Can Ayahuasca Cure PTSD?
Donald “Donnie” Bumanglag spoke with Reset just months after sipping the psychedelic, sacred, traditional healing brew ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon. Unlike many of his fellow participants in the week long retreat program, Donnie is a 33-year-old veteran military combat medic and father of four. And, like many veterans, he was on the verge of suicide due to severe PTSD symptoms prior to his visit to the jungle (22 veterans take their own lives in the U.S. each day according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs).
For years, Donnie’s life felt like a trap he couldn’t escape. He was living with overwhelming financial, personal, spiritual and emotional stress that felt impenetrable, despite his many efforts. Though it took struggles, heartache and plenty of time before he was able to face what he was going through, he said he realizes now that seeing combat in such a vivid fashion made him feel violated.
He grappled with the duality of “not just being the guy that was there to kill everybody, but also being the guy that was there to help people.”
“It became very convoluted many, many times,” he said. “That’s a lot of what I struggled with, was that I felt duped. I felt violated. When I finally realized it, I felt like, I guess the way that a rape victim feels: their body was used for something that they didn’t want it to be.”
Today, thanks in great part to stumbling upon a TED Talk about ayahuasca, he is living symptom-free and full of a hopefulness that seeps out in his voice when he speaks. Here is his story.
When he returned from serving three tours overseas as a military medic, Donnie was in a state of denial. He’d joined the military at 17 as a way to earn a living while, he’d hoped, helping people. Growing up he lived in Nipomo, California where his father started out as a migrant farm worker before beginning a long career as a California state correctional officer in San Luis Obispo. It was the end of the Cold War, a patriotic time during which “Be all you can be,” army slogans abounded and cartoons like GI Joe: American Hero were popular on TV. Donnie picked up fast on the fact that his parents’ friends, who were most financially stable, were all military veterans, and by the end of high school he knew his path would include the army.
“I just wanted to go and serve and do something for myself, and make my parents proud,” he said. “I wanted to not only be a soldier; I wanted to be the smarter version of the soldier. In my mind I was going to find something where I could be on the front lines but I could still help people. So, I became a medic.”
As it turned out, like many of his generation he was getting himself into much more than he’d bargained for. He joined up in 1999 — a time during which the U.S. was not involved in any active conflicts — thinking his longer life plan would be to work as a paramedic. What better way to get training than through the military? He graduated from the military paramedic training program at 19, just months before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“At that time, an airborne ranger, I was maybe 115 pounds soaking wet,” he laughs. “I thought I had the world figured out. It just happened to be that I was in the wrong place or the right place, at the right time/wrong time — however you want to look at it. I graduated in January 2001. I get to my unit, which at the time was 3rd Ranger Battalion in Fort Benning, Georgia. I go there, kind of go through this rites of passage program where they accepts me in as a platoon medic.”
Then September 11 happened.
After the 9/11 attacks, Donnie was deployed as part of the U.S.-led war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his first tour he fought off of the USS Kitty Hawk and from an air base in Oman in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, conducting raids in Kandahar, Afghanistan. His second tour was also in Afghanistan. And his final tour was in Iraq via Saudi Arabia.
“I look at my son now, who is 14 and I go, ‘What the heck?’” he said. “‘A few years later, how could I ever send you off to war, to go fight somebody to die?’”
A Shaky Homecoming
When he returned home it was 2003. He was 22 years old, making ends meet selling real estate, and battling alcoholism as well as symptoms of PTSD.
“At the time I didn’t think I was battling anything,” he said. “I started going down this road of drinking all the time, riding the Harley, getting in fights, just being a dummy. At that time I thought that’s what it meant to be a vet. You talk about war stories and all that stuff. That’s what I thought it meant.”
Then, Donnie found out he was going to be a father, and some things changed. He decided to look for “the highest paying job” he could get with his experience — one with a medical plan. Over and over again the jobs that popped up were in law enforcement.
He became an officer in 2006 for the Lompoc Police Department. A few years years later he was promoted to the position of narcotics detective. He enjoyed being regarded as the heroic ex-Ranger by the other cops — for a while.
Soon, he developed increased symptoms typical of PTSD — he had trouble sleeping and fell into a deep depression complete with suicidal thoughts. After finalizing a divorce from his first marriage he began to feel uneasy about his career choice and general life path. While he knew something wasn’t right, he felt locked in place.
“I knew that I wasn’t the person that I wanted to be and I wasn’t as nice to people,” he said. “I started realizing that I had PTSD somewhere right at the beginning of my police career, but then I also realized that I had no other way to make an income, and I had no way to support my [then]-young son, who at the time I was trying to raise separately.”
He went through the motions of what he “thought it meant to be a police officer.”
“I started believing that I was, in a sense, better than other people were,” he said. “It led me down this really terrible road of drinking and I just became very, very depressed.”
When he reached out the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) for medical treatment, he received the usual “cocktail of every type of SSRI’s” (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). It’s common practice for VA doctors to prescribe anywhere from 10 to 30 or more different medications at a time. In fact, the overmedication of U.S. veterans, long suspected due to numerous personal reports, was confirmed last May with a federal investigation concluding that it is widespread, often life-threatening problem.
“I was breaking things in my house, I was constantly upset,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m trying to hide this at work. I’m trying to hide the fact that I even have PTSD at all. In the law enforcement community they all see me as the veteran hero…I felt like I was always in a fish bowl. It just created this incredible anxiety.”
By roughly 2013 it was clear to Donnie’s doctors that he shouldn’t be serving on the police force with the number of symptoms he displayed.
“They’d been telling me that, ‘being a cop is just not a good job for you, because…you have this heightened feeling of awareness already, and now you are carrying a gun off duty, and now you’re doing…all these different factors, and you’re drinking, and you’re not sleeping.’ Things that are just not a good recipe for success,” he said.
More than once he was told he needed to medically retire, but he saw no other way to support himself and his family. He needed an exit strategy.
Eventually he decided to put himself through school, initially as a way to tap into his GI bill and earn a little extra cash.
“I started [the psychology program] to supplement my income,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t really ever want to work for anybody or do anything, but I knew that I needed to figure out what was going on with me.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brandman University online while working full time, and graduated with honors.
“I took it really seriously,’ he said. “I wasn’t a very good student before, but I guess the military, it has its good and bad.”
Escaping the Fish Bowl
About a year and a half ago, Donnie said he started to seriously reassess his life. His depression and stress weren’t subsiding, despite the handful of daily pills he was popping, and it was becoming impossible to pretend everything was OK at work.
He knew he wanted to help people, using his own experience. He decided maybe he’d become a history teacher and help to change the way people looked at war and conflict. He got into the prestigious University of Southern California master’s program.
“Getting into a school like that and getting into the master’s program for me was something beyond what I could possibly rationalize as a kid,” he said. “I could see those rich kids going to Southern California [USC], and sporting the Trojan and the white horse, I would have never thought that would have been me.”
For the first time in his life, he said, he felt smart.
Meanwhile his PTSD symptoms continued and at work he was put on administrative leave due to stress.
“They made me turn in my gun and treated me like I was a crazy vet that was going to kill everybody,” he said. “But I didn’t care…I was finally starting to let go of the stigma, the ego and just say, ‘I don’t care if people know that I have PTSD.”
During one of his classes at USC he was introduced to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on how schools kill creativity. He was becoming disillusioned with the idea of entering into the education system, which he said appeared more and more like a “conveyer belt” for learning. He started searching for other talks that could help him understand himself, mostly related to PTSD.
He obtained a California State medical marijuana recommendation and gradually switched off of all of his medications to cannabis, which helped him to sleep and relax without many of the harsher side effects of the pills. It also helped to open him up to a new trajectory, he said. It was around this time, as he was listening regularly to TED Talks and other podcasts, that he decided what he was most interested in was exploring consciousness.
He looked up the word “consciousness” and stumbled upon a TED Talk by Graham Hancock, explorer, journalist and author of several books. The talk, titled “The War on Consciousness” has since been controversially removed from from the TEDx YouTube Channel in an act that many people have called out as censorship, but you can find ithere.
The talk discusses “this thing called ayahuasca,” as Donnie put it. Ayahuasca is a sacred, medicinal brew used traditionally by indigenous peoples of the Amazon. In his talk, Hancock describes his experiences traveling to the Amazon and experiencing ayahuasca healing ceremonies — including exhaustive descriptions of painful purging, powerful visions and life-changing encounters with the Mother Ayahuasca healing spirit.
In the talk, Hancock also explains how ayahuasca ceremonies have proven — via thousands of years of human experience — successful in mitigating (sometimes reversing) a range of psychological ailments, including PTSD.
The talk left Donnie flabbergasted.
“I’m like, what the hell?” he said. “I have a degree in psychology, I just left the master’s program, but I’ve never heard of anything like this. I started talking to other people that are vets and starting talking to other people with PTSD. I started talking to my doctors that are supposed to be the experts in this and I realized that nobody knew anything.”
Soon after hearing the Hancock talk, a series of unfortunate circumstances sent Donnie into a steep downward spiral. He became more depressed than ever and began to contemplate suicide.
“I don’t know if I physically tried to hurt myself, but I know that I was on the road to just not caring at all,” he said. “It was just so sad. It’s so sad for me to think about it now because, looking back, I see how beautiful my family, my kids — just how special they are, but I didn’t understand the depth.”
After doing “something really stupid,” Donnie made a pact with himself to lead an honest life.
He spent his days practicing the martial art Jiu Jitsu and listening to podcasts while riding an “old, shitty lateral recumbent bike” that had been sitting in his garage.
He started off playing talks by Joe Rogan, Graham Hancock and Reset‘s founder, Amber Lyon.
He felt called to explore ayahuasca for himself, figuring “what did I have to lose?”
“I felt like Ayahuasca just continued to call me from the jungle,” he said. “I didn’t have any resources to get there, I didn’t have the money to get there, but I was passionate about what I felt.”
He told his father — who had never heard of ayahuasca — about his decision, not knowing what kind of reaction to expect.
“[My father] decided that we were going to go to Peru together,” Donnie said. “He sat through the whole thing with me. It was a beautiful thing.”
A Beautiful Thing
Just a few months after his ayahuasca experience, Donnie reached out to Reset, intent on sharing his story with a wider audience. He says the ayahuasca experience gave him all of the tools necessary to see how his life could be “without the negative thoughts that are sprung about by PTSD and its symptoms.”
“The feelings of PTSD always try to creep up, so it’s a constant battle,” he wrote in a message to Reset. “But by outlook is better than ever.”
He says ayahuasca was a rebirth more than it was a cure.
“It is so transformative, it’s almost watering it down to even talk about it, but the power that it has — there is something special in the jungle,” he said. “Ayahuasca has a way of increasing your tolerance for anxiety, by showing you how strong you are — by really pushing your limits of what you think that you can and can’t endure, because the prison is your own mind. You begin to open these rooms that the government says you’re not allowed to look into.”
Donnie and his father participated in the ceremony via a company called Pulse Ayahuasca Adventure Tours, which includes ecotourism activities — like fishing for piranha and taking ethno-botanical nature walks complete with sloths — along with nightly ayahuasca ceremonies guided by a shaman. They stayed for a week.
“Ayahuasca takes you to place where you’re reborn in a sense,” he said. “You feel like you’re a child and everything in the world is beautiful again. Everything is free of all the crap you’ve been putting in your head that tells you it’s bad.”
Now, Donnie is making it his life’s work to introduce more veterans, and people in general, about techniques that can reset consciousness for the better. Along with a friend and fellow vet, he is starting an advocacy organization called State of Flow to reeducate people about plant medicines like ayahuasca, martial arts and positive, healthy living in general.
“I feel like I just don’t want anybody to have to go through what I’ve been through,” he said. “[In combat] I was the person that had to see some of these faces, at the very end when people — when that glimmer in their eye went out — when they looked at me and they totally didn’t understand why it happened to them. I want to be somebody who dies at peace with what I’ve done in war. I don’t want to be somebody who is staring off in the distance, wondering, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I want to feel like I made a significant contribution.”
He said ayahuasca has helped him see this as possible.
Donnie points out that only about .05% of the population has actually experienced combat firsthand, so who better than those veterans to lead the charge against the war on psychedelics?
“We have an opportunity because people respect us as warriors; we have a special jump-to-the-front-of-the-line pass, if we want it,” he said. “Guys like me that are retired at 30, are still young enough to change the world. We’re still able-bodied. We still have the right mindset, if we can just get into it. We can lead the charge by saying, ‘Hey look, everybody knows universally that war is bad, and we’ve been victims of this war, and now we’re looking for answers.’ If enough of us get together and say, ‘[Psychedelics] are what helps us, we need to make them legal,’ if we start moving in that direction, I may not be the person or somebody else may not be the person, but maybe we may talk to the person that then does get that to happen.”
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