Everyone starts with an intention. You say, “My name is Maria. I’ve never taken it before. My intention tonight is to find my center, and feel comfortable being there. A-ho!”
Then the liquid tobacco—black stuff in a jar, being divied out by the spoonful—precious stuff in appreciative, eager palms. Snorting, and then everybody starts gagging. You are fine. Too practiced at getting stuff up your nose. The coughing, the gagging. The whole cacophonist. You laugh to yourself, Why do people voluntarily put themselves through so much discomfort?
You ask for a second round of the tobacco. Straight up. Your sinuses clear. It is for your third eye, Shaman Tim says. You feel like someone has gently punched you in the nose.
The lights go out. One tea candle, and moonlight shining through the windows. Everyone is in obscurity. Time to drink.
The drink isn’t as bad as you anticipate. Others gag upon tasting it. They go back to their places along the wall, and cough and spit into their buckets, trying to compose themselves. You kneel before Tim, take your cup, tip your head back and swallow the whole of it in one go.
Thick, black, syrupy stuff slides down your throat. You acknowledge its taste with little appreciation or disfavor. Feel it sink down your esophagus, travel down into your belly, and settle there. Your body makes no sign of protest. How does this stuff cause anyone to vomit?
You sit in your corner patiently, flanked by a man on the your right and a woman on your left. The three of you were the “calm corner,” the three people whose intentions were to merely “be,” without any flamboyant mention of pain, or recovery, or purge. You like your neighbors.
One by one, people start retching. Manon and Neil were a couple of the first. You wondered how it worked so fast. There you were, with the calmest stomach you’ve ever had, and then you hear their violent, full-body heaving drown the occasional coughing and throat-clearing of the others. Marlene began to retch loudly, with an uncanny noise—How toxic is she? you wondered.
Before you know it, Manon starts screaming. Not just a cry. But screams. Shouting. “Help! No! Help me!” Her arms and legs thrash violently. People look up, their focus on their own processes broken by this panicking girl. She screams and cries as a few people rush to help her, to restrain her frantically kicking legs. Sounds of pounding, crashing, things getting knocked over. And her screams. It sounds like she is being beaten and raped at the same time.
You can’t believe what you are witnessing. You remember the man who briefed you only an hour earlier. “If you feel like crying, or laughing, or making a noise, make it. But only for a few seconds. Anything longer than a few seconds, and it is just your ego looking for attention from the group.”
You have never pegged Manon for having an ego problem, yet there she was, carrying on for ages–“Help! Don’t leave me, don’t leave me!” You ache to go over and help her. Neil, too, who sits next to her, is having trouble seeing her suffer. He finally jumps up and away from her. You wonder if she has knocked over her bucket of vomit. Someone has told him to leave.
You had been instructed not to sit next to people you care about. Their processes will only distract you from your own.
You pull your hat over your eyes, hug your knees, wedge deeper into your corner, and ignore your friend.
Your stomach is fine.
Subtle sensations of lightness course through your body, and you see lines and kaleidoscopic images shifting against the backdrop of your eyelids. Cute trick, but you’re not impressed.
Tim plays music on a variety of instruments, and he sings ancient, traditional songs that somehow resonate with the medicine. You hear an accordion. The energy of the little box draws members of the group to their feet. They stand, one by one, and begin to dance and sway. You join them, for lack of anything better to do.
For a moment, you are in a Dr. Seuss book, and you imagine trees dancing in a breeze. It’s fun, you smile, and then it ends. You sit back on the floor. The medicine wears off. Completely.
More people begin to vomit. Manon continues to have her fits, no less violent than when they began. A man has decided to sit with her, and you know she is not alone. But you can see nothing.
How many hours pass? Through the obscurity, violent vomiting, laughing, coughing, moaning. Some people dance. Others, like your neighbors, sit without movement. The woman to your left vomits discretely into her bucket, then nothing more. At long last, the man on your right vomits heavily into his bucket, hits the floor, and doesn’t move for the rest of the night. Tim makes rounds, chanting and blowing smoke to each member of the group.
Are you the only one who hasn’t felt anything?
You sit there, feeling anger and frustration boiling. Why does this always happen? Why are you always the one least affected? Are you some kind of exception? All of your acquaintances are having life-altering experiences within fifteen minutes of taking a drink, and you are still waiting, three hours later, sober, lucid, and angry.
You cry softly, but you know it has nothing to do with the medicine. You don’t need a drug to make you feel disappointed about this. Perhaps it was your intention, “Find my center, and feel comfortable being there.” Was sitting alone in the corner, with just yourself, a realization of your intention?
You raise your hand for Tim, beckoning him for another cup. He doesn’t notice. You wait. And you wait. You are not allowed to leave the circle. You will be here for many more hours, yet. The songs begin to irritate you. At least Manon has stopped wailing. You have heard nothing more from Marlene. Occasionally, Douglas laughs. Neil is impossible to find.
Tim says, “Does somebody want a second cup?”
“Yes,” your voice stabs the darkness in his direction. Only three of you take a second cup. You shoot it like the first, return to your corner, and feel yet again that your stomach is calm.
Within fifteen minutes, it seems that everyone in the room is seized by another bout of illness. Everyone starts vomiting. The sounds challenge you, yet you don’t feel sick. The kaleidoscopic, fractal images return to your field of vision, and the experience again the sensation of waves. Then you feel tremors. Vertical earthquakes through your spine—down the center of your body–like a stack of dominoes falling, or a tower collapsing on itself floor by floor. Another neat trick. The others continue to retch.
You wonder what will happen if you take your bucket and try to force yourself to vomit, despite the lack of urge.
It was easier than you anticipated.
Vomit. Snakes, eels out of your mouth. The slide off your tongue, plunk and splash into the boggy black stuff below your face. Panic rises within you. Strings of something hang from your nostrils. You can’t figure out what they are. You blow your nose into something—a cloth, or a hat—it’s shape shifts. Panic. Eels out of your nose. Never-ending slimy things that pool into the cloth and spread outwards like sun rays. Your face is inundated in a slimy sunburst of snot. Then poof! It’s gone.
And suddenly you understood Manon’s emphatic response to the medicine. It had nothing to do with ego.
Agony. Hell. Someone reaching in and pulling out feelings. Waves. Tidal waves ripped out of you in in vomit, tears, sighs. Yous legs and arms and body go into seizures. You are screaming.
Screaming. You are thrashing. People rush to your aid, three or four of them, and try to restrain you. You are aware that someone could get hurt. You rip your arms and legs from their grasp. You turn your face away, toward the wall, and wail. Climb up the wall. These things—these feelings are escaping from your throat—as though in a race to ascend the wall. You try to surmount them, swallow them back, keep them from coming out. Your hands and fingers claw at the wood, you hit your head against it. The hands find you again, pull you down.
“No! Oh god! No!” You hear yourself sobbing.
The bucket. More vomit. Your hair is in your face. It wraps around you, clings to your face and neck. You take fistfuls of it and pull it away. Someone holds your bucket.
Another round of screaming. The feelings race from your throat, send your body convulsing in sobs. You cry harder than you have ever cried in your life. You scream like an infant in distress, hyperventilating. The sounds—your sounds—terrify you. You clamp both hands against your mouth and try to repress the screams, but the muscles of your arms and torso are fully contracted, and the air, the noise, squeezes—rips–from your throat in shrieks.
You become a little girl. Scared. Trapped in panic. Beating against the walls of your body. Where is your mommy? Why are you alone? You scream, hold yourself against darkness and phantoms shriek from your throat.
The people pull you down from the wall. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Maria,” someone whispers. It is Tim. His white form squats in front of you, holding a small bottle. “Take this,” he says. “Splash it on your face. It’s nice. It will help.”
Your hands tremble. You hold them cupped before you, and Tim pours loads into your palms. A waterfall. The liquid splashes on the floor—pat, pat, pat. You stare dumbly at your wet hands, feel the water soak into your sock.
“Splash it, like this. All over your face. It’s nice.” Tim’s smile is gentle, his voice reassuring. You do as you are told.
The smell is overwhelming. It pierces your nose like fishhooks. You gasp, throw your head back, and try to remove the hooks, but your head is gripped by seizure. Back-forth-back-forth-snap-snap-snap. You scream. Strike the back of your head against the wall to knock out the hooks, then dive for you bucket. A hand reaches down to your intestines and pulls. You vomit as through you are trying to eliminate your organs.
“What is it? What is it!” You gasp. But then you don’t care.
“Rose water. It’s nice.”
You hate it. It’s evil. It’s poison. You vomit. Suddenly the energy is gone. You stop trying to hold it back. You sob and sob.
A man sits to your left. You feel his bony figure, his wiry arms around you, palms rubbing your back and arms. He pulls you close, and your cry against him helplessly, your forehead planted firmly on the top of his bent knee.
You have no idea how long you sit with him, overtaken by the see-saw rhythm of centering your third eye over his knee, and ripping from his grasp to panic and shriek into your hands—only to have him pull you back.
Someone moves. He is replaced by a woman in white. Her lap is like a mother’s. You weep against her, but the nausea interferes. Up-down. You suck at the air, then wish you hadn’t. “No more. No mooore,” you moan pathetically.
Hearing your own plea rockets you to a damp blue bathmat on a cold floor. The overhead light is oppressive. “Please god, no more. Please god, no more. Please god, please god.” But God doesn’t listen, and the nausea inundates you. You swing your young body over the toilet bowl. Heave-heave-scream. Panting for breath. Heave-heave-scream. A voice from another past, when you are older, “Jesus, it sounds like someone is killing her.”
“Shut the fuck up, Maria! Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” comes an angry woman’s voice. She pounds against the wall your bathroom shares with her bedroom. It is 1 o’clock in the morning. You have food poisoning.
Your body collapses in a sweating, trembling heap on the bathmat. Your tears and snot mix into the carpet fibers, and you feel revolted. You cram a hand towel into your mouth, bite down, and moan for God, “No more…”
The bathroom door opens with a crash when it strikes the drawer you pulled in front of it—the real lock is broken. The woman realizes you have done this to bar her entry. Her voice strains for a calm tone, “Maria, I’m trying to sleep. Can you please try to be quiet?”
Sorry for being sick. Sorry for the noise.
You are aware that your ceremony neighbors have been displaced. That your flailing arms and seizing legs might have struck them. Perhaps the others cautioned them. Made them move away. Sorry for being sick. When you cry, you cramp the heels of your hands into your mouth. Sorry for the noise.
The sounds try to push past.
No more! Fuck you! No more!
The poison, the illness, the demons… no more. The veil which barred their migration from your unconscious to your present has been torn. The hands, the phantoms, the wisps of toxic wind expelling from your body want nothing but to streak out through the tear.
They said that the medicine would show you yourself. That it wouldn’t give you more than you could handle. That the confrontation of your own self would be the most humbling experience of your life.
Where are you? Who is next to you? Is it Tim? Your mind is taken by visions of particles and waves. Particles and waves existing simultaneously. The medicine does not let you focus on anything. You are not to look at the particles. Only the waves. Focus is unthinkable. Focus, attention, thinking is not allowed.
You are amused that your long-term battle with over-thinking has culminated to this point. Thinking of even that makes you feel sick.
No more. You’ve had enough. Fuck your demons. Fuck your poison. Fuck your toxicity. You’d rather keep it in forever than confront the rest of it as it comes to the surface. The veil is there for a reason.
You seizure again. Cry out and moan. You pound your fist into the wall. The illness is in charge, not you.
“Don’t try to fight it,” Tim says. “You mustn’t fight it. You must relax into the illness.”
Relax into it? Are you fucking kidding me? That’s impossible.
“You mustn’t fight it.”
Fighting it is focusing on it. Focus makes you feel sicker. You relinquish the direction of your thoughts.
You can’t. You won’t.
You take an eternity to locate your bucket, to be sure you don’t knock it over. You take it and place it on the counter behind you. No more bucket. That’s final.
Agony. This is agony. This is hell. This is eternal. This is forever. You choose hell—you choose the battle with the illness over the purge. That’s it. No more sickness is allowed out.
You have chosen hell.
Hell is preferable to healing.
You know the medicine demands more than you can physically give. You have turned to jelly. You body has lost it’s bones. It has deflated. You have sunk to the floor. If your body chooses to spontaneously vomit, you will do so all over yourself. You dare your body to betray you. Go ahead. Puke. It won’t matter anyway. You can die, or you can puke, or you can suffer for an eternity. It’s all the same.
“Turn onto your back,” Tim says. “On your back, open your airways. You must get air.”
You’ve been curled up in the fetal position, kicking and whimpering, struggling, and sifting the smoky air through your shirt. The air is thick. It’s so thick, it’s poisoning you. You feel like you will suffocate, die of smoke inhalation—poison inhalation—if you breathe deeply. You don’t want to breathe. Breathing terrifies you. Breathing makes you sick.
But your demand for oxygen makes you panic. You feel as though you are being buried alive. You must breathe. You must breathe.
“It is better if you turn onto your back, Maria,” Tim says.
You wail and fling yourself supine. You tip back your head, suck greedily at the air, and pray it will alleviate your suffering.
A giant foot is stepping on your chest. The air is thick and greenish-gray. It’s going to kill you. Breathing is going to kill you. “No! No! No! No air! I don’t want to breathe!” And so you don’t. You hold your breath. You feel sick. You do not have the strength to vomit. If you do, you will drown in it.
Safety position. “Help me…” Did you say it out loud? Did anyone help you turn onto your side? You’re sobbing softly in fear, filtering your toxic air. You are being killed from this inside out, and the outside in. But you are not dying. Not at all.
You are simply in the center of suffering.
You have found your center. You are not comfortable being there.
The music consumes you. Forms. Ocean waves breaking on the beach. Tides. Scintillating prismatic light. Waves of light and smoke. Birds—flocks of birds flying away. Wind blowing through trees. Chirping birds. Dancing. Swaying. Beautiful. Totally exquisite—through your sickness. You are taken into a Salvador Dali painting. A current of water is suspended in the air. Flying cats. A canvas. You are in color, with others. Anti-gravity. Passing fractals. Spinning, dancing, laughter.
But then you are rocketed back to the suffering. To every time you have been sick and alone. Where is your shoulder? Where is the man’s knee? The woman’s lap? Is anybody there? Or are you alone, on the bathroom floor, praying to God to relieve you?
You deflate completely. You cannot lift a hand, or your head, or even open your eyes. You cannot speak. You don’t have the energy to utter, “Help.” All you can do is gently contract your left glute, to make so your body is still alive, there with your tortured soul.
Sponge baths. Sweating orange. Wheel chairs. Dizziness. Nausea. And the shakes. Shakes that send lightning through your leg–Food poisoning the night before your NCAA semi-final. Yellow bile dripping weakly from your mouth, shit in your pants. Shaking, dehydrated–Paralyzed with pain on Susan’s living room floor in Princeton. Sobbing in fear. In defeat. Unable to straighten your leg– A sickening pop—then, thud. Bright lights reflecting off a smooth court. Your coaches and teammates trying to restrain you as you dragged your body frantically away from an ankle that couldn’t be yours. Don’t tell anybody. — Dozens of vomit-streaked anonymous toilet bowls–“Shut the fuck up, Maria!”– Small and naked, in a bathtub, vomiting all over yourself. Vomiting rhododendron leaves
You’ve said you would die from illness.
You aren’t going to die tonight. The “medicine” will wear off. It has to. But you don’t feel like you are coming down. At times, you feel like you are going back up. But the others—the others are going down. The music stops. People shift about quietly. You cannot lift your head or open your eyes to see.
“Cold…” you whisper. “Help. Cold.” Your foot twitches. Energy tries to leak out.
Someone hears you. Someone places a blanket on you.
You spend hours staving off nausea. Fuck you, poison. You can’t come out. I’ll bottle you up. You stay inside where you belong. Hours moaning, whimpering. “Please… no more.” Left leg seizures. Hands clamped in front of your mouth, filtering your inconsistent breathing.
As you become more lucid, you continue to remember the moments of your initial wailing—when you turned into the little girl—the clawing at the walls, the collapse into misery. That memory of complete loss of control haunts you. You bottle your nausea. Push it back down. You’ve never looked at your inner child before. Ever. She is screaming; but nobody can hear her. She screams and cries as you have never screamed and cried in your life. She screams and cries and thrashes in all the bottled up poison you have never let out. You’re just too fucking good at swallowing things.
You open your eyes, and instead of feeling disoriented, you are relieved that you can see clearly. You look over to where Neil and Manon had been. You cannot see them. You see only a lump of blankets. You wonder if they are together. You want to crawl to them, but your body doesn’t cooperate. More minutes of trying to see through the darkness. You realize everyone is gone. Everyone. 20 people left the room 4 and a half hours ago. Only two women—you don’t know them—are sleeping on a mattress where your friends had been—presumably, they remained to watch over you.
You get to your feel and fall over. You try again, and hit the wall. You are a deer trying to stand for a the first time. Long loopy arms and legs with not rigidity to them. A woman wakes.
“Hey… are you okay?” she says.
“Yes. Thank you.” You are surprised by how even your voice is. All bottled up composure smeared on the surface of a train wreck.
She says she will walk you to the house. You tell her you are fine. That you can walk yourself. You don’t need her to help you, but as you say this, you continue to stagger and lose your balance.
“Your name is Maria, right?” she says at the doorway. You pull on your shoes, and see her face through the moonlight.
“Yeah… aren’t you the woman who sat next to me?”
She smiles, says yes. “I felt worry for you. You were so sad. You had a really rough time, didn’t you? You kept saying, ‘I’m scaring everyone away.’”
You avoided her eyes. “I didn’t want to accidentally hurt someone.”
“No… not at all. It’s okay. I am honored to have sat next to you. Can I give you a hug?”
“You are brave to have gone so deep.”
It had nothing to do with bravery. You thought about this as you zig-zagged back to the house. The mirror in the hallway reflected a face that was not yours. Huge, swollen eyes and sagging cheeks. You looked away. Made it to the attic, to you bed, and cried yourself to sleep, over and over again—a little girl throwing a temper tantrum inside you, hoping not to be heard by others.
The medicine gives you what you need.