I had six days sober; Mark had 30-something. It was my first time around. He had been there before. We met one afternoon after a meeting outside Perry Street, an unassuming storefront-turned-12-step meeting space in New York City’s West Village. To me, Perry Street was a kind of church. Cocooned by the mint walls and blackout curtains faded purple by the sun, it had become the one place I felt safe to let myself be the alcoholic, unemployed, failed writer that I was.
An addict is always looking for a solution, a quick fix — whether that be a shot that makes the next hour or so bearable, or a rehab center promising a whole new life. Driven by that desire, I filled my hours with 12-step meetings. I didn’t know that people called AA a cult, and that there were whole books and researchers who had dedicated their careers to debunking the program’s simple teachings. Like most addicts, I only trusted what worked and for me, that was 12-step.
Bored and lonely, I bummed a cigarette at the break to strike up a conversation. Mark gave me the Marlboro from his mouth and lit himself a new one. He was good looking, a dirty blond with a tough-guy face. Just my type, I decided, not that I was particular. We chatted for a while and then returned for the rest of the meeting.
Later that night, we met up for a coffee. Instead of speaking in slogans or wanting to talk about the Steps, it was during that first date that Mark introduced me to ibogaine.
Ibogaine, he explained, was a naturally occurring psychoactive substance that is said to alleviate the physical symptoms of opiate withdrawal. Made from the root bark of the western Central African Tabernanthe Iboga, the medicine has been used for thousands of years as a rite of passage in parts of Africa. In the West, it’s been used clandestinely since the 1960s for spiritual development and addiction treatment.
According to Mark, under the influence of ibogaine someone could go “cold turkey” from opiates without any physical or mental symptoms of withdrawal. Unlike traditional treatment methods like suboxone or methadone, ibogaine didn’t need to be taken continuously, and was non-addictive. Just one treatment reset the brain’s neuro-chemistry, freeing the drug user from a destructive pattern of abuse.
A little over a month earlier, Mark told me, he had done his third and, he said, final treatment. His heroin addiction was cured.
By virtue of having ingested the medicine, Mark considered himself a part of a voodoo-like spiritual discipline originating in Gabon, a coastal country in Central Africa. Mark’s first treatment, which had taken place years earlier in Mexico, had been administered by a N’ganga, or spiritual healer. Swallowing the medicine was just one part of an elaborate ritual that involved prayers, body paint and ceremonial objects such as woven mats, feathers and animal skins.
That first night at the coffee shop, Mark showed me YouTube videos of similar ceremonies, underwhelming displays of white men in what looked like an economy room at a Best Western dancing around in face paint waving feathers and playing drums.
I was skeptical. I didn’t know a lot about heroin but I knew that once you had a habit, you didn’t just quit. My older brother had been a heroin addict, and I’d grown up watching the consequences of his use. At the time, no one knew what was wrong with my brother, only that he was constantly sick. I knew it could take weeks or even months for a drug user to regain their balance once they’d stopped, and so most addicts didn’t — they just kept using. And yet, according to Mark, ibogaine had helped him to conquer fears and confront negative emotions. Years of therapy, he claimed, had been replicated in a matter of hours. After a lifetime of addiction, this third ibogaine treatment, he said, had set him free. In his view, the medicine was no less than a miracle. If that was the case, I wondered, why had it taken three treatments? Because, I decided, ibogaine didn’t really work.
* * *
I wasn’t alone in my skepticism: “Ibogaine cures nothing,” celebrity doctor and addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky tweeted in 2009. “Many of my patients have tried it. But they end up with mood and personality changes.” In 2011, Pinsky told RadarOnline.com that he was “very concerned” about actress Brooke Mueller’s plans to go to an ibogaine facility in Mexico, arguing that most people he’d known who’d undergone treatment used drugs again sometime within the following three to six months. In an interview with The Fix, Pinsky said, “It’s so important to remind people during the beginning of their recovery and throughout the first year and beyond that it takes time.” Aion Recovery, a rehabilitation center in Florida, cautions that Ibogaine has a “high potential for abuse, and is not accepted by the medical profession as having potential for positively treating any ailments, including addiction.” A recent article in Scientific America cites its dangerous and even deadly side effects. It describes how ibogaine works to disrupt the cycle of addiction as “mysterious,” ultimately concluding that until we learn more about the drug’s effects and until safer versions become available, the best advice for people struggling with addiction is to follow proven methods, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, support groups and approved anti-addiction medication. Opponents of ibogaine criticize treatment centers for operating illegally and without the guidance of medical professionals, and caution addicts about the dangerous and potential lethal side effects. All over the Internet, you’ll find review boards flooded with complaints, cautionary personal testimonials and straight up horror stories.
Ibogaine’s origins don’t do much to contribute to its legitimacy. A 19-year-old junkie named Howard Lotsof is widely credited as being the first to accidentally realize ibogaine’s anti-addictive properties. In 1962, he and six friends ingested the drug, and five of them immediately noticed a subjective reduction in cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Convinced of its benefits, Lotsof pursued and was granted the first patent for ibogaine as a remedy for addiction in 1986. In the early ’90s he worked with Jan Bastiaans, a Dutch psychiatrist recognized for her work using LSD therapy for Holocaust survivors, to prove the drug’s efficacy. The pair treated 30 addicts from around the world, two-thirds of whom were able to stop using drugs abruptly and completely for at least four months after treatment. It was an impressive statistic, given that 75 percent of addicts typically relapse within six months under conventional care.
The advancements Lotsof made were an accomplishment for someone without a doctorate-level degree and no scientific training, but not enough to legitimize the medicine. Lotsof’s study paved the way for FDA approval, but the trial was never completed. In the last decade, other researchers have taken up the cause, but there have been no gold standard double blinds or assessments of long-term efficacy.
Lotsof was a hero of Mark’s, who, by my sixth day of sobriety had become my boyfriend and moved into my apartment. Mark’s friends were all very intelligent, most were very accomplished, and many — in spite of all their best efforts — were very addicted to drugs. To learn that one of Mark’s friends had relapsed was a mild disappointment, but whenever I found out about Mark relapsing, it felt like a tragedy. I simply relied on him too much.
I expected Mark to be a partner in the typical sense of the word: I wanted him to be physically and emotionally present, to be loving and considerate, and reliable. Practically speaking, I expected him to shoulder his half of the bills. In most live-in romantic relationships, these wouldn’t have been unrealistic expectations, but this was too much to expect of my partner when he had a habit.
Mark used drugs off and on. For the most part, he kept his opiate use a secret. He lied to me, thinking I wouldn’t understand. Truth was, I didn’t. Blame it on my being in early recovery myself, or the fact that I had grown up with a drug-addicted brother, but I didn’t have the tools to deal with the daily agony of another person’s addiction, and I didn’t have the balls to make Mark move out.
A couple years into our relationship, Mark found himself in the rare position of having a supplier of ibogaine rather than having to go through a treatment provider, and I witnessed what he considered a miracle drug firsthand. Over the course of our relationship I watched Mark self-administer ibogaine many times — in each instance hoping it would be the last, resenting every time it wasn’t.
The first time felt like a one-two punch: After weeks of suspecting something was wrong, Mark copped to the fact that he’d relapsed. I was shocked, and afraid. I became angry. Before I could issue him an ultimatum, Mark assured me an ibogaine treatment would take care of it. That time, he probably knew better than to ask for help.
During the treatment, Mark lay on my couch in the living room next to a bucket in case he got sick. He mostly slept. When it appeared he was awake, he moved in a daze or stared off into space as if watching a movie only he could see. This state went on for days.
While ibogaine alleviates physical withdrawal, both anecdotal and clinical research concedes that the treatment itself is painful and complicated. Ingesting the bitter white powder thrusts a person into a powerful altered state. Side effects include nausea and vomiting, difficulty coordinating muscle movements and terrifying hallucinations lasting up to two days.
When he finally seemed to come out of it, he was weak and weepy. Raw and sensitive, as if he’d been rebirthed, Mark described his ordeal. He talked of family members who’d come to him and the wisdom they’d imparted. I didn’t understand, but I could see a transformation, and so I felt hopeful. He apologized for the lack of physical intimacy in our relationship. He promised to start contributing financially, and pay me back the money he owed me. He held my hands, eyes wet with tears, and said, “I want to be a better man.”
The weeks that followed felt like a honeymoon. Mark was humble, contrite and committed to sobriety. I became Mark’s biggest cheerleader, consumed by his recovery, cheerfully shouldering the household responsibilities while he got his life in order. For a while, he went to 12-step meetings daily and worked with a sponsor.
Then, his mood began to sour. After a falling out with his sponsor, he decided to go it on his own. He stopped attending meetings. Soon enough, he and I were arguing again, mostly over his recovery. I got the feeling he was shutting me out.
And so it went: every time, ibogaine transformed my partner into a new man until some months or weeks or days later, he’d change back into typical Mark. Eventually, I’d discover he was using again.
I know more about love now than I knew then. Back then, I wanted a relationship so badly, I would have accepted anything. I thought love was supposed to be unconditional, and so I stuck it out. Today, I know that while love shouldn’t be conditional, relationships can be. My relationship with Mark was codependent, and predicated on denial.
One particularly terrible evening, I came home from a meeting to find Mark and his friend, Michael, in my kitchen, splitting a six-pack. It was the first and last time I “caught” Mark drinking alcohol openly in our home. The fact that he no longer bid me the courtesy of hiding it enraged me. I felt humiliated and taken advantage of. Whatever I said to the both of them was toothless. Michael just looked at me blankly. I was three years sober at the time and so I felt superior to them; at the same time — and though I never would have admitted it then — I felt jealous. Michael knew my partner in a way I would never. He loved him in a way I could not.
* * *
In the years since, I’ve thought back to that moment in the kitchen, and my skepticism of ibogaine. My dismissal of the treatment has never sat well with me, and so recently, I read more on the medication, and talked to experts more accepting of the drug.
Ibogaine is no magic cure, most say, but it can be a remarkable tool when used correctly. Just as other psychedelics are increasingly being shown to be useful in treating things like PTSD, depression, and palliative care, former director of policy and programs at Vocal NY, Matt Curtis expressed confidence in ibogaine as a medicinal tool. At the same time, he admits that the state of science on ibogaine was “not in a great place.” Curtis expressed concern that certain claims being made by the “true believers” or “the religious part of the ibogaine crowd” had done more harm than good, and recommended that alternative uses for the medicine be better separated out from its therapeutic value.
To better understand the medicine, I contacted Mark’s old friend, Dimitri Mugianis, and we spoke over the phone. Over a decade earlier, Mugianis had been an underemployed musician living in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel when — desperate to free himself of a $200-a-day heroin addiction — he flew to Europe for an ibogaine treatment and never used again. By the time I’d met him, Mugianis had become one of the most recognizable ibogaine detox facilitators in the world.
Although he no longer performs treatments, Mugianis continues to work as an advocate and ibogaine spokesperson. He’s a major proponent of the drug. Still, Mugianis says it’s shortsighted to think of ibogaine — or anything — as a “quick fix.” To improve outcomes, Mugianis recommends people who’ve undergone an ibogaine treatment for substance abuse follow it up with as much aftercare as they can. In his case, Mugianis says, “I did everything and I still do — 12 step, yoga, therapy, gym, fasts, everything. I take real time and care.”
Most importantly, Mugianis says addicts ought to “create an environment where it’s okay to use again.” Relapse, he says, is a part of most people’s recovery — even after an ibogaine treatment.
In my relationship with Mark, I did pretty much the opposite. More than once, Mark asked for help. Administer the drug, sit with him afterwards, just lay off. Instead of supporting him, and of respecting his recovery as his, I resented him. Often, at least subconsciously, I blamed the medicine. By the second or third unsuccessful treatment, I’d determined ibogaine was snake oil. I thought of it as just another drug that Mark abused — and perhaps this is true — but that wasn’t really my call.
To be sure, no one should be compelled to take part in someone else’s recovery, especially in something as complicated as an ibogaine ritual. And yet, when I look back on our relationship, I recognize today how my attitude did my partner a disservice: I did everything experts say a loved one shouldn’t. I preached and lectured. I extracted promises. I made idle threats. I tried to figure it out. I enabled him — so long as he was doing recovery my way, and attending meetings. I would sit with him in meeting after meeting, sure, but when it had anything that had to do with ibogaine, Mark was on his own.
In the very least, ibogaine gave Mark hope and was possibly what kept him alive. At the time, this wasn’t good enough. All I saw was that Mark didn’t quit drugs for good, which was all I really wanted. As a result, I viewed his recovery as a failure and mine a success.
Today, to be completely honest, I still roll my eyes a little on the inside when I hear white people describe visions of African tribal chiefs or aliens that came to them with a message from another realm — and I’m only cautiously optimistic when someone says they’ve been clean for just two or three years. At the same time, I’ve learned that “success” is defined differently for everyone. For many, relapse is a part of recovery. Certainly, when I compare the hostility I once felt towards ibogaine to the hostility I sometimes see people expressing towards 12-step, I recognize how detrimental these attitudes can be.
Nearly ten years sober, I no longer attend 12-step meetings — but not because they didn’t help me. At the time, they were just what I needed, along with faith. In a world where over 200 million people are affected by substance use disorders, we need to do a better job supporting people in recovery — even if treatment sounds too good to be true.