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My Journey Through the Vine: Co-Women Member Sophie Boulderstone's Wild Ayahuasca Experience

Cowen Member Sophie's plant medicine journey

Just a quick note before we dive into my journey: while Ayahuasca is illegal in this country, for the sake of this story, let's say my adventure took place in Peru, far from a sleepy village just a short train ride from London!

I had reached a point in my life where I was constantly frustrated with my lack of progress. I felt I wasn’t on the right path—or far enough down it—and it was making me depressed. Not with a big, fat event that hits you in the face, but a slow decline where nothing was bringing me joy, everything was a chore, and it was getting harder to want to wake up each morning. I'd heard about Ayahuasca and when the opportunity came and all the ducks lined up, I went for it.

I stopped myself from researching too much, despite never having taken hallucinogens before, because I didn't want to try and control the outcome. I told myself I wasn’t doing this for fun; it was a serious pursuit for enlightenment. I booked my spot and as the day arrived, I packed all my stuff up, neatly and ever so organised, ensuring I had everything I needed. When I found the place and walked in, a bunch of people were cooking food, which seemed like the right scene. I cheerfully asked if I was in the right place. A lady who was cooking yelled back, "No, this is the Women's Institute." I was immediately crushed and felt incredibly insecure. I excused myself to go and cry outside; I nearly went home and felt incredibly sorry for myself. After a while, I pulled myself together and went back in, with a narrative of how rude and insensitive she had been running through my head

​​We all set up our own little areas; I had pillows and a blanket ready. We went around introducing ourselves and sharing why we were there. I remember saying something like, "I want to know my purpose." Then it was time to take the drink. They asked how strong I wanted it, and I chose medium—looking back, this was my first mistake! The music started, and as I was among the first to drink, the sensation came on rapidly. I was terrified, overwhelmed by the thought of what a terrible mistake I had made.

In my panic, I raised my hand to get help from one of the healers, specifically there for that purpose, and ironically, the woman who had made the WI comment came over—the very one I didn’t want to see! Funny how life throws these things at you. Despite my initial reluctance, I found myself grateful she was there. Every time I closed my eyes, reality seemed to slip further away, and I was desperately fighting to stay present in the room. She soothed me, advising, "It will be easier if you give into it." I was battling years of trying to control every situation as the waves of the experience pulled me deeper, and I whispered, "I just want to go home," before I finally succumbed.

I plummeted into what felt like hell, where I seemed to be trapped for thousands of years. I cycled through four distinct 'areas,' each a visual sensation that is difficult to articulate precisely.

The first area felt like a 'debauchery'—though it wasn’t explicitly named, the knowledge was just there. It was enveloped in darkness, with everything else illuminated by harsh neon lights. Before me, a growing mountain of items surged as if displayed on an enormous screen, yet there was no actual screen. It was a tangled mass of large women clad in bondage gear and disjointed body parts, all making grotesque noises. They discussed vaginas and breasts not casually, but in a provocative and uncomfortable way—seemingly for shock value, to stir a reaction, to create a scene. This was distinctly off-putting to me, even though I have no issue with open discussions about the body; my discomfort stemmed from their intent rather than the subject matter itself.

I then transitioned to the second realm of this hallucinatory hell, which I can only describe as bizarrely whimsical yet disturbing. It featured what seemed like a cheerleader unicorn with a side ponytail, perched atop a growing mountain of useless trinkets. This mountain, made up of plastic knick-knacks and other unnecessary items we often buy without need, moved relentlessly towards me. It symbolised waste and excess, making me feel the weight of our consumerist habits. This place, with its superficial cheer and underlying waste, represented the second circle of my nightmarish experience.

The third area transported me into a posh manor house, where I found myself among others in a parlour that was the epitome of controlled perfection. Every detail was meticulously matched and fussy, creating an atmosphere that was the polar opposite of welcoming and cosy. The furniture, though ornate, felt stiff and unwelcoming. In this stiff setting, a musician played a bizarre instrument, something akin to a spinning top mounted on a violin, producing sounds as fanciful as they were farcical. We, the audience, were expected to watch this performance and politely applaud, despite the obvious ostentation and absurdity of it all. It felt like a sharp critique of pretentious social rituals, where appearance mattered more than authenticity.

Next, I descended into the realm of addiction, a scene both drab and dire. It was as if I had been plunged into a massive gutter, surrounded by leaking sewage pipes piled upon one another. I found myself tucked into a crevice atop a pipe, desperately trying to avoid the filth around me. This vision was a stark representation of the despair and degradation associated with addiction.

When I returned to the room, the reality of our Ayahuasca journey shifted dramatically. Instead of seeing fellow participants immersed in their own experiences of healing or exploration, I saw a heroin den. It was a jarring illusion that made me question the value of what we were doing. In that moment, I felt like just another addict, lost in the haze of escape, which challenged my perception of the journey's purpose.

The journey took a relentless turn as I found myself caught in a loop, reliving the same disturbing visions repeatedly. It felt like centuries were passing, each cycle dragging me deeper into despair. My initial confusion gave way to awareness as I recognised the pattern, but understanding didn't bring relief. I began begging and screaming, "Not again! I don't understand, what am I supposed to do?"

In desperation, I attempted to interact differently with each area, acknowledging their presence, hoping for some change or escape. Yet, nothing seemed to work. The cycle continued mercilessly, and the only insight that seemed to emerge from the chaos was a cryptic message echoing in my mind: “It is or it isn’t.” This enigmatic phrase left me grappling for meaning in the loop's repetitive torment.

Eventually, I began to reconnect with the physical room around me, though I was still deeply shaken. I managed to take a brief break, and when I returned to my space, I shared my fears with one of the helpers. I was terrified of slipping back into that hellish loop, but the music now guided my journey differently. A huge vine seemed to weave through everything, inviting me to get into the branches and be carried as it moved around.. This time, it felt safe and strangely comforting.

Amidst this newfound peace, I saw issues with my mother from my childhood, and made peace with the situation. While I was mostly at ease, a part of me remained on edge, wary of falling back into the nightmarish visions. As the ceremony drew to a close, the group came together—we sang, danced, and physically shook off the remnants of our individual ordeals. The night ended with a profound sense of collective exhaustion, and we all fell into a deep sleep.

Before I drifted off to sleep, the guide came over to check on me, aware of the rough night I'd endured. Exhausted, I declared, "I'm never doing this again." He simply responded, "See how you feel in the morning." That night, I slept deeply.

The next morning, over breakfast, I engaged in reflective discussions with others as we prepared for another night. I shared some of the more tangible aspects of my experiences that were easier to articulate. For instance, I described a surreal moment when I perceived that my hands had shrunk. I found myself repeatedly measuring them against my face to check their size, which brought some much needed lightness to the discussions. It was then I realised just how unprepared I'd been for the initial journey. Many seek out this level of transformative experience; some feel nothing, and for others like me, the torment, as harrowing as it was, proved necessary. I understood that my coping strategy—this incessant need to control everything from over-preparing to overthinking—had helped me navigate early parenthood and run a business. Yet, these same strategies were now barriers to my growth, holding me back from realising my full potential. I recognised that I didn’t need to live under such self-imposed constraints anymore.

The following night, I chose to partake in the medicine again, but this time with a smaller dose. The experience was profoundly different. I felt enveloped in love and belonging, eager to join in and connect with the vine, feeling united with everyone and everything around me. Some say it's like compressing ten years of living into one night, and now, I truly understand that sentiment. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but I am undeniably better for having gone through it.

This journey prompted me to confront my deep-seated worries about money, particularly my fears around its potentially corrupting influence. I've come to realise just how much these concerns have weighed on me, colouring my decisions and my sense of security.. It tends to incite desires for material things or lead to addictions. However, my core desire is to feel safe and connected—money is merely a tool to achieve freedom, not something I believe will corrupt me. This experience also taught me that it's okay to do things just for fun; not everything has to be about proving my worth. Life should have moments of lightness and joy without any attached conditions of productivity or value.

Would I do it again? Perhaps. I haven’t felt the need just yet, but I believe such experiences find you exactly when they’re meant to. And when they do, there’s truly nothing that can prepare you for the transformative power of what you might see and learn about yourself.

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