‘I Want to Reset My Brain’: Female Veterans Turn to Psychedelic Therapy
A former US Marine said she hopes to connect with the spirit of her mother, who killed herself 11 years ago. An Army veteran said she was sexually abused by a relative as a child. A handful of veterans said they were sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers.
The wife of a Navy bomb disposal expert choked as she bemoaned how years of relentless combat operations had turned her husband into an absent, dysfunctional father.
Kristine Bostwick, 38, a former Navy Corpsman, said she hoped it would help her make peace with the end of a turbulent marriage and maybe ease the migraines that had become a daily torment as she sifted through her mind ceremonies involving mind-altering substances.
“I want to reset my brain from the ground up,” she said during the introductory session of a recent three-day retreat, wiping away tears. “My kids deserve it. I earn it.”
A growing body of research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic therapy has sparked excitement among some psychiatrists and venture capitalists.
Measures to decriminalize psychedelics, fund research into their healing potential, and create a framework for their medicinal use have been passed in recent years with bipartisan support in city councils and state legislatures across the United States.
Much of the growing appeal of such treatments has been fueled by veterans of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After turning to experimental therapies to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, addiction, and depression, many ex-military members have become enthusiastic advocates of wider acceptance of psychedelics.
Psychedelic retreat participants often pay thousands of dollars for this experience. But these female veterans and spouses of veterans who traveled to Mexico for treatment at Mission Within attended for free thanks to the Heroic Hearts Project and the Hope Project. Founded by an Army Ranger and the wife of a Navy SEAL, the groups raise money to make psychedelic therapy affordable for people with a military background.
Mission Within on the outskirts of Tijuana is led by Dr. Martín Polanco, who has focused almost exclusively on treating veterans since 2017.
“I realized early on that if we focused our work on veterans, we would have a greater impact,” said Polanco, who said he has treated more than 600 American veterans in Mexico. “They understand what it takes to deliver excellence.”
At first he treated almost exclusively male veterans. But recently he received many requests from female veterans and military wives and began leading retreats for women only.
Except for clinical trials, psychedelic therapy is currently conducted underground or under nebulous legality. With demand increasing, a handful of countries in Latin America, including Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Mexico, have become hubs for experimental protocols and clinical trials.
Polanco, who is not licensed in the United States, has practiced on the fringes of mainstream medicine for years, but his work is now attracting the interest of more established mental health specialists. Later this year, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and Baylor College of Medicine plan to examine its protocols in two clinical trials.
According to Randal Noller, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the use of psychedelic treatments is not currently standard of care for treating mental illness in veterans’ hospitals. But with special permission, it’s possible to administer them as part of a research protocol, and the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention “is closely monitoring the evolving scientific literature in this area,” Noller said.
In Mexico, two of the substances Polanco administers — ibogaine, a herbal psychoactive commonly used to treat addiction, and 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful hallucinogen derived from the venom of the Sonoran desert toad — are neither illegal nor approved medicinal use. The third, psilocybin mushrooms, can be legally ingested in ceremonies that follow indigenous traditions.
During a weekend retreat, Polanco’s patients begin Saturday with a ceremony using either ibogaine or psilocybin. The initial trip is designed to trigger disruptive thinking and deep introspection.
“You become your own therapist,” Polanco said.
On Sunday, participants smoke 5-MeO-DMT, which is often described as something between a mystical and a near-death experience.
dr Charles Nemeroff, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, which recently opened a center for psychedelic research, said the hype surrounding the healing potential of psychedelics has surpassed hard evidence. The risks – which include episodes of psychosis – are significant, he said.
“Currently, we have no way of predicting who will or will not respond to therapy or who may have a bad experience,” he said. “There’s so much we don’t know yet.”
The women at the retreat in Mexico were aware of the risks. But some said they’d lost faith in traditional treatments like antidepressants and heard enough inspirational stories from friends to take the leap of faith.
When the seven women gathered in a circle for the mushroom ceremony last Saturday, each had signed a waiver. They had completed questionnaires measuring post-traumatic stress and other mental illnesses and underwent a medical examination.
The ceremony was conducted by Andrea Lucie, a Chilean-American mind-body medicine expert who has spent most of her career working with wounded US veterans. After blowing burning sage on cups of mushroom tea served on a tray adorned with flowers and candles, Lucie read a poem by María Sabina, an indigenous Mexican healer who led mushroom ceremonies.
“Heal yourself with beautiful love and always remember you are the medicine,” recited Lucie, who comes from an indigenous Mapuche family in Chile.
After drinking, the women lay on mattresses on the floor and donned eye shades while soothing music played from a loudspeaker.
The first stirrings came about 40 minutes after the beginning of the ceremony. A few women lowered their blinds and cried. One giggled and then roared with laughter.
Then the whining started. Jenna Lombardo-Grosso, the ex-Marine who lost her mother to suicide, stormed out of the room and edged Lucie downstairs.
Lombardo-Grosso, 37, sobbed and screamed, “Why, why, why!” She later explained that the mushrooms surfaced traumatic childhood episodes of sexual abuse.
In the ceremony room, Samantha Juan, the Army veteran who was sexually abused as a child, began to cry and pulled out her journal. It was her third time at a Polanco-led retreat, where she said she faced a lifetime of traumatic memories that led her to drink heavily and rely on drugs to escape her pain after she left the army in 2014.
“I’ve learned to give myself empathy and show grace,” said Juan, 37.
Her goal in that retreat, she said, was to make peace with a sexual assault she said she suffered in the army.
“Today’s journey is about forgiveness,” Juan had said just before taking the mushrooms. “I don’t want that grip on me anymore.”
As the effects of the mushrooms wore off, a prevailing sense of calm prevailed. The women exchanged stories about their travels, cracked jokes and lost themselves in long hugs.
The tremors returned the next morning as the women waited their turn to smoke 5-MeO-DMT, a trip Polanco calls “the slingshot” for the speed and intensity of the experience.
Seconds after her lungs absorbed the toad’s secretions, Juan let out guttural screams and fidgeted on her mat. Bostwick looked panicked and unsure as she shifted from a supine position to a position on all fours. Lombardo-Grosso vomited, gasped and winced violently as a nurse and Lucie grabbed her.
When she regained consciousness, Lombardo-Grosso sat up and began to cry.
“It felt like an exorcism,” she said. “It felt like brimstone rising, black, and now there’s nothing but light.”
That night, Alison Logan, the wife of a Navy explosives disposal expert who was about to divorce, looked dejected. The trips, she said, brought her sadness to the fore but brought no insights or a sense of resolution.
“It felt like a lot of pain with no answers,” she said.
But the other participants said their physical ailments disappeared and their spirits brightened.
Bostwick said she was “amazed” but thrilled that her migraines had gone away and that for the first time in a long time she felt a sense of limitless possibility.
“I feel like my body has let go of so much of the anger and frustration and all the little things we’re holding on to,” she said. “I was filled with negativity.”
In the days following the retreat, Juan said she felt “energized and ready to tackle each day head-on.”
Lombardo-Grosso said the retreat helped her make peace with the loss of her mother and turned her outlook on the future from a sense of fear to one of optimism.
“I feel whole,” she said a few days later from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Nothing is missing anymore.”
©2022 The New York Times Company