An appointment with Dr. Iboga

May 9, 2014
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About an hour had passed since I took the four-capsule microdose of dried iboga root, perhaps the most powerful visionary plant on Earth. Time seemed to have slowed down. I felt drunk, and my arms trailed beside me as I walked. Groovy.

I sat down Indian-style on the mat at the Costa Rica Yoga Spa in Nosara, waiting to begin my “iboga yoga” session. The straw-thatched yoga deck overlooked a rain forest valley with a running waterfall and an incredible view of the ocean. It was sunset, and howler monkeys roared from the treetops. I couldn’t have been happier.

Skilled yoga instructor Ashley Ludman led the class. Her cues were impeccable, and I experienced the sensation of stretching like never before. Thanks to the microdose, I could feel each cell within my muscles yawning, opening gently and snapping back. My body felt more flexible, and I was elated – grateful to be alive and practicing yoga right here, right now. All unwanted thoughts in my head seemed to have melted.

doing yoga on iboga
Photo by Genna Marie Robustelli | Photo Illustration by Erin Morris

 

For those of you unversed in ancient entheogens, the psychedelic substance Tabernanthe iboga was first employed by the Bwiti tribe in Gabon, Africa, for its curative properties (both mental and physical), as well as for spiritual purposes and rite-of-passage ceremonies. It comes from the root bark of a mature African shrub that must be at least 10 years old to contain enough mind-altering compounds for it to be psychoactive.

Although iboga has been around for thousands of years, it is now becoming increasingly accepted in Western medicine – mostly for its success in treating addictions, including heroin, cocaine and alcohol. According to Darin McBratney, owner of Costa Rica Yoga Spa, iboga’s healing powers don’t stop there. He hopes that through proper research, iboga can be used as a magic bullet to treat a host of modern illnesses including multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and even cancer.

Because of the plant’s incredible versatility and strange knack for sussing out what ails a person, the substance is often referred to as “Dr. Iboga.” During my research, I’d read countless reports of people successfully using it for mental problems like depression. Some have reported that it’s like 10 years of therapy – in one night.

To me, these claims seemed questionable. I had to check out iboga for myself to see if they were legit.

iboga root in capsule form
The bitter ground up bark is usually taken in a smoothie and not in capsule form. Genna Marie Robustelli

 

The effects of the microdose had turned out to be so pleasantly intoxicating that when the final yoga pose came and went, I wondered if I should take more. Other psychedelic explorers stop after iboga yoga ends, after having taken just one gram – particularly people with heart or liver problems.  But I felt curious; I wanted to explore another mental dimension. I had signed up for the full treatment: An intense journey with “Dr. Iboga.” And in order to truly meet the doctor, you have to ingest a lot of iboga root.

To reach a clinical dose, it’s necessary to take between 14 and 26 grams of iboga. For me, that equaled at least 42 capsules of ground up root bark. Although my stomach shudders to think about it, I’ve no doubt that taking the root in pill form is the least revolting method of ingestion. The other option is drinking this same quantity of bitter bark in a smoothie.

I’ll be honest with you, readers. Iboga was not always a journey of happy visions and pretty lights. It was often nauseating and unpleasant. Let me start off by saying that “purge” is a nice word for “puke” or “shit.” You can expect to do plenty of this on iboga, particularly when it comes to vomiting. But the purging is good. With each purge come the best visions and the most meaningful messages.

Luckily, the Costa Rica Yoga Spa crew has thought of every detail to make the experience the most comfortable it can be. Their setup was nothing short of luxurious.

yoga deck with fluffy beds for iboga trip
Courtesy of Costa Rica Yoga Spa

 

I began my attempt to reach a clinical dose by lying down on my  personal fluffy floor bed, which was adorned with high-quality, high thread-count sheets. On top of the first, light sheet was a heavier blanket in case I got cold. To my right was a heavy puke bucket that Darin or Ashley would empty every time I threw up in it.

They even gave me a blackout sleep mask that allowed me to open my eyes and stare at a black “screen” (imagine a pair of swim goggles, except where there would normally be glass, it is completely black).

I was beginning to feel nauseous and after swallowing 42 pills, and I really didn’t want to put anything else in my stomach. After taking a distantly-related plant called ayahuasca last year, I know that with this type of trip it’s often better to take too much medicine than too little. You want to make sure to take enough to push yourself over the edge, and your body will always get rid of the excess. My intuition told me to take even more, but I ignored it. Too bad.

Suddenly I puked in my bucket – lots of water and black stuff. About five seconds later, I did it again. Then I laid on my back and enjoyed the ride.

Looking up at the ceiling, I thought to myself: Genna, why don’t you close your eyes? Surely the best stuff will happen in the dark. But it already was dark – I had my blackout mask on. If I have my mask on, I thought, how the hell can I see the ceiling?

This was unreal. If I could see the ceiling through my mask, I wondered if I could see farther. I tried to go beyond the ceiling, and it gave way to a starry black sky. The sky began to ripple, much like the surface tension of water, and at that moment I knew that the real action was behind that screen. I needed to burst through the sky to get there.

Every time I got a glimpse of what was beyond, I would slip and fall right back into my screen. I just didn’t have enough iboga power to “blast off,” I decided. I wanted to ask for more, but I was mostly incoherent, and I wondered if we were even allowed to ask. Also, I was a little scared. Then came the sounds.

BzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzROOOOOOOOOOOOMBzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

This sound got louder and louder in my ears. I wondered who would operate a weed whacker at such a late hour. Then I remembered that loud buzzing is a side effect of iboga. The buzzing sounds got louder as my visions got more intense.

That’s when the real fun started.

CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS –CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS –CONNECTIONS – CONNECTIONS

That word, CONNECTIONS, started repeating itself in my head, both spelled out in capital letters and also spoken in someone else’s voice. With each unique thought that crossed my mind, the words were spelled out for me in a visual sentence within my brain. It became chaotic with all those words flying around.

Infinity also became a theme for the night. I saw fractals and train tracks and piping that stretched on into infinity. I somehow followed both sides at once, lengthening out into the ether.

train fractal
Photo Illustration by Masakazu Matsumoto

 

At some point I started receiving succinct life lessons that would flash on my screen like banners, accompanied by a game show sound. Blah bla bla BLINGGGGGG. I can only remember two of them:

Every beginning has an end.

What are you really so afraid of?

Then the Dr. Iboga entity took me on a self-improvement learning journey, scene by scene within my memory  – kind of like Scrooge McDuck in “A Christmas Carol.” I went from my childhood to having conversations with people I knew, all of it happening inside my head. The visions sped past rapidly, however, and I could never stay in the same place for more than a few seconds, which was frustrating.

I spent some time walking down memory lane with my father, going camping and to the batting cages. I remember watching myself grow as a fetus in my mother’s womb, eventually becoming a baby and coming out the canal, watching people cut the umbilical cord. I felt sad that my mother and I were once so connected and are now so disconnected. I vowed to change that. I realized that I came out of her body, and she cares about what’s going on in my life even though we live so far away.

After the umbilical cord was cut, the animation went backward and I was sucked back into her stomach and shrank and shrank. I turned into a fetus and then an egg and then went *poof* into a cloud of dust that looked like a cloud of little sparkling stars.

Throughout the entire night I was very aware that this was going on in my head. I never thought I was really anywhere but in Nosara, on the mat. It was pretty easy to control what my thought topics were, but not the thoughts themselves – and if I ever came across anything upsetting, I could always take off my mask and open my eyes, and everything looked more or less normal.

My eyes were so sensitive to light that I wondered if I were really able to magically see through my mask or if my eyes were so sensitized they were able to perceive light through it. The Bwiti tribe in Africa actually uses iboga to sharpen night vision.

At one point I saw a sort of X-ray diagram of my own body on my “brain screen.” I could feel something calmly moving around, from my shoulder, to back to my side, to strange muscles I didn’t even know I had. As it scanned each muscle group, the area would light up orange and become warm. A soothing chime sound would ring every time it reached a new place.

When it reached my head, I got nervous. I have a history of migraines, but they’ve mostly stopped as I’ve gotten older. I was worried that the iboga might change something in my brain that would switch the headaches back on (thankfully, it didn’t). The medicine did a lot of scanning at the tip top of my brain, analyzing it. I could actually feel it moving around up there.

As the most intense part of the trip began to fade, a headache set in and I felt like I needed to puke. I could feel all of the medicine sloshing around in the bottom of my stomach, but I just couldn’t throw it up.

I tossed and turned and had the same images on my screen in an endless loop. Words words words floating across the screen, all repeating and often negative. I knew there was something I was supposed to learn from all this but I just couldn’t figure out what. I waited patiently until morning.

This whole time, Darin and Ashley were incredibly attentive. Throughout the night, they came by to check on me every so often, and I’d just give a thumbs up indicating that everything was OK. I seriously doubt there is any other service like this on the planet, and it is incredible.

It was so nice having them there to help with walking to the bathroom. Let me tell you, walking is truly challenging on iboga. You feel like a zombie. Your feet are heavy and clumsy and your depth perception is totally screwed. Stairs disappear and look flat, and flat surfaces often look like stairs you must lift your feet over. Add this to a complete lack of balance, and a walking aid is a must.

At some point, my mask unexpectedly changed from black to a beautiful electric blue, and then faded away into what looked like a heart monitor slowing its pace. I knew that this signified the end — the iboga was powering down.

The next morning I felt like all of the words and messages that had been rattling around inside my head had been shaken up and dumped on top of my skull. The iboga had pried my brain open with a crowbar, and my body felt like it was hit by a train.

mona lisa made from words
Photo Illustration by Masakazu Matsumoto

 

My brain was foggy and I couldn’t remember much from the night before. My thoughts revolved around the discomfort I was feeling now.

“Don’t worry, that’s why we call it the Gray Day.” Darin said. Most people don’t remember much and it slowly starts to come back as they reflect on the experience.”

Phew. Otherwise I wouldn’t have anything to write about.

It’s been more than three weeks since the iboga session.

I have a newfound depth of concentration, and my thoughts are crisp and clear. Thanks to this laser-like focus, my procrastination habits have largely become a thing of the past. I find myself drinking about a quarter as much alcohol as I normally drink, and I seem to be handling stress better.

Also, my measuring systems seem to be retuned – I’m extremely aware of how empty or full my stomach is, and of how loudly or softly I’m speaking. I’m optimistic that it permanently switched off my migraines, but only time will tell. Although the iboga experience was intense and unpleasant at times, it brought me to so many realizations and showed me so many amazing things. It was completely worth it.

While iboga is legal in Costa Rica, many societies have a problem with it, along with several other ancient therapeutic medicines like ayahuasca, peyote and the San Pedro cactus. In the U.S., iboga is a Schedule I drug. It’s in the same category as heroin and cocaine, the category designated for substances with a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value.

No medicinal value? No medicinal value my ass. This plant’s medicinal value is indescribable – it’s off the charts. And to abuse this plant would be an incredible feat of human determination. Iboga provides such an intense journey that once you ride it out, you won’t be ready for another one for a long, long while.

The time has come for more psychedelic explorers to come out of the closet about the benefits of these life-changing visionary plants. I want to live in a world where exploring a self-improving, 100 percent natural drug doesn’t come with jail time. Where peaceful navigation of different realms of consciousness is a basic human right.

I just hope that the self-improvements brought on by iboga don’t wear off with time. Otherwise I might just have to make another appointment with Dr. Iboga.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that iboga contains DMT. Iboga actually contains ibogaine, an indole alkaloid that is highly psychoactive.

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