Not the greatest childhood.

Emotional neglect. Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Left in the care of an undiagnosed but clearly mentally ill grandmother. Young, single mom who liked to date and party instead of spending time with me. Nonexistent dad. Poor and unwashed. Bullied at school. Shame. Fundamentalist Christianity. A perpetual guilty conscience. Total self-hatred.

I took what escape methods I could find. First, it was books, education, and music. I would spend hours reading books meant for adults or teaching myself complicated classical pieces on a crappy old student flute. I excelled in school. When we relocated to Georgia, the educational system was so terrible that I grew bored and directionless. I took a crooked route, skipping school, smoking, running away. Raves. Drugs.

Somehow, I cleaned up my act enough to get into college, but without any sort of guidance, without any practical life skills or discipline, I soon failed out. Six months later, I moved back home and took an office job. Despite the partying, I excelled at it and was eventually offered a job in New York. I took it and ran.

I had no idea how to be an adult. I stomped my way through jobs, relationships, friendships, and apartments. On the surface, I was well-liked, considered beautiful. Underneath, I was ugly, broken, paranoid, and terrified everyone I knew actually hated me.

To escape, I partied. Ecstasy and amphetamines were my drugs of choice, followed by Valium, Xanax, or ketamine to relax and come down.

My serotonin levels suffered. My adrenals failed. I wasn’t even 30.

Eventually, my four-year relationship failed as well, and from the glamorous life of Brooklyn loft living, I hopped from one ghetto apartment to another, working up both the guts and the funds to kiss New York goodbye. I cried myself to sleep every night. I’d grown tired of drugs and the friends who did them and the scene that occupied it all. In an effort to escape my life, to find a cure for my depression and lack of purpose, I threw myself into activism and heavy internet surfing.

And then there it was. Ayahuasca. It was so clear. I needed to call this in.

A few weeks later, a friend came for her yearly visit to the city. She had tried, for years, to talk me into moving out West, even offering up a room in her home, but for most of those years, I’d been comfortably settled in with my photographer boyfriend in our hip Brooklyn loft and couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to live in Oregon. This time, however, I was ready to go. Anywhere.

She had news, as well. She was compelled, she said, to tell me about these ceremonies she’d begun participating in.

A few months later, I was in Portland, ready for my first ayahuasca ceremony.

Like many New Yorkers, I was fond of black. It was easy. It made me look even skinnier than the drugs kept me, and it allowed for a minimalist wardrobe that fit the endless minimalist closets I encountered.

But for my first ayahuasca ceremony, my friend sent me with a white, flowing ensemble I never would have been able to come up with on my own.

I was out of my element but immediately felt kinship with the older, wild-haired Bostonian who, along with his female partner, was guiding the ceremony. He was an ex-alcoholic and an ex-junkie who, despite having left the East Coast years before for more paradisaical climes, had held onto the kind of guttural, snarky manner of speaking that still flowed through my own veins. In a circle of kind, earnest Oregonians, he quickly became my anchor.

I was no stranger to psychedelics. My brief foray into college was also a foray into tripping really, really hard. Heavy involvement in the rave scene, and later with Burning Man, introduced me to designer drugs, combinations of drugs, drugs mixed with sleep deprivation, drugs mixed with sex: West Coast culture was also tuning me in to other things — sacred sexuality, shamanic journeying, permaculture, trance states, yoga, and physical self-care, all things that were bending and expanding my perceptions ever further. I was experienced, absolutely, and so when I felt the effects of the ayahuasca begin to come on, I knew I should probably get up and pee. It was very clear I was going to “go somewhere,” and if I wanted to sink into it fully, an empty bladder was a very good idea.

I managed to make my way to the bathroom and urinate, but as I stood up and walked to the sink to wash my hands, I started tripping hard — the air started to sparkle, the lines in my hands began to tell stories. Somehow, I got the faucet running and dipped my hands in, and then I looked up into the mirror.

Staring back at me was an angel in white. Oh, she was glorious. A radiant being of pure love, she was here with purpose. She had an aura of gold, her olive skin, dark hair, and nearly black eyes glowing with wholeness, as if the sun shown from her very depths. I fell into her radiance with a powerful sense of recognition and relief, as if the Divine Mother herself had come to hold and heal me.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door that brought me out of my reverie enough to crack it open. There was my ceremonial guide, his Gandalf hair falling down over his shoulders, a twinkle in his eye.

“Everything okay in here?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I opened the door a little more.

“Look at her,” I told him, eyes wide as I waved my hand at the mirror. “LOOK AT HER. Isn’t she beautiful?”

“She is, yes, she is,” he agreed. He was sincere, and the expression on his face told me he knew what had happened for me.

“Come back and join us in the circle,” he said, as he took my arm and led me back to the room.

It suddenly dawned on me that I’d been looking at myself, that I’d been shown a small glimpse of who I truly was — beneath all the pain, paranoia, guilt, and self-hatred, I was a whole, beautiful, pure being of light and kindness and love. I sat down and began to sob quietly — a mixture of sadness, of mourning, cleansing and gratitude. Finally, I had given myself some love. Waves of it began to pour through me then, growing ever more powerful until, though we’d been asked not to, I spoke out to the group.

“I’m sorry, I’m so full of love, you guys. I can’t contain it anymore!”

The woman next to me, who’d been deep in a crying moment of her own, forehead pressed to the floor, spoke out as well.

“You don’t have to, honey.”

I promptly purged, intensely — as white as the clothes I’d been wearing were, the blackness that poured out of me and into that bucket was equally so, and I knew exactly what it was. It was good that it had left me.

I will probably always struggle with some anxiety and depression, a little self-loathing here and there, but I have both accepted and forgiven so much else since that moment in a Portland bathroom 15 years ago when Divinity showed herself to me. It’s part of my path, I now understand, to work with these things so that I may better understand and serve others. I am forever grateful.

I still partake, periodically. I don’t feel the need to do it frequently—lessons from every ceremony I’ve ever been a part of still come to me, and I know that inside us all is beauty, as well as the power to heal ourselves and guide others to their own inner light. I’m no Pollyanna — the world is full of darkness and pain — but inside most of us is a love that heals all. Inside us is the power to change everything, and you will never, ever convince me otherwise. I have seen Her with my own eyes.