“The year was 1920. The hospital was light, pale; the colors (or lack thereof) created a cold space. A hospital, where people fought to stay alive but the cool setting reeked of lives lost. All of the beds were on a track. It was like an amusement park, but lacking of laughter, of life. The beds went around and around and as they approached a nurses’ station, I watched the patients lick a morphine sponge and then continue on the track. As I approached the station I asked the nurse, ‘What is this?’ Her eyes connected with mine, it seemed no one bothered to ask her this question before. ‘These are Morphs; they have nothing to live for. They will go around and around until the day that they die.’”
I listened to Dave speak. As he finished describing his hallucination I asked him what he made it mean. “I didn’t want to be caught in the cycle, I wanted to do something with my life; I was acutely aware of death while on the drug.”
The drug? Ibogaine. I had never heard of it until I was connected to Dave, an individual who ended his four year substance use disorder to pain medications and heroin with a twelve hour trip on Ibogaine. Four years were addressed in twelve hours plus some ongoing outpatient counseling to ensure lasting success. Four years, in twelve hours.
Dave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age twenty. Due to the pain, he was put on pain medications. One month prescriptions were quickly used in a week. To avoid withdrawal symptoms, Dave went to the streets for heroin in between prescriptions. Before long it became clear what was happening; prescriptions were no longer available and heroin became his sole source of relief. Dave used heroin exclusively for almost a year.
I asked Dave what eventually sparked his want to quit. In short, he was tired of ruining his life. He was no longer receiving pleasure from taking heroin and in addition, he could not take the guilt and everything else associated with his drug use.
Dave looked for a way out. His main fear was the withdrawal symptoms. The thing that led him to heroin in the first place, was the thing preventing him from quitting it. Dave was aware of the main stream options, but none of them resonated with him. He stated that he did not want to take methadone (and experience withdrawal symptoms from that), he did not want to go into treatment for 30 to 90 days, he didn’t want to sit in a room with a bunch of people telling cheery stories, and 12 Steps simply did not appeal to him because of his strong atheist views. Dave knew what he didn’t want. He also knew what he did want; to quit heroin in the shortest time with the least amount of pain. Though this may sound like wishful thinking, Dave quickly learned he had another option that would offer him just that.
Ibogaine is a psychoactive drug with hallucogenic and introspective phases. Physiological impacts (from my limited research) include alleviation of withdrawal symptoms as well as reduction or elimination of cravings for the individual’s drug of choice (in this case, heroin). Alleviation of withdrawal symptoms was the main reason Dave took a chance with Ibogaine, it was reason enough for him to risk what he stated was a 1 in 1000 chance of death.
It surprised me that I had never heard of Ibogaine. There is a drug out there, that can help end substance use disorders in one trip, yet majority of us do not even know this is an option. Let me rephrase, majority of us do not know this is available, but not an option, at least in the United States. Ibogaine is currently illegal in the US, listed as a Schedule I substance with no medical value. However, it is unscheduled in many countries including Canada, the UK, South Africa, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Mexico, which hosts several Ibogaine clinics. Dave learned about the drug through NPR and TV. The American Life and Law and Order SVU, mentioned Ibogaine and Dave, like others, did not believe that it could possibly be real. So he researched documenting the facts, the dangers, the symptoms, etc. and he made the choice for his way out, at 25 years of age.
Dave ordered Ibogaine from a site based out of South Africa. The site asked questions about his weight, how much heroin he was using, why he was using and why he wanted to quit, etc. According to his answers, they shipped him an appropriate dose in a hidden package.
Of course Dave was aware that he was ordering drugs from the internet noting that this, “appropriate dose,” may be nothing of the sort. As mentioned, death was a potential consequence but, according to Dave, it was worth the risk. Dave however, was lucky. His mom is a nurse and was there to monitor his entire trip. They began by administering just a bit of the drug to make sure he was not allergic. When all went well, the onetime dose was administered. His mom monitored his heart rate and blood pressure throughout his trip. They also had a back-up plan to rush to the hospital if any vitals revealed signs of danger; they never did.
Dave stated that after taking the onetime dose, he couldn’t stand. He couldn’t use his muscles so he lay in bed for 12 hours as the effects of the drug came on, peaked, and then wore off. He always knew what was happening during the time and described his hallucinations as lucid dreaming. He was always aware of that which was real, and that which wasn’t. But though aware his hallucinations were not necessarily real, they had a lasting impact. Dave also stated that the introspective phase helped him deal with the demons that led to his drug use in the first place.
When the Ibogaine wore off, Dave didn’t really have withdrawal issues, just some stomach issues, but no real pain, no anxiety, and no cravings. He describes his come down as, “incredibly pleasant,” compared to the other withdrawal symptoms experienced earlier in life. Overall he stated that he came out with an appreciation for being alive. He felt like he wasted his life doing drugs, but now he was motivated.
Dave never touched heroin again. Although he lives in an area of town where the drug is extremely accessible, he states that he has no desire and feels no temptation.
Along with the impactful hallucinations and introspective phase, Dave stated that, “Ibogaine provides an opportunity; a period where the individual isn’t so hampered by their substance use disorder. They are able to develop healthy routines and habits so that after the initial few months, after all of the effects have worn off, they are able to continue those habits instead of use.” Although Ibogaine is a catalyst in an individual’s recovery from substance use disorder, it is not a determining factor of success. It is vital that the individual capitalize on their window of opportunity.
I asked about Dave’s life now. How has his life changed since he quit using heroin? Dave started working with a friend to help him with his snow removal landscape construction business. The company has a lot of contracts and Dave is often the first point of contact. Although it is something he has never done before, he is excelling at it.
He also bought a motorcycle, which he describes as a huge achievement as he had never owned a vehicle before. “It is nice being able to do the things I want to all of the time.”
In addition, he started seriously dating someone again and became closer with most of his family.
And his MS? Dave states that he still experiences pain from the disease, but now he views it as a reminder of being alive. He has also looked into other ways of dealing with the pain which include exercise and an occasional trip to the Russian bathhouse.
As I documented his words I asked him what his intentions were in sharing his story. Summed up, he wanted others to know of someone who experienced Ibogaine; he wished he knew someone in his time of need. The ideal is to get Ibogaine into the medical setting. I inquired about his thoughts on why it wasn’t there now.
“It’s a moral thing with withdrawals, the idea that you have to be punished. I don’t think there is any inherent value in suffering.”
It’s not news that drug use is often seen as a moral issue. Individuals are labeled as bad people, and a disorder becomes an argument of ethics. But not only are we applying this model to those individuals, we are also applying this model to their treatment. Instead of embracing the many pathways to recovery, we deem some pathways to recovery as, “right,” and others as, “wrong,” while ignoring individuals’ desires. In doing so, we are losing individuals that could potentially be saved if all modes of treatment and recovery were actually made available, in a medical setting, and not through a lucky purchase on the internet.