More Than Just Military Wives – Warrior Women
This past fall, I was given the opportunity through Heroic Hearts to facilitate a retreat for military spouses in the Amazon jungle, to experience ayahuasca healing in traditional ceremony. The women selected each had some prior experience with psychedelic-facilitated therapy, but only in a clinical setting. Each of the women work in various capacities to support veterans and their families – some through psychedelic healing, and others through different modalities touching on the mind, body, and spirit.
I recognize these women as the emerging leaders of the veteran healing movement, and my intention in bringing them to the Amazon was to offer them a quantum leap in their own healing and personal development that I knew would also impact their work. As Carl Jung taught, you can only take a person as far down the path as you yourself have gone. This was a chance to expose them to indigenous healing, within an unbroken tradition passed down through generations spanning at least ten thousand years – or if you ask the Shipibo-Konibo tribe, hundreds of thousands of years.
In contemporary Western society we have lost our connection with the natural world, and forgotten that we are a part of nature. This is the root of many of our pathologies, and a reconnection to that knowing is the remedy. Indigenous people such as the Shipibo-Konibo have never lost this connection, which is largely why immersing ourselves in their culture and healing traditions catalyzes inner change so powerfully.
Upon arrival the tribal community welcomed us jubilantly with live music, a big group dance that we all joined in, and a hilarious enactment of an ayahuasca ceremony complete with shaking, yelling, and purging. Throughout our stay they included us in their day-to-day cultural activities such as painting “kene” (geometric patterns seen in ayahuasca visions) and making pottery, while we chatted with them in our basic Spanish and even learned a few words in their indigenous language.
During our time there, we each faced immense fears and challenges: sleeping alone in an isolated jungle hut, surprise encounters with tarantulas and snakes, missing our families, and drinking an outrageously strong psychedelic that takes you well beyond the limits of what you think you can handle, with the songs of the shamans as our only anchor points to this reality at times.
The women each confronted a lifetime of past pain and trauma. They came to each ceremony night after night, even when they thought they couldn’t take it anymore. And perhaps most scary and courageous of all: they each took off the “Spartan Wife” mask to risk being vulnerable – letting that false self fall away to allow for open hearted, authentic connection and baring our pain to one another to truly heal in community. Our time in the jungle was incredibly hard, but even more rewarding, and we left feeling bonded for life.
It is my hope that our journey to the Amazon will inspire others in the veteran community (particularly those working as healers or facilitators) to do their own deep dive in an indigenous setting, to experience ceremony in the way that ALL of our ancestors did – regardless of where you are from on planet earth, your ancestors practiced shamanic traditions. We are incredibly fortunate that those who have preserved these customs and ceremonies are willing to share them with those whose traditions have been lost – to reconnect with the voice of nature, and experience how beautiful, rich, and powerful psychedelic ceremony can truly be.
Here are some of their reflections on the experience:
How to describe the indescribable?
Six women set out for a 12-day adventure in the Amazon jungles of Peru. Some had met. Some had not. The primary common thread?… All were spouses of military husbands. Decades of feeling as though standing on the side lines waiting. Waiting to be seen. To be heard. To matter. To have their own purpose. Their own unique stories. All seeking a deeper insight into their lives, hoping for a better way to move through challenges and conditioned patterning. To get some answers to the big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?
Six women traveling from afar for a rendezvous with Ayahuasca, The Grandmother.
While the military Services are absolutely appalling in their treatment of those most effected, I am extremely grateful for the much-needed assistance and support for soldiers like my husband (a Navy SEAL of 33 years) provided by many amazing non-profits. However, there is very little support for the spouses.
It takes a toll to raise a family on your own. The ins and outs of our days add up to a life gone unwitnessed by our husbands and other family members that often are hundreds if not thousands of miles away. It often feels as if you live your life in isolation, with yourself as the only constant in your children’s life. You are the mom, the dad, grandma and grandpa. You are it all. My own husband has been away 80% of our 23-year long relationship, leaving me to raise our three boys while most of my family lives on the other side of the world in Sweden. It takes a toll to wait out the many uncertain days and nights. It takes a toll to put all your own dreams on hold while you toil to keep your family afloat with little support. It takes a toll when the few times your husband comes home it’s due to an injury or recovery from surgery before being sent away again. When they finally do come home to stay, it is often not the picture you had of family life. TBI, PTS, and multiple life lasting injuries add up to stress and anxiety and chronic pain for the veteran. And all of that takes a further toll on the caregiver. It almost broke me. It almost broke my marriage.
Somewhere along the deployments, the moves, the caring of children, the many uncertain days and nights, it is easy to get lost. I spent many days feeling sad and lonely, and then ashamed that I felt that way. I finally started to scrutinize my life, asking myself what could I do differently? The closer I looked at the stories I told myself, the stronger I felt the call for change.
I remembered the peace I found in some of my early encounters with mediation from my father. I became a yoga instructor first, then deepened my yoga and meditation practices throughout the last 10 years. I am now a kundalini teacher, an expressive arts facilitator, a Duke University Integrative Medicine health coach, and in my last year of studies to become a Yoga Therapist. All of these somatic tools have been critical in my journey to find space for myself and have sustained me through all the challenges that come with being a military spouse.
Several years ago, I was offering Yoga and Expressive Arts to 12-15 Special Operators participating in an Ayahuasca retreat. Once there, I was invited to join the circle and drink the medicine. While the experience itself was mystical and certainly delved into the depths of my own psyche, I lacked the necessary preparation and integration before and after this extreme experience. I then shifted my yoga and coaching practice toward preparation and integration work around plant medicine. I now work with veterans’ organizations (as well as with private clients) where my personal experiences, schooling, skills and passions align. I feel a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose serving my community, humanity, and God.
Along this journey, I have met many amazing people, to include Dr. Mia Black, a clinical psychologist who specializes in guiding Special Operations Veterans and families through psychedelic healing and aftercare. I have sought her sage advice on multiple occasions and always found a calm and loving hand to help guide me. Dr. Black planned and coordinated this military spouses’ Ayahuasca retreat in Peru in conjunction with Jesse Gould of Heroic Hearts, an incredible non-profit dedicated to the healing of our most wounded service members, including those with severe PTSD. And I was extremely fortunate to be one of those six women.
I knew very little of the Shipibo – Konibo people that were to guide us on this journey in the Amazon jungle and was extremely excited for the opportunity to work with, and be guided by, traditional Healers. These Healers come from a long line across generations with thousands of years of tradition in working with Ayahuasca. The Shipibo – Konibos’ tradition is considered the most intact of the indigenous peoples that use Ayahuasca. Along with several other medicinal plants, its use is one of the key elements of their culture.
After spending much time with these deeply learned Healers, you understand why this tradition is so important. To journey with Ayahuasca is to open yourself up to the sacredness of all things. It lifts the veil between heaven and earth. To have this safeguarded, someone knowledgeable of both the physical and the spiritual world must create a safe atmosphere for this profound and transformative experience. These Healers hold space for all, and yet see each individual’s unique needs. For the participant, it takes tremendous trust, courage and curiosity to lean into this journey. Ayahuasca amplifies your awareness, allowing you to explore the entire spectrum of our emotions and dive deeply into your experiences. You confront past traumas, encounter roots of illnesses, and will dive into the depths of Jungian imagery. We can find forgiveness, compassion and acceptance of all that we are. We can find that we are completely deserving of love and joy and fulfillment.
To journey with my fellow warrior women was unexpected, beautiful and raw. We were in this together and it was an honor to hold space and to be held in return. It felt like a gift to be trusted with their stories of joys and sorrows and it was a blessing to watch their personal journeys and understand each of their trials and tribulations. To witness and experience this ancient and powerful process of the medicine working in my sisters’ journeys was almost more rewarding than experiencing it in myself.
I am deeply grateful for this time in the jungle, to the warm community of the Shipibo – Kanibo tribe, to these incredible female Healers, and for the bonding with my own tribe of extraordinary women. And I am particularly appreciative to Dr. Mia Black for her guidance, support and beautiful Soul as well as for the kindness, expertise, and vision of Jesse Gould at Heroic Hearts for sponsoring this amazing adventure.
This trip to Peru was so transformative for me. My intention with the medicine was to regain my identity and sense of Self. For a decade, my life was centered around my husband’s military career. My whole identity was focused on his deployment and training cycles. Keeping these men ready and deployable was the only goal, nothing and no one else mattered. I eventually had to give up a job I loved in the veterinary industry because the operational tempo was so fast and continual. Shortly after that, I completely lost track of who I was. There was no more “ME” left in my life, and I became self-destructive after losing my sense of Self. I had always been such a wild and free spirit, but now I felt trapped and contained by the rigidity of my daily life.
Aside from that, there was also a very high casualty toll within the command. I was constantly afraid that my family would be the next with that dreaded knock on the door. Eventually, it all became too much, and I found myself depressed, having suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, and relentless anxiety. At that point, I was drinking way too much, I was on Xanax, Wellbutrin and had been in therapy, but nothing was helping.
This trip to Peru and plant medicine allowed me to regain my power and see who I am when I stand alone. It was a challenging process in the ceremony, but it showed me how strong I am and what I brought to the table individually. Also, being in the jungle gave me a sense of the wild spirit I had been missing for years. I felt free and untamed again. Since our experience, I have had newfound self-acceptance, confidence, and inner authority. I finally felt liberated from guilt, shame, and my identity crisis. Beyond the medicine, the bonding that we created within the circle is something I will cherish. I have never been in a group of strong women with such tremendous love and respect for each other. I will forever call these women my sisters. We all lifted the veil, took off the masks, and shared our honest and raw, authentic selves. It felt amazing to be seen, and it was such a powerful experience.
The location itself was primitive, with no electricity or hot water, and no one even missed those things. The cute little huts (we each had our own) sometimes had non-human inhabitants. Mine was a lizard, and we got along fine. Otherwise, I had a bathroom, an outdoor shower, and a comfy bed with netting. There was also a hammock where I ended up spending 50% of my time and the experience wouldn’t have been at all as awesome without it. This is a place to let go of society’s norms of wearing bras and smelling good, and to embrace the opportunity for quiet contemplation and getting back to your core self.
I found that the medicine doesn’t answer questions like you’d expect. Sometimes after the ceremony, you wake up the next day more confused than ever and you have to just be still and focus on clearing your expectations while letting information trickle in. And then you get all these interesting realizations and insights and understandings. We had the benefit of not only facilitators, but a psych in our group that supported us the whole time. She knows our unique population and was key in helping us unravel our experiences and the emotions that came up. Our group had time to share with each other, but we also had time alone to rest, journal, meet some of the village folks, or spend time in our hammocks and listen to the jungle.
The shamans are incredible ladies. They appear as tiny, wrinkled grandmas, but their energy is so powerful, and they have incredible stamina. They do medicine also, sitting on the hard floor and singing to each person for hours, and they never get tired. While you have no idea what they’re singing, you can feel energy moving in and around you. You are encouraged to sing as well. And while there is purging involved sometimes, it’s not as bad as it sounds. There is also crying and giggling. Sometimes it’s all at the same time. After a week of sharing ceremonies and flower baths and fasting together, singing to each other and being in each other’s energy, our group is basically bonded for life!
To hear someone say that plant medicine retreats are beautiful experiences is telling the truth, but not necessarily how you envision. To find that beauty, you must dig deep into your psyche, and that is often scary and confusing. So don’t expect all unicorns and rainbows, but at the end you will realize that it was all completely worth it, and when someone asks you, you will say it was all beautiful, even the puking. For me, the benefits were more physical, but there was a lot of heart opening. I could feel the shaman’s singing enter my heart. It all sounds like voodoo, but it’s legit. I can take a deep breath and not feel any restriction from anxiety. My sleep has been incredible. I am feeling all my emotions instead of being all numb and robotic, as I was for years. I can let someone speak without trying to formulate a response or interrupt, and actually listen. The chatter that was in my head is quiet.
And the retreat doesn’t stop when you leave. The integration is such an immensely important portion of your journey! Some things will present themselves way after you get home, and there is your group or your facilitator or therapist (there are lots of people, you choose) to help you navigate through your new perspectives and challenges.
Life in the military can be incredibly rewarding, but war takes its toll on everyone. You owe it to yourself to heal, and if you think you’re “fine”, you’re not. You have nothing to lose anyway, because this medicine benefits everyone around you as well. Military and western medicine has failed a lot of us, and it’s time to explore other options. Plant medicine, combined with integration, is working for so many people. But you have to be fully on board, because otherwise you won’t find healing to the extent that you expected. The medicine opens the door, but YOU have to be the one to be brave enough to walk through and give 100%.