Shea Prueger struggled with heroin addiction for six years. Her failed attempts at withdrawing from heroin led her to a final resort, ibogaine, a psychoactive plant medicine from West Africa. She has been sober ever since and now helps heal others using ibogaine.
“I was a little bit wild I guess. I’d just moved to New York. I was bored and I was young and I wasn’t thinking. I’d been through a few difficult things and heroin just completely numbed any feelings I had. But then, it was difficult to get off it, you know? I wasn’t strong enough mentally to do it. It was hard.”
How does ibogaine work?
Ibogaine is really great at discarding layers of the self. My teacher Eric Taub describes it as peeling layers from an onion. When I took it there were all these self-identifications that my ego was attached to and the hallucinations really showed me in this disgusting light. It was kind of like an existential crisis and by viewing all of these identities I was so attached to I was able to completely discard them.
How is ibogaine different to traditional healing methods such as psychotherapy?
I had been to see two psychiatrists for a couple of years each. I got way more out of one ibogaine session than I did through those four years of therapy. With a psychiatrist, and when you’re a drug addict, you can manipulate anyone. You just have to say the right things so you can get the prescription to whatever you need. With ibogaine you’re really just dealing with yourself and there’s nowhere to hide – it’s really brutal in that sense. Ibogaine is like so many years of therapy combined into one short experience.
How important is the hallucinogenic effect?
It’s incredibly important because the visions you see are so rooted to you. It’s not some abstract thing like when you’re tripping on acid and you’re freaking out or things are really weird. It’s direct and can be profound so the visions are very important. They’re so different for everyone.
How does ibogaine change your view of the world?
On ibogaine I saw that I had this totally fine life and what I had done to it was so destructive. I was able to see how my actions had affected other people. I wasn’t spiritual before I took it but when I came out of it the first thing I said was, I couldn’t understand if what I had seen had come from me or from this plant. It didn’t make any sense. I always thought the world was just black and white but I had this new opinion that there was something else out there. There was something missing in my life. Now it was more interesting to be part of the real world, to know what I could accomplish with my own mind and my own spirituality, which I guess I’d been seeking before through drugs. Before then it never even occurred to me that this was possible.
Do you think being ‘awake’ in this world is difficult?
That’s a good question. Yes, definitely. And maybe that had been my issue for a long time, but I do the best I can do. I think being awake in this world is more interesting for sure, but for someone who’s an ex-drug addict, having to relearn how to feel emotions is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. If you’re doing opiates, they’re pain killers so I never had to feel upset or sad, it just didn’t exist. It was all euphoric, so all of a sudden to have to be ok with feeling bad, that was really difficult for me. You get used to the ritual of being an opiate addict and having this euphoric answer to every single morning.
What are your thoughts on other plant medicines?
From my experiences with DMT and ayahuasca they are multi dimensional… intergalactic. They don’t feel like they are from this planet. It’s a more abstract experience. But ibogaine is just so about you. It’s so individualised and direct. It’s so rooted to this planet, and this earth, your ancestors and where you came from, and your own brain. It’s just so in your face. It’s kind of cynical in a sense too. There’s a trickster in the iboga spirit. It’s like anything that you kind of hope that you’re not. When you’re on ibogaine it’s going to come right in front of you. You are that x 100 and then it’s going to laugh at you. It’s not an easy experience at all. I’ve never experienced anything like it so I don’t think it’s comparable to anything that I’m aware of.
What is the hardest part of the experience?
The physical side effects. They’re difficult. People get nauseous, they get ataxia (loss of mobility)… for me, I can always feel my heart beat and I also feel like something is going wrong. Some people feel like they’re dying. It’s not a pleasant experience. It’s not recreational and it’s difficult to see yourself in this very true light that maybe you’ve been ignoring for a long time. There’s no lying to yourself on ibogaine. It’s a wake up call. I’ve seen people come out of it not getting what they expected, or wanted, and being a little bit disappointed, but most of those people have changed their minds later down the line. The metabolite stays in their system for a long time, 3-9 months depending. People feel the effects for months afterwards. But no-one’s ever told me that they wished they hadn’t done it, I haven’t heard that yet! I think some people come out of it and they didn’t get what they wanted and they’re confused, but I think you have to give it time. You have to go through the motions.
How do you deal with the newfound knowledge after taking ibogaine?
It’s interesting, because it does all start to click together, at least for me personally. For addicts, a lot of times they come out of ibogaine and their main problem was addiction so they’re able to come out and really pop after an ibogaine experience. It’s interesting we’re talking about this because I think people who aren’t addicts are actually harder to treat because they come in with expectations. We can guarantee to a heroin addict that they are going to come out of the experience not addicted to opiates, but when you treat someone who’s not an addict, they’re coming in with all these other variables we can’t control. We don’t know what they’re going to see, what they’re going to deal with… they might have something in mind that they think they need to deal with and they might end up dealing with something from when they were three years old. And for some of those people they come out of ibogaine and they’ve gotten the medicinal benefits of ibogaine, they’ve had an experience, but they have this life to go back to where maybe there’s still something wrong with it.
You worked as a model. How did your view on modeling change after taking ibogaine?
I had a lot of moral issues with the fashion industry the entire time I did it. I found it very objectifying. I found it kind of pointless, I didn’t see the meaning behind it and I’ve always been stuck in this place where I’ve really wanted to do work that’s meaningful. I’ve never been someone who could be satisfied by just a job. But it was so much harder when I got off drugs because I was hyper aware of what I was doing. It was easier on drugs to have 20 people standing around me and touching me while I’m semi-naked or naked on set, then all of a sudden I had to relearn how to do my job. It was a really bizarre first few months when I went back to modeling after ibogaine. I felt hypersensitive to everything that was going on.
Do you practise yoga?
I practice ashtanga yoga. I think the ritual side of it works with the addictive side of my brain. For me yoga was one of the things combined with ibogaine that saved my life. It really gave me something to do everyday that put me into a good space, and after ibogaine it was really interesting because I would be doing these poses and I would start seeing these images and they were really disturbing and hard to see. Especially going into savasana for about the first six months after ibogaine I would be flooded with this imagery. It was almost a traumatic experience. I’m not sure why it happened, but there was something about the way my body was functioning combined with whatever chakras and meridians were flowing during yoga. It was really intense.
What do you think the future of ibogaine will be?
I think the west is definitely turning around in its acceptance of plant medicines. You see news reports on mushrooms and how they help depression. The fact it’s even being studied… Ibogaine was featured on HBO and on an International Geographic series so just the way the name is coming out and people are familiar with it is really great. In NYC, LA and London, most of my friends who I was doing cocaine with are becoming more and more interested in this idea of plant medicines. I really think the west is going to turn around and evolve past what we’re doing right now, which just seems so destructive. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime but I think it’s going to happen.