Serene wanted to quit heroin. She tried psychedelics.

In 2020, a woman named Serene (she asked that we not use her last name to protect her privacy) approached two brothers named Rory and Ryan Van Tuinen after reading an article about their Waterbury, Vermont-based nonprofit Cultivating Connections. The Van Tuinens discussed the use of psychedelics as part of treatment to overcome addiction and improve mental health. Serene had struggled with heroin addiction for years and was willing to try anything.

As the article explained, Rory took the drug ayahuasca in 2019 as a “last-ditch effort to overcome” a decade-long heroin addiction that had derailed his life. Although “neither Ryan nor Rory believe that hallucinogens are a panacea”, they say that without ayahuasca Rory would either still be “using” or “dead”. The key to recovery, they believed, was to accompany drug use along with “cultivating meaningful human relationships.”

Over the course of five weeks, Serene participated in a series of preparatory meetings with the Van Tuinens. The next step was a trip to a cabin in the woods, where she would try ayahuasca and see if this new approach to addiction treatment could get her life back on track.

Although the Van Tuinens have no formal training or license, they are part of a wider movement. Therapists and researchers are increasingly seeing psychedelics as an effective way to treat addiction and related problems, and the Food and Drug Administration is moving closer to approving MDMA, psilocybin and other substances in therapeutic settings.

“Our core beliefs, our behaviors, our relationship patterns, our coping patterns are encoded in neural networks, which is why they are so difficult to change,” says psychologist Andrew Tatarsky, founder and director of the Center for Optimal Living in New York, where he specializes in addiction therapy and harm reduction. “Psychedelic substances have this really interesting and unique ability to loosen those structures and, in some cases, dissolve them so that people have the opportunity to change their relationship to themselves and the world.”

But Tatarsky also warns that psychedelics can be harmful to psychologically vulnerable individuals when administered by untrained practitioners like Van Tuinens. “If you’re faced with a traumatic experience and it’s overwhelming and you don’t have the support to titrate and manage the emotional intensity that occurs, it can actually be another traumatic experience.”

Was Serena’s use of ayahuasca the beginning of her recovery—or a new problem to face?

Directed by: Arthur Nazaryan & Qinling Li / Dec8 Productions; Produced by Arthur Nazaryan and Caroline Klewinowski; Camera Arthur Nazaryan; Edited by Qinling Li and Mike Shum; Assistant Editor, Phoebe McFarb; Additional cameras by Kevin Alexander and Jim Epstein; Audio mix by Ian Keyser; Color correction by Danielle Thompson

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