Zoe Helene grew up in New Zealand. Now she's a 'psychedelic feminist' in the United States, who leads women on hallucinogenic journeys in the Amazon jungle.
The last time Zoe Helene drank ayahuasca, she saw the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, towering above her like a skyscraper, monolithic and morphing. "She was ancient, powerful, and was exuding all this energy. And she said, 'You called?'"
Helene follows this sentence with a cute, slightly awkward but endearing giggle.
We're sitting in the red-brick courtyard of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a clear autumn day. There's a photo on Helene's website, Cosmic Sister, of her emerging, Peter Tosh-like, from a thicket of cannabis plants. When I first arrived, I recognised her from it immediately. She has a thick mane of curly, dark-grey hair and eyelashes like glossy black ribbons.
Dressed in blue jeans and an enormous cream coloured wool jumper, she's placed a brown manila folder on the table in front of her. It's filled with typed up, yellow-highlighted notes that she's prepared for our interview. It sits there between us as she finishes the story about that night in the Amazon, about seven months ago, when the Statue of Liberty-sized Aphrodite appeared before her.
It was not the first time Helene, whose mother is Greek-American, had met a Greek goddess: she had embodied Persephone once before. But on this night it was Aphrodite and, Helene says, the goddess was peeved.
"She was saying, 'Where the hell have you been' basically… and then I proceeded, the whole night, which seemed like an eternity, to have these deep, deep difficult visionary experiences - I saw the visual, experienced the visual, experienced the emotion of every man that was major to me."
During this "journey" - which is how Helene refers to time spent under the influence of the psychoactive ayahuasca - she realised how much she had been abused and damaged by some of these men. "I had this dual experience of being myself back then - really being her and feeling it, and then being me now, with what I know and where I am, in a safe place with a great husband… It was my own #metoo experience."
The Amazon, and, indeed, this hotel in the United States, are a long way from Helene's childhood in New Zealand. Yet it was an experience in Auckland that led her to create this life in Massachusetts, where she has styled herself as a "psychedelic feminist" and takes women on trips to Peru retreats, to try out this apparently foul tasting jungle drug, ayahuasca.
I ask Helene what psychedelic feminism is, but I never really get an answer. In fact, our entire conversation is a serpentine tangle of bizarre segues - much like the hallucinations some people report having on ayahuasca.
Helene first took ayahuasca in 2008, on her first wedding anniversary. She's married to Chris Kilham, who goes by the moniker 'Medicine Hunter' and travels the globe researching medicinal plant use and working with companies to market them in the west. Helene is a part-owner of the business, and makes most of her income from royalties made on plants like maca and ginseng.
In the decade since first taking the drug, she has travelled once or twice a year to Peru, for ayahuasca ceremonies (they are usually led by indigenous Shipibo shaman, and typically there is singing, chanting and drumming as journeyers are in the throes of their psychedelic experiences). Why? "People like to say healing, and healing is definitely part of it, but I don't like to cram everything under healing as a category," Helene says. "I really think self-liberation is a big one, especially for women."
This is where the feminism seems to come into it. On her website, Helene says she believes women are under-represented in the field of psychedelics, and it's her mission to change that.
Ayahuasca is a tea containing the psychedelic substance DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine). It's made by boiling the gnarled wood of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the glossy leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), which has been used for centuries by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin. It's very hot right now, with 'wellness' seeking tourists and celebrities flocking to the region to take it, though some choose to drink the brew in yoga studios and other such hangouts anywhere from Williamsburg to Sydney to an unnamed island in the Hauraki Gulf (Helene frowns upon this - she says "stealing" ayahuasca from the Amazon and taking it to the west is cultural appropriation.)
The effects of ayahuasca kick in about an hour after ingestion, last about six hours, and are usually accompanied by vomiting and diarrhoea. The user's blood pressure and heart rate increase slightly, they hallucinate, and some report synesthesia. Some people also experience psychological introspection and report feelings ranging from sadness or fear to elation, illumination and gratitude. Out-of-body and near-death experiences are also common.
The brew is the subject of numerous studies looking into its effects on the brain, and its potential therapeutic benefits for people with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction.
But Helene says it's still early days in terms of understanding the how and why: "We don't know why it works, we know it works. They're finding out why it works from a scientific study - but you don't have to reduce it to a scientific study for it to work, do you understand what I'm saying? If it works, and it saves your life because you've got a deadly addiction, who cares what the science says, you know?"
The cute giggles from earlier are gone and there's a sense of urgency in Helene's voice now. Maybe this is because, she says, ayahuasca changed her life.
Helene was born in North Carolina in 1964 and moved to New Zealand as a 10-year-old, because her father had concerns about a nuclear holocaust in the United States. She spent six years living in a house on a hill just north of the small Rodney community of Waiwera, probably best known for its dilapidated hydroslides and fancy bottled water.
As a teenager, she took the school bus each day to Orewa College, and at 16 she moved to Auckland. It was there that she met her first love and had an experience that changed the course of her life.
"What happened is one night, without any substance or anything, all in our mind, we had a very psychedelic experience generated by our own high… It started out really interesting, but then it got scary, like a nightmare," Helene says. She brought herself back to reality, but says her boyfriend was unable to. "He was like a little zombie boy."
She says he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital to recover, and she was left traumatised. So, at 19 years old, she returned to the US to live with her grandparents. She studied fine arts, then became an actress, before working in the tech industry for 10 years. She tried to forget about what had happened to her boyfriend, but it would always come back to her in moments of panic. It was, she says, PTSD.
Then in 2011 while at a retreat in Peru, a woman went into a state Helene says was similar to the one her boyfriend had entered. She says the woman's experience took her back to her own trauma, which she experienced again in a lucid dream-like state. "It sounds wild, and it is wild. You have the experience with the PTSD again, and it feels like it's real, but when you come out of the experience, you have a new relationship with what happened."
Unlike her boyfriend, the woman came out of the state. "When her eyes opened and she said, 'Hi Zoe', my PTSD was gone - I recreated the situation and I succeeded in bringing the person back… I didn't intend for this to happen, but it never came back. My PTSD never came back."
Helene believes the ayahuasca dissolved a pathway in her brain relating to her PTSD, and helped her create a new, non-traumatic one. (A collaborative project between the UK's Beckley Foundation, the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) in Spain and ayahuasca retreat Temple of the Way of the Light in Peru is currently looking at the well-being of users, including war veterans with PTSD.)
It was after this experience that Helene decided to start helping others to use ayahuasca as "a tool for self exploration," and to "encourage women to explore psychedelics in a safe and legal setting" (ayahuasca is not only legal in Peru, it's designated as a "cultural patrimony" - meaning its importance to the cultural heritage of indigenous groups is recognised.) In 2013 she set up the 'Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit Grant' - a financial scholarship for psychedelic feminists wanting to take ayahuasca.
The scholarship covers the cost of attending ceremonies at a retreat in Peru (a nine day retreat at the Temple of the Way of Light, for example, costs about $3700.) The first recipient, Rachael Carlevale, now runs cannabis-yoga business 'Ganjasana' in Colorado. Other recipients include a doctor from Maine, a Native American PhD candidate, a doula from Massachusetts, a Nigerian-American yoga instructor and a 55-year-old nurse practitioner who specialises in addictions. Helene pays for the scholarships from her own pocket (two other Cosmic Sister grants are supported by donations from individuals, nonprofits and corporate sponsors.)
A few weeks after our interview in Cambridge, I follow up with some questions via email and ask Helene to send me the notes that had sat on the table between us in the brown manila folder. She is happy to. Throughout our communications, she has bent over backwards to provide me with information about herself and Cosmic Sister. She even offered to send me a novel I had said I wanted to read. Maybe it's the New Zealand connection. Helene says she, and her parents who still live at at Hatfield's Beach just north of Orewa, are very excited about this story. "I love to share my Kiwi side with the public. Deep in my heart, I will always be an island girl."
The notes contain very specific instructions on how to refer to the consumption of ayahuasca and other psychedelics like mushrooms, and cannabis (which she says is a psychedelic): "Our work is about a mindful relationship with a sacred plant or fungi. We 'work with' or 'journey with' or 'commune with' but we would never 'use'." She also prefers ayahuasca to be called a medicine (not a drug), as it is called by indigenous shaman, (who she prefers to call onanya).
She has also written that feminists don't hate all men, that diversity is multidimensional, and that as a nation, New Zealand should be ashamed that the Maui's dolphin is so close to extinction.
Under the heading 'Pet peeves / media' she has written that 'deaths associated with ayahuasca' is a 'misleading statement'. But there have been a string of deaths of people in South America who have at least thought they were taking ayahuasca. These include an 18-year-old from California who was found dead and buried at an ayahuasca retreat, a 24-year-old New Zealand man who died in Peru after drinking a powerful brew of tobacco ahead of an ayahuasca ceremony, a Canadian man who stabbed a Briton after the man allegedly attacked him with a knife at a retreat run by an Australian woman in Iquitos, Peru and a British teenager who died after drinking ayahuasca combined with brugmansia (also known as scopolamine and dubbed the 'world's scariest drug' by the drug connoisseurs at Vice and a "rape drug" by Helene.) "Those deaths are not from ayahuasca," she says.
She has a point. According to ICEERS, ayahuasca is rarely harmful, though it should not be taken by people with heart conditions, on certain types of antidepressants, or by people with a history of serious psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, psychosis, personality disorders, or bipolar disorder. Helene's advice to anyone thinking about taking ayahuasca is to do their homework, read a book (preferably The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook, which was written by her husband) and never, ever do it on a whim.
New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, however, warns "there have been reports of psychological damage, assault, theft and rape of people under the influence of the hallucinogen in ayahuasca tea as well as deaths of foreign tourists." It strongly advises New Zealanders to carefully consider these risks and potential side effects before taking ayahuasca.
In response to my emailed questions, Helene sends thousands of words. Among the notes are her childhood memories of arriving in New Zealand by boat. "I got to see Aotearoa appear on the arch of the horizon after three weeks of nothing but ocean, like the first Māori explorers did. I embraced the magic of the adventure and stood on the bow of the boat until the Long White Cloud appeared.
"I saw it in ceremony once in an ayahuasca vision, like a mythic, mystical fairyland, twinkling and glowing and calling me home."