My Multiple Sclerosis Journey
Note: My MS story is divided into a 5 part blog post. If you missed part 1, 2 and 3, click on the links below before reading part 4.
The Spiritual Side of My Multiple Sclerosis Healing Journey
In part 4 of my MS story I talked a lot about the many concrete things you can do to take charge of your health and to slow the progression of multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases. I have also talked a lot about the importance love and hope have played in my healing journey from the very beginning. But I have not talked much about faith or the potential role I believe soul-healing and spirituality played in helping me achieve what I will call “next level wellness”, and that’s the final component of my story that I want to share here. Spirituality opens the door to soul healing and when you heal your soul you fill a void that cannot be filled by anything else I know of (and trust me, I’ve tried just about everything!)
At first I thought I might leave the spirituality component of my MS healing journey out because it really is so personal, but I finally decided I’m just not being honest about my full story if I don’t include it. Because the truth is, it’s only when I started on my spiritual path a few years back that I began to heal on a far deeper level than what I now believe is possible with food, exercise and supplements alone.
It was only when I started my spiritual path that I began to really think about why I might have gotten sick in the first place. I am now in agreement with Gabor Mate, M.D. and I too believe emotional stress is a major contributing factor to autoimmune diseases as well as degenerative diseases such as cancer. Beginning a spiritual path can be an important component to making peace with our deep rooted emotional scars. Once we do that we can begin to heal our bodies, minds and souls on a far deeper level than with food, exercise or supplements alone.
I should also point out that self-love is an important component to healing that a spiritual journey can facilitate. And once you have self love, it becomes a lot easier to do all of the many, many things it takes to stay healthy and fit. Self-love alone is one of the reasons I now believe starting a spiritual path might be the most important first step in a well thought out holistic approach to managing MS. Because let’s face it: if you don’t have self love you will probably find it enormously difficult to radically overhaul your diet, start a yoga routine, meditate, etc. It is my belief that self love really should be priority number one in any holistic healing journey and if you don’t know how to go about acquiring it, a spiritual path can help tremendously.
A Different Path for Everyone
Of course I realize people often get from point A to point B by taking very different paths, so please know I’m not saying the path I took is the right path for everyone. As I will explain below, the spiritual path I took was one I stumbled upon almost by accident, but it’s what opened the door to the soul healing work I didn’t even know I so desperately needed.
It is my personal belief that whether you have multiple sclerosis or not, we ALL eventually need to find faith and spirituality if we want to thrive in this world. At some point we all reach a time in our life when we face unimaginable loss or tragedy, a time when we realize a situation is completely out of our control. Maybe that time won’t come until the very end of life, but it is inevitable that the time will come. It’s at that time when I believe we so desperately need to know that there is something more. We need to know that we are a part of something much, much bigger than ourselves. This is when faith and spirituality become absolutely necessary.
Unlike following a diet, I don’t believe you can give someone a roadmap for how to go about finding faith. I believe spirituality is uniquely individual and that our life circumstances and upbringing undoubtedly shape the path we ultimately take to finding it. Having said that, after analyzing my own life and the many hurdles I have faced, it is my belief that our biggest life challenges occur, in part, as a lesson to help us get to a higher and higher level of consciousness. The higher the level of consciousness or awareness you reach, the more you come to have an unshakeable knowing that there is more to life than what we can see here on earth. For example, it was on my spiritual path that I had a personal experience that proved to me without a doubt that the soul lives on. Just that one experience changed both my life perspective and priorities in a very meaningful and profound way. Once I realized that the ONLY thing that is eternal is the soul, I was able to easily prioritize people and relationships over what society often makes us feel are most important (material things, accomplishments, “success”, etc. ) I would not have had that “awakening” had it not been for my life struggles that led me down that path.
When you can begin to look at each life challenge as an opportunity for growth, you change your entire world view perspective. Gratitude has been a huge part of my spiritual path. Having REAL gratitude for a challenge changes the way you think about your problem and when you change your thoughts you change your emotions. When you change your emotions you change everything about how your body responds both physically and mentally to the problem. And, if the problem happens to be an illness, I believe that by having a positive emotion you can help your body heal.
If we live long enough, we will all get knocked down at some point. If you are on a spiritual path you will have the clarity to see that there are no coincidences in this world and you can actually begin to appreciate that your life challenges are happening, or have happened, for a reason. The hurdles we face in life present an opportunity for growth and it has been my personal experience that if the hurdle is great enough, the growth will lead you down a spiritual path.
As you will read in my story below, that’s what happened to me. I eventually had to face a hurdle that was far greater than I could handle alone. I got completely knocked down. But I did get up. As you will read below, not only did my biggest life challenge make me stronger, its actually what set me on my spiritual path. I have enormous gratitude for the challenge I am about to tell you about. I know it happened for a reason.
My Biggest Life Hurdle
I was born with a congenital hip disorder called femoral retroversion, a very rare condition in which the femoral neck is rotated backward on the femoral shaft. The condition can result in a debilitating and horrifically painful crushing of the labrum later in life, which is what happened to me. When I was younger my femoral retroversion was actually somewhat of a blessing because it enabled me to turn my feet out better than anyone in ballet class. Dancing was a big passion of mine and I still remember walking into my first ballet class at five years old and the teacher enthusiastically telling my mom how I was built “perfectly” for being a dancer. Little did I know what a nightmare my “perfect turnout” would later cause. In fact, whether they know it or not, almost all professional dancers have a degree of femoral retroversion, it’s what enables them to have “perfect turnout”. I had a slight degree of femoral retroversion in my left hip but my right side was severely turned out, which was why it caused serious problems after pregnancy and with age. My hip pain started almost immediately after I gave birth to our son eighteen years ago. For years it was manageable. Until it wasn’t.
Prior to the second hip surgery in 2012 my hip pain was so severe that I couldn’t find a single comfortable position. Everything I did from sitting to standing to walking and even lying down hurt my hip. I tried every single form of therapy you can imagine, from acupuncture to active release therapy, the Egoscue Method, traditional physical therapy, injections, etc. Nothing worked because I had an impingement, a mechanical issue where bone was literally pressing up against bone. The only way to fix it was with surgery.
I eventually had a 7 1/2 hour surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in NYC for a femoral osteotomy (which involved breaking my femur in half and rotating the top of my femoral head into the anatomically correct position and putting a rod in the middle of my bone to hold everything in place.) They say great expectations are the blueprint for disappointment and that sure rang true for me post surgery. I simply wasn’t prepared for what I would be up against in recovery. Up until the surgery, I had never broken a bone up in my life and I somehow believed as soon as I had the surgery the hip pain would be gone. Let’s just say I didn’t know what real pain was until after my thigh bone was broken in half.
It’s a long story, but the femoral osteotomy was actually my 2nd hip surgery (the first hip surgery failed because I didn’t receive the correct diagnosis.) While I will forever be grateful to my surgeon Dr. Robert Buly, for ultimately fixing my congenital hip disorder, I had a major complication where my bone didn’t heal for 6 months post operatively. I had a nonunion of my bone and basically just really bad luck. Unfortunately, at that time I did not have the tools to deal with the pain or the disability.
For 6 months I couldn’t walk and for 6 months I fell into the worse depression of my life, much worse than what I describe in part 1 of my MS story at 15-years old. I felt out of control and completely betrayed by my body. At that point in my life I did not have real faith nor did I have a strong spiritual foundation and when I lost control of my body I lost control of my ability to cope. I didn’t have a higher power to draw on and that’s when things went downhill…fast.
I don’t believe the hip ordeal was a coincidence in my life. I say that because I don’t know if I would have felt the need to begin the spiritual journey that I started had I not had to face something that was far bigger than me and something that was completely out of my control. I think it’s important to point out that there were two very big differences between the hip ordeal and my MS diagnosis: 1) Unlike with the MS where I always believed the diet would work, once my hip surgery complication set in, I didn’t totally believe I would ever walk normally nor did I fully believe I would ever be pain free and 2) My hip pain and disability were far beyond anything I could control. I simply was not getting better and nothing I did seemed to even make a dent in my recovery. My bone would not heal, the pain was constant and my biggest fear with MS, which was not being able to walk, had come true. The difference between my hip problem and the MS diagnosis is that with the MS I started to get better almost as soon as I cleaned up my diet and with the hip nothing I did seemed to make a dent in my recovery.
Keep in mind, with the MS I had the Swank Diet Book to follow and I knew research proved it had worked for other MS patients. As I mentioned earlier, just like the 4 minute mile, reading the Swank book and knowing that others had successfully managed the disease with diet gave me tremendous hope. As soon as I started to change my diet and lifestyle I saw almost immediate improvement, so it was easy to stay motivated and stay hopeful. But a femoral osteotomy is a very rare surgery (according to my surgeon husband, at the time there were only two surgeons in the country that he would even consider allowing to do my surgery) and so unlike with the MS, my orthopedic surgeon was not able to give me a book like the Swank Diet Book that outlined a roadmap for how I could recover. To make matters worse, I didn’t know a single person who had undergone the same surgery and had also made a complete recovery.
Around the time I was quickly losing hope, I joined an online support group where everything went from bad to worse. Everyone online was complaining of the same excruciating pain and if anybody had actually recovered they must have already left the group (I quickly exited the “support group”.) And to make matters worse than worse, I was doing EVERYTHING I could think of to heal, including two full hours of rehab a day, and making zero progress. My bone simply would not heal and the pain would not subside. For six very long and agonizing months I did not know whether I would ever walk normally or if I would ever be out of pain. Without a doubt, the hip ordeal was the biggest life hurdle I have had to face. And unlike recovering from MS, I did NOT sail over the hurdle with grace.
I don’t think I could have sunk any lower than I did following the hip surgery. While my hope diminished with each passing day, I thank God for the love and support I had from my incredible husband and family. My husband was a saint and had it not been for him standing by my side every step (or non step!) of the way I don’t know how I would have found the strength to endure it all. And trust me, I know people go through far worse, but as I mentioned in part 2 of my MS story, I wasn’t nearly as strong as I always wanted to appear. I am beyond embarrassed and very ashamed to admit that I became addicted to pain pills after the surgery. And even though I always try to do everything naturally, I didn’t have the tools to cope with how down I felt and soon I added an anti-depressant to the mix. Just like the lyrics in the Toad the Wet Sprocket song that I talk about below say, “truth is not kind”, and the truth is I just didn’t know how to cope.
Back to the 4 Minute Mile
But just like the 4-minute mile phenomenon I discussed earlier in my story, my hip ordeal turned the corner when I met someone who made me believe I could get better. One day at physical therapy I met a friend, Mike Gibbs, founder of Elite Fitness Now, whose story of rehabilitation from a horrific foot injury gave me tremendous hope. I will never forget the day I met Mike because I was definitely at one of my lowest points ever. Besides the fact that I had lost a lot of weight from the surgery, I was sitting slumped over on the rehab table looking anything but happy or healthy the day I first met Mike. I will never forget how he walked up and asked in a very matter of fact tone, “Is this how you always look?” I was totally taken aback by the comment and almost burst into tears as I explained to him that I was just having a really bad day. He seemed to understand exactly what I was going through without me having to say another word. He had clearly been there before.
Mike was a nurse practitioner who was incredibly knowledgeable about orthopedic rehabilitation and he introduced me to a very unique workout protocol (that involved very heavy weight training) coupled with a super short course of anabolic steroids and a bone-building medicine called forteo that I took for just 2 months. His protocol is the only thing that started to move the needle for me. As soon as I started to make just a teensy bit of progress with his regimen, I had hope. And having hope changed everything.
Hope propelled me to work harder than I ever have in my entire life to regain the full use of my hip. I honestly did not even know I had it in me to work as hard as I did and I know now I could not have endured it all had I once again not BELIEVED that I could get better (if you recall from part 1 of my MS story, believing I could get better played a critical role in my recovery from day 1.) Mike made me believe that it was entirely possible that I would regain normal use of my hip. In fact! Although it is a non-impact routine, I filmed my Full Fitness Fusion workout just a few weeks after I started walking again.
And now the relevant and also highly embarrassing and shameful part of my story….I was still very much addicted to pain pills and still on antidepressants when I filmed my workout video. I still had pain when I filmed the video, but certainly not enough to be on the amount of pain pills I was taking. I have never been addicted to anything before in my life, but I now see exactly how it happens. I had taken a number of different pain pills in the past for short periods of time following surgery for my wisdom teeth, two hernias, appendicitis, first hip surgery, tonsillectomy, etc. but none of them made me feel great so getting off of them was easy once the acute surgical pain subsided. The pain medication they gave me for my hip was different though.
The pain pill I was prescribed after my second hip surgery was Nucynta. It was supposed to be targeted to bone pain and supposedly was considerably less addictive than the other narcotics. But just like athlete/ author Rich Roll describes his first experience with alcohol in his book “Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself”, I knew 30 minutes after my first Nucynta prescription kicked in that I was in trouble. I say that because Nucynta did for me what Rich Roll says in his book that alcohol did for him. Nucynta made me feel better than I had ever felt in my entire life —it not only took away my pain, it also took away my worries, fears and anxiety and simultaneously boosted my mood. I now realize Nucynta was a band aid over the broken soul that played a major factor in why I got sick in the first place. In a nutshell, Nucynta filled a void that nothing else ever had. It was a recipe for disaster because I was addicted pretty much right away. And just like Rich Roll, I knew it too. I knew from the moment Nucynta kicked in that it was going to be a problem and yet I felt powerless to control it.
I realize this is not the blog post to dive deep into what causes addiction, but if you or a loved one has ever dealt with addiction I strongly encourage you to listen to NY Times bestselling author Johann Hari’s TED Talk on addiction. I have no doubt it will radically change the way you look at addiction and the way you think it should be treated.
In so many ways, when the reality hit that I knew I was instantly addicted to Nucynta, I remember justifying it all by saying I felt I deserved to feel good for a little while. That was actually the thought that crossed my mind. It was almost like there were two of me talking to each other: one of me was the **mother** who was telling her kid it’s not good to eat candy even if the candy tastes good and the other one of me was the immature **kid** who kept pleading “just this once.”
I see now exactly how addictions begin. The substance of choice eases a deep rooted pain that has probably existed on some level for years, if not decades, and the person just reasons that they have been through enough pain and trauma that it’s ok to feel good just this once. I don’t believe addicts are intrinsically bad people, I think they are in pain and simply looking for relief. That was me, I had experienced so much physical and emotional pain that I just wanted relief and I was instantly addicted to the substance that gave it to me.
If It Happened to Me, It Can Happen to Anyone
Again, I don’t believe in coincidences and so I don’t believe my pain pill addiction happened without a purpose. I believe ALL of our life challenges happen for a reason and, if we take the time to really examine the challenge from many different angles, I believe we will always discover a hidden lesson. Had it not been for my congenital hip disorder I would have never needed to take the pain pills in the first place but had it not been for the pain pills, as you will read below, I would have never discovered plant medicine. And yet, it was my discovery of plant medicine that took me on a “next level wellness” soul healing spiritual journey that I now realize I desperately needed from the very beginning. Let me try to explain….
First of all, my heart goes out to anyone who struggles with addiction alone, and sadly, I know a lot of people do. Just like with the MS, I was once again incredibly lucky to have my husband’s love, help and full support with my addiction nightmare. Although Andy was adamant that I needed to get off the pain pills, he also had a complete understanding for how I got in the situation in the first place and so he didn’t blame me or make me feel guilty. I can’t even imagine the pain and shame so many addicts must feel because the reality is the public in general is not sympathetic to addicts. In fact, a very big part of the reason I am sharing my addiction story is because if it can happen to me it can happen to just about anyone. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I hid my problems from everyone. Addiction is a terribly lonely and shameful world to live in, that I know first hand. But I also know I am not doing anyone any favors by hiding my story and pretending I was stronger than I was.
Let me frank, it was pretty much impossible for me to get off pain pills by myself. Every time I tried to reduce the dosage I felt ill. To make matters worse, the pills were no longer having an effect and were not making me feel good anymore. I was so dependent on them that I needed them just to function and not feel sick. Anyone who has ever battled addiction knows the scenario all too well.
A Natural Pain Killer (that Works)
To this day I am not sure how I would have weaned myself off the pain pills had it not been for my husband researching a plant medicine called kratom. If you Google kratom you’ll see there’s a significant amount of controversy surrounding it, but let me just say this, kratom is what enabled me to get off the pain pills more or less immediately. The day I took kratom was the last day I ever took (and ever will take!) another pain pill.
What is Kratom?
Kratom, scientifically named Mitragyna speciosa, is a tropical tree in the coffee family that is native to parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. The kratom herb has been valued in traditional medicine since the 19th century, and today it is used for pain relief, to self-treat drug addiction, and to ease drug withdrawal symptoms. Kratom is NOT an opiate, but it does contain several substances that bind to opiate receptors and block pain. Like coffee, tea, and other caffeinated drinks, kratom users can develop a dependency on kratom, which is vastly different from an addiction. Anyone who drinks coffee regularly knows it’s not fun to suddenly stop drinking it. But unlike prescription pain pills, even if you are dependent on coffee it’s still entirely doable to stop drinking it without having to go to a rehab center to “detox”. If it were not for kratom, I am almost certain I would have needed professional intervention to stop the pain pills. Stopping pain pills cold turkey wasn’t an option for me because I simply couldn’t function feeling so ill from withdrawal symptoms.
Although I still believe it is safer to use medical marijuana for severe pain management rather than kratom, I simply did not know about medical marijuana as an option when I was going through my pain and addiction crisis. Also, please know I’m not sharing my kratom story to encourage you to start using kratom, I’m sharing it, in part, to help break the stigma of addiction and also to point out that the medical community has a long way to go on many different health issues and pain management is one area they are failing the patients tremendously. I realize pain management needs to be taken seriously and needs to be addressed, but the point is natural substances DO exist that can be safely used (in reasonable quantities) in place of prescription pain killers.
The Importance of Pain Management in Healing
I should also emphasize that I am not against controlling pain with medication either. I realize that pain management is an essential component to healing and critically important to maintaining the inner strength to push through rehab. However, I wish I had known about the benefits of medical marijuana for pain management back in 2012. I am certain I would have still used the morphine in the week following my surgery, but had I known what I know now about medical marijuana, I would have tried it first before jumping right to the pain pills at home. Although I don’t know for certain, I am pretty sure I could have controlled the pain with medical marijuana alone. And for what it is worth, if the marijuana wasn’t enough to help the pain, I would have added kratom before going to prescription pain pills.
Plant Medicine & Shamanism
Going back to my belief that there are no coincidences, it was my pain pill addiction and the discovery of kratom that eventually set me on my spiritual path. It’s a long story, but I will continue to try and explain…
If it were not for discovering kratom I would have never started my research on additional plant medicines and I would have never ended up trekking down to Costa Rica to work with a shaman. A shaman is a spiritual healer often referred to as a medicine man/ woman. Shamans believe that all problems, physical, emotional or mental have their roots in spiritual imbalance. If you are not familiar with what a shaman is, I encourage you to read this article in Prevention magazine.
The thing is, I wasn’t necessarily going to Costa Rica for a spiritual purpose. I was going because I had started to read in medical journals how the plant medicines the shamans gave could help “reset” neurotransmitters and even cure depression, anxiety and PTSD. Then I saw the documentary “The Reality of Truth” with Deepak Chopra and other well respected scientists and doctors talking about how plant medicine was being used to heal depression and my hopes soared. Although I knew from watching the documentary and from my extensive research that plant medicine (specifically the “grandmother” plant, ayahuasca) could provide a spiritual experience, I was simply going after a neurotransmitter reboot. It’s not that I was opposed to a spiritual experience by any means, it’s just that I couldn’t possibly fathom how a plant of any sort could offer such a thing. Furthermore, I didn’t initially understand how a spiritual experience could be an integral component of healing.
I was so uninformed on plant medicine that I even had a difficult time understanding why a shaman would need to be involved in the whole thing in the first place. In my mind, I was going after a neurotransmitter “reset”, so adding in a shaman just seemed silly. Well, it’s not silly now. If you are working with plant medicine you absolutely and positively need either a shaman or someone very skilled at working with the medicine by your side. Period. But I had absolutely no real way of knowing that the five ayahuasca ceremonies I would participate in over my week’s stay in Costa Rica would give me far more than a neurotransmitter reboot. I had no way of knowing that my next journey had just begun…
My Spiritual Path Starts
If you have been following Clean Cuisine for a while, you may recall the two blog posts I wrote after returning from Costa Rica in 2016. It was my trip to Costa Rica that started me on my spiritual healing path. My hip was more or less healed by the time I made my trek down to Costa Rica and my pain pill nightmare was a distant memory. But I still had a serious “leftover” problem from the hip surgery. I was still addicted to anti-depressants. And yes, I am going to use the word addicted because according to the ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), addiction is characterized by an inability to consistently abstain, impairment of behavioral control, cravings, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships. I experienced all of this. Taking certain plant medicines is contraindicated if you are on an anti-depressant, so by the time I made it to Costa Rica I was not taking the anti-depressant anymore but I was absolutely not feeling well either.
The antidepressant I was taking, Cymbalta, was supposed to help with both the hip pain and the depression I had following the surgery and I admit it did work for the first month but then I needed to increase the dose to get the same effect on the second month. When the third month rolled around I knew I was in trouble. Just like with the pain pills, I knew I would have to increase the dose yet again to get the same effect. I made the decision to not increase the dose the third time but that didn’t prevent Cymbalta from being a serious problem for me. (Note: Please know I do not have a firm opinion on how anti-depressants should be used because I know they can sometimes save lives. The truth is whether it was placebo or not, Cymbalta did get me out of a terrible depression very quickly. So, the last thing I want to do is make someone feel guilty or weak for reaching out to mainstream medicine for something as potentially life threatening as a serious depression episode. But what I am saying is that maybe the anti-depressants should only be taken for a short time and during that time period maybe the patient should use it as a window of opportunity to make lifestyle changes that have been proven to help ease depression. In other words, had I started meditation, mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc. and only taken the Cymbalta for a short duration maybe I would have had a different, and better outcome? I am in complete agreement with holistic psychiatrist, Kelly Brogan, M.D., that anti-depressants should not be used long-term. For the record, Brogan does not believe anti-depressants should be used at all. I don’t have enough experience to say I can agree with her. But then again, she’s the doctor.)
Over the course of the months I took Cymbalta I had a number of different negative side effects, including an inability to really feel anything good or bad. I can best describe it as feeling numb. My motivation diminished. My feeling of connectedness to others and even my own sense of self diminished. I no longer could even cry. By the way, crying is one of the body’s natural ways to release endorphins, heal, reduce stress hormones and so much more. In other words, if you can’t cry that’s a problem right there. And of course it’s never a great boost to a marriage when one partner has zero sex drive. Loss of sexual interest is a major side effect of many anti-depressants. Even worse, I just didn’t really care about much at all, which is the exact opposite of how I am naturally when I am Cymbalta-free. Looking back, I think the worst part of all is that I also had serious withdrawal symptoms from trying to stop Cymbalta, including lightning bolt brain zaps that would happen every time I turned my head.
For what it is worth, in my book severe withdrawal symptoms are a definitive sign of an addiction. The medical community likes to call antidepressant withdrawal “discontinuation syndrome”. Side effects related to stopping anti-depressants are a well known complication, but for whatever reason the medical community doesn’t like to call a spade a spade. If you can’t stop taking a substance without having side effects, isn’t that an addiction? To put it another way, I had just as much trouble stopping the anti-depressant Cymbalta as I did stopping the pain pill Nucynta. In fact, it was more difficult for me to wean off the Cymbalta.
But again, everything happens for a reason. I don’t regret my Cymbalta ordeal because the struggle I had to stop them is what opened my mind to plant medicine and soul-healing spirituality.
NOTE: If you are currently taking or have ever taken an antidepressant you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of “Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Cause of Depression –and the Unexpected Solutions”, by Johann Hari. I would not only just pick up a copy, I wouldn’t do anything else until I read chapter 1: The Wand. Just read that chapter and you will never look at your anti-depressant medicine the same again. That might be scary to hear and you might not want to read the truth, but please read it and read the facts about the pharmaceutical industry. Know the truth and then make up your mind, but at least know the truth.
New York Times bestselling author Michael Pollan had not yet published his most recent book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence when I made my trek down to Costa Rica a few years back. (Note: if you do not know who Michael Pollan is it is worth reading his Wikipedia profile to give you a sense of his credibility as a journalist.) But thanks to my experience with kratom, my mind had been opened to the possibility that plant medicine (and maybe even psychedelics?) might help “reset” my brain and allow me to overcome my dependency on anti-depressants. After all, a plant-rich diet had done wonders for keeping my MS symptoms under control for years, why wouldn’t plant medicines have additional benefits?
“Whether You Think You Can or You Think You Can’t, You are Right”—Henry Ford
The more I researched the potential healing benefits of plant medicine, the more my interest was piqued. I had not yet heard of The Sacred Science documentary either, but just like the patients profiled in the film, I wanted one thing: I wanted to heal my body and mind naturally. And just like with the diet for MS, I believed I could do so. In fact, one of the greatest lessons I have learned from working with plant medicine is that the mind is far more powerful than you can even imagine.
“If You Don’t Go Through Life With an Open Mind, You Will Find a Lot of Closed Doors”—-Mark W. Perrett
Moving forward with my plant medicine research, I was keeping a very open mind, mostly because I knew the kratom had been a lifesaver for me. Then I stumbled on Reset.Me, a community for independent consciousness journalism. Wow. After reading the research and countless success stories from people who had used plant medicine and psychedelics to heal from a wide variety of mental health issues (including the most common; anxiety, PTSD and depression), my belief that it could work became a knowing. I just knew plant medicine would work for me too.
Let me also say here that making the trek to Costa Rica to work with a shaman and plant medicine required an incredible amount of trust in myself and my own research. I say that because other than my husband, very few people were initially supportive of me making the trip. In the past, I was a serious people pleaser and it took a lot of inner strength to think for myself and make a stance that I trusted my own research and that I knew what was right for me. The most frustrating of all were the people who gave opinions who didn’t know how to do academic research and who warned of potential cognitive impairment that simply contradicted everything that is in the academic journals regarding the neuroprotective benefits of plant medicine and psychedelics in general.
Since returning from Costa Rica, I have hardly “lost my mind”, instead I published my fifth and best / most creative book yet. If anything, plant medicine had tremendous benefits for improving my brain function and creativity (I talk more about how plant medicine offer neuroprotection and can actually improve brain health in this blog post: Can an Ayahuasca Experience Make Your Brain Younger?) The saddest thing is, the people who need plant medicine the most and who are the most unhappy and “stuck” in their lives are the ones who are most closed minded to using it. Please know I say that not because I am trying to put anyone down, but because I am trying to point out that by having a closed mind, you limit your world tremendously. Maybe with well respected journalists like Michael Pollan writing about the subject people will begin to be more open minded? Because the sad reality is that across most generations, genders and demographics in the United States, addiction, anxiety and depression are all on the rise and conventional methods are simply not solving the problem.
On Reset.Me, you’ll read story after story of everyday people who have healed their minds, bodies and souls with natural plant medicines. Even the founder of Reset.Me, Amber Lyon, a former CNN reporter, had her own healing success story. Disillusioned with unethical reporting in the media and suffering from PTSD symptoms after covering violent conflicts and environmental disasters, Lyon decided to leave CNN and embark on a plant medicine facilitated journey of self discovery and soul healing. Lyon’s journey took her around the world to investigate the healing powers of plant medicines like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms and led to a profound personal transformation that inspired her to start Reset.Me.
By the way, if you or someone you know suffers from PTSD, it is most definitely worth reading Amber’s story HERE. I have since witnessed firsthand how incredibly therapeutic and healing plant medicine can be for PTSD. In one plant medicine ceremony I watched a young Afghanistan veteran reclaim his life and forgive himself for the lives he was forced to take. NO PILL on earth can ever or will ever offer that level of soul healing. I believe God made these plants available to help us heal. They are beyond anything man could possibly create. In my opinion, the plants are God’s medicine. And for all practical purposes they are free.
Trust me, I realize the discussion of plant medicine might seem way out in left field for many of you, but the fact someone of Michael Pollan’s status has started writing about the science behind the subject should give you some sense of reassurance that this is an area that most definitely warrants further investigation. And that’s exactly what is happening, modern medicine is starting to investigate the benefits of plant medicine. In addition to prestigious publications such as the New York Times and Huffington Post covering the subject of shamanism and plant medicine with more frequency, legitimate research on plant medicine has been, and continues to be, published in mainstream medical journals. In fact, prior to making my trip to Costa Rica, I spent a good portion of my time researching plant medicine on PubMed, including reading the following articles:
- Rapid Antidepressant Effects of the Psychedelic Ayahuasca in Treatment-Resistant Depression: A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial
- The Therapeutic Potentials of Ayahuasca: Possible Effects against Various Diseases of Civilization
- Sub-Acute and Long-Term Effects of Ayahuasca on Affect and Cognitive Thinking Style and Their Association With Ego Dissolution
- Ayahuasca: An ancient sacrament for treatment of contemporary psychiatric illness?
- Assessing the Psychedelic “After-Glow” in Ayahuasca Users: Post-Acute Neurometabolic and Functional Connectivity Changes Are Associated with Enhanced Mindfulness Capacities
- Four Weekly Ayahuasca Sessions Lead to Increases in “Acceptance” Capacities: A Comparison Study With a Standard 8-Week Mindfulness Training Program
- Assessment of Alcohol and Tobacco Use Disorders Among Religious Users of Ayahuasca
If you are not accustomed to reading academic research studies, the links above might be a bit challenging to read, but I am sharing them only to show that legitimate research on plant medicine is being done and the results are being published in mainstream medical journals.
This shouldn’t be a surprise considering nearly half of all pharmaceuticals now in use were originally derived from plants. Perhaps the most famous example is aspirin, which evolved from a compound found in the bark and leaves of the willow tree and was later marketed by Bayer starting in 1899. Long before big Pharma, plant medicines stood the test of time for healing an incredibly vast array of conditions.
It only takes watching one episode of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s documentary series on CNN, “Chasing Life”, to realize that a world of healing modalities exist far beyond mainstream medicine. In “Chasing Life,” Gupta travels around the world to find where people live longer, happier and more functional lives than anywhere else on the planet. And yes, plant medicines play an integral role in healing in many parts of the world (Note: My husband and I found Gupta’s travels to India and Turkey particularly fascinating.)
It’s also worth pointing out that in a recent special mental health issue of TIME magazine that journalist Alexandra Sifferlin reported on the results of two incredibly promising plant medicine studies published simultaneously in the Journal of Pscychopharmacology conducted by researchers at New York University and Johns Hopkins. The doctors revealed that just one single dose of psilocybin, a compiound found in “magic mushrooms”, can easy anxiety and depression in cancer patients for up to six months. The results were truly remarkable: 60% to 80% of the subjects reported reductions in their depression and anxiety symptoms that lasted six months after the treatment. In the article, Lisa Callaghan discloses that her late husband, former TV-news director Patrick Mettes, was in the NYU trial. Mettes eventually died from cancer of the bile duct, but Lisa stated that undergoing the trial gave him a tremendous sense of peace. According to Lisa, “He was reborn into this place of personal and universal love. He said he felt it all around him, and he felt a sense of forgiveness too.” I know from personal experience that this is in fact what happens. And again, from the bottom of my heart, I really do believe these plant medicines are God’s gift to us all. The plants help us see the truth and they help us see what really matters most.
Anyway, back to me and my story…
How I Used Plant Medicine to Heal My Body, Mind and Soul
I don’t know of a single pharmaceutical that can address the body, mind and soul, but that’s exactly what plant medicine did for me. Again, I realize plant medicine is not going to be for everyone, but for some people, it can absolutely be life changing. It changed my life. And in the several years since I started my plant medicine/ spiritual journey, I have watched it do the same for many others.
To tell the full story of my plant medicine experience in Costa Rica would require another blog post that would be twice the length of this one. Let me try to condense it…
My Ayahuasca Journeys
As I wrote about on the blog, a few years ago my husband and I spent a full week working with several different shamans and the plant medicine ayahuasca in Costa Rica at Rythmia Life Advancement Center. Rythmia is actually a licensed medical center that fuses ancient wisdom, plant medicine and modern techniques to facilitate mind, body and soul healing. I did a tremendous amount of research into plant medicine prior to trekking down to Rythmia and although I had heard about the spiritual experiences people had using plant medicine, as I mentioned above, it was hard for me wrap my hands around how a spiritual experience could be possible, much less purposeful. Again, all I wanted to do was break my dependency to the anti-depressant Cymbalta and to “reset” my brain after having been on pain pills following my hip surgery for an extended period of time. I was also feeling in a less than enthusiastic mid-life slump and from what I had read plant medicine journeys were helpful for that too. The plant medicine ayahuasca is contraindicated if you are taking an anti-depressant so by the time I arrived in Costa Rica I had weaned myself off the Cymbalta but I still did not feel like “me.” I was still very much in need of a “reset”.
Although I didn’t share everything that happened at Rythmia, I did share a lot about my plant medicine experience working with ayahuasca in the following two blog posts:
- My Ayahuasca Ceremony at Rythmia in Costa Rica (NOTE: This blog discusses the logistics of a tradititional ayahuasca plant medicine ceremony, including the role of the shaman/ medicine man.)
- Can an Ayahuasca Experience Make Your Brain Younger? (NOTE: This blog post focuses more on the science behind ayahusaca and how it can create new neural pathways and help to “reset” the brain.)
Please know I thought long and hard before sharing the plant medicine component of my healing journey, mostly because I did not want to face the judgement or criticism of people who might think the whole thing sounds far out or weird. Another reason I held back was because I wanted enough time to pass to make sure I didn’t have any negative consequences. Now that it has been almost three years and now that I have participated in a number of additional plant medicine ceremonies, I can say with confidence that not only did I not have any negative side effects, the plant medicine really did heal me on a level I didn’t even know I needed.
In so many ways, my ayahuasca experience helped me return to my younger, happier self all while preserving the wisdom and knowledge I have acquired as an adult. My ayahuasca experiences simply helped me see things from a completely different perspective and in a whole new light. It’s as though they removed a clouded veil I had been wearing and allowed me to see the world from a fresh new perspective.
Part of the reason why plant medicines and psychedelics are neuroprotective is because they create new neural pathways. Patients who suffer from depression and post-traumatic-stress-disorder tend to have impaired neurogenesis and neuroplasticity – their brain cells grow more slowly and are less adaptable and less flexible. Part of the reason older people become “set in their ways” is literally because their brains become less flexible. These structural changes can lead to atrophy of various brain regions, including the hippocampus (which is involved in learning and memory) and the prefrontal cortex (which mediates personality and decision-making). In a nutshell, psychedelics and plant medicines help promote and grow a healthier, more creative and happier brain.
Again, I was interested in working with psychedelic plant medicines because I knew they could create positive physical changes within my brain. I had no way of knowing how much more they were capable of doing, much less did I really realize how much more help I truly needed….
The concept of “soul healing” was somewhat foreign to me prior to my plant medicine experience at Rythmia, but even after just the first night I began to understand that spirituality was an important component to healing the body. Why? Because I now KNOW you cannot separate the mind from the body. I know it might sound crazy to say this, but the ayahuasca gave me an inner “knowing” that the mind and body are intimately connected. I now have what I will call an inner “knowing” that the reason I got addicted to the pain pills and antidepressants in the first place was because I had a void that needed to be filled. I will even go so far as to say that I believe all addictions can be traced back to a wounded or broken soul.
Based on my experience, the only way to wound a broken soul is with a spiritual foundation. Now I understand why spirituality is such a large part of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program (For what it is worth, the psychedelic LSD helped Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, so much that LSD almost became the 13th step. I’m not joking.)
20 Years of Therapy In One Night
If you have read about ayahuasca you may have heard that one night of an ayahuasca ceremony can be the equivalent of 20 years of psychotherapy. Before I tell you this is true let me preface it by saying that doing ayahuasca is NOT easy therapy. Nothing about ayahuasca is easy (This fact plays a role in the reason why ayahuasca is not addictive. And believe it or not, not only is ayahuasca not addictive, it is actually acknowledged to be a highly effective treatment for addiction. For what it is worth, I have also witnessed firsthand addicts heal their addictions in one single night.) But the truth is, ayahuasca requires a tremendous amount of active participation in your own healing process. And yet, if you are willing to put in the work then yes, it is true what they say. One night of ayahuasca really can be like 20 years of therapy. Having said that, looking back I now believe I should have had more preparation going into it because I really had no idea what to expect and because of that it took me about a year after returning from Costa Rica to fully integrate what I had learned over the course of the week retreat (Note: I participated in five ayahuasca ceremonies over the course of a one week period.)
When I say I was not properly prepared for the ayahuasca ceremonies, what I mean is that going into it I didn’t understand how a plant medicine could provide insight that would be the equivalent of psychotherapy. The concept of how that could work was completely foreign to me. To complicate matters more, I actually didn’t even think I needed a therapist. As mentioned above, I thought I simply needed a neurotransmitter “reset”. And so that’s where things got very interesting for me…
You Are Your Own Best Therapist
The best way for me to describe ayahuasca to someone who has not done it is that it is like a very loving but brutally honest teacher plant that sits you down and tells you the truth, whether you want to hear it or not. The fact that you might not want to hear what the honest teacher plant has to say is part of the reason anyone who has worked with ayahuasca will tell you an ayahuasca ceremony is “work”. In other words, doing ayahuasca is not fun. Taking a truth serum and seeing yourself is not always easy. Truth is not always kind. Ayahuasca showed me I had deep rooted issues that I had hid from not only the world, but also myself. And just like Gabor Mate, M.D. describes in his research, I now believe those unresolved issues left an “emotional footprint” that was a contributing factor to why I developed MS in the first place. You cannot separate the mind, body and soul.
“The Truth Will Set You Free” John 8:31-32
But nothing worth having ever comes easy, and that certainly applies to the life review journey ayahuasca can take you on. Although it is true you are in an altered state of consciousness, very similar to how you might feel in a dream, you are still very much aware and awake with ayahuasca. You are very much awake and able to remember. There are so many misconceptions about what an ayahuasca journey is like, but if you haven’t done it then the best way for me to describe it is that you are in a lucid dreamlike state in which you are also fully “present” for. Unlike with alcohol, where you go “out of your mind”, ayahuasca takes you on a deep dive within your inner consciousness, or your soul. In fact, the name ayahuasca literally means “vine of the soul”. If you don’t know who you are, ayahuasca will show you, and that absolutely can be hard work, especially if you have allowed life circumstances to mold you into someone you are not. Again, the truth is not always kind. But I will say, having done ayahuasca, I have a whole new level of understanding of the meaning of the Bible statement in John 8:31-32: “The truth will set you free.” Indeed it will. Ayahuasca enables you to see the truth, the truth about who you are, the truth about what matters most in life (it’s people, not material things) and the truth that we are all connected. Once you experience what Patrick Mettes described above, the truth of universal love, you will forever be changed. It is not a guarantee that you will get this experience from your first one or two sessions with ayahuasca, but eventually just about everyone who works with this plant medicine comes to the same realization and discovers the same transformative truth.
Back in Time
One of the things ayahuasca can do is help you go back in time and relive a memory as though it was happening all over again. I realize this can sound terrifying, especially if you think you might be revisiting an earlier traumatic life event, but it is actually incredibly therapeutic and healing to revisit those dark times. The reason being, when you revisit an earlier traumatic event you can relive the experience from a completely different perspective. This is one of the reasons why ayahuasca has been shown to be so healing for those suffering from PTSD. The founder and executive director of the legendary Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Rick Doblin PhD explains more about how plant medicine can help you heal from a traumatic event in this fascinating Goop Podcast: How to Change Your Relationship Your Memories .But basically, when you revisit a trauma from a different life perspective, you not only can help heal the emotional wounds the trauma caused and help to “unblock” the emotional blockages, you can also see how that trauma has impacted your life, which then helps you gain a very deep understanding of where some of your most deep rooted problems originated from. And yes, I believe we ALL have deep rooted issues, especially those of us who develop autoimmune diseases. As I mentioned earlier, it is my opinion that some form of emotional stress is a definite factor in “turning on” the MS gene. I don’t think its the only factor, but I do think it’s a factor.
Even if our issues are not our own, the reality is genetic trauma does exist. I realize it might be difficult to understand the concept of genetic trauma, but reading the Cherry Blossom Mouse Study helps explain the science of how trauma can be passed down through the generations. In other words, even if a terrifying event did not happen to you directly, if it happened to one of your parents or even to your grandparents, then that trauma is trapped within you as a stored negative emotion. And I can say with certainty that stored negative emotions are a contributing factor to whether you have a strong or weak immune system.
The good news is, once you identify the trauma and identify the stored negative emotion (fear, anger, guilt, terror, etc.), you can understand the emotion from a whole new perspective. And I know this is taking things a step further, but you can eventually get to a place where you can make peace with the trauma and even have gratitude for how it has shaped your life. Because all trauma does shape our life in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean it has to all be bad. I believe pain is transformative and that we can always find a lesson and an opportunity for growth in our struggles. I really do believe that.
Many times we “block out” a trauma, especially if it occurred in early childhood. However, those traumas are never forgotten within your body, mind or soul. Ayahuasca makes you very aware that everything that happens to you that causes an emotional response, whether that emotional response was a positive one or a negative one, leaves a footprint. Nothing that happens to you is ever truly forgotten. Your body and your soul remember forever. Ayahuasca helps your mind remember. And then it helps you heal on a very deep level.
Another incredibly powerful and healing component of ayahuasca is that it enables you to feel and understand another person’s pain. This can be particularly therapeutic and healing if it is a person who is responsible for your trauma. For example, if you were sexually abused as a child, ayahuasca can help you understand where the pain from your abuser came from. Once you understand someone else’s pain, you can forgive them so much easier. And just like the Bible says, forgiveness and healing go hand in hand. One thing is for certain, ayahuasca will enable you to forgive and that alone takes healing to a whole new level.
Ayahuasca Helped Me Understand the Origin of My Problems
Each ayahuasca journey is completely different. I can’t even fully put into words how different one ayahuasca journey can be from another, but try for a moment to imagine how different one vacation can be from another. For example, a vacation to Israel would be different on every level imaginable from a vacation to London. While you might call both trips a vacation, they would be nothing at all alike. The same is true for an ayahuasca journey.
It was on one of my ayahuasca journeys where I was able to revisit my 15 year old self and relive and reevaluate that dark period of time that I talked about in part 1 of my MS story. No, it was not easy and it certainly wasn’t fun, but it was incredibly therapeutic. Ayahuasca acts as a time traveler, where you can go back and vividly remember what was happening in your life and, most importantly, how you felt at that time in your life.
Please understand that what I am about to say is my own truth, I’m not saying that what I discovered about my own issues will be true for everyone who has ever suffered with depression, but I know with certainty that it is my own truth. For almost thirty years I have tried to understand exactly what went wrong with my 15-year old self, but I could never fully remember how I felt or how it all began in the first place. Ayahuasca helped me remember. Vividly.
Once I was able to go back and relive what I felt like at 15 years old from my 43-year old adult perspective, I was able to see very clearly what went wrong. Unlike what I had been led to believe by mainstream medicine all of these years, I know now there was never anything fundamentally wrong with my brain. Instead, my ayahuasca journey showed me that it was an existential depression caused by my realization at 15 years old that in order to be accepted in our society I would have to act, look and be a certain way. I simply didn’t feel I could measure up to societal expectations and I felt lost and scared. Remembering what it felt like to be living a life that was beyond my control, I was also able to remember the one thing that gave me a sense of security and some semblance of control: restricting my food intake. For all of these years I knew that I never fit the full criteria for being diagnosed with classic anorexia because I was not intentionally trying to lose weight and I didn’t think I looked overweight. My vision was not distorted when I looked in the mirror. I knew I did not look good. Instead, the extreme weight loss was a side effect of the underlying real problem. The real problem was that at 15 years old I was no longer a child and I suddenly had a new perspective of the world I lived in and a feeling that I not only didn’t fit into this new world, but that there wasn’t much I could do about it either. Ayahuasca helped me remember exactly how I felt before I stopped eating and it helped me remember what I felt like when I restricted my food intake, I felt in control. Not eating while simultaneously feeling in control is a potentially deadly combination.
It was a vicious cycle, but the ayahuasca showed me that the lack of food and nutrients really did eventually affect my brain function as things progressed. In other words, what started out as a vicious cycle of negative thinking eventually morphed into a real cognitive issue as my brain was literally starved for nutrients. And of course now that I have such an in depth understanding of how food affects mood and brain function, I can see that once I stopped eating my issues were compounded by the fact that inadequate nutrition can cause legitimate symptoms of depression. But what I now know for sure is that there was never anything fundamentally wrong with my brain in the first place. It has been incredibly beneficial for me to finally make peace with, understand and even be grateful for the turbulence in my high school years. But again, I am grateful for the struggle. The struggles were real but they happened for a reason.
In life, one thing really does lead to another….I believe each life struggle helps you climb higher and higher up the “spiritual ladder”; you reach the top enlightened level when you finally can detach from material forms, including your own ego. Trust me, I would have NEVER have been able to talk about my personal struggles so openly as I am doing now in the past because my ego would have prevented me from doing so. But once you detach from your ego and once you realize that the soul is really the only thing that lives on and that all other material things in life are just temporary, you can set your soul free. As you will read below, there is a very special song to me that has the lyrics, “Nothing so cold as closing the heart when all we want is to free the soul.” —I believe the sickening increase in degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease and autoimmune diseases that is happening in this country have a direct correlation to the fact that not very many people living the “American Dream” are really living with free souls. Rather, they are living with balls and chains around their ankles as they frantically try to keep up with the Joneses and pay their mortgage, drive their fancy cars, buy their designer clothes, go on fancier vacations than their Facebook “friends”, send their kids to the best colleges, etc. The point is, most adults in this country are not living lives of free souls, they are living lives society has told them to lead and lives that society has told them will make them happy. Eventually, the mind and then the body catch up with the soul though. And when that happens, I believe if you are not living a life in synch with your soul that illness kicks in…
When the Body Says “No”
While it’s difficult to describe if you have not worked with ayahuasca, one way to describe it is both a time traveler and a truth serum all in one. You would be blown away with what you remember and what is tucked deep inside your subconscious. As I mentioned above, all of our life experiences are remembered and stored deep within. Ayahuasca shows you very clearly how those experiences not only shape your personality, but even play a role in your health and wellbeing later in life.
I now know for sure that the issues I had as a teenager were not caused by something fundamentally wrong with my brain. Instead, they started with thoughts and perceptions about the world I lived in and how I felt lost and separate from it. I feel confident in saying I had an existential depression rather than a clinical one. And those feelings of separateness and inadequacy did not mend simply because I returned to a healthy weight. Just like an addict who simply stops using but does not address the underlying problem, those feelings and issues were deep rooted within me. Although I hid them well for years they resurfaced at the age of twenty two, this time in the form of multiple sclerosis. So yes, what I am saying is that I absolutely believe my multiple sclerosis diagnosis happened, in part, because of stored negative emotions that had not been resolved from the issues I had as a teenager. Just like the brilliant Gabor Mate, MD, describes in his book, “When the Body Says NO: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection”, I believe my unresolved internal stress was a major contributing factor to why I got so sick at twenty two years old.
For what it is worth, what ayahuasca taught me about my own mental health struggles has made me believe that the rise in teenage depression and suicide has more to do with society than anything else. I know I am not alone in my thoughts on this. A recent study finds that over the past decade the number of youth with mental health disorders has more than doubled. This particular study examined data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which has collected data on drug and alcohol use and mental health issues in America since 1971. Survey responses from more than 200,000 youth ages 12 to 17 between 2005 to 2017 and approximately 400,000 adults between 2008 to 2017 were reviewed, and what researchers discovered was alarming. For youth, major depression increased 52 percent from 2005 to 2017 – from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent, and it rose 63 percent in young adults ages 18 to 25 from 2009 (8.1 percent) to 2017 (13.2 percent). In the book I recommended above, Lost Connections, Johann Hari talks more about the societal influence on depression and reveals truly startling research that will forever change the way you look at the underlying cause of mental health.
Again, I’m not saying everyone who suffers from depression or a mental health issue like anxiety is suffering from a disease of society, but I am saying that I believe it is a definite and unidentified factor for some. And thanks to ayahuasca, I know in my heart and soul that my feelings of separateness and inadequacy were the cause of the issues I had as a teenager. Now I can remember and now I can see it all with such a clarity and from a completely different perspective as a 43 year old mom. It’s pretty amazing actually.
The Spiritual Side of Ayahuasca
In addition to helping me analyze my own issues from a birds eye perspective, ayahuasca gave me an unshakeable spiritual foundation that will forever be with me.
I no longer just believe, I now KNOW that we are so much more than just these physical bodies aimlessly roaming around here on earth. Just like New York Times bestselling author, Gary Zukav, explained when talking about his book, The Seat of the Soul. to Oprah in the interview below, I now know we all have an inner compass (our soul) that is always trying to guide us in the right direction to fulfill our life’s purpose. Ayahuasca helps you get in touch with your soul, the REAL YOU.
Ayahuasca helps you remember who you are, the person before society, parents, teachers, friends, and the media influenced you. Unless you are a skilled meditator, it is highly unlikely that the REAL YOU is in alignment with the personality you have created for yourself. And yet I believe one of the key components to whether someone will be truly happy in life has to do with whether or not they are living their life authentically. The sad thing is, most people never even bother to explore what that authentic path might look like. Instead, they hop on the same train society tells them to take. They believe if they just stay on the train and stay on the “correct” track that it will eventually lead to happiness. But around mid-life is when so many start to question whether or not they are really on the right train after all.
Since we know now how intimately the mind, body and soul are all connected, if you are not authentically happy chances are sickness will eventually creep into your life in one form or another. We all have genetic weaknesses and stress / unhappiness can sometimes be just enough to pull the trigger and ignite the disease you are most genetically most susceptible to. How many middle aged people are leading lives they love and doing jobs that authentically fit their unique personality, skills and purpose? Not many. How many middle aged people do you know who have suffered some type of emotional trauma. Almost everyone. I don’t think it is a coincidence at all that many health problems begin in middle life.
Remember Who You Are & Let Go of Your Ego
By the time you reach mid-life, chances are you have drifted very far from the REAL YOU. This can cause confusing but serious internal chaos, especially if you have checked off every “life success checkmark” (marriage, career, kids, house, car, yearly vacations, boat, etc.) and still find yourself unhappy or bizarrely unfulfilled. One of the biggest problems we face in middle age is that so many of us have created an ego that looks and acts the way we feel society wants us to look and act. But that ego you have created may not be in alignment with your soul and if the two are not aligned, your body will know it on some deep level.
Ayahuasca simply helps you remember who you are. The spiritual “work” involves surrendering the ego your adult self has created and getting back in touch with the REAL YOU. Do you remember what it was like to be you at five years old? Probably not. But ayahuasca can help you remember. And if you happen to have any issues with self-love, ayahuasca will help you fall in love with that inner child. Falling in love with your inner child is part of the reason plant medicine helps with addiction. That’s because once you connect with your inner child, you can’t abuse yourself any longer. I even believe ayahuasca can help improve someone’s desire to eat clean and exercise. Once you love yourself and once you can reconnect with your inner child, you want to take care of that child and take care of you. I firmly believe self love is a critical component of healing from any autoimmune disease.
Ayahuasca also helps you identify the negative. self-doubting, limiting internal chatter that breaks us down, holds us back and keeps us miserable and sick. Working with ayahuasca can set you free to start on a fresh clean slate. It can also help you hurdle over fears that hold you back and give you an incredible confidence and trust in the deep inner voice (your soul) we all have. Although it was a brilliant title, I sometimes think Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change Your Mind” could have also been called “Remember Who You Are.”
We Are All Connected
As world renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, Deepak Chopra, M.D., has told us, “Every single thing is an aspect of one field of consciousness.” In the documentary The Reality of Truth, Chopra discusses the life changing perspective people have after an ayahuasca journey reveals that a universal field of consciousness does exist.
In line with Chopra’s teachings, one of the most valuable spiritual lessons I learned from my very first ayahuasca journey was that on some deep level, we are connected to everything and everyone in the universe. If you are familiar with the bestselling movie of all time, Avatar, the concept of connectivity might be easier to understand by remembering how the Avatar creatures could enter the minds of the animals by linking tails. The movie goes on to talk about a network of energy that flows through all living things and connects us all. I actually believe one of the reasons Avatar was so wildly successful was because it tapped into a universal truth that people are desperate to hear and know at this stage in humanity. (Note: For what it is worth, the influence of ayahuasca on Avatar is rather obvious to anyone who has participated in the plant medicine ceremonies.)
I had heard the concept of “oneness” for years and as much as I wanted to believe it before my ayahuasca journey, ayahuasca gave me a knowing that it’s real. And once you experience it and know it for yourself, you will never again feel alone or separate. There are many ways to have a deeply spiritual experience, but having a knowing that you are part of something greater and that you are not alone is definitely a powerfully spiritual epiphany.
Experiencing oneness with the universe is what yogis call Samadhi. As the late John Loori Roshi said, “Samadhi is a state of consciousness that lies beyond waking, dreaming or deep sleep. It’s a slowing down of our mental activity through single-pointed concentration.” That is also how I would describe ayahuasca. In both the deepest samadhi and the deepest ayahuasca journey, the absorption is so complete that all sense of “self” disappears. It is during that altered state of consciousness when you realize on some deep level you are connected to everything and everyone in the universe. Once you realize that, it will absolutely change the way you look at and interact with people and your environment. But beyond that, I believe you can begin to heal your body when you find REAL internal peace, which is what psychedelic plant medicines such as ayahuasca and the psilocybin in “magic mushrooms” can facilitate.
Making a Mind Body Connection
Although “oneness” is really more a state of being as opposed to an experience, skilled meditators and yogis have supposedly experienced it when they become completely immersed in their practices. My ayahuasca journey helped me remember that part of the reason I loved dance and gymnastics so much as a kid was because both activities required complete immersion, especially gymnastics. Trust me, there’s no “monkey mind” happening when you are trying to do a backflip on a 4 inch wide balance beam that is raised 4 feet off the ground. Even though I didn’t consciously think about it at the time, when I look back I realize I used dance and gymnastics as a form of “active meditation” that enabled me to lose myself and be fully present in the moment. There are many ways to force the body to be fully “present”, but one way is to do an activity such as yoga or gymnastics that requires massive concentration in order to form a mind-body connection.
Sadly, some people stay so comfortable their whole lives that they never push the boundaries to experience a real mind body connection. I firmly believe you can’t grow if you don’t get a little bit uncomfortable, and that certainly applies to forming a mind-body connection. Even participating in extreme endurance sports is a way to form a mind-body connection. But the mind-body connection doesn’t come just by sitting on the couch wishing for it to happen. I believe you do have to work at it and you do have to get a little uncomfortable for there to be a breakthrough. Nothing worth having ever comes easy.
Not only did ayahuasca show me that we are connected to our fellow neighbor, it showed me that we are connected to ALL living forces. I now know there is an unseen intelligence that bridges the life force within all people, plants and animals. I can appreciate how a good portion of my own personal pain and suffering has been a direct result of believing I was somehow separate or different from everyone and everything else. Once you understand that there truly is a force that connects all living beings, you realize that any action you do that harms another person, plant or animal is simultaneously causing harm to yourself. The golden rule taught to us by Jesus, “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do to You”, has profound meaning on every possible level after my plant medicine journeys. This is part of the reason why I believe plant medicines are a gift from God. I am no doubt a better person after having done them.
Even having negative thoughts of greed, jealousy or envy that are directed at another person is sending out negative energy that is indirectly harmful to you. In other words, the energy you put out into the world is the same energy that will come back to you. If you put out good energy, you get good energy in return. Ayahuasca helped me see this truth. Further, ayahuasca gave me a knowing that the only way to really help myself is to help others. And as you will read, that is the exact same message that came through loud and clear in the lifechanging dream I talk about below.
Because I now know that every living being is connected, I now understand the extreme importance of protecting our forests, swamps, mountains, rivers and wildlife on a much deeper level than ever before. I interpret the Native American saying, “No tree has branches so foolish as to fight among themselves” on a completely different level. When we destroy natural resources or mistreat animals (such as factory farming) for convenience or in an attempt to maximize profit, I now realize how we are only harming ourselves in the process. When I used to hear the spiritual reason some vegans gave for not wanting to eat meat was because they believed they would be consuming the fear and the anxiety the animal experienced prior to death, I thought maybe they were taking things a bit far. But I’ve changed my mind on this since being introduced to ayahuasca and plant medicines. I’m not sure how such a concept could ever be proven, scientifically but I now believe there is something to the theory.
The point is, ayahuasca makes you think deeply and it gives you a tremendous empathy for the people, plants and animals around you. Ayahuasca is a teacher plant that makes you realize it’s not all about you. In short, ayahuasca forces you to think deep and to see the world and the people, plants and animals in it in a whole new (and beautiful!) light.
Make Peace, Not War
Just think of what a different world it would be if we could all see ourselves in our fellow neighbor and if we all worked for the greater good of all living beings. On so many levels, we would have a vastly different world no doubt. And I know for certain we would be healthier too. Specific to food and Clean Cuisine, if everyone believed in “oneness”, we most certainly would NOT have industrial farming. We know now that industrial farming not only harms the animal, it changes the composition of the animal meat and harms the people eating it. You can’t fool nature.
I’m getting a little off track here, but I have to say it is my firm belief that if every 18 year old child were required to do a week of ayahuasca ceremonies, we absolutely, positively would NOT have war. There is no way anyone who did ayahuasca would go to war. It just wouldn’t happen. In fact, my husband and I often wonder if part of the reason the psychedelic research that was very much underway in the 50’s and 60’s got shut down by the government for that very reason. The kids experimenting with the psychedelics in the 50’s and 60’s wouldn’t show up for the war and the government didn’t like it.
In a nutshell, ayahuasca gives you the ability to TRULY think for yourself. The plant medicine enables you to dive deep and think long and hard and when you do there are certain truths about humanity that are eventually revealed to everyone who works with the medicine in time. And one of those truths is that war should not exist. Ever. Over the course of the last few years I have talked to many people who have done ayahuasca, not a single one would support war.
The Soul Lives On
As mentioned above, if I try to explain everything that happened in my ayahuasca journeys I would need to sit down and write a sixth book (and maybe one day I will do just that.) But, in an effort to try and stick to the theme of spirituality as it relates to ayahuasca and to my own personal MS healing journey, I will wrap it up by saying that even before the dream I talk about below, plant medicine gave me a knowing that not only are we all connected, but that the soul lives on. And knowing that really does change so much for me.
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by the idea that happiness is just around the corner if we can just acquire more of X, Y or Z. People are led to believe they will be happy if they get a bigger and more expensive house or a fancier car or even a more prestigious social status. But in the end, none of this matters because none of it is forever. And trying to accumulate and achieve all of the outward markers of “success” is making many of us very sick. It is my belief that the materialistic and “success” driven society we live in is particularly harmful to moms. The reality is there are only so many hours in a day and as much as everyone likes to talk about the importance of living a balanced life it’s pretty darn difficult to be a good mom, career woman, wife, daughter and friend and also have time for yourself. I think the misplaced values of society are a definite factor in why women are now four times more likely to develop an autoimmune disease compared to men.
Ayahuasca helped me set my values and priorities straight. It showed me that the only thing that is everlasting is our soul. And once I really knew and understood that, it made it so much easier for me to prioritize where to focus my energy–on people, not things. Once I knew that the bonds I form with people here on earth are for eternity, my entire perspective on life changed.
Although it did not happen with ayahuasca, I have to share that it was an incredibly powerful and lifechanging dream I had earlier at the beginning of this year that gave me the confidence to talk about my full MS journey in this blog post, including the parts that aren’t so pretty. For over 15 years I have struggled with indescribable guilt, sadness and feelings of helplessness, which I now understand to be a form of survivors guilt, over the loss of my friend AJ. However shortly after the 2019 New Year, AJ appeared to me in a complex dream that was so real I will never forget it as long as I live. In the dream, AJ gave me the peace I needed that his soul is still very much alive.
The dream was so detailed that it would take pages and pages to describe everything that happened and if you knew the background story it would make it all even more powerful. However, for the purpose of trying to condense it all, I think these are the three most relevant parts below:
- In the dream, AJ reminded me of his favorite song, “All I Want”, by Toad the Wet Sprocket and how the song starts by saying, “Nothing so loud as hearing when we lie, truth is not kind” and goes on to say “Nothing so cold as closing the heart when all we need is to free the soul, but we wouldn’t be that brave I know.” I didn’t know the song very well before the dream but I knew it was his favorite song in the dream it was as if the lyrics of the song were downloading into my mind crystal clear. The song has tremendous personal meaning for me because I know in my heart after hearing the first lyric that “truth is not kind”, that I have not shared everything there is to share about my illness. I only shared the “pretty” parts of my story that I wanted to share, the parts that didn’t make me look weak. But I realized after having had the dream that by not sharing the full story I am not being honest with our readers. If I make myself appear stronger than I really was I now see that instead of helping people, I actually make them feel inferior, which is anything but helpful. The truth is, there have been many times in my life where I have NOT been strong. It was hard to be vulnerable and share my real problems when I started writing in my twenties, mostly because I just didn’t have the confidence or the clarity to do so. But after years of research and self reflection, I can say with certainty that my MS diagnosis was absolutely connected to the turbulent emotional state that I battled for years leading up to my illness. In other words, I didn’t just develop MS out of the clear blue. I can say with 100% certainty that my emotional stress was absolutely a factor in why I got sick in the first place. And I can say with equal confidence that it most definitely was not just food that helped me overcome the disease. One of the biggest messages that came through in the dream was that I needed to tell the WHOLE story, the truth. AJ knew better than anyone the troubles I had and so it’s not fair to AJ if I don’t tell the real story. It’s not always easy to tell the truth, but the truth will set you free.
- As I discuss above, AJ was instrumental in helping me overcome my first real personal crisis when I was 15 years old, which is part of why I felt such tremendous guilt for not being able to help him and for not answering the last call he made to me that I talked about in part 3 of my MS story. In the dream, I apologized profusely to him but AJ made it clear that helping me was helping him far more than I realized. Because of the dream, I know for a fact that the only way to truly be happy and have inner peace is to help others. I wish I could find the words to convey how powerful that message came through. It was crystal clear.
- I knew while it was happening that the dream was life changing for me. As crazy as I know this will sound, in the dream I asked AJ to please also visit my husband, Andy. Keep in mind, Andy and AJ had been friends in high school, so they knew each other well. I knew the dream was going to be transformational to me and I really wanted my husband to be on the same page, but I knew unless he experienced what I experienced in the dream he wouldn’t be able to fully understand. While it’s a very long story what happened, in the dream AJ promised he would visit my husband, but he refused to communicate a time frame. It gets even more complex. I also had to promise not to tell my husband that AJ would be giving him a “sign” too (there’s a very big backend reason behind this, but I will save the long-winded explanation for another time.) I kept my promise to AJ and although I did tell my husband about the dream, I left out the part that he might be getting a visit from AJ soon too (to be honest, this wasn’t super hard to do since my husband probably would have thought I had lost my mind had I told him I made a pact with my deceased friend.) But it was just days after the dream when my husband and I were having a dinner picnic on the beach that we had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It would take so long to explain exactly how everything unfolded, but the reason we were at the beach at night in the first place was because I had a terrible stye in my eye and I didn’t want to go out in public looking so awful. We had parked very far away from our picnic spot on a cold dark night (we think it’s cold in Florida when it gets below 60 degrees!) and when it suddenly started to rain I began to get very anxious. I had been convinced from the moment we sat down on our picnic spot, which was at least a good 20 minute walk from our car, that my stye was getting worse and that the whole picnic idea was a bad one. Then, just before it started to rain the wind blew all of our picnic things over and simultaneously blew some sand in my eye. Not only did I not have any fresh water to wash my eye, it was so dark that Andy couldn’t even examine it (and of course I didn’t bring a mirror either!) By the time the rain started I was panicking about my eye. I was convinced it was terribly infected and that the sand had bacteria in it from the ocean (the local news had recently warned swimmers to avoid swimming in the ocean in nearby Delray due to high bacteria counts in the water, so I had that fixated in my mind.) As you know now, our thoughts can affect our emotions and I was busy thinking up all sorts of potentially horrific outcomes with my eye. As a result of my thinking the worst, I began to get very panicky. I could feel myself having the beginning of an panic attack. I knew from past experience exactly what was happening as my heart began to beat faster and harder, my thoughts raced, sweat began to pour down from under my armpits (so gross, I know!) and my voice became breathless. It didn’t help one bit that the rain started beating down harder the moment my panic attack began. Normally my husband is not great at calming me down in circumstances like this but suddenly he started saying things that didn’t sound anything like him. He started off calling me “hun”, which he has never called me before in his life. “Hun” was what AJ called me. The moment my husband called me “hun” I couldn’t help but think of AJ. But then he continued to say incredibly calming, patient and reassuring things that honestly sounded nothing like what his normal self. It all sounded exactly like AJ. The more he talked, the calmer I got. By the time I had calmed down I felt AJ’s “energy” directly in front of us in the same manner that I had felt his presence in my dream. I never “saw” anything either in the dream nor on the beach, I only felt his energy but if you have ever felt anything like what I am describing you know how VERY REAL it is. I didn’t know how to bring AJ up in the situation so I simply said to my husband something along the lines of, “Gosh, everything you are saying is definitely helping to calm me down, but it sounds nothing like how you normally talk. Where is all of this coming from?” It was in that moment that my husband simply said in a very matter of fact manner, “It’s not me, AJ is here and he’s telling me what to say.” As he said it he pointed directly in front of us to where I already knew AJ was. I still get goosebumps every time I tell this story because there is just no way anyone can ever convince me that it was a coincidence. You also have to understand who my husband is, a very analytical engineer and surgeon who simply does not “see ghosts”. But the experience did happen and it changed our lives and our relationship forever. There is simply no explanation for how an incident like that could be a coincidence. One day, I will share more of the details of the story because I know it will be tremendously comforting to anyone who has lost a loved one, especially if it has been to a suicide. All I can say for now is that my husband and I know without a doubt that the soul lives on. AJ is not gone, he has just transitioned to a different level of existence. It’s not that I just believe this, I KNOW it. Knowing is different than believing.
It’s Not a Coincidence that My Name is Ivy
By now you know I do not believe in coincidences. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that my name is Ivy and that I was named after a plant. A plant-rich diet and plant medicines have truly changed my life.
Plant medicines (including cannabis, ayahuasca, psilocybin and ibogaine) are emerging as a powerful ally in the war on drugs, a war I have already fought myself and won. If it were not for plant medicine, I truly do not know how I would have gotten off the pain pills or anti-depressants. The reality is, mainstream medicine absolutely let me down and it most certainly let down my friend AJ.
I will forever feel as though mainstream medicine and the pharmaceutical industry played a role in what happened to AJ. The facts are, his neurologist kept a very closed mind and refused to look at published research on nutrition simply because he had not learned about it in medical school and then he prescribed a medication, Rebif, that was known to cause suicidal ideation as the number one side effect. It is with a very sad and heavy heart that I say I don’t believe it is a coincidence that AJ’s cause of death was suicide while he was also taking Rebif.
“The natural healing force in each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.”–Hippocrates
I don’t just believe the quote by Hippocrates above is true, I know it is. And just like the message from the movie I first got sick in, The Horse Whisperer” that I talked about in part 1, I know we also all need love and hope to fully heal as well. Adding faith and a spiritual foundation was the final piece of the healing puzzle for me. But I truly believe our bodies CAN heal. That’s the point of this blog post….to give anyone reading it hope that we can heal our bodies, minds and souls. But you can’t just hope to heal, you have to first BELIEVE and then you have to take action.
There Are Many Paths to Take
I want to conclude by saying if you have MS and you want to go beyond what mainstream medicine can offer, you should know after reading this blog post that you have many different paths to take. Not every thing I have done is going to work for everyone. There are many ways to start your MS healing journey. It is my greatest hope that this blog post gives you some ideas for action steps to take. But it is also my greatest hope that if you have been diagnosed with MS or any other autoimmune disease that you stop and listen to what your body is trying to tell you about why you might have gotten sick in the first place. I don’t believe God makes us sick as a punishment. Instead, I believe sickness, trauma and tragedy can all actually be God’s “wake you up” gift to you.
One thing should be blatantly obvious after reading this blog post, there is no possible way one single pill can address the mind, body and soul. It took a lot of courage for me to write this very personal blog post but I hope in telling my full true story that it will prove to at least one person that the mind, body and soul are intimately connected. If you know the mind, body and soul are connected then you know the answer to MS will most likely never be in a single pill. In fact, I don’t believe we are going to ever cure cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma or any of these other inflammatory / degenerative diseases with a single pill either. It is my personal belief that the body is far too complex for that.
But again, keep in mind, not all of the storms we face come to disrupt our lives, some come to clear the path and help us see what really matters in life. It was a very tough lesson, but my MS journey definitely taught me what matters most in life.