I’m falling into the sound of my scream, and I’m terrified I’ll never hit the bottom. There is no end to the expanse of my fear. My body is curled up into a ball and I’m rocking on my elbows with so much force that I’m rubbing them raw.
Let me explain.
I’ve come to a retreat on an island in British Columbia to take 5-MeO-DMT, the world’s most powerful psychedelic. I’m here to let go of the pain of the last year and a half of the pandemic, a recent divorce, and losing someone I loved dearly. I’ve dabbled with psychedelics before—ayahuasca, mushrooms—but nothing has prepared me for the rocket-ship rollercoaster that is 5-MeO.
In psychedelic circles, it’s known as the God Molecule because of its unique ability to dissolve one’s ego and guide the journey into what can only be described as the center of the universe—a place where time, space, and the self do not exist. Unlike other psychedelics, the effects of 5-MeO are quick: a typical trip lasts just 20 minutes. The drug originates from the venom of a rare toad native to the Sonoran Desert, although it can be produced synthetically, as well; my journey is with the latter version.
There has been a growing interest in the use of psychedelics in recent years for those of us looking for deep self-transformation and personal growth; plant medicine has the power to strip away one’s surface layers and reveal what’s within. More and more research is indicating that psychedelics have the potential to create life-changing and lasting positive effects for people suffering from mental health disorders, too. A 2019 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that in a survey of 362 adults who took 5-MeO, approximately 80 percent of respondents reported improvements in anxiety and depression afterwards. The drug is also making its way into the mainstream. Town & Country magazine recently dedicated a full-length feature to it. Mike Tyson has credited it with changing his life. Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, called it horrifying. Desperate to snap myself out of a pandemic rut and determined to shed my heartache, I decided to try it.
It’s important to note that dabbling with psychedelics of this nature should be done under the supervision of a practitioner. 5-MeO is not a party drug, and like with any substance, there are health risks. I’ve entrusted myself to a husband-and-wife team who run a retreat center called Enfold. There is a lengthy intake form that includes questions about my overall physical and mental health, and an initial meeting to determine if I am a suitable candidate; only then am I given the green light to experience a 5-MeO journey. They send me readings and a TED Talk by David Whyte in preparation, and they are very upfront about one thing in particular: I will experience a death.
Let me be clear—this is not a physical death. They’re not running a version of Flatliners over there. This is a death of the ego. Objectively terrifying, it’s also incredibly attractive to me: the idea of losing and letting go of the mind that’s been telling me how sad I am and how afraid I should be sounds like a vacation for my soul. I’m all in. The owner texts me as I get on the ferry and encourages me to step outside and breathe the fresh air, because my journey has begun.
It’s very difficult to describe what happens on 5-MeO, so I’ll start by telling you what it is not. It is not recreational. It is also not pretty. Before we start, I’m told that I might make noises and sounds I never have before. I’m encouraged to let every one of them come out of my body: screams, laughter, crying, whatever it is that I need to let go of.
I’m set up on a comfortable floor bed and am sitting upright. The drug is taken through a vape; tiny crystals are lit and then sipped in small breaths, after which you hold your breath for as long as you can and then exhale. Enfold doses 5-MeO slowly. Instead of giving you a full-release dose (so called because this is the dose where you experience complete ego death), they start with what they have named a “handshake dose” to give you a feel for the experience, and then slowly increase the intensity. The first two doses are peaceful. My body is fully relaxed, and I feel good: sort of like I’ve just had the best massage of my life and now my muscles are made of jelly. I’ve got this. This is going to be easy.
Then I get rocked.
The third dose feels much stronger than the first two. The first thing I sense is that I’m falling back with no control over my body. Then my entire sense of self begins to dissolve like ice in boiling water. It’s happening fast. I feel everything about who I am slipping away, and I can’t hold on. I feel like I’m dying. I’m terrified. I want it to stop. My facilitators are there, reassuring me that I’m safe. I can hear them, but I don’t believe them. I’m incredibly hot. I feel sick and like I want to vomit, but I also want to reserve all the energy I have to hold onto who I am. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs that I don’t want to die. I’m thrashing and writhing around and clutching onto anything I can, and all I want is for this feeling to end. My facilitators tell me to let go and I yell at them. I’m so angry. How dare they. How dare they tell me to let go when I’m clearly going to lose myself. What have I done? I don’t want to die when I haven’t been living the way I want to, trapped in a mind of anxiety and depression. I can’t die yet because I’ve been living all wrong.
I’m pushing my facilitators away. I want out. They continue to hold my hand and tell me I’m going to be ok. That I just have to let go. And then it hits me, like a force I’ve never felt before: I push away people who love me. And in a flash I see all the friends, the family, the lovers, my children, everyone I have kept at arm’s length. And then I scream. A loud, guttural, terrifying scream. For the grief I feel over the time I have lost. For the people I wish I had shown more to. For the moments I should have just enjoyed. I want the time back, but I can’t have it. It breaks me. I burst into tears and then collapse into sleep.
When I wake up, I’m invited to try one more dose. It takes me an hour to muster the courage. My facilitators are gentle; not pushing me to go again, just encouraging me to consider it. I finally go back in for one more: the full release. There is no fight left in me and this time I don’t feel like I’m dying—I feel like I’m being born. I am at peace. Not scarred by trauma or fear or heartache. I feel love as if it were an object I could hold in my hands. I see what looks to be the sun rising over the earth. And when I come to, it’s as if I’ve burned my old self down. I tell my facilitators that now I understand what healing feels like.
In the weeks that follow, I notice the sound of the wind in the trees more than I used to. The sun looks brighter. I see friends for who they really are, without the anxiety I had been holding onto blurring my vision. Nothing riles me. But most impressive of all, my depression is gone. I am at peace with myself and my experiences. I have spent many days and weeks processing my journey. Terrifying as it was, it was the third dose—the one that shook me to the center of my core—that I treasure most. It taught me that even in the depths of my fear, I could find freedom.