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Psychedelic Medicines: How My Journey Into The Jungle Changed My Life by Dr Alana Roy

 

My name is Dr. Alana Roy and for those who know and love me, Lani Roy. I am the National Practice Manager of Mind Medicine Psychological Support Services and the Co-lead on CPAT (Mind Medicine’s ‘Certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies’). I am a Social Worker, Psychologist, Counsellor, Researcher, Teacher, mother, and wife.

I am also an Ayahuasca dietero* a psychedelic and plant medicine advocate… And I am finally ready to share my story.

When I turned 30 years old, I was a decade into my career as a sexual abuse and suicide prevention therapist. I had always loved my work and had enormous energy and joy for my clients and projects.

During this time, I was completing my PhD, raising my two young sons, growing my private practices, and working multiple roles in the community. Slowly but surely, I began a descent into what I can now see as a “spiritual crisis and emergence.” Over a two-year period, I experienced extreme levels of existential anxiety, fear of death, and excruciating levels of suffering – suffering for all the women, men, and children impacted by sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. I began to lose hope in the current treatments offered by mainstream mental health services, which contributed to occupational burnout; an endless revolving door of wounded souls taking far too long to feel relief. I felt that I was failing them.

Over this two-year period as I completed my PhD, navigated complex trauma cases, and attended parks and playgroups with my children, my body, mind, and spirit began to shut down. I plummeted into a dark, dense black hole of nothingness – I would oscillate from feeling nothing to extreme terror. I tried everything – meditation, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, exercise, therapy, supervision, spending time with friends and family. I had resources, support, and a happy and loving marriage of 18 years, but the suffering deepened. People did not know how to help me. My psychologists were running out of ideas and the capacity to hold my darkness.

I finally understood the suicidal mind. I had supported people with suicidal thinking my entire professional life. Yet, I never quite grasped their level of pain until I experienced my spiritual emergence.

I also gained a deeper respect for myself as a woman and a mother during this time; I was able to compartmentalise my pain and keep significant levels of joy and happiness flowing in my household for my children. However, this was exhausting, and something drastic needed to happen. Death and panic met me each morning as I made my children’s cereal and kept me awake all night. In the late nights, as my beautiful family slept, I fell apart. I began researching alternative treatments for over a year. I explored topics ranging as far and wide as atheism, panpsychism, physics, cosmology, theories of space and time, neurotheology, and of course nihilism. Somewhere in this rigorous, yet desperate search, I found Ayahuasca.

I remember looking at my husband and saying, “It is either I go to the jungle or a psychiatric ward.” The next day I booked my ticket to Peru.

Getting on that plane alone was the bravest thing I had ever done. My psychologist told me not to go and that I was making a mistake. I felt fear and trepidation at letting go of my consciousness and what little sanity it had left. In my mind, I said goodbye to my husband and children. I felt that I was approaching death, and I was right. Something did die, my fear.

My first night drinking Ayahuasca was both the death, and the birth of me. I sat down in the dark and drank two big cups; with cosmic levels of fear, I pulled the psychedelic trigger. During this journey I processed memories of my past sexual abuse and domestic violence; my ego and sense of self dissolved; I experienced the most fear I have ever experienced in my life; I died; I was born; I purged out global, archetypal, personal, and client traumas. I also experienced realms, dimensions, spirits, downloads, and the external feeling of being known and held.

After this experience, I was sent into isolation to hang with the monkeys and the bats for five days to participate in a mapacho (tobacco dieta). Each day under strict supervision I drank mapacho and spent time in deep meditation; grounding, integrating, processing, and healing. Over the coming weeks, I went on to do San Pedro cactus and more Ayahuasca ceremonies.

Both medicines worked synergistically for me. Ayahuasca expanded me beyond my biggest and wildest fears, whilst San Pedro helped me experience the drumbeat of the natural world; I could hear the animals, the trees, the jungle, and in a sense the beat of my own heart and all the aspects in my life which connect me to a sense of meaning and purpose. San Pedro grounded me back into my body, my heart, and my practical and rational mind. This ultimately helped me to process many aspects of my Ayahuasca journeys, which for me, remain beyond language, space, and time.

San Pedro

I will never forget the feeling of jumping into the Amazon River with no fear. As I swam with excitement, I could see my new sense of self emerging. I drove out of the jungle on a little rusty boat in the darkness of the early morning, into the light of the bustling city of Iquitos, and knew I was ready to return home. However, were people ready for me?

On my return to Australia, I was left to integrate these experiences alone, with no professional support, and no community to understand me. I felt a deep sense of reverse culture shock. I retuned with eyes that could see the environment that our modern world can generate; the disconnection, mass consumption, greed, sheer lack of depth and empathy for others.

Few people wanted to engage with me on the epistemology of plant spirits, or could tolerate the notion that my most life changing experience involved losing my mind in the dark with an exotic brew. Professionals didn’t trust that my progress would last and were not willing to engage with me in discussion regarding the huge potential of psychedelics and mental health.

My family and friends saw the changes in me and would often say “Lani, you look and sound so different, how did you get better?”

It took me a long time to be able to say, with confidence and without censorship “I went to the jungle and drank Ayahuasca, San Pedro and spent a lot of time alone with a master plant, that’s what changed me.”

I am an Ayahuasca dietero

I am a Psychologist/ Social Worker

I am a Scientist-Practitioner

I wear all these titles and more, embracing paradox and complexity with pride. Can this make people uncomfortable? Yes…. But progress and growth are often uncomfortable.

Each day I wake up with a new mystery and adventure to explore. My ability to hold darkness and trauma has expanded beyond what I could have ever imagined

In a few short years, I am now running Mind Medicine Australia National Psychological Support Services and helping to grow a national community of professional experts who are skilled in harm minimisation, preparation, and integration services for people seeking out psychedelics in legal clinical trials, as well as community and overseas contexts.

I have revitalised hope for the mental health system as we, as a global community, pioneer the clinical use of psychedelics. I work each day providing clinical support to people who have had similar experiences. After 15 years of working as a trauma specialist, I am finally seeing fast and deeply transformative results with psychedelic medicines. The clinical evidence can no longer be ignored. Our policy and lawmakers need to move beyond the stigma of psychedelics and listen to the science.

I have the privilege of walking side by side with a team of wise, humble, and skilled academics and practitioners in the Certificate of Psychedelic Therapies and together, with you, and the wisdom of these plants and molecules… we will change the mental health system.

This is only one chapter of my story; there are many layers and journeys left untold.

I am growing as a wife, mother, friend, leader, mentor, teacher, researcher, medicine woman. I have so much to learn, but with my plant teachers by my side and the support of professionals with integrity, I will do my best with what time I have on this earth to generate as much healing, joy and dreaming as I can.

 

*Ayahuasca is taken in combination with other ‘master plants’ is referred to as a shamanic dieta (Gearin & Labarte, 2018). The term ‘dieta’ in Spanish simply means diet. However, in this context, a dieta encompasses a range of dietary and behavioural practices in which apprentices make lasting relationships with the spirit/essence of the specific plants, including ayahuasca, over a number of days.  

Dr Alana Roy

Ph. D Psychology, B. A Social Work (MHSW)

Dr Alana Roy is a psychologist, social worker and therapist and has spent the last 13 years working in mental health, suicide prevention, trauma, sexual abuse, family violence and the disability sector. Alana has worked with borderline personality and dissociative identity disorder in various roles in the community such as: Rape Crisis Centres with victims of ritual abuse, childhood and adult sexual assault, supporting women in the sex industry, survivors of human trafficking and now as a psychedelic integration specialist.

Alana focuses on harm minimisation, community and connection. She is dedicated to psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and plant medicines. She has engaged with, and provides integration therapeutic support services for communities across Australia. Alana works at several universities as a Research Fellow and supervisor of students on placement. Alana passionately advocates for public policy, community education and legislative changes so that these treatments are regulated and supported by a strong, connected and skilled sector.

Learn more about Alana’s experiences in: Psychedelic Medicines: How My Journey Into The Jungle Changed My Life

Peter’s Story: Finding Acceptance, Being Generous And Healing Grief Through Psychedelic Medicines

Psychedelic roof

 

As a young person, I never thought that I would be an Australian. I lived in a country town in England and my family seemed secure and loving (even though relationships between my mother and my father were sometimes strained). Then when I was 13, without any warning, my father committed suicide. He hadn’t let on that his business was failing, and he dealt with the burden of impending bankruptcy by taking his own life. In his letter to my mother, he said that he thought taking his life was for the best. What he didn’t realise was the lifelong damage that he would do to all of us.

My mother was an extraordinary person. In an instant, she had lost her husband, her home, her financial security, and nearly all of her possessions. But she was incredibly determined with lots of inner strength and decided that we should start again by emigrating to Australia. At the time the Australian government paid for virtually everything; a 6-week journey by ship to Australia with my mother paying just 10 pounds (about $20 Australian dollars at the time), and with me coming for free because I was under 16 years of age.

I can remember the ship coming into Sydney Harbour on a beautiful and crisp winter’s morning with the mist rising from the water. I can remember feeling excited by this new country where the light seemed so bright compared to the pastel colours of England and where the buildings in the city seemed so high. I could feel the energy, but I also remember feeling my deep sadness. I felt deeply the loss of my father and nearly everything that I had ever known, my home and my childhood friends.

Looking back, I now realise that I dealt with this sadness by becoming incredibly good at building barriers around my heart; going inwards and working incredibly hard to succeed in my education and in my career. I was lucky to get the chance to go to a great school, which encouraged me to excel, then to go to university (which was then basically free), and then to get a job as a lawyer at a top law firm before moving into investment banking.

As an investment banker, I did far better than I could ever have believed possible. I eventually started my own firm and then sold the firm 10 years later to an American investment banking group. Looking back, I now realise that the hard work, the constant need to achieve, and the financial rewards were all a way of escaping from the pain that I felt deep down. Sadly, this pain prevented me from experiencing the true intimacy in my relationships with other human beings that everyone should have.

As I got older, I started to realise how lucky I had been. I could so easily have taken a different road, unable to cope and spiraled down. Luck gave me an amazing mother with the courage to start again and gave me the intellect, health, and determination to make a go of my new life. But it all came at a cost.

My way of dealing with my sense of luck was to get more and more involved in the not-for-profit sector both as a philanthropist and as an active participant – first going on to Boards and then starting new charities to help disadvantaged people who hadn’t had the luck that I had experienced. By the time that I met my beautiful wife Tania nearly 10 years ago, I had been extensively involved across the not-for-profit sector (particularly in the areas of homelessness and poverty alleviation). I had also started the Northern Beaches Women’s Shelter (with my previous partner) and then Women’s Community Shelters (www.womenscommunityshelters.org.au). The more I dealt with people who were suffering, the more I realised that it could so easily have been me. The only difference was that I had been lucky and they hadn’t been.

About 6 years ago, I can remember Tania getting excited about a Michael Pollan article she read in the New Yorker Magazine, explaining the outstanding trial results that were being achieved by researchers at major universities in the UK and North America using psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy as a cure for key classes of mental illness. I must have been busy on other things at the time because I didn’t immediately get excited about this research, and given the outstanding results being achieved, I should have.

However, Tania is a determined person and a great connector, and she quickly developed relationships with leading overseas researchers in this field. She tried to get us enrolled in trials in London so that we could experience these psychedelic substances, but we didn’t qualify (no mental illness – at least that we know of). Tania didn’t give up though and she found a therapist in Holland (where the therapy is legal) and arranged for us to have a psychedelic experience with psilocybin.

Even then I wasn’t that excited, but I went along because I trusted Tania and this was something that she was obviously passionate about and wanted to try. I had never tried any mind-altering substances (other than alcohol) and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

I have to say that the experience with psilocybin was “out of this world!” The therapist helped us get into the right mindset and the setting was quiet and peaceful. Then we took the psilocybin-containing mushrooms and for the first 20 minutes, nothing happened. It felt like a bit of a let-down. Eventually, with my eyes covered by an eye mask, lying down, and eyes closed, I started to “see” the amazing psychedelic shapes and colors that people talk about.

Kaleidoscope

I was then transported into another world that was timeless and where I became an observer. The experience is impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t taken the medicine: wondrous, confronting, beautiful, extraordinary, altogether another realm of consciousness.  I came out of the experience changed, as if the blinkers that so many of us hide behind had been removed.

The argument that these substances are addictive is complete nonsense. The experience was so deep and meaningful that it took Tania and I a year before we had a second go, and that was even more powerful.

It was now decision time for us. Tania and I could either keep the experience to ourselves or work towards making these therapies available to everyone who needed them in safe environments with trained therapists. Mind Medicine Australia was born from a deep desire to help make these therapies part of our medical system so that many more Australians suffering from debilitating mental illnesses, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, could get well and realise the joy of life which should be available to all human beings.

Mind Medicine Australia is a charity because we want to make these therapies – with their incredible remission rates – available to all Australians that need them, irrespective of wealth or where they live. We don’t want a need to make money to get in the way.

So how do I feel now about the impact of these medicines on me and the prospect of making them available to all Australians that need them?

The self-made “protective” barriers around me have fallen away a lot in the last 6 years since my first psychedelic experience, as my capacity for acceptance has grown. My sense of wonder in the beauty of the natural world and all human beings has increased in a profound way. It’s impossible to explain this miracle.

How extraordinary that a molecule that exists naturally in some types of mushrooms locks perfectly into a certain type of receptor in the human brain and causes that person to go inwards into another realm of consciousness and, in doing so, examine the wonder of life and the connectedness of all living things. The medicine has been an amazing gift for Tania and I, and we want this gift to be available to all Australians in need.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about out mental health system. I’ve learned that its full of the most inspiring health practitioners who give of themselves every day. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there is also a huge amount of entrenched thinking, vested interests and hubris shared by some participants in the mental health system, which (despite claims to the contrary) isn’t based on the available science and data and which inhibits positive change, prevents people from getting well, and leads to more suffering.

Mind Medicine Australia continues to make good progress and I am increasingly confident that these therapies will become available for Australians that need them. The big question is how long will this process take? We need to move quickly to break down bias, prejudice, ignorance, hubris, and vested interests. There are just too many people suffering needlessly.

Peter Hunt AM

B.Com, LL.B

As an investment banker Peter Hunt AM advised local and multi-national companies and governments in Australia for nearly 35 years.  He co-founded and was Executive Chairman of one of Australia’s leading investment banking advisory firms, Caliburn Partnership (now called Greenhill Australia) and continued as Chairman of the Firm after its sale to Greenhill Inc in 2009. Peter was a member of the Advisory Panel of ASIC and chaired the Vincent Fairfax Family Office.

Peter is an active philanthropist involved in funding, developing and scaling social sector organisations which seek to create a better and fairer world.  He is Chairman of Mind Medicine Australia which he established with his wife, Tania de Jong, in 2018. He founded Women’s Community Shelter in 2011 and remains on the Board. He was previously Chairman of So They Can, Grameen Australia and Grameen Australia Philippines. Peter is a Director of Project Rozana and an Advisory Board member of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. Peter also acts as a pro bono adviser to Creativity Australia. 

Peter was made a member of the General Division of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2010 for services to the philanthropic sector.

Healing A Troubled Mind: A Personal Perspective On Victoria’s Stagnant Mental Health System

Person standing near lake

The Royal Commission’s report on the Victorian mental health system sent shockwaves throughout the State, one of which landed squarely on a patient of mine. They noted that Victoria’s mental health system is “not geared for…change”. Just to ensure we got the message, and despite a Federal Government TGA approval, my request to treat my traumatized patient with MDMA-assisted therapy was declined by our state’s regulatory authority.

To be clear, my disappointment lies not with the state government regulators, nor with the medical opinions suggesting MDMA-assisted therapy should not be used for treatment of traumatized patients (despite excellent emerging evidence that it works with little risk). I understand these opinions, though I certainly do not agree with them.

My issue is a more troublesome one. Underlying these opinions is a problem with how we practice psychiatry, which in turn reflects the alienated community in which we live. Mental health paradigms are always a reflection of the society which supports them. You see, us Australians are alienated both intra-personally (from our own emotional worlds) and inter-personally.

Our current paradigms tend to view mental illnesses in a biologically reductive way. In other words, mental illnesses are both understood and treated primarily as biological diseases (which they are not). The posters at your doctor’s rooms will teach you – depression is just like any other medical disease, such as heart-failure or emphysema. In this paradigm, entities such as addictions and depression are seen as distinct phenomena. They are treated in our current system as totally different diagnoses by entirely different teams. The alienated individual who suffers from depression and addiction is labeled with the alienating and erroneous term ‘dual-diagnosis’, which enshrines the division. Furthermore, if addictions are understood (as they are) as inherited conditions (which they are not), and primarily as brain diseases based in dysfunctional dopamine rewards circuits, they will be primarily treated as inherited brain diseases, by doctors with medications.

But what if we have got it all wrong (which we do). You see, addictions are heritable but not inherited (there is a big difference, I recommend looking it up), and the chemical dopamine in no-way explains addictions. Rather, it is the human experience of dopamine (along with numerous other chemicals) which explains addictions, suggesting that addictions are rooted in difficulties with the human experience of life, rather than the neural correlates of those experiences.

The events which lie at the root of illnesses such as addictions and depression are those which overwhelm the mind’s ability to process and integrate. We know that the presence of adverse childhood experiences is present in the majority of (if not all) people with addictions and chronic depression. But rather than seeing these conditions as consequences of trauma (which they are) and treating the underlying emotional issues (which would help), our society mistakes the symptoms (depression and anxiety) for the disease itself. We treat depression as depression and addiction as addiction and all the while we are missing the forest for the trees. The real disease is the high prevalence of trauma, alienation, and neglect in our society. After all, it is these conditions which twist and distort the mind into the contortions which fill the latest catalogues of mental illnesses.

Which brings me back to my patient. Traumatized when young, she has suffered from every diagnosis a psychiatrist’s finger can point at. She has had every treatment a medical guideline can fathom. Yet her trauma remains in place, because no-one has been able to reach it. Suddenly, on the horizon, a change is coming. Treatments like MDMA-assisted therapy appear to touch the root of the trauma, allowing individuals to process the unintegrated parts of their minds, and offer the chance of real healing. But we don’t change. Our outlooks have ossified, our diagnoses have desiccated. And all the while we suffer in our own blindness. People continue to kill themselves, and my patient will continue to suffer in silence until the Victorian Government allows me to access a new treatment which may finally bring peace to a troubled mind.

Dr Eli Kotler

MBBS MPM FRANZCP Cert. Old Age Psych. AFRACMA

Eli is a consultant psychiatrist, holds an academic position at Monash University through the Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre, and is the medical director of Malvern Private Hospital, the first addiction hospital in Australia. He is a member of the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs (APSAD). Clinically, Eli is interested in the deep connections between trauma and addiction and works within a neuro-psychoanalytic framework. Eli has overseen the development of a clinical program for addictions focused on trauma, particularly developmental trauma. This has led to an interest in medication-assisted trauma therapy. Eli worked for many years researching neurodegenerative diseases and was the principle investigator on numerous trials for novel therapeutics. He is founding member of the Melbourne Neuropsychoanalytic Group and welcomes new members. Through involvement with Monash University, Eli oversees the addiction rotation for medical students.

Eli graduated from the first intake of the Certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapies (CPAT) in June 2021. He has also been recently appointed as the Principal Investigator to lead Emyria’s upcoming MDMA trial.

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