GIGANTE, Costa Rica – Rudy Gonsior, a retired American Special Forces sniper, had a ghostly quality to see if a psychedelic concoction that causes vomiting did the damage the morning he came to a jungle retreat Years of struggle wrought on him, mind could undo.
With glassy eyes and withdrawn, he barely spoke over a whisper and was much quieter than the six other veterans who had come to dig up painful memories of comrades who had fallen in battle, thoughts of suicide and the scar that life leaves on the psyche.
"I have traveled across continents to come to the jungle to do psychedelics," said Mr Gonsior, who had kept drugs off all his life. "I think this is what could be called an Ave Maria."
They had come to western Costa Rica to try ayahuasca, a substance that people in the Amazon rainforest had ingested for centuries. Some indigenous communities consider the brew, which contains the hallucinogen DMT, to be an effective medicine that will keep them mentally resilient and in tune with the natural world.
The lodge, which the Americans visited late last year, was far from it, with a gleaming swimming pool and expansive deck anchored on well-appointed cabanas with great ocean views. The lodge costs between $ 3,050 and $ 7,075 per person for a week-long retreat and is one of the newest and most expensive additions to a booming alternative healing sector.
Until relatively recently, only a few botanists, hippies and spiritual seekers had access to the world of Amazon shamanism, which missionaries drove underground during the colonization of large parts of the Amazon basin in order to convert indigenous groups to Christianity.
But now thousands of people from all over the world make the pilgrimage each year to the 140+ ayahuasca retreat centers in Latin American countries, where use of the substance in ceremonial settings is legal or, as in Costa Rica, not specifically prohibited.
In addition to psychedelic ceremonies, which are often physically and emotionally demanding, the organizers of retreats offer group therapy sessions, yoga classes, art therapy, meditation circles and warm flower baths.
Together, these centers have grown into an unlicensed and unregulated mental health market for people looking for an alternative to antidepressants and other widely used drugs.
The appeal of psychedelics has grown in a growing body of scientific research building on promising studies in the US and Europe from the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this earlier research was halted after psychoactive substances were banned during the Vietnam War in response to concerns about widespread drug use on college campuses.
In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration has referred to psilocybin, the psychedelic component in magic mushrooms, and MDMA, the drug known as ecstasy, as "breakthrough therapies." This rare name enables scientists to accelerate larger studies that could pave the way for the administration of psychedelics as medicine.
Drinking ayahuasca can be dangerous, especially while taking certain medicines, including antidepressants and medicines for high blood pressure. It can also trigger psychotic episodes for people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
While some retreats have strict rules and protocols developed in consultation with medical professionals, the ayahuasca boom has sometimes been exploited by scammers and charlatans and investigated for cases of sexual assault on vulnerable or impaired participants, including cases in Peru.
"You have to recognize that ayahuasca retreats have a Wild West element to them," said Dr. Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Johns Hopkins University who has been studying psychedelics since 2004.
In a controlled environment, releasing the brain could help patients revisit the repressed trauma and gain new knowledge. The medical establishment, once deeply skeptical of the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, is grappling with "what is essentially a new area of medicine," he added.
Dr. Johnson feared, however, that psychedelic retreats in general might be ill-equipped to examine individuals for whom travel could be dangerous. In extreme cases, people have tried to commit suicide while heavily affected by psychedelics or experiencing psychotic episodes that required hospitalization.
"These are powerful, powerful tools that can be used to get people to a very vulnerable place," said Dr. Johnson. "That is not to be underestimated."
The growing interest in psychedelically assisted healing, fueled by writers, celebrities, and influential podcast hosts, has put places like the Soltara Healing Center, which veterans have gone to, at the forefront of efforts to challenge conventional psychiatric care put .
Melissa Stangl, co-founder of Soltara, argued that responsible ayahuasca centers could be the seeds of transformation.
"We are on the verge of adding psychoactive drugs to the general health system," she said. "Once science really catches up on how effective this is for people who are not being cared for by the current medical system, we can become allies."
Before their first ayahuasca ceremony, the veterans met individually with two Peruvian “maestros” or healers from the Shipibo community in Peru.
"Their hearts are hardened," said Teobaldo Ochavano, who leads the nightly ceremonies with his wife Marina Sinti. "They didn't seem able to experience love or joy."
Ms. Sinti said the years of interaction with foreigners on retreats made it painfully clear why these rituals are so popular.
"People in the US and Europe are very disconnected," she said. "From each other and from the earth."
"A Cult of Death"
Like many service members of his generation, Mr. Gonsior said he joined the Marine Corps to avenge the 9/11 attacks that took place while he was in school.
In 2006 he was sent to western Iraq for the first of several combat tours. He and his men were constantly being ambushed with powerful roadside bombs and shot at by snipers, he said, and 17 service members he dispatched returned home in body bags.
Experience, said Mr. Gonsior, made him a ruthless warrior.
"My only goal was to survive," he said. "I've done a lot of things that I'm not particularly proud of."
Instead of relieving himself to survive, he felt an overwhelming sense of shame.
"It was just bad luck that I wasn't shot and blown up," he said. "Like to the point where statistically I should be dead or at least seriously injured by now."
In 2007, Mr Gonsior said he had joined the Army Special Forces where he served as a sniper. He felt he had joined a "death cult," he said.
"For the last 17 years of my life, my job has been one way or another about death," he said. "When I get older, it weighs heavily."
The killing became mundane. But a life he took in Afghanistan in 2012 haunted him for years.
During a routine operation, Mr. Gonsior opened fire on a man on a motorcycle believing he was an insurgent. Soon after, Mr Gonsior learned that he had killed an Afghan intelligence source who was working with his unit.
Mr Gonsior said he did not allow himself to properly grieve this death or come to terms with the guilt until years later he was gripped by depression and fits of anger, sometimes triggered by trivial things his children did.
Abstract thoughts about suicide eventually became terrifyingly specific, he said. At the Veterans Affairs Hospital where he sought help, 35-year-old Gonsior said he had been told to take antidepressants. He said he refused based on the side effects he saw when fellow soldiers suffered.
Last year, after hearing a story on the radio about ayahuasca and trauma, he was intrigued by the idea that healing deep wounds requires coming to terms with its roots.
"There are a lot of emotional wrecks, shipwrecks that are kind of down there," he said.
By the time he and the other veterans entered the darkened ceremonial room with its meshed windows and conical roof, they had signed a long indemnity agreement.
It warned of the "unlikely occurrence of a psychotic episode," the danger of drinking ayahuasca while taking antidepressants, and that psychedelic travel makes some people feel worse "mentally, physically and emotionally".
In traditional outfits, the Peruvian maestros puffed tobacco smoke into the candlelit room known as maloca. The participants, who were sitting on cots arranged in a circle, stepped up to them to swallow a shot glass of the dark brown, muddy ayahuasca brew.
Chris Sutherland, a 36-year-old Canadian soldier who said he recently retired from post-traumatic stress disorder due to total disability, had come after years of panic attacks, binge drinking, and taking antidepressants that made him feel, " I was no longer person. "
David Radband, a former British special forces soldier, said he had come to the jungle in hopes of drowning out the anger that engulfed his life after leaving the army. He said it cost him custody of his children, took him to prison for assault and pressured him to commit suicide twice, once by hanging and once by stabbing.
"I blocked emotions with anger," said Mr. Radband, 34. "I was building a wall all the time."
Juliana Mercer, 38, a Navy veteran, said she developed a condition called caregiver fatigue after caring for wounded service members in San Diego for four years. When sent to Afghanistan in 2010, she said she was paralyzed by fear every time she saw young, healthy Marines drive off base.
"I was just so desperate to get everyone to safety," she said.
It was quiet in the room when the maestros blew out the candles, except for the gentle lapping of the waves from the nearby beach. But the silence was short-lived.
As the ayahuasca began to take hold, the Peruvians slowly walked the room while they sang icaros, high-pitched songs that the Shipibo consider to be the core of the healing process.
Sometimes their rhythm and cadence can be calming and hypnotic, like a lullaby. However, higher notes and fast-paced sequences can feel mocking or angry.
When ceremonies reach a crescendo, the room often feels like a state of controlled pandemonium. Fits of loud vomiting pierce the singing. There is sometimes audible crying in one corner and ecstatic laughter from all over the room.
As dawn approaches and the ayahuasca wears off, participants come out of the room looking skinny and light-headed as the rational mind struggles to regain control.
"These experiences have an opportunity to completely get people out of the mental rut they are in and explore a wider range of possibilities," said Dr. Johnson of Johns Hopkins, one of several universities conducting clinical trials.
Unlike antidepressants, which when effective, numb the symptoms of stress, psychedelics seem to boost the healing process that results from psychotherapy, he added.
But he and other experts who cite the psychiatric promise of psychedelics worry about their use in retreats or other institutions without proper control.
"There is insufficient medical care left for failure," said Collin Reiff, a psychiatrist at New York University, on the rare occasions when people experience serious side effects.
However, Jesse Gould, a former Army Ranger who brought the veterans to Soltara, says the benefits of jungle retreat outweigh the risks.
Mr Gould said he started the Heroic Hearts Project, a nonprofit group that raises money to send veterans on psychedelic retreats after stumbling into one at a low point in his life.
After leaving the army and traveling a bit, he said he got a comfortable job in finance that made him drink a lot and "made him feel scared of everything".
When seeking help from the Department of Veterans Affairs in Tampa, where he lived, Mr. Gould said he had been encouraged to take antidepressants, which did not appeal to him. In 2016 he quit his job and booked a retreat in a center in Peru.
The decision was for Mr. Gould, 33, a tight laces veteran who said he had avoided drugs his entire life.
"I'm definitely in the D.A.R.E. Generation, ”he said, referring to the anti-drug advertising campaign that began in the 1980s. "I was very interested in 'just say no'."
His first ceremonies were brutal, Mr Gould said, calling it "an all-out war" in which he vomited up to 20 times in one night and felt he was being "pushed to the edge".
But in the months that followed, he said his depression eased, his crippling social anxiety disappeared, and his mood swings, which had felt like a "tug of war in my brain," stopped.
"It almost seemed to rewire my brain," said Mr. Gould.
Since then, Mr. Gould and his team have raised more than $ 250,000 to pay for psychedelic retreat scholarships for dozens of veterans. And they've provided testimonies to the psychedelic decriminalization movement who believe the stereotype of the New Age stoners.
"People immediately have the image of a hippie," he said. "But because of my ministry, a lot of people who are in a completely different group of people tend to listen."
"Another level of understanding"
As their weeklong retreat came to an end, British soldier Radband said the ceremonies had revived his desire for life.
"You know, I've tried to kill myself twice, but I'm not ready to die," he said. "I have so much more to give."
Mr Sutherland, the Canadian, said one of the ceremonies was "the most terrible night of my life, more terrible than any fight I have ever been in". But overall, he said, the trips helped him overcome a longstanding fear: “I'm not a sociopath,” he said.
"I was always worried that I was angry, but I was shown where my compassion was," he said.
Mr. Gonsior, the American sniper, compared the experience to a "final surrender," which was exhausting but relaxing.
"You have had so many experiences that range from absolute terror to sheer joy," he said. "You realize that there is another level of understanding there."
On the last day, when Mr. Gonsior became poetic about the universe and the connection of all living things, Mr. Gould couldn't resist getting a little push.
"There's a hippie in every veteran," he said.