How The Tin Woman Got a Heart

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I’ve kept a journal of my ayahuasca experiences over the last two years. The text in italics comes from those journals.

I was 11 when I had my first panic attack. I was terrified, but told no one. By then I knew my mother was not equipped to handle anyone else’s emotions. It was my job to manage her feelings, not the other way around. I learned early and often that in order to have a chance at being loved, I needed to hide my pain.

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, when children didn’t go to therapists, and they didn’t get diagnosed with low-grade mental illness. I was 42 when my son’s psychologist turned to me and asked “Does anyone in your family have anxiety?”

Cue my aha! moment.

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With that question, my experience of my family and myself finally made sense. My father’s alcoholism, my mother’s need for control, my life spent imagining worst case scenarios for any situation and then trying to prevent them.

My anxiety, passed down through the generations, had wreaked havoc on my friendships and romantic relationships, my health and my psyche. I was grateful to have, finally, a useful framework for understanding me.

Awareness is a good first step. But the journey from knowing something in my head to implementing it in my heart has always been the greater challenge. I was brought up in the religion of rationality. Reason was the key to success and happiness, emotions an obstacle.

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Reason led me to the achievement of everything society wanted me to do. I got good grades, went to good schools, became a lawyer (anxiety as profession!). Then a husband, house, kids, nice things. I was a very good girl.

But despite the external trappings of success, I was in a consistent, low-grade depression, dimly aware that something was wrong but unable to identify a “good reason” for it. We dismissively called this a midlife crisis, but it really represents an existential questioning of why we’re on this earth, and whether the choices we’ve made thus far relate in any way to a meaningful life purpose.

Bouts of therapy, antidepressants, and shelves of self-help books didn’t make me any happier or wiser. All the while, my brain was telling me that if I couldn’t think my way out of problems, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Suck it up, get it together, and be happy, you fucking wuss.

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The power of ayahuasca comes from the fact that it doesn’t let my thinking brain overcome my emotional brain. Ayahuasca is humbling and confronting. It teaches me a lot about what it means to be human, really human, not bodies with computer brains, but with emotions and hearts.

I came to ayahuasca after quitting my lucrative but meaningless profession. I had tried several other career paths, none of which felt like me. One day, feeling angry and powerless in yet another startup job, I happened to be scrolling through Facebook and found an article about ayahuasca. I was terrified of hallucinogens after a single bad acid trip in high school. But now my desire to escape my relentless, negative emotional patterns outweighed my fear.

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In the weeks preceding my first ayahuasca experience, I thought a lot about what I wanted from it.

I want to feel safe — I want to know that everything will be ok. I want to be less impacted by anxiety about what others think of me.

Why is my first instinct to judge instead of accept? When done to others, it prevents, postpones or diminishes real human connection. When done to myself, it prevents me from reaching for more. It convinces me that I can’t or shouldn’t have what I want.

What would happen if my inner critic went away? What would happen if I were “unsupervised?”

When I think about expressing myself, I think of the potential negative reactions from the person I want to speak to. I feel tightness in my chest, and anxiety all through my body. Then I decide not to say anything, and feel anger, resentment, sadness.

What is my greatest fear? Feeling.

A month later, I found myself surrounded by jungle, about to drink the noxious tea that is ayahuasca. I was uber-prepared (natch), and still terrified.

I’m scared. I’m scared to be afraid tonight. I’m scared to feel too much. I’m scared to fall into an abyss I can’t get out of.

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My fear was not unjustified. I had spent my life being a good girl and repressing all difficult emotions. So when I was forced to feel them, what came out wasn’t pretty. That night, I learned how much of my need for love and human connection had gone unexpressed, and therefore unmet.

I’ve never been so weak. I can’t remember a time where I was so weak and needy as tonight. It fucking scared me. It was frightening and embarrassing. It felt endless and unfillable. Sometimes there wasn’t enough love in the world to get me out of hell.

I was a quivering mass of need tonight. That was very hard for me to deal with. I felt such an overpowering sense of need. [My friend] was a lifesaver for me. I know we weren’t supposed to engage but honestly I was like, “Fuck the rules, I am dying here and I will die if I don’t get some love and affection and someone to care for me.”

When I needed [my friend], he couldn’t hear me, he couldn’t understand me, and I was doing what I always do, just saying, “Oh, are you okay, would you like to come over?” When what I really meant was, “I fucking need you right here, right now, holding me as if your life depended on it.” I finally said, “I need you, and I need you here.” He came over and saved me.

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At the end of that first night I was shell-shocked. For a hot second, I thought I might be better off putting the lid back on the Pandora’s box of emotion that had been blown open. But I didn’t retreat. In the light of day, I continued to reflect on what I had experienced the night before.

I’m 7 years old. The grey and light blue cartoon faces of my parents are moving away from me all the time. I reach out for them and they just move away. They are sad. They don’t have time for me. That was my parents. No earth-shattering event. Nobody did anything really horrible. They just ignored me. Just profound aloneness. I still couldn’t cry. But I was so sad.

I remember very little of my childhood. I had always assumed that I was blocking out some kind of abuse. I hoped that with ayahuasca, I would finally understand what had so negatively impacted my life.

In that moment, I lived as myself at 7 years old — ignored, alone, unloved.

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That initial ayahuasca experience helped me understand in my heart and body the wounds I have been living out since my childhood. No therapy could ever have forced me back to the place I went that night. I would not willingly have gone.

That night was the beginning of a new way of being for me.

I need to express more to people. That’s what I’ve been shown tonight. I need to express my needs in a loving way. It’s when I keep them inside that they turn violent. I need to express love, because then I get love in return.

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Integration is the process of incorporating the learnings from a psychedelic experience into one’s life. For me, the integration of ayahuasca happens at two levels. The first level is conscious — it requires staying aware and practicing what I’ve learned.

I was given a chance to practice conscious integration during my next ayahuasca retreat, when I was shown the constant refrain of micro-judgments that I subject myself to.

I woke up and I judged myself for sleeping through this experience. I heard [the shaman] call people for more ayahuasca, and I closed my eyes because I didn’t want to see people going up, because I knew I couldn’t do it, but I judged myself for not being able to go up. I closed my eyes so that I would not compare myself to them. I realized I was judging myself for laying down instead of sitting up and being fully present with the experience, and I felt the weight of all of that judgment. The realization came crashing down on me that constantly I judge myself, and it made me sad and it made me cry to think how cruel I had been to myself for so long. I wouldn’t ever treat a friend that way. I have left men who’ve done that to me, finally, and yet I felt it was okay to do this to myself all my life.

The following week I paid close attention to the negative chatter in my mind: When I drop something, I’m clumsy and I should do better. When I forget something, I’m stupid and I should write it down next time. When I say something awkward, I should know better and be more charming next time. When I forget to acknowledge someone’s success, or birthday, or just tell them they look nice, I’m inconsiderate and should try harder to be a nice person.

I’m always supposed to do better, because I’m not good enough as I am.

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I practiced becoming aware each time I started to judge myself, and countering that judgment with positive self-talk. I was stunned by the increase in my physical energy that week. Apparently it takes a lot of effort to keep pushing myself down. I also noticed that when I judged myself less, I felt less judged by others. A lot of what we think others are judging is really a projection of our own self-judgment. (Sometimes, let’s face it, people are actually judging us. But they matter less when I stop self-judging and like myself more.)

When I experienced the absence of self-judgement, I was able to understand the emotional and physical toll it takes on me. I had discovered a path to more energy, more freedom, more joy. And yet, it’s still easy to fall back into old patterns when I’m not paying attention. Conscious integration is work.

The second level of integration is subconscious. I don’t need to do anything, ayahuasca just changes me.

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For a few days after ayahuasca, I’m more sensitive than ever to my environment. Sounds are too loud, the chaos of humanity too much. But I’m also calmer, and I move more gently.

I always forget about this stillness, this slowness that happens after Ayahuasca. I drive more slowly, I move more slowly, I breathe more deeply and I experience a calm and a lack of reactivity to my surroundings that I can only hope to achieve at other times. Some of it does remain each time. It’s a question of how much. So I will try my best to be calm and kind to myself and to my body and to remember the lessons I have learned. The lesson to love all of myself and not judge it. Everything else, I think, will flow forth from that effort.

Each time, once the hyper-sensitivity fades, I discover that my baseline anxiety level has gotten just a little bit lower. Ayahuasca is like a workout for my nervous system. At first I’m sore, and everything hurts. But once the soreness ends, I’m stronger.

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My conscious mind isn’t gone during ayahuasca, it just doesn’t hold much sway over the emotional and bodily experience. But it can block me from going deeper. That’s why “I surrender” is a common mantra - the more I let go of control, the more I’ll be shown new ways of thinking, feeling, being.

In my rational brain, I knew that all of this bad shit was just because I was nauseous. I’m like, “What’s the fucking point of that, you people are charlatans, this is all a fucking sham. All I am is nauseous and you make me go through all of this shit?”

Clearly, surrender is not my forte. During ayahuasca, when the experience has gotten particularly scary or painful, I’ve fought to not be taken down. I’m very good at protecting myself. But the last time I did ayahuasca, I went for it.

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I got a tingling, agitated feeling throughout my body, like I wanted to jump out of myself and escape something. This was the moment I was supposed to surrender to — not just say the mantra like I usually do, but actually feel myself surrendering. So instead of clenching up and gritting my teeth to get through it, I breathed deeply and consciously relaxed my body into the feeling.

For a brief moment, I could see this golden arrow of light shooting to the core of me, and I felt as though I might break apart. It was so painful and awful and scary to let that pain in. I couldn’t keep doing it.

When that arrow hit my core, I felt a terror that I cannot now do justice to. I could not, would not, surrender to that much pain. So I repelled it, and it was gone.

I thought a lot about chaos tonight. The thing I fear most is chaos, and it feels like if I don’t keep order in my surroundings, if I don’t keep order in my life outside of myself, there’ll be total chaos inside myself. And my fear when I really think about it is that if I don’t keep everything together, I will break apart.

I’m not yet ready to fully surrender to everything that lies within. Maybe someday. Or maybe not.

There’s a reason that I put up all the blocks that I do. They protect me, and I’m going to accept that protection. I’ll let emotion in where I can, where it feels right to do that, and it’s okay when I don’t.

This experience solidified for me my desire, for the moment, to stop working so hard to fix myself. To appreciate all that I’ve done for myself to survive, and to accept myself as I am.

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Post-ayahuasca, my friends have noticed a profound shift in who I am and what I bring into the world. I’ve been going away with some law school friends once a year for the last 11 years. When we met a few weeks ago, one of my friends told me that she feels calmer in my presence. Another, whose intellect I have long respected but whom I had never found an emotional resonance with until now, thanked me for my compassionate insights, allowing her to let go of her anger about a long-standing problem.

I’ve become someone that other people trust and want to share themselves with. I am both proud of and humbled by their love. It’s the human connection I’ve always longed for but didn’t know how to get.

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Ayahuasca has given me a different perspective on pain — I feel it more, and hold on to it a little bit less.

There is an infinite amount of pain in the world to avoid. That’s why I’m always busy. I spend much of my life trying to avoid feeling pain, and trying to avoid others feeling pain because when they feel pain, I feel pain. That’s what my control is. My control, my desire to control my own environment, other people’s environment, is so that we can all avoid pain. Really so I can avoid pain, since other people’s pain is my own.

Ayahuasca showed me that I can’t avoid pain, and the more I tried to control and not feel it, the more she made me feel it. She said, “You will feel this pain. You will need others to get through this pain, and you will get through it. It’s okay to feel pain, and it’s actually the human condition to feel pain. We learn from our pain. Pain is inevitable. It’s unavoidable, and it teaches us.”

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It feels like an unforgivable omission not to talk about how ayahuasca has expanded my perspective on humanity and the universe.

There are moments during my experiences when I feel connected to a larger web of human beings. It might be feeling connected to everyone else in the room. It might be feeling connected to the generations of women in my family who have felt the same pain. And sometimes, for a moment, I feel connected to all human beings. The idea that we all struggle together on this planet. That there is this collective energy we share.

Sometimes I zoom even further out to the universe. There is a bigger entity of which we humans are but a tiny part. What I do as an individual matters enough, but not too much.

Words can’t quite do justice to this concept of oneness, and my failed attempt probably makes me sound like the kind of hippie freak I’d dismiss out of hand, if she weren’t me. Michael Pollan does a better job of it, so if you don’t believe me, check him out.

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With more self-knowledge and perspective, I can act in integrity with what I really want, while attaching less importance to every choice I make. I can come out as the person I really am, and connect with people who love me for it. I’ve realized that my teeny, tiny role in this interconnected universe is to bring as much love as I can to my interactions and to my world on any given day. And when I can’t do that, it’s ok too.

With less fear of judgment, I’ve redefined what success means to me. I no longer need to chase the startup dream just because that’s what people do in San Francisco. I no longer need to achieve a certain job title because I think it’s expected of me. I’ve begun writing vulnerably about life in order to connect with others, and find out what it feels like to be myself in public. I’ve found the courage to begin a project about sex that confronts all of our shame, including my own. My relationship to my children has improved, and parenting is now a source of joy instead of stress (mostly). Because I accept more of who I am, I’m better at setting boundaries. I’m (mostly) unapologetic with my yesses and my no’s.

Ayahuasca doesn’t fix everything. But it helps me understand why I move about the world in the way that I do. It helps me understand all of my relationships — with partners, friends, family and children. It has created positive shifts in how I feel in my heart and body in a in a way that no number of therapy sessions or self-help books or self-analysis ever did. It acts at a level that I cannot consciously control. And I think that’s kind of the point.

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My hope for Ayahuasca, before I began:

I wouldn’t be so reactive to everything that happens around me, having my emotions see-saw, and feeling the effects, emotional and physical, of negative emotions in particular. I would have more energy, I would be less judgmental of myself and others (and therefore kinder), I would risk more in my life because I wouldn’t fear failure. I would have deeper, more authentic relationships because I wouldn’t fear rejection.

What I got from Ayahuasca:

Ayahuasca gave me my heart back. I haven’t had it since I was a little girl. I want to hold this feeling that I have now. It’s a feeling of love, and compassion, and acceptance … for me, for everyone else, for the pain we all have to go through. And I wish that I could hold this feeling forever, and be this person. I imagine it will go … some of it. But I’ll keep some small part of it … and it will be my continuing journey to work on this, and to try to open my heart to myself and others, and accept all the pain and the joy that life has … and the imperfection. I hope that I keep remembering to breathe.

Postscript:

Ayahuasca is not a cure-all. I know people who’ve done it and not experienced any particular positive effects. I also know people who’ve done it and couldn’t quite put themselves back together afterwards. You need people in your life, whether they are shamans or therapists, who can make you feel safe and help you make sense of yourself before, during, and afterward.

Finally, like many things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. If you come to it from a place of knowing yourself and wanting to know more and being prepared to do the work, you’re likely to be rewarded. If you come to it looking for some new adventure to try, that might be all it is.

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Fuck it, I’m writing this.