“As the power of fear and hatred threatens to drive me back over the edge, I desperately try to focus on the positive. The harder I try, the faster my head vibrates, about to explode…Something suddenly cracks, followed by a rushing sound… I vomit again and again. The stench of death fills the air.
Seconds later, the purest peace I’ve ever felt fills my body. I open my eyes and see the world for the first time, as it really is: pristine, beautiful and perfect…”
Thirty-year-old computer programmer Mark Flaherty’s world is turned upside down when he is diagnosed with an incurable illness, and a voice within insists the answer lies with ayahuasca—a sacred, visionary plant medicine.
Flaherty leaves his native England to live among the shamans of the Peruvian Amazon where he participates in hundreds of ayahuasca ceremonies. What he discovers about himself and the nature of existence is as shocking as it is inspiring.
This captivating true story of a man’s fight to heal himself demonstrates that anything really is possible and everything does happen for a reason.
The face looking back at me in the mirror is a snarl of bloody, cracked skin, oozing a foul-smelling yellow liquid that trickles unchecked down its cheeks. The eyes are lifeless and defeated after months of agony. All features are frozen in place by the knowledge that the slightest twitch of the mouth or arch of an eyebrow is enough to split the skin open once more.
I consider the daunting tasks ahead of me: putting on clothes, walking downstairs, eating breakfast and returning to my room for another session of mindless daytime TV. I sigh and look down at the floor, littered with layers of dead skin. No matter how much I vacuum it’s impossible to keep it clean.
As I do every morning, I inspect my body, hoping to find any evidence that this torture will end. My neck and chest are as diseased as my face. My arms and hands, also throbbing and bruised-purple like my face, are getting worse. They’re etched with deep, infected cuts and inflamed scratch marks, casualties of the interminable itching.
This is my life—a moment-by-moment struggle to survive with severe eczema.
I take a deep breath and reach for the nearest shirt.
Despite the nearly unbearable muggy weather, I put on a long-sleeve shirt and long trousers in an attempt to avoid mosquito attack as I walk to the long house. Transformed since the afternoon, it’s bare of table, chairs and hammocks. In their place, three mattresses lie on the wood-slatted floor. Beside each is a cup of water, toilet paper and plastic bowl (lovingly referred to as a “puke bucket”). In front of the mattresses are two rocking chairs surrounded by numerous bottles of exotic potions. Seated in those chairs calmly smoking mapacho, jungle tobacco that bears more of a resemblance to cigars than cigarettes, are the two men in whose hands we’re about to trust our lives. As if it were any other evening spent among good friends, Alberto and Hamilton joke together in the jungle dialect that my reasonable amount of Spanish cannot decipher.
Two kerosene lamps give off a golden, smoky glow, heightening the eerie atmosphere and the electric tension in the air. I choose the mattress on the far right. I smile nervously at Hamilton who chuckles like an expectant child. He gives us a final few words of advice:
“Focus on positive thoughts, relax and let go of all expectations. If it gets tough, just laugh and be thankful.”
The shamans cover their bodies with the various bottled mixtures, Hamilton explaining each contains a different plant to protect their bodies spiritually. One of these is camalonga, a plant that teaches through one’s dreams. Another is “vampire juice” a mixture of male garlic and camphor in a sugarcane liquor.
“Hollywood got that part right,” Hamilton tells us, smiling as he rubs it on his arms and on top of his head. “They really don’t like garlic.”
Turning to Alberto on his left he asks, “¿Listo maestro? ¿Le doy?” Are you ready, maestro? Shall I begin? It’s as though my whole life has been in preparation for this moment.
The three of us watch intently as Hamilton blows smoke from his mapacho into the bottle of ayahuasca, then sings icaros into it. Although they sound like songs, they are in fact commands to the medicine spirits, taught during apprenticeship by the spirits themselves. Alberto follows suit, adding his own force and energy to the brew.
Before I know it, I’m holding a small metal cup. My scepticism will not allow me to believe that this thick brown sludge actually contains spirits willing to help me heal physically and emotionally. But, on the off chance that they do exist and can hear my thoughts, I tell them how scared I am and ask them to be gentle with me. Searching for a space free of thought, free of doubt, I down the concoction in one gulp.
Once everybody, including the shamans, has drunk, the kerosene lamps are extinguished. The shrill calls of the crickets and frogs in the distance intensify as we sink into darkness so thick I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed.
It’s not long before the hypnotic beat of the shacapas, the leaf rattles used by the shamans to direct and move energy, coupled with the enchanting sounds of the icaros, send me into a trance. As I drift away, my body is compressed into the mattress, as though an elephant were sitting on my chest…
I start to writhe on the mat, fighting desperately to gain control over my body. Soon I’m kicking my legs and flailing my arms, thrashing on the unyielding floor and screaming at the top of my lungs:
“Get it out of me, get it out of me, I don’t want it anymore! Help me, help me!”
Then the mattress disappears. No more house. No more icaros. No more ceremony. Only complete and utter chaos and terror. Unable to process a thought, I spiral through a web of madness.
There is a sound, a voice, somewhere nearby. It’s telling me to calm down, that everything is okay. Hamilton is by my side, reminding me that I’m in an ayahuasca ceremony. Now I remember. Okay, breathe, focus, this is a good thing Mark. You’re purging negative energies. I relax, aware momentarily of my surroundings, but the dark spirit is not done with me. From a prone position I suddenly flip up onto the top of my head—without using my arms or legs. I hold the inverted pose like a freeze-frame break-dancer, balancing in mid-air for several seconds, before somebody pulls me back down onto the mattress.
Hamilton tries to grab hold of my legs. I manage one good solid kick to his head before he pins me to the ground. The two helpers, Pedro and Rosa, have an arm each. Between them they make sure I can’t do myself or anyone else more damage.
When it becomes clear that I’m not going to respond to words, Hamilton picks me up and half-carries, half-drags me to the shower, continuing to restrain me in a bear hug as the water rains down on our clothed bodies. Eventually, I begin to calm down and return to my body. Hamilton sits me on the floor outside of the shower and tells me to focus on light and love, to go into my heart.
My heart! The mere mention of the word conjures forth visions of demonic entities, spitting fire and tormenting me mercilessly. “You are worthless. You don’t deserve to be happy. You are incapable of experiencing love,” they scream.
I am never, ever, EVER doing this again, I say to myself as I search for a way out, for a glimmer of light, the slightest glimpse of hope. At this point, death would be a welcome alternative.
As the power of fear and hatred threatens to drive me back over the edge, I desperately attempt to focus. The harder I try, the faster my head vibrates until something cracks, followed by a rushing sound. I vomit again and again. The stench of death fills the air.
Seconds later, the purest peace I’ve ever felt fills my body. Like a newborn I open my eyes and see the world for the first time, as it really is: pristine, beautiful and perfect—from the lady sitting opposite me, to the floorboards and the harmonious way they fit together, to the floral pattern on the shower curtain.
Wait a minute, who’s that lady?
Turning to look at her again she appears to be about forty years old. With long, flowing white hair and a serene, blissful expression, she radiates love and grace. Her green-eyed gaze transfixes me.
“I’m your Guardian Angel,” the sparkling, emerald pools that are her eyes announce. My heart bursts open. Joy and gratitude spill out. I’m awash with tranquillity. This interaction is perfectly normal. I beam a big smile in her direction. No longer can I doubt the existence of spirits. I revel in this heavenly bliss until I remember that my clothes are soaking wet.
“Good work,” Hamilton shouts to me as I re-enter the main part of the house in a dry set of clothes. “I think we scored a ten on the intensity scale tonight!”
“What on earth happened?” I ask him.
“Well, while you were thrashing around there was an enormous black demon coming out of you,” he says matter-of-factly. “It stretched up about thirty feet, right to the roof of the building. That thing was mean, and it didn’t want to come out. But we got him. That’s the first time I’ve had to put someone in the shower. Congratulations!”
I’m not sure this is something to be proud of.