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NM veterans vouch for ayahuasca therapy

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Jesse Gould attended an ayahuasca retreat in Peru in February. He said the experience greatly alleviated his anxiety and depression. (Courtesy of Jesse Gould)

Ever since 9/11, as a fifth-grader in Beatrice, Neb., Devin Ratigan wanted to be an Army Ranger.

He joined up right after high school in 2009 and served six tours of duty in Afghanistan.

“I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Ratigan quickly found himself disillusioned, depressed and anxious.

During his time in the military, he became heavily reliant on drugs: marijuana, alcohol, cocaine, psychedelics.

“I just realized there’s never really, ever, a time for war,” he said. “I was the bad guy instead of the good guy, as I was led to believe.”

Things didn’t improve after his January 2015 honorable discharge.

His July 2014 marriage lasted just over a year; they divorced in December 2015.

In early May of this year, his old battalion mate and Santa Fe native Jesse Gould reached out to him and suggested he try something different: ayahuasca therapy.

Ayahuasca (eye-uh-WHA-skuh) is a traditional, psychedelic drink used for centuries by Amazonian tribes in religious ceremonies.

Gould had taken it in February and found it had greatly alleviated his intense anxiety and depression.

“Afterwards, my mind was much more peaceful, connected and efficient than it had been before,” he said.

The ayahuasca ceremonies took place inside a large, round hut known as a maloca deep in the Amazon jungle. (Courtesy of Jesse Gould)

Ayahuasca is made up of the ayahuasca vine and chacruna, a shrub that contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, an illegal, Schedule I drug here in the U.S.

The brew causes feelings of deep introspection and often causes vivid hallucinations.

After ingestion, users generally experience a “purge” through vomiting or diarrhea.

In June, Gould sent Ratigan and four other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses to a retreat in Peru, where he drank ayahuasca during several ceremonies.

The ayahuasca experience is difficult for Ratigan and Gould to describe, and they find its aftereffects easier to put into words.

“I kind of have a new outlook on life,” Ratigan said. “Everything’s going to be OK.”

Since the experience, Ratigan said he has gotten his drug use and emotions under control.

He’s studying philosophy at a community college in Westminster, Colo.

Gould’s nonprofit organization, the Heroic Hearts Project, seeks to send more struggling veterans to ayahuasca therapy.

Gould said it costs around $3,000 to send someone to the therapy.

A fundraiser held in Santa Fe in September raised around $3,200, Gould said.

He hopes to use that money to sponsor a trip for New Mexico veterans.

The potential healing effects of ayahuasca have little research behind them, since the drug is illegal here and in many other countries.

Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, said consistency is another hurdle to research, since the ayahuasca brew doesn’t exactly have a formula.

Its potency may vary depending on the time of year the plant was harvested or other climatic conditions.

In addition, Grob said, drug research generally focuses on one specific chemical; ayahuasca is a compound containing several.

Grob extensively studied the psychological effects of ayahuasca in Brazil in the 1990s, focusing on the União Do Vegetal church, which uses ayahuasca on a regular basis as part of its worship.

Part of his research involved psychological assessments of 15 long-term members of the UDV.

“Over the years of their involvement, they had impressive improvement of their overall psychological functions,” Grob said.

He said it has also shown promise in treating alcoholism.

A study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in September found ayahuasca could be used to treat eating disorders.

Using ayahuasca is not without risk, though.

Grob said it can exacerbate existing psychosis or cause the onset of a manic episode in those with bipolar disorder. It can interact poorly with medications, too.

It’s also important to enter the experience with an intention and to take it seriously, he said.

Especially for treating veterans with PTSD, Grob said it would be important to have experienced facilitators overseeing the experience.

There have also been reports of deaths associated with ayahuasca.

In September 2015, 24-year-old Matthew Dawson-Clarke of New Zealand died after consuming a tobacco tea in preparation for the ceremony.

In December of that year, a Canadian man was arrested after allegedly stabbing another man to death during a “bad trip.”

With the growing interest in ayahuasca, Grob hopes to see more research on the compound soon.

“I think there’s a lot of promise, but we’re still at the very early stages of exploring its range of effects,” he said.

“If people are respectful toward the process and responsible, they will get some answers to questions they have.”

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