FROM THE TAIL END OF A LONG, MEANDERING ESSAY ABOUT RECREATIONAL DRUG USE THAT NEVER GOT WRITTEN
by John Wray
Three days before my thirty-sixth birthday I found myself riding in the passenger seat of a rented Ford Prius, dressed all in white, with M.—a woman I’d met only once before, on an awkward blind date—behind the wheel. We were headed to an unassuming town on the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border, to a farm at the end of a long, weed-choked drive, whose owner rented out his barn, on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, to the members of a Brazilian sect called Santo Daime. Santo Daime is a hybrid of Catholicism and certain indigenous traditions of the Amazonian headwaters: in place of wine, a drink called Ayahuasca serves as its sacrament. Ayahuasca is a pulpy, grayish, acrid-smelling gruel made by boiling the bark of certain tropical vines; it looks (and tastes) like something a frustrated child would make if left alone too long in the kitchen. It also happens to contain an enormous amount of Dimethyltriptamine, the most potent naturally-occurring hallucinogen as yet identified.
The farmhouse turned out to be a shabby split-level, deposited seemingly at random in the middle of a neglected-looking field; the barn—or ‘church’, as M. opted to call it, without the least trace of irony—was ancient and filthy and coming apart at the seams. A fussy little man in an off-white dashiki met us at the door and introduced himself as Nestor, the leader of that evening’s ceremony. The rest of the congregation were already inside, chatting in discreet little clusters like guests at a Westchester cocktail party, dressed from head to toe in complementary shades of white and cream. This may be the point in my story to confess that I’m not the most spiritual of people; the scene in the barn struck me as a little absurd, even childish, but not in any way intimidating. I had a hard time taking Nestor seriously, even when he asked me to sign a waiver absolving him from responsibility in the event that I should go insane.
When I told Nestor my name, he scrutinized me closely, then broke into a wide, gap-toothed grin.
“What a blessed coincidence—tonight happens to be the feast of John the Baptist! He lost his head, you know.”
I laughed at that, maybe a little uncomfortably, and told Nestor not to worry on my account—my head was pretty solidly attached to the rest of my body.
“Of course it is,” Nestor agreed.
Not long after this little exchange, as the sun began setting, the ceremony—or ‘work’, as Nestor referred to it—began. A wooden banquet table was placed in the exact midpoint of the barn, dividing the space into two equal halves: men and women stood on opposite sides of this long, narrow table, facing each other in rows of about ten people, two rows to either side. For the first hour we sang hymns in Portuguese, dancing a shuffling, simple dance, not unlike the hoky-poky, and I felt like a kid on the first day of camp. When the sun had set fully, we had our first drink of Ayahuasca—given to each of us by Nestor in a child-sized paper cup—and then went back to our dancing. That was all that there was to the ceremony, apparently.
After about twenty minutes, I became aware of a buzzing sensation behind my ribcage, a gentle, marijuana-ish high that intensified over the next half an hour. I’d never before taken a drug that took hold so furtively, almost shyly, as if reluctant to call attention to itself. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, but definitely not that. I did my best to throw myself into the ceremony, gamely chanting and shaking my maracas, fighting back a growing sense of disappointment.
Sometime later—maybe an hour—we had our second drink, and I began to see changes in the people around me. A young Colombian man to my right, who’d been helping me to keep in step, suddenly dropped out of line and sat down at my feet with his hands over his face; a middle-aged blonde Manhattanite, one of the most graceful of the dancers, propped herself against the table and started muttering and cursing and laughing bitterly to herself. M. was right where she’d been from the start, at the end of the second row on the women’s side, dancing as fluidly as ever, but now she barely seemed aware that she was moving. The look on her face was one of pure, indolent bliss, independent and serene, and I felt a pang of envy as I watched her. I wanted to talk to her, to ask her what she was feeling, but contact between the sexes was strictly prohibited, according to Nestor, “to keep the positive and negative energy cycling.” For my part, the only energy I’d noticed so far was a fluttering feeling somewhere in my bowels.
The dancers around me began dropping in greater numbers now, and soon I was the only one left on my side of the table. Nestor was warbling more fervently than ever, his face a parody of rapture, but more than once he sent a puzzled look my way. The shouts and groans and imprecations had grown louder than the singing by then, and Nestor cleared his throat abruptly—in mid-verse, it seemed to me—and announced “open bar” for the rest of the Ayahuasca.
I was one of only three people left standing, and the only one to take him up on his offer. He stared at me intently as I lifted the cup to my lips, as if he suspected me of playing him for a fool. I drained it in one gulp, wincing slightly from the bitterness, and this time I felt light-headed before I’d even set the cup down. It was only when I took up my place at the table again and tried to dance, fighting to keep myself upright, that the thought occurred to me that it might not be the third dose making me dizzy, but only the second, and that I’d now drunk significantly more Ayahuasca than anyone else in the room.
No sooner did I have that thought than vertigo overwhelmed me and I staggered away from the table in search of a place to lie down. The barn seemed cavernous now, much vaster than before, like the hold of a gigantic wooden ship. I lay flat on my back and stared straight up at the rafters, lining my body up with the spine of the roof, so high above me that it was almost too dark to make out. As soon as the floor met my back the vertigo disappeared and the noises around me grew dull. The roof of the barn looked beautiful and mysterious, an artifact from a vanished age, and I felt wide awake and fascinated by each minute detail of its construction. Excitement broke over me, a feeling of acceleration not unlike the initial rush of LSD or mescalin, and I spent the next half-hour in the thrall of the most intense euphoria any drug has ever brought me. I found myself laughing through clenched teeth, staring up at the rafters in helpless delight, so excruciatingly full of life that it seemed more than I could stand. “This is too much,” I said over and over, giggling as I said it. “This is too much.” But I wouldn’t have turned that feeling off for anything in the world.
Time had ceased to have significance by then, had grown dim and viscous, so it’s hard to say when the hallucinations began. They kicked in from one instant to the next, as a ninety-degree shift in perspective: suddenly I was no longer staring up at the underside of a roof, but horizontally, at the walls of a bottomless shaftway. This meant that I was somehow pressed against another of its walls—held in place vertically—and therefore in danger of falling, but the possibility didn’t trouble me at all. I was reminded of a favorite story of mine, by Jorge Luis Borges, about an infinite, subterranean library, and I enjoyed the comparison, still comfortable in the knowledge that I was tripping. I began to see the night sky between individual shingles in the roof very clearly, imagining them as tiny doors leading from the shaftway into countless blue-lit rooms.
The closer I looked, however, the more luminous the gaps became, until the blue began to ooze toward me like plasma, congealing as I watched into a grid of light that pulsed and flickered like an LED display. I wasn’t in a barn anymore, or in Borges’ mythical library, either: I was in the corner room of a Tokyo office tower, staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the Japanese equivalent of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Huge anthropomorphic balloons were passing at the level of the windows, bright pink Sumo Champions and babyish Buddhas and impassive Samurai, but the people guiding the balloons were too far away me to see. Sometime later, I was gliding like a movie camera down a motel corridor whose ceiling of styrofoam tiles blew away one after another, revealing an impossibly acid-green ‘landscape’—for want of a better word—through which amoeba-like superorganisms squirmed and flitted. I was passing from one empty interior to another, hallways and bedrooms and offices and reception areas, each exploding in a spasming orgy of color and flourescence. I enjoyed these visions the way a spectator would enjoy a ride at Disneyworld: they dazzled me, even frightened me a little, but they didn’t apply to me particularly. The Ayahuasca was still in entertainment mode.
What I still hadn’t realized—what I should have understood by then, but didn’t—was that Ayahuasca is not, in fact, a recreational drug at all. The indians of the Amazon basin use it for everything from the treatment of malaria to foretelling the cause of one’s own death, but they never use it without good reason. The step I’d taken impulsively, even casually, is considered by some tribes to be life’s defining moment. Ayahuasca is a conduit to the spirit world, a way to make contact—and, often as not, to do battle—with the angels and demons who reside beneath the skin of daily life; to invite them, sight unseen, into your body and your brain. The results, in my case, would carry me to margins of insanity.
In the middle of the night, something shifted in me: I was able to open my eyes and see the barn and the people in it, free of visions. I felt sick, and so dizzy that I could barely raise my head, but reality seemed to have readmitted me. I made out M. in the far corner of the room, splayed across a tattered couch with her eyes three-quarters closed, smiling an ambiguous, tight-lipped smile. I tried to imagine what she might be feeling, and found to my amazement that I could imagine it exactly—in fact I could imagine nothing else. I saw the room from M.’s point of view, felt her thoughts dictate mine, felt the languorous, sleepy twitchings of her body. I forgot myself and my own concerns completely.
After a long, happy spell I grew restless again, homesick for my own identity, but I discovered that I’d lost all sense of the way back. I had no idea—no idea whatsoever—of where, or what, my own identity could possibly be. I found myself struggling upstream against a torrent of competing identities, each more vivid and convincing than the last. I was a fortyish black man living in a middle-class development in what might have been suburban Long Island; I was an overweight Asian boy by the side of a muddy country road; I was an endless pageant of perfectly everyday people, male and female, happy and unhappy, American and foreign, elderly and young. And with each life I entered, my own life was more thoroughly erased.
Occasionally there were fleeting reprieves, spells of calm in which I reinhabited my body, but I felt like a tourist in a devastated country. At some point in the night, I dragged myself to the nearest of the plastic buckets in an attempt to vomit out my nausea and fear; most of the time, as far as I can judge, was spent curled up on a carseat in the darkest region of the barn, whimpering and cursing and pleading with God and my metabolism to make it stop, reciting my name and biographical details under my breath in the impotent hope that I might find some meaning in them. I understood, in those brief interludes, how utterly arbitrary one’s so-called ‘identity’ is, how fragile, how haphazardly formed out of random experience and chance events.
I spent the last hours of the night lying motionless, letting wave after wave of alienation swamp me, staring at a small, jet-black window in the opposite wall and praying for the slightest trace of blue. When the sun finally rose, it was cold enough to see my breath, as it must have been all night. I got shakily to my feet, shivering in the meager light, threading my way around and over two or three dozen partially conscious bodies. I stepped out into the clear morning sunlight, drinking it in desperately, not willing or able to trust in the fact of my miraculous re-assembly. I cried for a while, leaning over with my arms propped against the warm, scratchy bark of a sycamore tree, grateful beyond words for its undeniability. My thinking was still clouded, and many of the thoughts I had were childish—as my thoughts tend to be when I’m frightened—but at least I recognized them as my own.