since journeying with iboga and ayahuasca, I’ve stopped all therapy and my need for regular counsel. Since switching to cannabis for my back injury, I’ve stopped taking painkillers entirely—which is no small feat, as I had come dangerously close to becoming dependent on my ongoing Percocet prescription. I actually have stopped taking pharmaceuticals altogether—I don’t even take Advil. For me, to use something natural (cannabis) here and there that is far less dangerous physically—and that actually heals my back (reduced inflammation/almost fully eradicated pain)—just makes sense. I don’t particularly enjoy the THC high, so there’s likely a low chance of me becoming addicted to cannabis. And even if I do get addicted, I would much rather battle a cannabis addiction than face a full-on opioid dependence—and almost certain eventual overdose.
Both iboga and ayahuasca brought me to my past to confront, change, purge and release what had been rewiring my body and mind’s autopilot system to be depressed, anxious and self-conscious. Iboga brought my mind (a vision) to the moment when I came out of the closet to my parents when I was seventeen. Observing my parents’ reactions through my 44 year old eyes—and mind—revolutionized the way I perceived my whole coming out process. I learned through the journey that my parents hadn’t actually rejected me as I thought for 27 years that they had. My first Ayahuasca journey flooded my mind with the times in my life when traumatic things happened; things that I had buried deep inside me. It allowed me to express the emotions that I had pushed down throughout my life. I cried from the pit of my stomach. And I puked and purged and wailed—all while being comforted by the shaman in a safe space. This healed me in a way I’ve never experienced before.
I truly believe the use of these plants under the guidance of my shaman, is now rewiring my autopilot system with self-assurance and non-attachment to conditioning and belief systems that are not my own.
It’s a massive change that happened quite abruptly, so I had a hard time separating from the men that I sponsored—not only do I love them, but I feel bad because I changed the way I approach my sobriety after they had put so much faith in me passing on the AA ‘curriculum.’ I had to leave AA though, because I couldn’t let the judgment and doubt of others seep into my own mind and make me continue to question what I’m doing even more.
A lot of people tell me to ignore the haters and take what I need from the meetings and leave the rest. Well, it’s not as easily done as said in this case when what I’m doing is something so radically different. I have, however, had a number of people reaching out to me for guidance on making these very same decisions for themselves. So perhaps I’m just passing along another curriculum.
I never suggest anything to anyone in the way of deciding what’s right for them; I simply share my experience, and people can come to their own conclusions. I would like to reiterate though that the AA program and fellowship brought me to a place in my sobriety where I was able to trust my instinct. That being said, I believe a solid foundation in a program or community of accountability and support is essential for addicts and alcoholics in the beginning years of sobriety.
This way of life is new, and I’m still working out some kinks and working through some doubts, but I’ve been told I look the happiest I have ever looked—and I feel it. I have a lot more time, and I’ve relaxed quite a bit. I’m not as obsessed with my body and making myself look more attractive. I’m accepting myself a lot more. I’ve been much more present—in fact, I now believe that anxiety is simply an inability to remain present. I’ve been having intimacy with men, and I’ve even been dating—and trust me, despite what I once thought—it’s not because of my (non-existent) six-pack.
I found an identity in AA, which for me—after more than 18 years—ended up being too rigid and limited. And while it’s been intimated by some that I’m attaching an identity to my use with plant medicine, I don’t believe that to be true. I share it because it happens to be what I’m doing right now, and it’s definitely working, because I feel happy and free.