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‘I want to reset my brain’: Veteran women turn to psychedelic therapy

TIJUANA, Mexico – Plumes of incense swirled in the dimly lit living room as seven women took turns explaining what made them sign up for a weekend of psychedelic therapy at a villa in northern Mexico with a breathtaking view of the ocean.

A former US Marine has said she hopes to connect with the spirit of her mother, who took her own life 11 years ago. An Army veteran said she was sexually abused by a parent as a child. A handful of veterans have said they were sexually assaulted by fellow service members.

The wife of a Navy bomb disposal expert has choked up as she laments that years of relentless combat missions have turned her husband into an absent and dysfunctional father.

Kristine Bostwick, 38, a former Marine Corps member, said she hoped putting her mind through ceremonies with mind-altering substances would help her come to terms with the end of a turbulent marriage and perhaps to relieve the migraines which had become a daily torment.

“I want to reset my brain from the bottom up,” she said during the introductory session of a recent three-day retreat, wiping away tears. “My kids deserve it. I deserve it.”

A growing body of research on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic therapy has excited some psychiatrists and venture capitalists.

Much of the growing appeal of these treatments has been driven by veterans of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having turned to experimental therapies to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse, and depression, many former military personnel have become strong advocates for the wider adoption of psychedelics.

Participants in psychedelic retreats often pay thousands of dollars for the experience. But those female veterans and wives of veterans who had traveled to Mexico for treatment at Mission Within were attending for free, thanks to the Heroic Hearts Project and the Hope Project. The groups, founded by an Army ranger and the wife of a Navy SEAL, raise money to make psychedelic therapy affordable for people with military backgrounds.

Mission Within, on the outskirts of Tijuana, is run by Dr. Martín Polanco, who since 2017 has focused almost exclusively on treating veterans.

“I realized early on that if we focused our work on veterans, we would have a greater impact,” said Dr. Polanco, who said he treated more than 600 American veterans in Mexico. “They understand what it takes to achieve peak performance.”

At first, he says, he dealt almost exclusively with male veterans. But recently, he’s started getting a lot of requests from female veterans and military wives and has started hosting women-only retreats.

With the exception of clinical trials, psychedelic therapy is currently practiced clandestinely or under nebulous legality. As demand soars, a handful of Latin American countries, including Costa Rica, Jamaica and Mexico, have become hubs for experimental protocols and clinical studies.

Dr. Polanco, who is not licensed in the United States, has been practicing 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 studies.

The use of psychedelic treatments is not currently part of the standard of care for the treatment of mental health conditions in veterans hospitals, according to Randal Noller, spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But with special permission, they may be administered as part of a research protocol, and the department’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention “closely monitors the evolving scientific literature in this area,” Noller said.

In Mexico, two of the substances administered by Dr. Polanco – ibogaine, a herbal psychoactive commonly used to treat addiction, and 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful hallucinogen derived from the poison of the Sonoran desert toad – are neither illegal nor approved for medical use. The third, psilocybin mushrooms, can be taken legally in ceremonies that follow native traditions.

During a weekend retreat, Dr. Polanco’s patients begin with a ceremony using either ibogaine or psilocybin. The initial journey is meant to trigger disruptive reflection and deep introspection.

“You become your own therapist,” Dr. Polanco said.

On Sunday, participants smoke 5-MeO-DMT, often described as something between a mystical experience 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 launched a psychedelic research center, said the hype surrounding the healing potential of psychedelics has exceeded tangible evidence. The risks – which include episodes of psychosis – are considerable, he said.

“Currently, we have no way of predicting who will or will not respond therapeutically or who might have a bad experience,” he said. “There are so many things we still don’t know.”

Retired women in Mexico have understood the risks. But several said they had lost faith in conventional treatments like antidepressants and had heard enough inspiring stories from friends to take a leap of faith.

By the time the seven women gathered in a circle for the mushroom ceremony on a recent Saturday, each had signed a disclaimer. They had completed questionnaires that measure post-traumatic stress and other psychological ailments and had undergone a medical check-up.

The ceremony was led by Andrea Lucie, a Chilean-American mind-body medicine expert who has spent most of her career working with wounded American veterans. After blowing hot sage over cups of mushroom tea served on a tray decorated with flowers and candles, Ms. Lucie read a poem by María Sabina, an indigenous Mexican healer who led mushroom ceremonies.

“Treat yourself with beautiful love and always remember that you are the medicine,” recited Ms Lucie, who is from an indigenous Mapuche family in Chile.

After drinking, the women lay on mattresses on the floor and put on goggles while soothing music played on a speaker.

The first stirrings occurred about 40 minutes after the start of the ceremony. Two women lowered their shadows and cried. One of them chuckled and then burst out laughing.

Then the moans started. Jenna Lombardo-Grosso, the former Marine who lost her mother to suicide, stormed out of the room and snuggled up with Ms. Lucie downstairs.

Ms. Lombardo-Grosso, 37, was sobbing and screaming, “Why, why, why!” She later explained that the fungi had surfaced during traumatic episodes of childhood sexual abuse.

Inside the ceremony hall, Samantha Juan, the Army veteran who was sexually abused as a child, began to cry and pulled out her diary. It was the third time she had attended a retreat administered by Dr Polanco, where she said she faced a lifetime of traumatic memories that led her to drink heavily and take drugs to escape her pain after having left the army in 2014.

“I learned to give myself empathy and show myself grace,” said Ms Juan, 37.

Her goal during this retreat, she said, was to make peace with a sexual assault she said she suffered in the military.

“In today’s trip, the emphasis is on forgiveness,” Ms. Juan had said shortly before taking the mushrooms. “I don’t want that kind of hold on me anymore.”

As the effects of the mushrooms wore off, a sense of calm reigned. The women swapped stories about their travels, made jokes and lost themselves in long embraces.

The jitters returned the next morning as the women waited their turn to smoke 5-MeO-DMT, a trip Dr. Polanco calls “the slingshot” for the speed and intensity of the experience.

Seconds after her lungs absorbed the toad secretions, Ms. Juan gave a guttural scream and moved onto her mat. Ms Bostwick looked panicked and unsteady as she moved from lying on her back to being on all fours. Ms Lombardo-Grosso vomited, gasped and shook violently as a nurse and Ms Lucie held her steady.

When she regained consciousness, Ms. Lombardo-Grosso sat up and began to cry.

“It was like an exorcism,” she said. “It was like sulfur rising, black, and now there is only light.”

That night, Alison Logan, the wife of a Navy explosive ordnance disposal expert who was about to divorce, looked dejected. The trips, she said, brought her sadness to the fore, but provided no insight or sense of resolve.

“It felt like a lot of pain with no response,” she said.

But the other participants said their physical ailments disappeared and their moods improved.

Ms Bostwick said she was ‘mystified’ but ecstatic, that her migraines were gone and for the first time in a long time she felt a sense of limitless possibility.

“I feel like my body is letting go of so much anger and frustration and all the little things that we hold on to,” she said. “I was overflowing with negativity.”

During the days following the retreat, Ms Juan said she felt ‘full of energy and ready to face each day head-on’.

Ms Lombardo-Grosso said the retreat had helped her come to terms with the loss of her mother and shifted her view of the future from one of dread to one of optimism.

“I feel whole,” she said days later from her Tulsa home. “Nothing is missing anymore.”


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