Far along the path of life, I fell into a rare dark nine-month depression. I say “rare” because, blessed with good brain chemistry, I have been cheerful and optimistic most of my life. Sure, I’ve had a few bouts of the blues, but this depression was different.
I could not sleep; and believe me, if there were an Olympic event for sleeping, I would win hands down! I began to dread dusk, because it meant I would end up lying, eyes wide open, in bed at 3:00 am with obsessive thoughts howling through my head, over and over and over. After finally falling asleep in the wee, wee hours, I would get up for a while and then crawl back into bed, curled up in a fetal position, not wanting to face the day. My normal ebullience was gone. I had become a zombie. Not the fleshing eating kind, but the morose kind. I lost 22 pounds, imagined I was getting cancer, ran to doctors for tests… and feared I was destroying myself. Why? Oh, this is the really bizarre part because my depression was triggered by a life-changing event that many people long for: retirement and moving out of the country.
My last position was serving as director of the Safe Energy Project for the World Business Academy in Santa Barbara. Our goal was to close down California’s remaining nuclear plants: San Onofre, which closed in 2013, and Diablo Canyon, scheduled to close in 2024. When we knew Diablo Canyon was eventually going to close and the project would wind down, I realized two things: One, there was no way my wife Julie and I could continue living in chic Santa Barbara on a professor’s pension without additional income, and two, at 76 years of age, I did not relish the idea of hustling another consulting job in this wealthy, philanthropic city.
Sleepless in Europe
Solution: As I adore Julie, I proposed that we retire, move to an affordable sunny country in Europe, find our “Positano,” and spend the golden years enjoying life in each other’s company ̶ preferably near a beach. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?
As they say, “man plans, God laughs.” We sold everything and set out to explore possible retirement havens. Two weeks later, I had an anxiety attack and my first sleepless night. “I’ve made the greatest mistake of my life.” “I’ve consigned myself to oblivion,” were the tapes that played in my mind like a broken record. “I want to go back to Santa Barbara, I want to go back to my old job, I want to be Dr. Brown again,” I begged Julie the next morning… and the next, and the next. For nine months! “No!” she said emphatically, “this is our time; the time you promised me for years. I am not going back. You can go if you want, but without me.”
What a dilemma. Clearly, I could not have both: the love of my life and the work that I loved. Julie without my work in Santa Barbara was depressing. Santa Barbara without Julie, was, well, doubly depressing. Family, friends, and colleagues became alarmed and offered therapeutic suggestions, self-help remedies for my deepening malaise. Listen to Dr. Joe Dispenza’s (the new Wayne Dyer) “Rewire Your Brain” audio tapes! Do the “Golden Light” prayer every morning! Practice the Tara Brock meditations! “You need antidepressants and sleep meds,” said the fatherly psychiatrist, as he wrote me a refillable prescription.
Nothing worked. I tried, oh my lord how I tried, everything: all the affirmations, meditations, and medications
Nothing worked. I tried, oh my lord how I tried, everything: all the affirmations, meditations, and medications. They all failed to make a dent in my depression. They were as ineffective as trying to stop an aircraft carrier with a water pistol.
Ayahuasca to the Rescue
Finally, in desperation, I turned to ayahuasca: the spirit vine. Now, I’ve had transformational experiences with LSD and psilocybin, but that was back in the day in the l970s and 1980s, long before the availability of guides and integration circles. I gleaned valuable insights from psychedelics and never felt the need to explore them again. But I had never done ayahuasca. Nor did I have any desire to do so. In fact, when I found out that there was a retreat center just fifteen minutes away from our town in southern Europe, I was petrified at the prospect of participating in an ayahuasca session. In my extremely fragile state of mind, I thought I might die or go insane. At the very least, a giant anaconda would emerge from the jungle and devour me whole. Julie insisted. “I can’t go on living with you like this. You have to go.” So, I set my intention “to heal” and faithfully followed “la dieta” (the recommended restrictions on food, drink, and sex) for a week.
Around midnight on the evening of the ayahuasca ceremony, I gulped down the thick, murky, somewhat bitter drink. After an hour or so of ritual music and swaying, I lay down on the floor and, under the watchful eyes of the three “sitters” at the back of the room, was swept away into a visual panorama that cleansed my soul and renewed my spirit.
I realized that I was a prisoner of my ego, my frightened ego that could not let go of my old life; my punishing intellect that would not let me enjoy this new life.
I vividly recall three powerful images. In one, I realized that I was a prisoner of my ego, my frightened ego that could not let go of my old life; my punishing intellect that would not let me enjoy this new life. I saw myself surrounded by the brittle bars of my ego, which shattered into thousands of glass shards on the floor. In the second, I had been so caught up in my own drama that I’d felt zero empathy for the hell I was putting Julie through. Now I became Julie, experienced the nightmare she had been living…felt her pain. God, this woman must truly love me to stick by my side through all of this. How could I continue to inflict this on the woman I loved? And in the third, I suddenly visualized the depression as a long, dense black shape; literally, a serpent inside my body. Throughout this depression, I felt possessed. This was not the typically positive, energetic me that I knew.
My worst fear had come true, but not as envisioned. The snake was not coming out of the jungle to eat me; it already possessed me. Guided by the spirit vine, I felt not one flutter of fear. I knew exactly what must be done. I reached into my mouth, grasped the serpent by the head, wrestled with it (for how long, I don’t recall), finally pulled it out, all the way out, and flung it on the floor. It slithered away, never to return. The next morning the depression was gone, never to return.
I love music and sing most days as I go about the morning. Well, during the nine long months of this depression, I’d stopped singing, completely. But, on the morning after the ayahuasca session, after returning home and falling into a deep sleep, I woke up singing again. “You’re back!” exclaimed Julie, hoping it would last. It did. Since then we’ve lived happily ever after.
“spirit possession” is not simply a malaise that afflicts indigenous peoples. It can torment any vulnerable soul that has lost its way.
This relentless descent into darkness and rapid recovery through the “vine of souls” gave me a profound appreciation for two truths. First, ayahuasca can alleviate depression that resists all other forms of treatment. In a world where some 300,000,000 people suffer from depression, this is a good reason for universal legalization. Second, “spirit possession” is not simply a malaise that afflicts indigenous peoples. It can torment any vulnerable soul that has lost its way. As they say of the vine of souls, “you don’t get what you want, you get what you need.” I did. Thank you Mother Ayahuasca!
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