Going Out To Go Within: My Mental Health Journey to South America
In my struggle with depression, I traveled outside the states to return to nature. What I found was a world of ancient practices that help me slow down, go inward, and create an environment to experience calm at home. That's what leverden's all about!
By Helen Lee | September 8, 2023
Healing didn’t come naturally for me.
Like so many of us (and perhaps many more undiagnosed), I deal with the invisible struggles of depression: poorly timed sadness and disinterest, the occasional social withdraw, and the lethargy that hangs around like a shadow, making it difficult to resist crawling back into bed on an “off” day.
In my culture, the expression of emotional distress is often discouraged or considered a sign of weakness. As a new mother and business owner, it’s usually best kept tucked away to embody the nurturer.
But as a human, recognizing my depression as an opportunity to create a better life has been more effective than any treatment. In this digital age, our beings are flooded with stimuli and working harder than ever to stay in balance. We all face the “new normal” of unending media and advertising exposure, and the physical challenge of being the multi-hyphenate “do-it-all-er” when for millennia, all our day’s focus was shelter, comfort, and communion with the tribe.
Yearning for simpler times, and with a knowing that ease of peace is still the “normal” for some cultures, I took a break from work and renewed my passport.
CHAPTER 1 - PERU
“You’re taking Ayahuasca??” my friend remarked.
I was sick of the depression clouding all I had to be joyful about on a good day (engulfing me on a bad one). A lifetime spiritual seeker with a standing appointment at my healer (not uncommon in fast-paced, alternative medicine-friendly New York, where I lived at the time), I had heard about personal transformations experienced by members of my community who had explored the sacred plant.
If you’re not familiar with Ayahuasca, it is an indigenous brew made from vines & leaves native to Peru, known for its reputation for unlocking deep-seated emotional wounds and providing profound insights when consumed in the right set and setting, which ideally involves a reputable and experienced shaman as guide, ample physical preparation, and very importantly– the seeker being ready. Because it’s so powerful, it can rupture open traumas and uncomfortable revelations, but on the other side of those emotions is hope for relief from pain and suffering.
Armed with trust in the ancestral wisdom I had researched and flirted with for so long, I followed my soul’s call to South America.
Considering Ayahuasca healing? Stay tuned for a future Blog about where to begin, and how to prepare
Uyuni Salt Flat, Bolivia, en route to Peru - Taken on Helen’s iPhone
When I got to Cusco from Lima, I made my way to the retreat site where I would experience the Ayahuasca ceremony.
We arrived to the Amazonia Jungle Puerto Maldonado by way of a potter plane from Cusco. The guide was waiting for us at the airport to take our group (of 8) on what we then learned would be a 3 hour hike through proper swamp land, under humid temperatures close to 100 degrees...and all in our rubber Wellington boots. As we trudged along with foreign insects feasting on our moist skin, I couldn't help but feel like this was just the beginning of the physical and emotional test I was about to endure. Was I ready?
Traveling through Puerto Maldonado, Peru - Taken on Helen’s iPhone
Once we got to the retreat, we were given a set of instructions which included no meat, no sex, no alcohol, and no caffeine... in other words, "no joyful activities." ;) The facilitator - an Amazonian Shaman - came to greet us. We knew we were signing up for an authentic experience, but he looked shady in his cowboy hat, a man of few words and the aura of a drug dealer. "Suspend your judgement and surrender," I told myself.
The night of the ceremony our group headed to a cabin in the jungle |(there were no lights, just a few sets of head gears). Once it was pitch black outside, the ceremony was initiated.
I remember, in the midst of the darkness, seeing a red flare from the cigar the Shaman was smoking. Truthfully, it was a very scary experience for me. As soon as the brew took effect, I saw demons and ancestors chanting around me. I wasn't able to walk on my own after the ceremony. Luckily I had my partner, who accompanied me on the trip and stayed alert to protect me just in case anything would happen. He carried me back to the cabin, and I threw up for days. Once we got to Lake Titikaka, I was hospitalized with salmonella.
They say "Aya" takes different forms on each person. For me, I think she was guiding me to purge all of the "toxic environment" that had built up in my energy field over the years. I promised myself I would never seek Aya again. Nonetheless, she called me back after 4 years. (Stay tuned for more on that...)
CHAPTER 2 - INTEGRATION
Ayahuasca is physically and emotionally demanding. In the period of rest and recovery following the medicine, I was hit with a wave of reflection and processing, that continued after returning to the States. Some of the behavioral shifts I recorded in my journal:
Increased self-awareness. Before, I hadn’t recognized the emotional tightness I now experience when my boundaries are being threatened, or when I am becoming drained (or energized) by others.
Emotional release: Re-experiencing how some of my wounds were created was cathartic. It reduced their physical weight, making me feel lighter as I decided to let them turn into “scar tissue” instead of active blocks.
Enhanced empathy and compassion: They say Ayahuasca ruptures you open, and it made me more receptive to others around me. In the months following my retreat and today, I feel a greater sense of interconnectedness with my family, friends, and all living beings.
Shift in priorities: I took stock of my values and realized how little time I was making for mindfulness. In this state of necessity - of needing to integrate my three thousand mile-far healing appointment - my eyes opened to the little ways I could bring ceremony to my environment, so that I could access the state of healing again. An invitation for slipping into delicious peace at home, that wasn’t complicated or time consuming to say ‘yes’ to. Now there’s the juicy stuff…
CHAPTER 3 - HEALING
London, England - Helen at home with daughter Florence
Fast forward to today. It’s September 2023; my daughter turned one over the weekend, and is drifting off to sleep - her second nap of the day. Her name is Florence, and she has big, sparkling eyes like her dad.
When I hear her breath deepen, that’s my cue… Matches, candle, bath robe.
The bath is already drawn, and I know I have 30 minutes to soak while my husband watches over our girl. Long exhale for Helen.
Since my journey to Peru, and places far & wide since with my co-founder and best friend Soyoung, I’ve gotten much better at what we all call “self care.”
In the quiet moments between nursing or - more recently - finishing my graduate school thesis, I transport back to the places where I once felt most at peace, which helps me make half an hour feel like an honest vacation.
This is what the portal symbol on leverden products represents.
Right now, I portal to the Bamboo Forests of South Korea, where Soyoung and I discovered the soul and skin-nourishing sacred ingredient Bamboo Salt, used in monasteries for centuries to manifest transformation, and infused into our first collection. I close my eyes, sink into the amethyst waters of the Soak, observe the sounds of ambient music, inhale the fragrances of the forest, and transport to a place of healing.
When life hands you a hall pass, take a bath.
Bamboo Salt Candle with included seeds for planting when burned clean -part of leverden’s initial collection “Bamboo Forest”