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ENSENADA, Mexico – Deep within the remote mountains of northwestern Mexico, my existence dips with the fading colors of the pink sky morphing into darkness. I wait for the Iboga dosage to kick in as my heart rate drops into the low 50s and my legs sink into the mattress.

As the waiting seems to stretch into an elastic eternity, my senses become what I can best describe as an “animal frequency,” seeing and hearing the world as the creatures around me might hear them. Although human voices are muffled and barely audible close by, I can hear crisp conversations more than five hundred feet away. The rustle of the curtain is as loud as a door opening but I can decipher every bark, every bird, and every horse neighing across the surrounding farmlands from the open window near me.

The world outside, sprinkled with twinkling stars and snaking trails, appears more exquisite: a gently imagined oil painting with a soft lens to mellow the edges of parched, harsh farm life. Yet, in her fundamental glory, Mother Earth flooded me with a profound, all-encompassing sense of gratitude.

“You have to surrender; you have to be okay with dying. You must just go with it,” I hear the words of a Shaman I met long ago reverberating through my brain.

A monochrome room beset by orchestral music comes to life inside my light frame. Like a Basquiat animation materializing, the exotic trip begins as a dream; only I am not dreaming. Instead, I am wide awake with eyes closed, wrapped in soft blankets, drifting out of my body into another stratosphere, calmly requesting the medicine to tell me what I need to know.

A vibrant and soulful young man who also happens to be a recovering meth addict, had cautioned me earlier that morning, “The medicine works very differently for everyone; it works however it is supposed to work for you.”

Iboga - Hollie McKay

It’s just like the cliché: a depiction of your life flashing before your eyes as you die. From the outside, looking in at my curious self, the hosts of my trip plucked memories and faces to pivot around my grubby-faced inner child. I was again privy to beautiful, detailed encounters long forgotten. As I slowly grew older in this vision, I hugged loved ones, their ageless faces sifting through a gentle illumination of white light. I am deluged with appreciation and forgiveness for those in my orbit and for myself. I faced the guilt and shame of my life missteps, those I did wrong to and those I could not save in the theater of war throughout my career. I observed snippets of humiliation and contempt seemingly dance before me.

Nevertheless, I held on to the present, and I surrendered to the past and allowed the feeling to evaporate into a belief that it is not too late to connect to family, friends, and the enveloping earth around me. I was engulfed by a zest for the privilege of being alive and vowed to do better right here and now, to restore relationships, fully comprehending that this passing moment is all I have.

I acquiesced to the many nuggets of wisdom that rolled out, making peace with those I never said goodbye to, holding my mother’s hand as a child and my ancestors’ trailblazing generations ago. I walked alongside myself as a small girl with a messy sun-streaked braid and grazed knees, assuring her that she was safe and wanted. The hosts of this internal movie promised me I am not alone now and was never really lost nor alone. I clasped in my palm an earnest desire to be part of this universe again.

I heard my internal organs humming away as the sensory distortions drop even further into that animal instinct. As the chapters of my life passed glide on, I laughed, cried, threw up, and curled into an infantile state, like a child in the womb, my fingers entwined in each other. I felt as though the dead were walking among the living, giving me the sense that death is only a step away from earth, an elevation to the next level stratosphere, and there is nothing to fear, for those we cherish most in the world are never that far away.

After my mind’s movie eventually simmers to a dark light as the sun begins to rise and splatter supple pink streaks onto the misty morning, I am exhausted by intense emotions and unable to move. To be able to walk properly again, to feel my limbs again after they were rendered suddenly numb to pain, and to be able to glance at my phone without the screen swirling in and out took almost an entire day.

Considered to be one hundred times more potent than the well-known psychedelic South American plant Ayahuasca, a flood dose of Iboga has you “going through it” for upwards of twelve hours, sometimes longer. You are in it for the long haul. (Micro-dosing is also an option for a more elongated but equally as impactful process over the long haul.)

In the aftermath of my whirlwind experience, I hesitated to publicly write this account because it is so deeply personal and because I know that every person can experience this cocktail of hell and heaven in their own unique way. Nevertheless, I won’t deny that I am not the same person I was before flood dosing Iboga. The woman who went into that experience wore the baggage of a long career as a war reporter and a writer who has stood witness to the worst of what humans can do to other humans. I harbored notions of helplessness and, at some points, felt severed from my burned-out emotional faculties. Amplifying that, the woman who tried this experience with a plant medicine was scored with childhood traumas, untapped fears, and anxiety gushing wildly through every vein.

However, the mystical powers of the untamed and bending Iboga ride held my hand through it all, leaving me with the overwhelming realization that love and forgiveness are all that we have to bond us to ourselves, and to the broader human experience. The notion that a simple shrub native to western Central Africa, worshipped by the forest dwelling Bwiti tribes of Gabon, possesses a power for such a pathway to healing the shattered strands of my brain reinforces how richly we are all connected to ourselves, to one another, to the earth. The idea that my cynical self could be so drastically transformed and relive long-forgotten incidents is a testament to the truth that there is so much out there we do not know.

The following day is what they call a “gray day.” As my exhausted mind processes the overwhelming emotions and information, I can barely move as sporadic flashes of silver still glisten in my vision.

Many of my friends, especially those within the Special Operations community, have spoken of Iboga and its alkaloid extract, Ibogaine, as the life-changing remedy that brought about assiduous sounds and graphic images, as well as a greater self-awareness.

Until I tried it for myself, I never thought it was possible.

It cannot be stressed enough that Iboga is a dynamic, tremendously powerful drug. Pharmaceutical companies have been hesitant to enter the arena due to the risk to the heart, and despite rare deaths, it is vital that all prospects have a full medical workup before diving into the deep end and remain under medical supervision throughout the experience.

But given its illegality in the U.S., struggling Americans and those seeking deeper spiritual insights often travel south of the border or to Costa Rica, where Iboga and Ibogaine clinics are abound. (Anyone interested must do their homework and seek recommendations before going forth.)

I spent the week cocooned in a villa burrowed in Ensenada, Baja California, dotted with roaming animals, daily yoga, medicine, music, and an intricately carved temescal (sweat lodge) populated mostly by men and women detoxing and seeking reprieve from years of illicit and prescription drug use.

In addition to anecdotal reports of Iboga aiding an individual through the twists and turns of PTSD and into the place of self-love, research indicates that in significant quantities, the plant medicine can reduce symptoms of opioid withdrawal and ease substance cravings, diminish depression, and even limit the impact of non-psychiatric disorders.

Having spent much of his career in underwater demolition teams and hunting pirates off the coast of Somalia, Gary Moses’ life after the Navy plunged into despair in 2018 when he shattered his leg in a 17-foot fall.

“I was in a wheelchair, and I kept getting more and more depressed and losing mobility. Getting off the couch was a daily struggle, let alone going to work,” Gary, 52, recounts. “I had been put on all sorts of pills by the VA doctors, and I felt horrible. I lost my creativity and would be tired all the time. Then, about four months ago, I ended up here, and I just flipped it around.”

Psychiatry and neurology professionals first used the plant in New York during the 1960s and 1970s to treat heroin addiction. In spite of its clinical success, Iboga was deemed a Schedule 1 drug in the U.S. in the 1970s after the government decried its psychoactive effects as causing danger to human health.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eased testing restrictions in the 1990s, but never completed trials on its effectiveness for cocaine or heroin addiction, citing concerns about health risks. Iboga, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is not only dangerous, but also has no accepted medical use, and there is no evidence to substantiate its safe use under medical supervision.

Yet there is next to nothing recreational about Iboga dosing – it is a powerful plant medicine, and it does come with death risks if not administered by a professional. The brain is suddenly less constrained, able to display emotion and bring the pathways to a higher sense of consciousness and introspection that can be as thoroughly bloody as it is beautiful. However, as more and more veterans struggle with the effects of decades of endless military conflicts and millions of Americans turn to meth, opioids, and other dangerous substances, Iboga and Ibogaine are emerging as one of the most promising treatments for PTSD.

This plant is gradually gaining acceptance in mainstream circles at a time when innovation is crucial. The number of deaths from drug overdoses is on the rise, with more than 100,000 people dying each year. Many of the people I meet at the sprawling facility in Mexico – from firefighters and military veterans to musicians, business developers, lawyers, and fitness enthusiasts – have been to rehab facilities dozens of times, so turning to the African shrub has been their last resort.

“If more people know about plant medicine, more people will want to do it,” Gary underscores.

Iboga is said to boost neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in the brain, enabling survivors of all stripes to cope with their acute flashbacks with a stronger sense of self-compassion and less panic and judgment. Iboga is also gaining traction among Gold Star wives and spouses of those who served, many of whom have endured years of fear and excess stress.

There is hope on the horizon. For one, a 2020 research paper published in the medical journal Chronic Stress documented that all 51 veterans who had taken Ibogaine in Mexico between 2017 and 2019 chronicled “very large reductions” in a wide array of symptoms from PTSD and depression to cognitive impairment and suicidal thoughts. In addition, more than 80 percent of veterans examined referred to the psychedelic exploit as one of the top five most influential events of their lives. With Iboga’s narrative success, advocates are thus urging the VA to incorporate psychedelics into comprehensive treatment programs.

Certainly, Iboga can be used to treat more than just PTSD, depression, and addiction. Professionals at Iboga Protocol also use the dirt-like granular texture – sometimes taken by spoon and sometimes packed into pills – to quell angst for those with terminal illnesses and for eating disorders to interrupt the binge/purge cycle.

Still, psychedelics are still encapsulated in decades of counterculture stigma, relegated to the penitentiary of hippiedom and no-cause rebellion. It’s a tough label to break through, but slowly the wall of taboo and misunderstanding is crumbling.

Iboga could be lifted from the arbitrary realm of the experimental and understood properly as a treatment. Imagine all the rejuvenated souls, the shattered cycles of self-destruction, the lives saved and re-born, the reunification with our childhood, our innocence, a return to the place of purity and gratitude for the rocky road we have all, to some extent, run upon with naked feet.

Ibogaine unravels the programmed knots of one’s mind, according to one 50-something Texan who spent years caught up in the web of dope running in Dallas before finding solitude in the southern periphery. As he explains it, Iboga facilitates a time jump to the past in an effort to make peace with it, allowing the person to clear their path forward.

“The present is peace, tomorrow is not here, and yesterday no longer exists,” the Texan tells me breezily from a rock overlooking the supine fields of dust and green. “All we have is this moment.”

So, somewhere on the edge of the Mexican mountains in Spring, I parted ways with the need to use sadness and pain to fill up the emptiness that often come with moments of wincing memory and the smell of bombs blistering near my feet. Instead, I can imagine a time and place long before me, and the doors of perception swing open to all that exists long after I leave the Earth.

The afternoon following my second flood dose, I sat in the dirt and wept uncontrollably in the slender rays of light that shimmered like puddles. I began to feel the chaos that had become commonplace in my mind spin uncontrollably once again. My head trembled and I threw up again, lamenting to one of the other renegade rehabbers that the tumult is returning and wreaking nauseating havoc.

“You can tell it to stop,” one of the other volunteers turned treatment workers says gently.

That is perhaps the most important lesson of all. We return to our power, our dominance, our strength – finding the answers that have lain dormant for too long within us. We return to our true selves.

The effects of Iboga still reside in my mind months later: a calmness, a better quality of sleep, an enhanced ability to empathize and sympathize with those near and far. The swings of apprehension feel as though they belong to a bygone chapter, and there is a whole book of a fulfilling life left to live.