Some Vermonters Turn to Ayahuasca as a 'Last Resort' to Heal Their Bodies and Minds | Health + Fitness | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Some Vermonters Turn to Ayahuasca as a 'Last Resort' to Heal Their Bodies and Minds

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Rory (left) and Ryan Van Tuinen - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rory (left) and Ryan Van Tuinen

Brothers Ryan and Rory Van Tuinen are closer today than they've ever been before. Seeing one's sibling almost die repeatedly forges a powerful fraternal bond.

For years, Ryan and Rory lived in emotional isolation from their family and each other. Ryan, now 26, drank heavily and suffered from depression and social anxiety, which at times left him feeling suicidal. Unable to cope with the stress of college life, he dropped out and moved back in with his parents.

Rory, now 28, wrestled with his own demons. His nine-year addiction to opioids followed a cyclical pattern of overdoses, rehab attempts, methadone treatments and interludes of sobriety followed by relapse.

Today, the Van Tuinens said, they're healthy, sober and doing much better. They live together in their family's Waterbury home, where they have a Sunday ritual of hiking in the woods, meditating and discussing their emotions. Last year they founded a nonprofit, Cultivating Connections, to help other Vermonters struggling with addiction, mental illness and past trauma.

Both brothers attribute their recoveries to a transformative plant-based medicine: ayahuasca, used for thousands of years by Indigenous people in the Amazon Basin. Ayahuasca contains the powerful psychoactive compound N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. A Schedule I drug, DMT is illegal to possess or consume in the United States, though religious groups have won court cases allowing its use in rituals.

Last year, as the pandemic drove Vermonters into isolation, the Van Tuinens began speaking publicly about their ayahuasca use — in YouTube videos, on their blog and in an online support group they launched last May. Soon, dozens of other Vermonters came forward to share their own stories about how ayahuasca had helped them overcome addiction, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. As one support group attendee put it, "For a lot of people, it's a last resort."

"Ayahuasca showed me the potential that I had for change," Rory said. "It was one of the most enlightening experiences I've ever had."

The Van Tuinens believe that sharing their stories can pave the way for greater social acceptance and legalization of this traditional remedy. And a state lawmaker has joined their effort. In February, Rep. Brian Cina (P/D–Burlington) introduced H.309, which would decriminalize the psychoactive compounds in certain plants and fungi, including ayahuasca, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin and ibogaine. All have long histories of use by Indigenous cultures in physical, emotional and spiritual healing.

Cina acknowledged that his bill is unlikely to move this year. But despite the pandemic — or because of it — he still intends to push for its passage.

"I see it as important in the recovery from COVID, because we are going to be facing a mental health and substance-abuse pandemic that is connected to the COVID pandemic and its aftermath," Cina said. "We need to let people have access to the treatments and tools that work best for them."

Critics may deride H.309 as yet another attempt to legalize recreational drugs. Mental health and addiction treatment experts contacted for this story either were unfamiliar with the bill or declined to comment on it. But, given the opposition to cannabis legalization by the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other medical and mental health professionals, the bill is likely to face intense scrutiny.

Despite such traditional opposition, in the past decade proponents have deepened their understanding of the power and potential of hallucinogens — and, in some places, that change has broken down legal barriers to their therapeutic use. Last November, Oregon became the first state in the country to legalize the clinical use of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in "magic" mushrooms.

"Like many, I was initially skeptical when I first heard of Measure 109," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wrote in a statement last month about the ballot initiative approved by voters. "But if we can help people suffering from PTSD, depression, trauma and addiction — including veterans, cancer patients, and others — supervised psilocybin therapy is a treatment worthy of further consideration."

Vermont may never follow in Oregon's footsteps. But some Vermonters who are already taking ayahuasca and similar psychedelics view them as a way to jar their brains out of neurological ruts and gain new insights into previously intractable problems.

'Something That Could Help My Brother'

Rory (left) and Ryan Van Tuinen in their home in Waterbury - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rory (left) and Ryan Van Tuinen in their home in Waterbury

Ryan Van Tuinen was first diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at 16 and with depression at 19. Pharmaceutical therapies — SSRIs, benzodiazepine, Adderall — gave him temporary relief but killed his motivation. Ryan consulted a neurologist, only to be disappointed when the doctor told him there was nothing wrong with his brain.

"I walked out of that office feeling hopelessly depressed," he said. "That was a real turning point. I realized for the first time that, if I was going to overcome my depression, it would have to be self-driven."

While researching alternative medicines with antidepressant properties, Ryan discovered studies being done at Johns Hopkins University and the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London. Both involved the effects of psilocybin and ayahuasca on anxiety, depression and addiction.

Ryan was intrigued but scared.

"I had always stayed away from psychedelics," he said. "The propaganda was that you could lose your mind on them, and that terrified me."

Desperate, Ryan tracked down some ayahuasca, which is made by combining two South American plants to release the DMT. Rick Strassman, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, called DMT "the spirit molecule" in a book and documentary of the same name, referring to its tendency to induce mystical, life-changing experiences in users.

Ryan's first ayahuasca trip, which lasted several hours, was exhilarating and terrifying. For three days afterward he had the greatest existential panic of his life, he recalled, and thought he'd permanently damaged his brain. A breakthrough came on the fifth day.

"I know it sounds cliché, but I felt reborn," he said. "I felt better than I had in my entire life ... The depression and the anxiety? It finally felt like it had a purpose."

Weeks later, Ryan had a dream in which he was working as a psychedelic therapist. When he awoke the next morning, he reenrolled at the University of Vermont.

In December 2019, Ryan graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology; he plans to help others suffering from similar problems. He said he hasn't felt the desire to take ayahuasca since.

"But I knew this was something that could help my brother," he added.

When Rory was 18, his best friend committed suicide; he was in San Francisco at the time and missed his friend's final phone call. Already diagnosed with anxiety, Rory found himself experiencing depression, too.

Three months later, Rory's neck was broken in a car accident. He distinctly remembers the euphoria he felt when he woke up after three days in intensive care with a morphine drip.

Rory came home from the hospital with 120 pills of Dilaudid, a potent opioid used for severe pain. Within a year, he had a five- to 10-bag-a-day heroin habit and was abusing cocaine.

"He overdosed three times that we were aware of," Carol Rooke Van Tuinen, Rory and Ryan's mother, said in an interview last year.

"No, it was even more than that," Rory corrected her.

By any standard, Rory wasn't lacking for conventional addiction treatments. Carol, a nurse practitioner since 1977, has a master's degree in psychiatric nursing and worked for years in methadone clinics and alcohol treatment facilities. Rory's father, Craig Van Tuinen, has been a psychiatrist since 1984.

But after Rory's multiple overdoses and failed attempts at rehab, counseling and medication-assisted treatments, his parents were at a loss.

"We had tried everything that we possibly could, and nothing worked," Carol said. "It got to the point where we had totally given up."

In 2019, after one of Rory's overdoses, Ryan told his parents about his recent ayahuasca experience, then suggested that it might help Rory.

Carol was skeptical. The product of an Irish Catholic family from Springfield, Mass., where many of her relatives were police officers, she had never touched illegal drugs.

Craig also had "very real concerns" about Rory taking hallucinogens. "If it really did change everything," he asked, "where would he end up?"

In addition to their trepidation about Rory's precarious mental state, Craig and Carol had practical concerns, including the legal and professional ramifications. As licensed medical personnel, neither could participate in or sanction the illegal use of a controlled substance.

But Craig had read about a 2004 Johns Hopkins study on psilocybin, which is chemically similar to DMT. He found it "truly fascinating" that people could take a single psychedelic dose and rate it years later as among the most profound experiences of their lives, on par with getting married and having children.

"Ryan's experience clearly opened my eyes to the huge potential of it, because his experience had had a huge effect on his approach to life [and] his perspective on things," Craig said.

Carol also witnessed those changes.

"In the days, weeks and months that followed [Ryan's ayahuasca use], I saw a profound difference in the way that he was living life," she said. "He became more interactive with people — with all of life, actually. It was really remarkable."

And, she noted, the only treatment they could offer Rory was more of the same. As she put it, "We were desperate."

So, on Thanksgiving Day 2019, Rory ingested ayahuasca. Hours later, he joined his family for dinner.

Rory had taken LSD and eaten mushrooms before. This was different, he said — not just the trip itself but, more importantly, the revelations that came to him days later.

"Ayahuasca helped me get in touch with the love I have for myself and my life," Rory said. "It's a love that had been dormant since I was a child."

Rory's family was astonished by his transformation. Craig described it as "profound, persistent and stable," as his son maintained sobriety for weeks, then for months.

"I've never seen anything quite like it," he said.

'The Dope-Slap Effect'

In his 2018 best seller How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan cites various metaphors that research subjects use to describe the impact hallucinogens had on their minds: "rebooting the computer," "shaking the snow globe" and "flicking a light switch in a dark house."

Matthew Johnson chose a more head-jarring metaphor: "the dope-slap effect."

Johnson is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. One of the country's leading experts on psychoactive drug use and addiction, he's published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles and supervised more than 600 psychedelic sessions. In 2008, Johnson published safety guidelines for using psychedelics, which helped resurrect research on them. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has since used those protocols in at least 30 high-dose psilocybin trials.

On January 10, 2020, Johnson gave the psychiatry grand rounds lecture at the Robert Larner College of Medicine at UVM. It was a homecoming of sorts for Johnson, who completed his doctoral degree at UVM.

His talk, which the Van Tuinens attended, addressed the use of "classic psychedelics" — LSD, mescaline, ayahuasca and psilocybin — in treating psychiatric disorders and addiction. Johnson characterized those conditions as "a narrowing of a behavioral and mental repertoire." Psychedelics, he explained, seem to induce "plasticity" in the brain, allowing rigid patterns of thought and behavior to become more malleable and changeable.

Johnson cited one study in which subjects were given a single psilocybin dose to help them quit smoking. Eighty percent were still tobacco-free six months later. Though that number dropped to 60 percent two years later, he said, it's still double the success rate of the best smoking-cessation medications.

And that was only one of many effects, Johnson noted. The study participants had lower incidence of anxiety, restlessness, depression, irritability and tobacco cravings. They reported other life improvements, including a greater sense of interconnectedness and altruism and a heightened aesthetic appreciation.

The people who experienced the most enduring impact, Johnson emphasized, were those who reported having had a mystical experience on psilocybin.

"It's not just having an intense drug experience," he said. "There seems to be something about the nature of those subjective effects that has a relationship to long-term positive outcomes."

Johnson's talk addressed many of the common concerns surrounding hallucinogens. Classic psychedelics, he said, "don't appear to be drugs of addiction, and by that I mean that they don't appear to be drugs that lead to compulsive drug seeking."

Likewise, the proverbial bad trip can happen — Johnson calls it a "challenging experience" — but he's had success in mitigating such experiences by building rapport beforehand between subjects and the guides administering the sessions. Guides remind subjects of what's happening and tell them to surrender to the experience rather than fight it.

Still, psychedelics aren't without very real risks, Johnson warned. Because they can elevate pulse and blood pressure, they aren't advised for people with cardiac conditions. They can also be dangerous to people with psychoses or predispositions to conditions such as schizophrenia. Johnson does thorough prescreening of his subjects to exclude those in whom these compounds are more likely to provoke psychotic episodes.

"None of this research should encourage do-it-yourself use of psychedelics," Johnson cautioned. "There are risks ... so don't try this at home."

'Like 10 Years of Therapy in One Evening'

Jodi Whalen had no interest in taking psychedelics, at home or anywhere else. Aside from one experience eating mushrooms at a Santana show in the 1990s, she said, "It wasn't something I was ever attracted to. It was too intimidating."

Whalen, 53, is cofounder and co-owner with her husband, Phil Merrick, of August First bakery and café in Burlington. About two years ago, she said, "I had come to the end of my rope" in dealing with PTSD from her childhood. She had tried therapy, meditation, even running marathons. But the ghosts of her past still haunted her, affecting her personally and professionally.

"I wasn't a good boss for years," she said. "There was a ... deep level of damage to my psyche and my spirit that I couldn't make go away. I was a reactive person. I was snappy at people, impatient and often not kind."

Whalen grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Gibraltar, Pa., a town of about 680 people. Her home was within earshot of a family whose father routinely raped his daughters.

"Everybody knew that," she said. "You could hear the screams."

Because Whalen's cousins were regularly beaten with belts, she assumed that the less intense violence she suffered at home "wasn't that bad." It wasn't until her forties, when her therapist used the word "abused" to describe her upbringing, that Whalen recognized her scars were actually open wounds.

In February 2020, Whalen spent $3,000 to attend a seven-day ayahuasca retreat at the Soltara Healing Center in Costa Rica. On four of the seven nights, she participated in ayahuasca ceremonies with 16 other participants and two shamans.

Participants sat on mats in an open-air hut and decided for themselves how much ayahuasca to take. As each drank the brew, Whalen said, the healers sang icaros, or healing songs, meant to pull them deeper into the medicine.

On her second night, Whalen had an experience she finds hard to describe. She likened it to a peak moment in meditation when you suddenly feel connected to everything.

"I saw time in a different way. I saw my childhood fold up upon itself," she said. "I understood that all we have is the present, and what happened to me back then doesn't need to affect me now. That time is gone, and that child no longer exists."

When the shaman came to her and began singing, Whalen broke down and wept profusely. The woman pressed her lips against Whalen's head and inhaled deeply.

"And just like that, I stopped crying ... and I knew it was over," Whalen said. "I could think of the people who hurt me; I could think of those times, all of the mistakes that I've made, and there was no longer that surge of shame and pain.

"There's a saying [about ayahuasca]: 'It's like 10 years of therapy in one evening,'" Whalen added. "And it is absolutely, positively true."

For weeks afterward, Whalen felt "blissed out," like she'd just received a wonderful massage. Family and friends noticed that she seemed calmer and more soft-spoken; nothing seemed to bother her.

Essential to her healing, Whalen said, was integration — that is, the processing of her experience to give it meaning and purpose after she returned to normal life.

"A lot of the work takes place after the experience is over," she said.

Whalen, who kept in touch with other retreat participants, emphasized that most of them took ayahuasca not for fun but out of desperation. Though there was some laughter, there were far more tears.

Whalen described her experience as a privilege that isn't available to most Vermonters.

"This is something that is life changing," she said. "We owe it to the Indigenous people who have used this medicine and brought it to us, and we owe [it] to the people who are desperate for healing here, to decriminalize this."

'Most Proficient Mind'

Neither Rory nor Ryan Van Tuinen took a straight and unwavering path to recovery after his ayahuasca experience. Since Seven Days first interviewed them in January 2020, Rory quit methadone treatments. He relapsed, overdosed twice and nearly died before checking himself into rehab. Despite those setbacks, he's been off opioids and methadone again since April 2020, and he credits ayahuasca with saving his life.

Ryan has quit alcohol and all prescription pharmaceuticals; he said he barely even drinks coffee anymore.

"My habits with substances are healthier than they've ever been," he said. "For the first time in my life, I feel like my sober mind is the most proficient mind to handle life."

Such reports are powerful — and, of course, anecdotal. Despite his belief in the potential benefits of psychedelics, Johnson, the Johns Hopkins professor and researcher, warned of "selling some snake oil" based on limited data. He believes that any therapeutic use of psychedelics should be "solidly based in empirical science."

Craig and Carol only know what they've witnessed in their sons. After initial reluctance, they agreed to be identified in this story because of the profound changes that ayahuasca induced in their family. As medical professionals, they firmly believe this medicine can help other Vermonters who struggle with addiction and despair.

"Both my sons were kind of lost to us. Their physical bodies were still here, but ... their personalities were gone," Carol said. "And now, because of their use of the psychedelics, they've come back to the people they used to be ... It really reconnected them to life, and to each other."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Psychedelic Solution"