Iboga

I never expected to beg a plant to spare the life of someone I loved.  I also never expected that it would answer me.

In 2012, someone I care about very deeply (I’ll call them “Z”) found themselves in a pit of despair, likely related to both clinical depression and an incredible mountain of past and current family problems.  Z couldn’t find a way out and, at the time, had no “official” support network – no medications, no psychotherapy, and almost no one to speak to aside from me and one other friend.  They were desperately looking for some way to jump-start getting better that could be done on their own terms…and they found it in an infamous plant from Gabon.   I’m talking, of course, about Tabernanthe iboga.

Tabernanthe iboga is native to western Central Africa and has known psychedelic properties.  Chewing the bark of the root can cause hallucinations and visions, and it is used in religious ceremonies by practitioners of Bwiti in Gabon, Cameroon, and the Republic of the Congo (sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville).  Initiates to Bwiti take large doses of T. iboga, but it is more often taken in smaller doses for rituals and dances that take place at night.  It is also used in very small doses to promote alertness in hunting and to decrease fatigue, hunger, and thirst.

An alkaloid of T. iboga called ibogaine is used to treat opioid addiction, and there’s some data to show that it also works for alcohol and nicotine addiction.  The process goes something like this: a person enters a clinic where they are dosed with ibogaine (once or multiple times) while being monitored by medical professionals.  During treatment, they may experience nausea, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, and other reactions, but at the end of treatment, the physical addiction the person came in with is gone.

In addition, psychiatrists and psychopharmacologists are looking into use of ibogaine in combination with intense psychotherapy to assist with Depression.  There is anecdotal evidence from a number of addiction trials with ibogaine that trial patients self-reported a decrease in depressive symptoms.  However, despite the reported benefits, ibogaine remains classified as a Schedule I substance in the United States and so treatment with it outside of a clinical trial is against the law.

There are a number of documentaries available about T. iboga and ibogaine and some address it from the perspective of its use as an entheogen while others tout its medical benefits.  Z saw one of these documentaries and was so moved by the experiences of the patients profiled in it that they started looking for more information about how it worked and trying to determine whether it would be a reasonable way to try their own depression.

Z spent nearly four months going through medical literature, and anecdotes, and websites, and documentaries before deciding that using it was a good idea, and then they brought up ordering it from Gabon.  Although I knew there was research going on, I didn’t realize how serious they were until after watching a documentary with them.  At that point, Z told me they wanted to order it and asked for my help in monitoring their progress.

When Z asked for my help, I knew almost nothing about ibogaine or how it worked, and I rushed frantically to gain some knowledge before they planned to take it.  The articles I found to read were not reassuring at all and, although I couldn’t deny that there were potential benefits, the risks seemed way too high.  I couldn’t imagine wanting to put myself through such an experience if it weren’t to either treat a serious addiction (which Z did not have) or to have a profound religious experience under the guidance of an elder in my own faith (which was also not what Z was looking for).  In addition, having used entheogens myself in the past (primarily absinthe), I felt pretty confident that there was potential for amazing spiritual backlash even though Z wasn’t looking for that type of thing.

In a word, I was terrified.

The night before Z started their process, I began to pray to Iboga.

At that point in my life, I knew how to connect with something I was deliberately growing.  Basil, and Shepherd’s Purse and Yarrow all responded well to me, but I’d never even seen Iboga let alone touched it or spoken to it.  It was Alien, and Other, and I had no idea if it would even respond to me…but I felt like I had to try.

And so, I began:
Iboga, You Who Guide and Fortify; I beseech You.  Iboga, You Who Transform; I beseech You.  Iboga, You Who Choose the Path that Must Be Walked; I beseech You.  Spare the one I love.  Spare Z, who must walk your Path for a time.  Allow Z to return to me.

I repeated it over and over the night before, in my head, while trying to connect with Iboga.  I felt nothing, but kept praying over and over:

Iboga, You Who Guide and Fortify; I beseech You.  Iboga, You Who Transform; I beseech You.  Iboga, You Who Choose the Path that Must Be Walked; I beseech You.  Spare the one I love.  Spare Z, who must walk your Path for a time.  Allow Z to return to me.

The next morning, when Z took the dose, I still had heard nothing.  Near panic at this point, I began to pray aloud while reaching for a connection with all of my self:

Iboga, You Who Guide and Fortify; I beseech You.  Iboga, You Who Transform; I beseech You.  Iboga, You Who Choose the Path that Must Be Walked; I beseech You.  Spare the one I love.  Spare Z, who must walk your Path for a time.  Allow Z to return to me.  I would beg a boon from You.  Hear me, Iboga!  Hear me, Iboga!  Hear me!

By the third repetition I was swaying, kneeling on the floor, and sweating.  And then, I felt it.  It started as a tingle at the back of my skull, and then a chill through my body, and I broke out in goose bumps.  Then nausea and I doubled over and closed my eyes.  Crouched on the floor, clutching my stomach, I saw stars behind my eyes and felt Iboga’s presence.

It is difficult to put into words how it felt to be connected to Iboga.  Time has not dimmed the experience, and I still cannot quite find descriptors that do it justice.  Where usually I stand side-by-side with plants I grow, this time I was enveloped.  Where usually I control the interaction, this time I was out of control.

Perhaps it is the way I approached the interaction; I came as supplicant rather than partner but, then again, how could I hope to be considered a partner when I had no understanding of what Iboga was?  I, who approach my gods with head held high and convinced of my own worth, humbled myself before Iboga and I am convinced that is why my request was granted.

I felt bemusement that I would want to connect with it at all, and curiosity about the fact that I was determined to try…and yet hadn’t dosed myself.  I was queried about this in different ways and it felt like an eternity was passing, though of course it hadn’t.

When Iboga was satisfied (or, perhaps, bored?) with my responses, it agreed that it would not keep Z unless Z wished to stay, and the connection broke.

Once I recovered, I spent the rest of the day intermittently checking on Z, who made it through and came back to me, although not necessarily unscathed.  I found out a few days later that Iboga had suggested Z take additional doses while mid-experience, and I am incredibly relieved that they didn’t have more to take.  It was harrowing for both of us, and while I believe Z (of course) had a much more transformative experience I cannot help but think that I learned several useful things that ended up changing me as well.  Unfortunately, those things are impossible to put into comprehensible words.

When I recently brought up the experience with them so I could write this post, they said, “…the experience at the time seems “serious” but when you’re done you realize it is all altered perception and all the answers, if there are any, come from within…”  They also noted that they wanted to write about it at one point but now don’t think they’d be able to do it justice.

I know the feeling.

*NOTE: I’ve made two edits to this entry based on speaking with Z after I originally posted.  The changes are as follows:

1. I have clarified that I knew about the research Z was doing although I didn’t realize how serious they were until the conversation about ordering it.

2. I have noted that I did watch a documentary with Z about ibogaine therapy.

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