November 2010. I had awoken like any other morning — late, swearing, and still stoned from the night before. But on this particular morning, I found myself pinned to my bed by a throbbing pain tearing through my body, too stiff to tremble. And it was only the beginning. Over the next three years, I would lose everything, in addition to my health — my partner, my career, my dreams — and gain only a caretaker and a grim diagnosis from a Harvard doctor: scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that promised to torment and destroy my every cell while I helplessly witnessed the body I’ve known gradually contort and atrophy beyond recognition. Until I died.
I tried everything. The best specialists at Boston’s world-renowned hospitals, every pharmaceutical, ozone therapy, a rife machine, herbs, energy medicine, diets no one has ever heard of. But despite all this, every day I felt my skin tighten like a balloon that wouldn’t pop; I watched my face harden against my skull, like a prehistoric head reconstructed from archaeological remains. My hands retracted into hardened claws. My body became a living mummy that cried out if you touched it. Bound to a wheelchair, I hadn’t walked in three years, only ever leaving my apartment on a stretcher for doctor appointments — and things weren’t going to get better. I decided to euthanize.
Then, through a series of synchronistic circumstances, a dear friend sent me a podcast about ayahuasca and its miraculous healing properties. I had never liked psychedelics, but no trip could be worse than the one I was already on. So, in November 2013, I toasted the God I no longer believed in and emptied a glass of this strange, muddy liquid down my throat, alone in my apartment.
Forty-five minutes later, it hit. The walls, floor, and ceiling disappeared, shattering into the vastness of space, an expansive void in which I was now aimlessly floating. I opened my eyes. Whew, the room was still there. I immediately began fumbling with my phone, but it was Saturday night — no one was answering. I left a message, not knowing for whom.
Then everything went black. I was drifting toward a black hole, the astonishing gravity pulling me into its pure nothingness. Suddenly, as the black hole’s belly spat me out, I lurched forward with a resounding crack throughout my body, my face thrust into the bucket in my lap, expelling the dark liquid I had drunk an hour before. I began retching, as if from a thousand food poisonings, gasping for air, wondering if my neck — now composed of thick, unforgiving scar tissue — might break with every violent jerk of my body, or if my head might simply pop off. When my stomach felt clear, I opened my eyes to find my face resting on the edge of the bucket — and my phone ringing.
“Oh, thank God!” I yelled into the speaker phone.
“Hey, Mandy, what’s going on?” It was my friend Jesse, who had recently moved away.
“Jesse, I’m on ayahuasca,” I slurred.
“You’re…on ayahuasca? Like right now?”
“Like right now,” I managed to get out before heaving nonstop again. I groaned. “Sorry.”
“Is anybody with you? Can someone come over?” he asked.
“I don’t have anybody,” I said truthfully. And Jesse knew it.
“Well, tell me what’s happening,” he quickly responded, before I could get lost in my sadness. “What do you see?”
“I met God,” I reported nonchalantly. It was actually the first thing I saw after my apartment disappeared. “She’s a woman.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I mean, that totally makes sense.”
“She told me I would die,” I lamented. “It’s too late. She won’t save me.” I started throwing up again, absorbed in my vision, melting into deliquescent black holes, which, in turn, threw me back up again in my living room. Silence.
“Mandy? You alright?”
“Jesse…I’m all wrong.” I began to cry. The first time he heard me cry.
“What do you mean?” his voice turned tender.
“I wasn’t supposed to be a girl…,” I sobbed.
“What? How so?” he gently probed.
“I wasn’t supposed to be Korean,” I wailed. “Or gay. I was a mistake.”
“But — we love your gay Korean ass. How could you be a mistake?”
“My family — they never liked me. I wasn’t supposed to be a girl….” My pathos ached through the receiver — coughing, choking, gasping — until my name, my breasts, my brain all suddenly liquefied and shot out of my mouth, splashing violently into the bottom of my bucket.
“Yeah,” he breathed deeply. “Your family’s a dick.” Jesse knew the story. How they adopted me, raped me, tried to force me into gay conversion therapy, stole my life savings, then left me to die alone in Boston. “But,” his voice lit up, “I’ve always thought you were pretty cool just the way you are, you know?”
Just then, my limbs blew off, my torso broke open, and every part of me split like an atom, vaporizing into pristine light, until I was nothing but an empty sphere, like a bubble blown by a child, floating through the universe. I had no age, no race, no gender, no disease. I simply floated, nameless, without history. Without a story. And in that moment, I felt my tissues release for the first time in three years. My head could turn, my arms could move, my mouth could curve into a smile.
Without warning, a resounding voice next to my ear: Stand!
“I can’t,” I uttered, confused.
Stand! The voice yelled again.
“Look,” I pleaded with the voice, nodding to my severely modified wheelchair.
Stand! It shouted again.
This is getting boring, I thought, on the most potent psychedelic on the planet.
“Fine! I’ll show you I can’t stand!” I rocked myself back and forth to gain enough momentum to lean forward, when suddenly, lighter than the air around me, I shot up from the couch, almost flying into my coffee table.
I was standing. Then I was walking. Out of my mind. Out of my body.
“Holy shit, Jesse!” I screamed, as I paced in awkward circles around the room, swinging my arms. “I’m walking!”
“Wow! What? That’s amazing!” he yelled back. “So, wait. You can walk on ayahuasca?”
“Apparently so,” I confirmed, stumbling back to the couch. “I can’t really balance worth a shit, but yeah, I can walk. I can walk!”
When the medicine wore off, I found myself in a netherworld, somewhere between the land of kaleidoscopic dreamscapes and the disillusionment of reality. Over a couple more sessions in the following weeks, my symptoms would release completely when submerged in this mysterious brew. The stiffness would evaporate, along with the pain, leaving behind a savagely morphed body — though one that could move.
But when I was back, I was back with a crash landing. Hurtling from the heavens of ayahuasca to the subterranean depths of my body, wildly petrifying, my fall was nothing short of Luciferian. I could feel the tentacles of the scleroderma wrap around my skull-heart-nerves-viscera — the past three years speeding through me like a freight train carrying my disease in fast-forward. And my eyes, no longer clouded with the mile-long stare of a dying mystic, focused with the steel resolve of someone willing to drink it all over again — and again and again forever, until I was cured.
Though I was back on my couch and no longer able to stand, I had seen what could not be unseen. That there was some other logic, some other truth. I fired my esteemed medical team, and over the next two years I would surrender to 12 more of these sessions, throwing up countless times each round, unable to move for days afterward from sheer exhaustion. Eventually, I would be treated by a trained practitioner for another two years, working with other plants in conjunction with ayahuasca, before returning to drinking alone.
As of my third sitting, in which I experienced a profound spiritual intervention, I began to retain some of my healing even after the medicine left my system. In time, I could stand and walk without my wheelchair. My tissues began to relent. I began to think new thoughts. Old disenchantments began to pass away, clearing the way for older, lost dreams to reawaken anew. I began to excavate my life and let my heart break and break. Through dreams, visions, and voices that now permeate my waking life, I changed my name back to my birth name, Mee-ok, and was able to find my birth mother in real life, even traveling to Korea to meet her, unearthing severe trauma, long-buried karma, and cellular memories nostalgic for a time long ago, before I was me.
I am still disabled, my health still delicate. But I am healing in mind, body, and spirit — restoring myself to whoever I was before I lost my way in this life, before I existed. When there was only the void, and a divine being floating, nameless, in space.