I grew up in rural Wisconsin, where people think pot and psychedelics are bad, but drinking and taking meds to blunt your feelings are totally normal. By my twenties, like the rest of the American population, I was doing talk therapy and downing oodles of different antidepressants. The thinking went that if you could just get the right mental illness diagnosis, implement the right thought pattern, and find the right medication, all your issues would magically float away on a sea of serotonin.

After years of naming and blaming in therapy, all I knew was that I had anger, anxiety, and dysthymia, which means you aren’t so depressed that you’re curled up in a fetal position, but you don’t really enjoy the sunshine either. After being on a medication that gave me insomnia and made my hair fall out, I cried uncle — no more pharma for me, and I was tired of talking. This left just me and my brain.

Then I discovered ayahuasca. It took a few years and several serendipities to progress from a chance conversation in a coffee shop to being in a dark room with a group of 15 other people, ready to drink the South American brew.

Here’s what I knew going in: Unlike drugs people take recreationally, ayahuasca is no laughing matter. The brew itself is foul — like licking the bottom of a garbage can. The sometimes challenging trip can go for eight to 10 hours, and you will puke. A lot. On the plus side, I had read countless stories of folks just like me who took ayahuasca and had their minds “reset.” People with lifelong depression had it lifted in one day. I’d never done a drug stronger than pot before, but I bought my first motorcycle without knowing how to ride, and I moved to New York on a whim, so I was ready for whatever happened.

The beginning of the trip was apparently pretty standard as far as psychedelics go. I went through ego death, understood “we are all one,” knew I was the master of time and space—all that fun stuff. But after I puked for the second time, it got interesting.

In the real world, I perceived my “wrongness” as a dark presence in my belly. Within the trip, I had a vision: The darkness turned into sort of a crustacean; it was blacker than black, its claws clamped onto me. But ayahuasca was pulling it out, and she said, “You have to help.” We worked to extract the creature from me, and with a final yank, it was out, flushed down the cosmic toilet bowl. After that, the psychedelic part of the trip was over, and I was just weird and high until I fell asleep.

In the morning, some beautiful things happened. We all shared our experiences, most through tears. I felt bonded, as if we were a little tribe. Later, as I was walking through a park, I noticed something — it was completely quiet inside my head. There was no critical voice ruminating on the past or comparing me to people walking by—just blessed silence. And I realized, in that moment, that depression and anxiety weren’t something I could have thought my way out of. I wondered if maybe the “dark goo” was some bad bacteria ayahuasca had booted out of my gut (where we now know neurotransmitters live) when I puked. But whether what I experienced was biological, spiritual, or metaphysical didn’t matter — I felt healed.

Not long after the ceremony, my dad, who’d been fighting stage 4 cancer, wasn’t doing well and wanted me to come home to Wisconsin to be with him. Even though I was very close to my dad, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing my stepmom, with whom I’d had a stormy relationship.

When I arrived home, though, getting along with her seemed…easy. Normally she’d do or say something to piss me off, or we’d squabble about my dad’s care, but none of that happened. At first, I thought she was just being extra nice, but then I realized it was me. Nothing she said bothered me; instead, I found myself having a lot of sympathy for her and thinking how afraid she must feel about my dad. My friends also noticed a difference. I was afraid I was being quiet and boring, but they said, “No, you’re still Charlene. You’re just Charlene dialed down to level six. You just seem…centered.”

My dad went downhill fast and died within a few weeks. He was the person I loved most in the world, and his death was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. Add the stress from his funeral and estate arrangements, and I think I might have had a nuclear meltdown if I didn’t have that buffer of mental peace from ayahuasca.

That was five years ago, and I’ve done ayahuasca a few more times since, as well as some magic mushrooms. I still have ups and downs like everyone, but I’ve never again felt that black goo in my belly. All these medicines (I don’t refer to them as drugs) have contributed to my continued improved mental and emotional state. The gifts that plant medicines have given me include greater empathy and increased emotional reaction time. Before ayahuasca, I was dangerous, emotionally crashing almost every day. Now I have the mental space to look at events and decide if they’re worth getting upset about. And most times, they’re not.

My experiences have also convinced me that plants have a consciousness. Ayahuasca is ancient, and she’s smarter than I’ll ever be. I discarded religion at an early age, but I find it amusing that I now speak of my relationship with plant medicines the way evangelicals rave about their relationship with God.

Interestingly, plants in my care used to commit suicide, but I’m happy to report there are several plants in my house that are more than a year old. My dad (a flower nut) would be proud.

NOTE: Stay tuned, I’m writing a Part 2 on my encounters with plant medicines.