Plant Medicine When Bipolar: My Experience at Rythmia
It’s been little more than a year since I attended Rythmia, and let me tell you: “WOW.” There’s a saying at the center that the real work begins once you leave. That couldn’t be more true, and that process couldn’t be more fun! I’ve lived twenty years in one, catching up to the big beautiful self I expanded to become.
But I remember when it was still a decision I hadn’t yet made. With $5000 in my savings and plans to quit my job, how could I possibly decide to spend a fifth of that on this trip? Truely, I couldn’t afford not to.
When I was 20 years old, I went into a bipolar psychosis. The catalyst to my breakdown had been a painful fall-out with friends, revealed a year later to have happened for exactly the reason I felt, though I was made to believe otherwise. The knowledge that my intuition had been correct didn’t change the internalized trauma caused by the words said when the friendship dissolved. Something shifted; my brain tilted and my mind left my body.
When it returned, I woke up in solitary confinement. I didn’t know hospitals even had solitary confinement until I was in it. This isn’t a comfortable room with a view to calm your nervous system and help you relax. This is a box with a steel door and no sunlight; there was a camera in the corner, fluorescent lights on the ceiling, a mattress, a blanket, and a pot to piss in. I don’t know if I was in there for two or three days. It might as well have been two or three months.
I died; I survived; I was released into general and spent a week confined but cared for. Then I went home. I was not who I had been. Quickly, my mom and I realized half the medications I was given were making me worse. Of my own accord, I began the long process of weaning off Lithium. Moreover, I began the long process of coming back to myself. Slowly but surely, I made progress. It began with simple things like walking my dog to my best friend’s house. Then it was taking a drive through the country. Eventually it was returning to school to finish my degree. By winter, I was drug free and relying entirely on marijuana for medicine. Though not ideal for many, it has been one of the greatest healer-teacher plants of my life.
I graduated college in 2015 and, with a recommendation from my writing mentor, got a job as a full-time writer just months later. I worked there for three years; I loved the people dearly but the job required emptying my creative and mental energy everyday. During that time, I tried two different antidepressants to sustain myself while still medicating with pot. The first drug was unsuccessful. The second worked wonderfully—for three months. Until I found myself sitting in my hammock contemplating suicide as I had never done. The realization scared the shit out of me; I stopped taking the pills. This was when I knew something had to change.
I made a plan to transition out of my job and into freelancing. I was going to wait until the end of fall to leave but change swept me up much sooner: I found Rythmia. It just so happened that the center was about to host its first Women’s Majesty Week in August. Something in me knew I had to go. There were plenty of reasons not to; plenty of fear responses I could have latched onto to talk myself out of it. But I heard something inside me say, “I want to trust myself again.” I booked the trip and gave work my thirty day notice in the same week.
When you arrive at Rythmia, there should be a poster that says, “Welcome to Spiritual Bootcamp.” You’ll get an incredible massage. They’ve got the most amazing food, a delightful pool, and comfortable beds. But this ain’t no retreat.
The first ceremony was intense. Luckily, the workshops the day before and the morning-of do a phenomenal job of getting you ready. During the ceremonies, there are always shaman helpers walking around checking on people. The safety of the environment is superlative, and the space held for emotional safety is wholly unmatched to any experience I’d had prior.
Something you learn is that plant medicine generally manifests in four different ways: as visual images or videos, bodily experiences, visitations from all manner of folk, or nada, which is akin to sleep in that you don’t remember anything. You can experience multiple manifestations during a single trip as well. Another thing: at Rythmia, nothing is too weird to talk about. The ease with which you’re able to share your experiences and have them honored in the receiving creates community and long-lasting connections.
I tell you this to preempt a part of the story that is rather odd to say on a city sidewalk but completely normal to say at Rythmia,
“Aliens did surgery on my brain.” I told the group of women.
“Do you know what color they were?” The facilitator asked. We were gathered to talk about the first ceremony the morning after. Surgery is a common experience when discussing plant medicine journeys.
“I didn’t see them, but they kept telling me to sit still while they worked, and my head hurt in different places for the first two or three hours of the ceremony. I knew when they were done, and my head has felt fine since.”
Though the experiences on plant medicine are as real as life, I had plenty of doubts the first three ceremonies. Each journey offered insights, wonderful conversations, and great epiphanies, but I would become sober hours before ceremony ended and find myself waiting to leave—an experience that only became more excruciating each night.
There are three intentions given to everyone that are designed to facilitate your healing process. They are: show me who I have become; merge me back with my soul at all costs, and heal my heart. As I sat around the fire on the third night, I realized I constantly felt the need to be somewhere else. If you’re constantly running from yourself, of course there’s no one there to trust. For years, I’d been riding an undercurrent of anxiety whilst trying to escape it, exhausting myself and my creativity in the process. Terrifyingly, the last ceremony was slated to go all night long. The previous ceremonies ended around 2 a.m.; this ceremony would last into the morning. I was anxious about it throughout the week, worried I’d pull my hair out waiting for the sun to come up.
I can’t recommend enough having a journal and making copious notes each day. What you experience will never be fresher in your mind, and it’s wonderful to have those crisp details on paper. Thus, before each ceremony, I would journal my intentions.
The day of the final ceremony, I was so nervous that I began by journaling my feelings instead. I spoke honestly on paper about the thought process causing my fear, rationalized the worst-case emotional scenario, and found myself accidentally journaling in a direction that made me feel better and better until I finished the journal entry using the word, “excited,” instead of, “nervous.” Satisfied, I walked barefoot from my room to the temple.
The temple where ceremony takes place has three main areas: two that are inside and one that is outside, under the roof. Each person gets a spot and each spot has a twin bed with a blanket, pillow, and bucket. My third night, I discovered that I love being outside, so I got a bed along the perimeter for the final ceremony.
That night, a revered Colombian shaman came and brought his plant medicine brew to share. At the beginning of the evening, he and his shaman helpers informed us that they planned to do healings in small groups throughout the night. After drinking our first round and allowing the effects to take hold, the first group was called and I with it.
There is no comparative experience to receiving this healing from the shamans. There is an opening of the spirit; for me, a remembering. Put too simply, it’s a car wash for the soul. Afterward, I returned to my bed and slid into nada sleep until the second drink was called.
One of my favorite parts of ceremony is when the shaman helpers walk through and around the temple. From bed, I’d hear the shaking of leaves being fanned over a pot with burning palo santo. If my eyes were open, the temple would look as though a dense fog had blanketed the building. They routinely walked the perimeter of the temple, and it was evident that the smoke was an important part of clearing the space and maintaining it as a healing sanctuary. I remember taking a deep breath each time I heard the sound and feeling my entire being relax.
The wave of nausea passed more quickly after the second drink. People around me hurled into their buckets. Once the sick feelings subsided, I laid down on my back, with my feet toward the center of the room, and my head at the edge of the deck. This allowed me to look up at the trees and the brilliantly bright stars.
Over the course of four ceremonies, I finally learned how to lean into the medicine. Each night, I could feel it activating in my body. Imagine a river of paint, flowing but heavy, heading toward the ocean like a snake slithering. Each time the medicine would set in, it felt like all of my cells were moving in that motion. In the beginning of the week, my body and mind’s natural tendency was to tense up, to subtly fight it by not giving into the flow.
But by the final ceremony, I knew the plant to be infinitely kind: as though Mother Earth’s love were distilled into a thick molasses. So when I felt the second drink curving its way through my bloodstream, caressing the edges of my spine, and settling into my heart, I had no reason left to resist. I rested, fully, as only animals who completely trust their surroundings do.
Around midnight, I closed my eyes. For the first time, I saw the geometric patterns I’d heard other women talk about. Thoughts as images came in and out of my mind. I felt as though I reviewed three past lives and planned two future ones. But I was present and aware. It seemed to me that barely an hour had past when I heard the sound of shaking leaves, smelled the distinct scent of smoking palo santo, and felt my thoughts formulate into sentences once again. Eyes still closed, there seemed to be something bright on the other side of my eyelids. I was puzzled as to what it could be.
I opened my eyes and burst into quiet giggles upon realizing that the light I’d seen behind my eyes were the first rays of a glorious sunrise. “Who turned on the lights?” I chuckled, feeling as though God herself had flipped the sun like a light switch to amuse me.
I sat up and faced the outside world. To my left, a buddha statue under a tree I’d been admiring all week had wisdom to share. To my right, I heard a crowd of birds gathering high in a tree; they sounded like a group of church-going grandmas talking over each other. I looked at them, and they were talking to me as well: it wasn’t that they said anything in particular but that I too was part of their party.
Near the base of that tree, I saw the statue of Jesus and heard, “I truly am always with your mother.” As the sun came up behind me, messages came into my head one after the other. If it struck me, I would grab my journal and jot down the insight, then read it again and absorb what it held. At times, I did nothing but sit there, with tears streaming down my cheeks, appreciation overwhelming my brain, and love dripping from my soul. I sat, receiving.
Inside the temple, the shamans were still doing healings, group-by-group. They worked through the night to give each one of us that gift. The morning of the last ceremony, when the sun was up, after the healings concluded, we all gathered around in a half circle. A woman named Jaclyn stood and shared a poem worthy of the world’s attention. Flash floods of love pulsed through my heart as I grabbed at my chest, sweating with passion for the words she fire-danced into the room.
I have shared little detail of the friendships created with these women; but they are sincerely unending and ineffable. There are countless interactions, conversations, and exchanges worth writing about. I am appreciative to each and every one of the women with whom I got to share that week, as well as all of the people who are a part of Rythmia.
Before that last ceremony began, when women were still coming in and finding their beds, Kelly, an Australian woman with a kind and strong presence who occupied the bed next to mine, turned to me and said, “You seem much less angry than when you got here. Well, angry isn’t the right word. You seem more settled, less intense.”
For a split second, I remembered how much heavier my being felt when I walked in the first day. It was as though I’d shed a full suit of armor and chainlink. I thanked her for pointing it out. I was made of concrete—that week created the cracks needed for grass, vines, and flowers to take back over.
Rythmia leaves you doubtless. Belief is replaced with knowing. Questions are replaced with intuition. There is no more playing small when you’re fully aware that you are a galaxy. A year later, I have only just caught up with the depth of healing that took place that week.
Who I am becoming is far greater than the part of me that died years ago. In fact now, I would not trade my experiences for any other. The culmination of those experiences created a gap, and my week at Rythmia allowed me to close that gap between me and me. But that would not have been possible had there never been a gap to begin with. Here we find that duality is not a demon but a lover: complex, selfish, yet desiring only to please us.