Tripping to Kick Addiction

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader details the tumultuous journey his mother endured to transcend “a very, very long history of drug and alcohol abuse”:

A few years back I showed her a video about ibogaine [a psychedelic drug featured in the news special seen above, with more information in our previous note]. She was instantly intrigued, so she flew to Mexico for treatment. She doesn’t remember much, but ibogaine had two interesting and unexpected effects when she returned home: 1) after living completely incapable of managing her money, she was suddenly paying every bill on time and resolved her credit; and 2) working as nurse, she had always been scared to visit the doctor when ill. Soon after she returned home, she felt a difficulty breathing in her chest and immediately went to the doctor to find that she had been diagnosed with Stage 3A lung cancer (smoked all of her life).

She had no health insurance, so we all thought that she would die soon.

Her sister worked at NIH, and after a bit of research she found a lung cancer study, and my mother qualified. She went through treatment incredibly well, but still had a fairly terminal outcome.

Around this time I learned of the Johns Hopkins psilocybin study for end-of-life anxiety, so I sent that to my mother, and again she was interested. A few months later she flies back to the Baltimore area and undergoes her first session, which was EXTREMELY difficult, and somewhat traumatic.

She said she saw a barren landscape under a dimly lit sun, with small figures infinitely toiling in the background, chiseling stone. It was unbearable to her, the suffering and pointlessness of it all. And then she sees something like a huge boulder fly toward her and rotate, showing a diamond stone that was meant just for her and it says: “YOU ARE A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH.” Many other things occurred, but the takeaway was that she did not understand her experience, and it was really quite frightening and lasting.

Fast-forward a few months. My partner and I have been living in Seattle for three years or so, and my sister comes to visit and decides that it’s time to move. So she and her husband and my mother all sell the house and pack up and head to the Northwest to start anew. My mother gets here and begins looking for work but is having trouble finding it. A new round of depression sets in, and for the first time in years, she takes a drink. She lacks an enzyme that breaks down the alcohol, so it hits her very hard, and she calls me and I immediately know.

I rush over to help her, the tragedy of it all being almost too much to bear, and I help her into her bed and leave a note asking (again) if she would like to try something—and this time it is pure MDMA, which I had the incredible fortune of coming upon a little while back.

So we meet the next weekend and take the first dose, and almost immediately my mother recognizes something entirely new: the anxiety she has carried with her her entire life—the thing that led her into her addiction in the first place—vanishes. She asks me: “Is this how everyone feels? Just free?” and we sit by the beach and talk for the next few hours

Over the course of our conversation it comes back to her psilocybin experience at Johns Hopkins, something she would never want to talk about. We went through each moment during the experience, and she has an epiphany: What the psilocybin experience was trying to show her was that she was punishing herself, that her drinking—or rather, her inability to process alcohol due to her physiology—was an extreme form of self-annihilation that she never understood previously, but now she could see it with great clarity. And in this moment, her lifetime of addiction lifted and she was finally free.

The story continues quite a ways further and into a number of magical directions, but she’s doing better than ever, with the greatest health she’s ever felt. She feels like her life is just now beginning, at 56, and her scans are clear with the doctors really kind of scratching their heads!  She’s always felt that her story should be told (and there is so so much more to it), and after seeing your note, I felt compelled to share.

If you’d like to share as well, drop us an email. The note that sparked this reader’s email centered on psychedelic use as therapy for mental health issues, but this new theme of addiction is very related. In all my reading on ibogaine over the years and all my conversations with a friend of mine who’s done the drug many times and whose family member was one of the first distributors of the West African drug in the U.S. for the purpose of addiction treatment, I see ibogaine as a kind of extreme, accelerated therapy. In other words, one session of ibogaine could replace dozens of sessions with a psychiatrist. So it’s not a chemical countering other chemicals, but a way to create an opening for emotional healing.

Drug addiction, especially heroin, is often a means of numbing the pain of an underlying emotional crisis or traumatic experience in his or her past. Treatment drugs like methadone merely mask that pain as well—treating the symptoms, rather than the core problem. An ibogaine trip, on the other hand, forces people to confront their demons head on, in a vivid, unrelenting way. Unlike LSD or psilocybin or certainly MDMA, ibogaine isn’t a recreational drug; it’s a crucible of emotional pain, physical discomfort, intense visions, and extreme insights, lasting up to 24 hours or more. The experience gets to the root of why someone is taking heroin in the first place and forces them to address it once and for all.

At least that’s what I’ve gathered. If you’re interested in a first-hand take, that friend I mentioned wrote about his personal experience with ibogaine for the Dish. If you’ve had a different kind of experience with ibogaine or another intense hallucinogen, such as ayahuasca, drop me an email.