Once i had reached the age of 41, I expected to have a settled home with a partner and family. Instead, mid- divorce and childless, I found myself in the Amazon rainforest taking part in a shamanic ceremony drinking ayahuasca – a hallucinogenic plant brew that, it’s claimed, can give visions and insight akin to years of therapy. In the hushed darkness of the jungle night, the humid air clinging to my skin, I waited my turn to gulp down the thick, sickly brew – one of the world’s strongest psychedelics – and hoped it would help me feel more positive about the way my life had turned out.
I’d always longed for a family. At 29, I went freelance, thinking that would make it easier to juggle childcare when I needed to. What I didn’t have was a man to father my children. Bullying had left me with low self-esteem and although I’d faced up to that in therapy, it still affected my ability to get into relationships, despite the effort I put into trying to find a partner. I spent much of my twenties and thirties single, trying to stay positive but knowing my fertility was ebbing away.
I eventually married in my late thirties. Sadly, two pregnancies ended in miscarriage, the second at 14 weeks due to a very rare complication. At the final scan, I was devastated to see my beautiful baby floating motionless in my womb, like a tiny ghost astronaut lost in space. I never conceived again. And as any crisis tends to turn hairline cracks into major fractures, my marriage crumbled. I entered my forties in freefall. I’d always been open to different ways of having children but, when I looked into adoption, I was advised against applying because of my unstable work and financial situation. My hopes were beaten back, one by one.
All types of grief throw a harsh light on to whatever’s lurking in the shadows. Yes, I was distraught about not having children. But that was a clear, clean pain. Mixed in were deeper, murkier feelings of shame that I hadn’t found a man who really wanted a family with me – perhaps the girls at school had been right and I really was unattractive and unlovable. I felt inadequate in a world that prizes motherhood. Sometimes, I questioned the point of me.
I read up about psychedelics such as ayahuasca, LSD and magic mushrooms, and learned that they can dampen activity in the part of the brain that keeps you in a negative- thinking rut. At the same time, they can activate different areas, helping you to find solutions and see life in a new way. It may seem leftfield, but I was therapied out – I felt talking about my issues had only got me so far and was starting to reinforce them. I booked a flight to Peru for an ayahuasca retreat.
I’d done my research and felt my retreat centre was reputable. Studies, including one published in The Lancet, have shown psychedelics can be safe substances for most people. They can actually be much safer than alcohol, although no substance is for everyone and personal history must be taken into account (see box, right). Most of the people I met at the retreat were around my age and at turning points in their lives. The shamans were experienced and the ceremony felt like a safe space, but as I lay on my mat after swallowing the drink the first time, I felt very anxious. Ayahuasca trips, or ‘journeys’ can involve troubling visions, plus excessive vomiting – which the shamans call ‘purging’ and consider an emotional and spiritual release.
With my eyes closed and the shamans singing sacred songs, I felt the ‘medicine’ flow through my body. When the sickness came, it wasn’t unpleasant. Then the visions began – I turned into a jaguar and went racing through the forest. I came to a clearing and turned back into a woman. When I looked down at myself, I saw I was covered in jewels. ‘I’m beautiful’, I thought for the first time in my life. I watched myself move into a group of people, noticing how warm and gentle I seemed, and I wondered whether I was being given a glimpse of myself from the outside. I saw I could still have a meaningful role in life, working with others. I was so moved, I began to sob into my pillow. There’s something about experiencing yourself in a new way on psychedelics that allows you to internalise those feelings and hold on to them afterwards. I emerged a few hours later, feeling as though my brain had been unpicked and stitched back together into a different, more positive pattern.
Over the next year, I used ayahuasca to support myself as I came to terms with life as a single, childless woman. It’s illegal in the UK but there are retreats in European countries, including the Netherlands, where you can work with it in a safe setting. Psychedelics can encourage questioning of society’s messages – a study published last year in the Journal Of Psychoactive Drugs found that those who use them tend to be more open, liberal and nature-loving – and I was surprised to realise how deeply I’d bought into the idea that a woman’s worth is linked to her status as a partner and mother. Once I saw that, I was able to step back and see there are different, equally valid ways to be a woman. That tough inner kernel of low self-esteem – never really touched by therapy – finally began to crack apart, allowing me to view myself as vibrant and worthwhile.
Psychedelics can take you closer to who you really are, but they also make you look out into the world. My visions showed me I needed to work with other people, so I’m focusing on that now. I’ve begun to run personal development retreats with a friend. I’m also hosting death cafés, bringing members of my local community together to chat about mortality over tea and cake, breaking the taboos around death by being more open and accepting of it. And I’m setting up circles for childless women to inspire and support each other. I’ll always be sad I’m not a mum – I think I would’ve been good at it. But I can now see a future that has meaning, even if it holds no children. Find Charlotte’s projects on charlottehaigh.me
Psychedelics are classified as illegal class A substances. David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, says, ‘Our 2010 paper in The Lancet showed LSD and magic mushrooms cause the least harm to individuals and society, with alcohol, heroin and crack causing most harm. We didn’t study ayahuasca as that’s less common in the UK, but it would fall into the same category as LSD and mushrooms.’ That said, anyone with a personal or family history of psychosis should avoid psychedelics. As with any drug, there is always a risk to personal safety.