By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Six years ago, I became a member of the Bwiti. I had heard about ibogaine from a clerk at an anarchist bookstore in New York’s East Village. On a magazine assignment, I went to Gabon and took iboga in an initiation ceremony. It was one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, experiences of my life. I had heard the substance described as “10 years of psychoanalysis in a single night,” but of course, I did not believe it. As the African tribesmen played deafening drums and sang around me until dawn, I lay on the temple’s concrete floor and journeyed back through the entire course of my past up to that point, witnessing forgotten scenes from childhood. The experience lasted more than 20 hours. At one point, I was shown my habitual overuse of alcohol and the effect it was having on my relationships, my writing and my psyche. When I returned to the U.S., I steadily reduced my drinking to a fraction of its previous level — an adjustment that seems to be permanent.
Last winter, I had the chance to try ibogaine for a second time. I took it at the Ibogaine Association, a clinic in Rosarito, Mexico, just a half-hour’s drive from San Diego, that’s been open for 18 months. I went because I was contacted by a recovering heroin addict who had been inspired to take ibogaine after reading my account of it. Three months after his first treatment in Mexico, he was still clean — after a 12-year dependency. He gave Dr. Martin Polanco, the clinic’s founder, a copy of my book, Breaking Open the Head, and the clinic offered me a free treatment. I was curious to see how the iboga experience differed when it was removed from its tribal context. My new friend wanted to take it again to reinforce the effect. We went down together.
Polanco estimates that his clinic has treated nearly 200 addicts since it opened. About a third of its patients have managed to stay clean; many have returned for a second treatment. “Ibogaine needs to be much more widely available,” he says. “We still have a lot to learn about how to administer it, how to work with it.” Polanco plans to set up several nonprofit clinics, including one for Mexican addicts who cannot afford the price for foreigners. “This is something that should be nonprofit,” he says. “After all, it is a plant. It came up from the earth. It does give you some guidance. It shows you how you really are.” He chuckles. “That can be scary.”
Randy Hecken, a 27-year-old former heroin addict, drove us from San Diego to the Ibogaine Association. Randy had kicked the habit after two ibogaine treatments at the clinic, and he was now working for the association, going around to local methadone centers with fliers, keeping in contact with former patients. The first treatment costs $2,800, including an initial medical exam and several days’ convalescence afterward, but subsequent visits are only $600 — and it seems that most addicts need at least two doses of ibogaine to avoid relapsing.
The Ibogaine Association is in a quiet, dignified house overlooking the Pacific, decorated with Huichol yarn paintings and Buddhist statues. Polanco gave me a medical examination and a test dose of the drug. Twenty minutes after ingesting the test dose, I started to feel nervous and lightheaded. As I took the other pills — a gel-capped extract of the root-bark powder — I realized I was in for a serious trip.
The nurse led me back to my room. My head already spinning, I lay back on the bed as she hooked me up to an EKG machine and headphones playing ambient music that calmed me down from a sudden attack of panic: Why was I doing this again? Ibogaine is no pleasure trip. It not only causes violent nausea and vomiting, but many of the “visions” it induces amount to a painful parading of one’s deepest faults and moral failings. I had a loud, unpleasant buzzing in my ears — probably the Bwiti pound on drums throughout the ceremony to overwhelm this noise. With my eyes closed, I watched as images started to emerge like patterns out of TV static. I saw a black man in a 1940s-looking suit. He was holding the hand of a 5-year-old girl and leading her up some stairs. I understood that the girl in the vision was me, and the man represented the spirit of iboga. He was going to show me around his castle.
This kind of encounter with a seeming “spirit of iboga” is a typical vision produced by the Bwiti sacrament. In many accounts, people describe meeting a primordial African couple in the jungle. Sometimes the iboga spirit manifests as a “ball of light” that speaks to the baanzi, saying, “Do you know who I am? I am the Chief of the World, I am the essential point!” Part of my trip took the form of an interview that was almost journalistic. I could ask direct questions of “Mr. Iboga” and receive answers that were like emphatic, telegraphed shouts inside my head — even in my deeply stoned state, I managed to scrawl down many of the responses in my notebook.
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