TIJUANA, Mexico — Plumes of incense swirled through the dimly lit living room as seven women took turns explaining what led them to sign up for a weekend of psychedelic therapy in a northern Mexico villa with expansive ocean views.
A former US Marine said she hoped to make contact with the ghost of her mother, who committed suicide 11 years ago. An army veteran said she was sexually assaulted by a relative as a child. A handful of veterans said they had been sexually assaulted by fellow service members.
The wife of a Navy bomb-disposal expert became frightened when she complained that years of relentless combat missions had turned her husband into an absent, dysfunctional father.
Kristine Bostwick, 38, a former Marine Corps chief, said she hoped it would help her make peace with the end of a turbulent marriage and perhaps ease the migraines that had become a daily haunt.
“I want to reset my brain from the bottom up,” she said during the introductory session of a recent three-day retreat, wiping away tears. “My children deserve it. I deserve it.”
A growing body of research on the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic therapy has sparked enthusiasm among some psychiatrists and venture capitalists.
Much of the growing appeal of such treatments is due to veterans of the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After turning to experimental therapies to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, addiction, and depression, many former military personnel have become fervent advocates for a broader embrace of psychedelics.
Participants in psychedelic retreats often pay thousands of dollars for the experience. But these female veterans and husbands of veterans who had traveled to Mexico for treatment at the Mission Within attended for free, courtesy of the Heroic Hearts Project and the Hope Project. The groups, founded by an army guard and the wife of a Navy SEAL, raise money to make psychedelic therapy affordable for those with a military background.
The Mission Within, on the outskirts of Tijuana, is run by Dr. Martín Polanco, who has focused almost exclusively on treating veterans since 2017.
“I realized early on that if we focused our work on veterans, we would have a greater impact,” said Dr. Polanco, who said he had treated more than 600 hundred American veterans in Mexico. “They understand what it takes to achieve peak performance.”
In the beginning, he said, he treated almost exclusively male veterans. But recently, he received many requests from female veterans and military wives and started organizing female-only retreats.
With the exception of clinical trials, psychedelic therapy is currently conducted underground or under vague legality. As demand grows, a handful of countries in Latin America, including Costa Rica, Jamaica and Mexico, have become hubs for experimental protocols and clinical studies.
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dr. Polanco, who is unlicensed in the United States, has been practicing on the fringes of mainstream medicine for years, but his work is now attracting interest from more established mental health specialists. Later this year, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and Baylor University plan to explore its protocols in two clinical trials.
The use of psychedelic treatments is not currently part of the standard treatment for mental illness in Veterans’ Hospitals, said Randal Noller, a spokesperson for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But with special approval, it’s possible they could be administered as part of a research protocol, and the department’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention is “keeping a close eye on evolving scientific literature in this area,” Mr. Noller said.
In Mexico, two of the substances that Dr. Polanco administers — ibogaine, a plant-based psychoactive compound commonly used to treat addiction, and 5-MeO-DMT, a potent hallucinogen derived from the venom of the Sonoran desert toad — not illegal or approved for medical use. The third, psilocybin mushrooms, may be legally ingested during ceremonies that follow native traditions.
During a weekend retreat, Dr. Polanco with a ceremony using ibogaine or psilocybin. The first trip is intended to initiate disruptive thinking and deep introspection.
“You become your own therapist,” said Dr. Polanco.
On Sunday, participants smoke 5-MeO-DMT, often described as something between a mystical and a near-death experience.
dr. Charles Nemeroff, the chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, who recently started a center for psychedelic research, said the hype about psychedelics’ healing potential has surpassed the hard evidence. The risks — including episodes of psychosis — are significant, he said.
“Currently, we cannot predict who will or will not respond therapeutically or who will have a bad experience,” he said. “There’s so much we don’t know yet.”
The women at the retreat in Mexico understood the risks. But some said they’d lost faith in conventional treatments like antidepressants and heard enough inspiring stories from friends to take a leap of faith.
By the time the seven women gathered in a circle recently for the mushroom ceremony on a recent Saturday, they had all signed a harmless waiver. They had completed questionnaires measuring post-traumatic stress and other mental illnesses and had undergone a medical checkup.
The ceremony was presided over by Andrea Lucie, a Chilean-American body medicine expert who has spent most of her career working with wounded American veterans. After blowing burning sage on cups of mushroom tea served on a tray decorated with flowers and candles, Ms. Lucie read a poem by María Sabina, a Mexican native healer who conducted mushroom ceremonies.
“Heal yourself with beautiful love, and always remember that you are the medicine,” said Ms. Lucie, who comes from a Mapuche indigenous family in Chile.
After drinking, the women lay down on mattresses on the floor and put on eyeshadow while soothing music played on a speaker.
The first excitement came about 40 minutes after the ceremony. A few women lowered their sunglasses and cried. One giggled and then howled with laughter.
Then the whining started. Jenna Lombardo-Grosso, the former Marine who lost her mother to suicide, stormed out of the room and huddled downstairs with Mrs. Lucie.
Mrs. Lombardo-Grosso, 37, sobbed and screamed, “Why, why, why!” She later explained that the mushrooms had surfaced traumatic episodes of childhood sexual abuse.
In the ceremony room, Samantha Juan, the military veteran who was sexually assaulted as a child, began to cry and took out her diary. It was the third time she had attended a retreat managed by Dr. Polanco, where she said she had lived a lifetime of traumatic memories that led her to drink heavily and rely on drugs to escape her pain after leaving the military in 2014.
“I’ve learned how to empathize and show myself mercy,” said Ms. Juan, 37.
Her goal during this retreat, she said, was to make peace with a sexual assault she said she endured in the military.
“Today’s journey focuses on forgiveness,” Ms. Juan had said shortly before taking the mushrooms. “I don’t want to have such a hold on me anymore.”
When the effects of the mushrooms wore off, there was a sense of calm. The women exchanged stories about their travels, joked and got lost in long hugs.
The jitters returned the next morning as the women waited their turn to smoke 5-MeO-DMT, a trip Dr. Polanco calls it “the slingshot” because of the speed and intensity of the experience.
Seconds after her lungs had absorbed the mushroom secretions, Miss Juan let out a guttural sound and shifted on her mat. Mrs. Bostwick looked panicky and unsteady as she transitioned from lying on her back to being on all fours. Mrs. Lombardo-Grosso vomited, gasped and jerked violently like a nurse, and Mrs Lucie held her tight.
When she regained consciousness, Mrs. Lombardo-Grosso sat up and began to cry.
“It felt like an exorcism,” she said. “It felt like sulfur came up, black, and now there’s only light.”
That night, Alison Logan, the wife of a Navy explosive ordnance disposal expert who was about to divorce, looked downcast. The travels, she said, had brought out her sadness, but provided no insight or a sense of determination.
“It felt like a lot of pain with no answers,” she said.
But the other participants said their physical ailments had disappeared and their moods had brightened.
Mrs. Bostwick said she was ‘stunned’, but ecstatic, that her migraines were gone and that for the first time in a long time she felt a sense of boundless possibility.
“I feel like my body is letting go of so much of the anger and frustration and all the petty things we’re holding onto,” she said. “I was overflowing with negativity.”
In the days following the retreat, Ms. Juan said she felt “full of energy and ready to tackle any day.”
Ms Lombardo-Grosso said the retreat had helped her come to terms with the loss of her mother and changed her outlook on the future from a sense of dread to a sense of optimism.
“I feel whole,” she said from her home in Tulsa a few days later. “Nothing is missing anymore.”
This post ‘I want to reset my brain’: Female veterans turn to psychedelic therapy
was original published at “https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/21/world/americas/psychedelic-therapy-female-veterans.html”