Oof, my first week in Portugal is on the books.
Traveling solo brings up a lot, and a story I’ve never shared publicly has been bouncing around my head the last few days. Please be warned, it’s a bit of a TMI kind of story. ;-)
A few years ago I went to Peru to do four ayahuasca ceremonies in the jungle with a group of 30 other “passengers,” several care-takers, and two shamans. For those who don’t know, ayahuasca is a plant medicine which has been used in indigenous South American cultures to heal people’s hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.
An ayahuasca ceremony typically includes drinking the plant-based brew with a shaman, and then laying on your mat in the dark until the medicine kicks in and you get really sick and trip your brains out.
Ayahuasca is not a fun drug. Nobody would ever take it recreationally, and it was, in fact, one of the most physically and emotionally demanding couple of weeks of my life.
I faced my demons. I met my soul. I felt ALL THE PAIN. I wept and raged and vomited and re-lived childhood trauma from different vantage points.
It’s impossible to describe what the experience of taking ayahuasca is like, so I won’t try to describe it here. It’s often described as having ten years of therapy in one night, and I won’t disagree with that. It’s also a completely unique ride each time.
What I will say is that I went to Peru to heal some really specific wounds. I went there with the intention of healing my relationship to being female and everything that includes, and I knew that meant I’d have to deal with fear of men.
Like many women, I spent decades with a constant low-level fear of men attacking me. Even as a child I remember thinking I was basically kidnapping-bait, and was always looking over my shoulder on my walk home from school.
I did what women are supposed to do: stay constantly on the defensive.
I carried my keys in my hands when I walked home, I kept my earbuds in with no music, I was always on the lookout for an exit plan, and I texted my friends when I got home safe. In groups of men I was always a little nervous; it seemed safer to be cautious.
I was especially afraid of men who reminded me of a certain man: Spanish-speaking, macho, gaslighting, dangerous.
In that final ayahuasca ceremony in Peru, I decided to drink a larger portion of brew. I hadn’t had the trippy experience everyone else had, my ceremonies had all been controlled and mild by comparison, so I figured: why not?
The short story is that I got completely obliterated, trapped in a reality I can never explain, speaking with the grasshopper king in a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds.
The hallucinations were so all-encompassing that it made no difference whether my eyes were open or closed, and I was physically the sickest I’ve ever been. For hours, I thought I was going to die.
At one point went to the bathroom, where I passed out cold and woke up covered in my own shit and vomit (both are a common side effect) to the ceremony “helpers” pulling me out, discussing me in worried Spanish voices.
Now, here’s the interesting part. I had specifically chosen this retreat due to the value it placed on the feminine spirit, and how they purposefully always had both a male and female shaman, and both male and female “helpers.” But at this particular moment, all of the women were occupied, and I needed help.
I was completely and utterly incapacitated.
I couldn’t even lift my hands or open my eyes. I was pulled out of that bathroom like a soiled ragdoll, by about four pairs of Peruvian male hands. One of the men got me water, and waited until I could talk to explain what needed to happen.
“You’re completely wet. You need new clothes and we need to get you warm, but you have to wash first.”
I moaned in agreement, so he asked if I could wash myself. There was no way though, I couldn’t even lift my head!
The perfection of this moment suddenly struck me as hilarious.
I had spent my entire life afraid to be in a vulnerable position with men, because I believed on some level that men are opportunists, and that none of them can ever be fully trusted. Don’t leave your car unlocked, right? I had been in a constant state of keeping my car locked, to avoid being raped or manipulated or hurt.
And yet there I was, giving my consent for multiple Peruvian men to strip me naked and wash my soiled body in the middle of the night, in the middle of the jungle, while I focused all my energy on just not falling over.
I needed to get clean, dry, and warm. It was surreal, and funny. They were so gentle, and so kind, and I felt the safest I’ve ever felt in my life.
The magic didn’t stop there though. When I was back on my mat covered in blankets, I reached a hand out for a man who had stopped by my neighbor’s mat, and was sitting near me.
This particular man had given me a very bad feeling when I’d spotted him early on in the retreat. I’d desperately hoped he wouldn’t be in my ceremony group, because I was afraid of him being there while I was vulnerable.
I don’t remember his name, but he was from Romania and his body was massive, muscular, hulk-like. He looked extremely powerful and dangerous, and his face came off as completely lacking in gentleness. He was the kind of masculine that presented as neanderthal. I was terrified of him.
But then there he was.
He just happened to be sitting next to me when I needed someone, and immediately reached back to take my hand as I came down from my trip, and ask me what I needed. I told him I just wanted to hold onto something I was sure was real.
He didn’t let go of my hand for hours. He moved his cigarette from hand to hand, smoking as I cried and trembled, making sure never to let go. He sang me Romanian lullabies that he said he would sing to his young daughter at home. He kept reminding me that I was safe.
All of this is to say that after that night, I have felt safe among men in a way that is nothing short of life-changing.
Being in Portugal alone this week has provided constant reminders of this.
The other night I went to a digital nomad meetup and found myself interacting with wonderful people from all over the world. The host eventually asked if I was hungry around 11:30pm, and said he and some others were going to head out for some food at a local market. Without even thinking about it, I said yes and only when we got there did I realize I was the only woman in the group.
More importantly though, when I realized it, nothing changed. My belly didn’t knot up. My jaw didn’t tighten. I didn’t start flirting or attacking or self-monitoring or behaving strangely.
I just ordered a famous Portuguese dish, shared my fries with my new friends, and learned a ton about the European nomad scene. Then I walked home alone, on streets I don’t know, without fear.
This is what it’s like to feel safe.
To trust in men; to trust in myself.
And it’s a beautiful thing.
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