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The experience was so profound that she elected to stay on at the clinic as a volunteer. Confident and chatty, with long brown curls and a disarming smile, Wilkins feels she has a knack for guiding patients through their ibogaine-induced spiritual awakenings.
"On ibogaine all your walls come down," she says. "You can't lie. You get an opportunity to look at yourself honestly and see how you respond. My role is to be there as a comfort. People compliment me by saying, 'You knew exactly when to hold my hand.' "
In 2006 Ibogaine Association director Martin Polanco offered Wilkins a full-time job. She'd heard rumors that he was considering selling the clinic in the coming year, and on a whim she offered to buy the operation from him outright.
"It was one of those 'Can I put that back in my mouth?' moments," Wilkins recounts with a laugh. "I didn't have the money — I didn't even have a car."
Wilkins borrowed $3,000 from her mother for a down payment, changed the clinic's name to Pangea Biomedics and made monthly payments to Polanco for the next year and a half.
Having paid off the $65,000 debt, Wilkins' first order of business was to relocate. Tijuana residents — and rehab clinics in particular — have been terrorized during Mexico's ongoing drug war. Late last month gunmen stormed a clinic and murdered 13 people, execution-style. (The mayhem wasn't random; drug gangs operate such facilities as safe havens for their foot soldiers.) Wilkins' primary concern, however, was noisy neighbors in the duplex, not narco violence.
"We'd hear cell phones ring through the wall, and ranchero music — you'd hear everything," she recalls. "You'd try to go into a guided meditation and hear someone hammering a nail."
Wilkins now rents a lavish four-bedroom home on a hill overlooking Tijuana's upscale Playas neighborhood. Amenities include a hot tub, weight room, fireplace and veranda with panoramic views. Safety was not overlooked: The subdivision is gated, and security guards inspect every vehicle that enters.
Stays at Pangea aren't cheap. For the standard 10-day detox, Wilkins charges $7,500, travel not included. She employs a staff of 10, including two Mexican physicians, a paramedic, a masseuse/acupuncturist and a chef. The chef, Wilkins' sister Sarah, is a recovering addict who credits ibogaine for kicking her drug dependence.
Aaron Aurand, a live-in volunteer, feels the same way.
"I did eight months of court-ordered, in-patient treatment before I came here," says Aurand, a native of Spokane, Wash. "I got more therapy here in five days than I did in that entire time. Lots of junkies don't want to look inside themselves. With this, you'll get shown."
In addition to ibogaine, Clare Wilkins emphasizes nutrition. The clinic's pantry is mostly filled with organic and gluten-free fare and boasts a cache of vitamins and supplements that patients gobble by the handful.
"The body has its own framework and can heal itself if you remove harmful substances and balance the systems. We do colon cleanses and liver cleanses even before they get the ibogaine," Wilkins explains, pointing out that there are practical reasons for the former: "You get people who come in here — especially opiate addicts — who are clogged up."
To date, Wilkins says, she has treated more than 300 patients. "Sixty-two percent of our clients are chronic-pain patients. You're not talking IV [heroin] addicts or crack addicts. You're talking grandmas on OxyContin."
Some people come for "psychospiritual" purposes. Ken Wells, an environmental consultant from Santa Rosa, Calif., with a neatly trimmed gray mustache and wire-frame glasses, says he underwent conventional counseling for depression for 15 years before trying ibogaine as a last-ditch effort to save his crumbling marriage.
Three days after taking ibogaine for the first time, Wells compares the experience to "defragging a computer hard drive." He experimented with psychedelics decades ago in college, but says ibogaine is like nothing else.
"It was outrageously powerful. It was like the inside of my eyeballs was an IMAX screen. It was all-encompassing, just a multitude of images, like 80,000 different TVs, all with a different channel on — just jillions of images, shapes and colors."
Did the experience help him find what he was looking for?
"I think I'm different," he says. "But I don't know."
It's easier to track Ibogaine's effect on hard-core addicts. Wilkins, who keeps tabs on former clients, estimates that one out of five stays off his or her "primary substance" for six months or more.
Tom Kingsley Brown, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, who describes his area of study as "religious conversion and altered states of consciousness," recently began recruiting Pangea patients for an independent assessment of ibogaine's long-term efficacy. Brown follows up monthly with opiate addicts during the year after their ibogaine treatment, to gauge whether their quality of life has improved.
"People I've interviewed at the clinic have had really good results, especially in the first month or so," reports Brown, who has enrolled four study subjects to date and hopes for a group of 30. "We know ibogaine interrupts the addiction in the short term, but what we're really curious about is: Does that translate into long-term relief from drug dependence?"
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