It’s a Wednesday morning, not unlike other Wednesday mornings. I wake up to an alarm. I drink some tea. I eat a banana and an elote cupcake. I shower and get dressed. I saunter down the old cobblestone streets of Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighborhood and board a pesero (a clunky, death-defying, antique, mini bus of sorts endemic to the capital) that takes me to the subway. People around me scurry about on their way to work. I’m not in a hurry. Instead of work this morning, I have an appointment to smoke the most powerful psychedelic substance known to humankind. I’m thrilled and terrified at the same time. So I move slowly through the ever-rapid streets of the largest city in the western hemisphere. Awaiting what this experience has in store for me.
That substance is 5-MEO-DMT (5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) – a psychedelic naturally occurring in a number of plants (including the fabled ayahuasca) and in one very special species of toad: The Sonoran Desert Toad (native to the US state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora), also sometimes referred to as the Colorado River Toad. Said toad (scientifically called bufo alvarius, but colloquially known in Mexico simply as el sapo) is a large amphibian that hangs out in the desert, living mostly underground yet becoming active at night during the summer rainy season. The toad is considered poisonous, and leave it to human beings to have the curiosity to see what the poison could offer us. Turns out, the poison is a powerful entheogen, a psychoactive substance that induces spiritual experiences. The poison is gathered from the toads, without harming them, and then set out to dry in the sun. The dried poison forms crystallized flakes that are then smoked in order to alter or enhance one’s consciousness. El Sapo has long been considered a sacred medicine by the Seri people, a tribe native to the Sonoran desert. The psychedelic seekers of the 1970s stumbled upon it in the golden era of entheogen discovery and thought perhaps rightfully so, that they’d encountered mind-altering gold – therefore launching it into popular culture.
So yes, I have made an appointment on a Wednesday morning to smoke psychedelic toad venom in an effort to sense a greater understanding of the universe. Whether that sounds totally nuts to you, or on the contrary enticing, let me tell you it’s one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had and it is here that I will try to put it into words.
In Search of Healing
My guide during this process is a woman named Yannina Thomassiny, whom I affectionately refer to as “Toad Dust Woman.” Yannina welcomes me this morning into her sunny and quiet apartment, which lies in one of the hippest neighborhoods in Mexico City. The building is old and stands across a main drag from one of the higher rent zones of the city, where people walk their perfect little miniature dogs through neatly manicured parks and gab on their iPhone 7s – dressed in style and seemingly unconcerned about the rampant socioeconomic inequality that defines this city. Meanwhile, a block away, a legless and unkempt man begs for pesos along the steep steps leading down to the subway.
I’ve been in touch with Yannina for more than a year, after meeting her husband at a lunch gathering. He told me about el sapo and how it’s one of the loveliest experiences he’s ever felt; how he’s watched it transform melancholy souls into happy-go-luckies, how it can help individuals overcome addictions to alcohol and heroin nearly overnight, and how it’s nothing like any other psychedelic he’s ever experienced.
All of it is intriguing. First, contrary to how I may appear on days that I’ve been well fed and well rested, I’m melancholy af, having battled with anxiety and depression since before I learned to do long division. Second, I have had periods of heavy dependence on alcohol mostly after its use became a habit for me in effort to rid myself of said melancholy. Thirdly, my experience with psychedelics is rather limited and never have I really been all that interested in diving into that realm. But I’d heard of the life-changing power of entheogens, so I ask him to put me in contact with her.
Flash forward a few weeks and I’m making an appointment with Yannina when she informs me that while el sapo could be for anyone (though certainly not for everyone), one major caveat regarding its use is that it should never be administered to someone who is taking antidepressants. I, at the time, was taking two different medications. One pill in the morning, and another at night. Critics of antidepressants work like most modern western medicine: by treating the symptoms and hoping that the symptoms will go away and therefore considering the individual cured, though only while the individual is under the influence of said medication. This has been my experience. “Happy pills” keep the trap door from staying open long enough for you to fall five flights underground into a dank cellar and stew in the abyss of your own self-destructive thoughts. So that’s a positive. But they certainly don’t cure anything. As a wise friend of mine said as I told him my plans to experience el sapo, adding how that would mean distancing myself from anti-depressants: “You can’t apply a pharmaceutical cure to a spiritual problem.” So, after a full year of taking antidepressants, I decided to stop them, so that I could experience el sapo.
Only, I couldn’t stop them. Even when dosing down, the intense experience of all my cruel thoughts returned with a vengeance. The dark cloud, foggy thinking; the inability to feel joy. So I never made my appointment. I started taking the full dose of the pills again. Yannina told me to write her when I was “detoxified.” I continued on status quo for about a year after, still wondering whether I would really have to be fully dependent on pharmaceuticals for the rest of my life, just to live in a state of relative contentedness. Because, my experience in trying to leave them behind had shown me that I was in need of a life preserver. And that that life preserver had to be thrown to me in the form of a prescription administered by some well-paid doctor that may or may not have ever themselves known the magnitude and complexities of depression.
The Road to El Sapo
About a year later, I had a moment in which I said “fuck it” in the most spiritual way possible, and decided to give myself several months to dose out of the medication. I was determined to find a way within myself to heal my pain and suffering which I believed ultimately was not real, and existed only within my head, and thus, I was the only one would be able to appropriately bury it once and for all in the graves of my past where it belongs. So I did. And it was hard. Like I knew it would be. The inconsistency (something that has often driven me nuts about myself, and I’m certain has ignited the ire of others who surround me) was back. The intense swirls of self doubt and need for approval were screaming once again at the forefront of my mind. The anxiety proceeded to pound on my door as if it were the police carrying a warrant for my defiance. But I didn’t open the door. I really wanted to. I am so used to opening the door. But I needed to achieve at least 30 days clean before Yannina would tend to me. And so I put myself on “tranquil” mode until that day arrived. Doing all possible to naturally manage the ups and downs I felt on a daily basis.
Obviously, the venom of el sapo is a substance. But its effects for me have been long lasting and also enlightening, whereas antidepressants function only when you take them every day, and never was I able to really see things differently. I just had that trap door in place. And when that trap door rots away, you find you’ve never solved anything at all.
Preparing For Lift-off
So here I am, on the day of the toad. Finally. Yannina sits me down as she measures out my dosage, and explains to me that absolutely nothing bad can happen to me. That all I need to do is let go, and let the medicine, as she refers to el sapo, take hold. That my one task is to relax and enjoy it. Not try to conceptualize anything. Just let it flow. It was only going to be about a 15-minute trip anyway. Nothing like its patient cousin, ayahuasca. This is another major reason why I thought el sapo would be best for me. I’d heard horror stories of LSD trips that just wouldn’t end. Yeah, not into that … at all. But hell, I’ve spent most of my sentient life living in a mental battleground, surely I could handle all sorts of potential sapo discomfort for such a short period as 15 minutes. If any were to arise at all.
She sits me down on a blue gymnastics pad on the floor, topped with a sheepskin rug. In front of me are a series of sound bowls and other devices aimed at creating a relaxing sonic environment. She explains to me that she will give me four sets of instructions: 1) to turn and breathe out all the air in my lungs 2) to slowly smoke the pipe until I can handle no more 3) to cover my mouth and count to 10, or for as long as I possibly can. 4) Then to exhale into sapo wonderland.
I do it all as she says and start to feel the effects as I am inhaling the yellowish, potent-flavored smoke. At about 7 in the countdown, the room turns into a Magic Eye painting. And then I’m in a cloud. Everything is white. I hear the unmistakeable sound of Native American flutes and then I’m gone. El sapo whisks me around the world at a breakneck speed (most notably to a streetcar in India), where I see millions of faces at once, and feel a million pains at once (grief, loss, fear) and at the same time an overwhelming feeling of how pain works hand in hand with pleasure to give each other definition, and as I am witnessing the lives of strangers from birth to death (their joys, their betrayals, their happiness, their anger) I am feeling only one sensation and that is love. Love for the entire experience: that this pain and this joy is all one thing and that is all that we are meant to experience just as night and day defines our lives, the joy and pain we feel is nothing more than bolts of lightning and comets and rain and sunshine, just witnessed from within the egoic confines of the human mind.
I feel a huge understanding of just how perfect and easy life really is once you accept that pain is part of it. Now, I’ve studied Buddhism before and this all makes sense and you spiritual gangster types can easily read this and say “well, duh” – but what’s different is when you FEEL it. And you KNOW it. Not simply when it’s presented as rhetoric. We all hate painful experiences. But when I witnessed the death of some random person within this trip, and watched his soul return to the ether, it all became so apparent from the pleasure that he felt at death that everything he experienced in life was exactly as it should have been. It’s all so intensely beautiful, how can I even begin to question it? I asked myself. I watch a seed being planted and forming a flower and then I start to return to the room.
I hear myself crying and saying “no mames” (Mexican slang for “no way”) and I see myself on the floor from above. I re-enter my body and am instantly filled with doubt. Am I still tripping? Has it been 30 seconds? 30 minutes? 30 days? My sense of space and time are completely altered. I tell Yannina that I feel weird. “Just relax and breathe” she says, informing me that indeed I am still tripping. I take her advice and I enter a euphoric state, though now fully aware of where and who I am.
I feel a beautiful smile cross my face and I visit the people in my life through images and feelings in my mind. Some of them who I have wronged. And some of them who have wronged me. And I feel no shame. No anger. No guilt. No regret. All I feel is the love that I have for them, and the love that I know they have for me. I visit a few occurrences that have troubled me lately, and I see my responsibility in them. I see myself as a constructor of these experiences, not as the victim of them. But I see this in a compassionate way. No blame is assumed – for I’m merely human after all and perfect in my imperfections. There’s simply a sigh of … “ahhhhh, ok. I see now.” My body feels light. The constant tension I carry in my neck and shoulders is gone. I lay on the mat and feel one of Yannina’s cats rest on my lap. My brain feels wider. As though it has expanded on each side of my temples; meanwhile my pineal gland feels like it’s on fire. I am so relaxed that I almost fall asleep. Yannina asks me how I feel. Honestly, I feel privileged. I feel as though I’ve been given a sacred key to the universe. I’m overflowing with gratitude and love feels. El sapo has helped me feel what I needed to.
Return to Earth
As I lay in complete comfort on the floor, Yannina comes next to me and we discuss my experience. “That was the ego that woke you up,” she says. “Some people spend their entire trip like that. Trying to control things. Trying to understand things. Constantly.” Yes, the ego. That old fuddy duddy. Trying to take me out of the overall, conglomerate of living things, and put me in a space of my own where I am solo and I am unique and I am special. But that space is a very lonely space.
The tranquility that I felt upon leaving Yannina’s place extended with me for a couple of days. Through mundane visits to government offices, to daily errands. I found it easy to connect with the feeling of oneness, and little annoyances of big city life or life in general had little impact on me.
I found myself contemplating the world with a sense of calm. With the sense that the universe and all that resides within it, including we clever and inquisitive little monkeys, is expansive and limitless. That as does the universe expand and widen and progress into what was formerly nothing, so to can the human mind and spirit. Where we find limitations in our terrestrial bodies, as we are made of the same material that has created the universe, we are limitless in the scope of our minds and the distances that a soul can travel.
Beyond the immediate euphoria and then the peace, which lasted about a week or so, I started to notice small differences in my surroundings. And my reaction to them. But mostly, I found myself to be much more sensitive to my surroundings. It makes sense. At my core I’m an introvert that can put on a good extrovert show. But perhaps those days of being on stage are over.
I started anticipating what people were thinking before they said it. I felt less desire to stuff my body with food, alcohol or negative thoughts. But the biggest change I have noticed is a heightened sensitivity to the phases of the moon. My first sapo experience took place just a few weeks before the August 2017 eclipse season, during which many advancements took place in my mentality and ability to identify the real roots of the mental anguish that I’d carried for so long. The night of the lunar eclipse and full moon in particular were astonishingly powerful and intense. I could not avoid the transformative power of the astrological event, and sleep evaded me the entire night as I was awake with realizations.
A similar experience happened during September’s full moon, though not quite at the same magnitude. During the same week however, Mexico City felt the effects of an 8.5 earthquake and it shook the capital city to the core, despite 500 or more miles of distance from the epicenter. It was my first earthquake experience and as I lay in bed experiencing it (I had been sleeping when the seismic alarm went off), I floated into a sapo trance as my bed rocked back and forth and the ivy plant hanging from my bedroom ceiling swayed at a 45 degree angle. I felt no fear. I felt only connection to individuals who were afraid. I saw people scrambling in small villages near the epicenter. And I saw people in devastating earthquakes in past years. I felt the power of the earth and I was astonished by the calm that I felt as others around me scurried out into the street and car alarms sounded from the impact. I floated and witnessed it all, with a level of respect for the earth simply doing what the earth needs to do from time to time.
I returned to Yannina for another dose of sapo power after about a month. The experience went roughly the same: I had an intense trip for about 6 or 7 minutes during which I was not conscious of myself whatsoever – my ego disappeared – and felt again completely disjointed and a bit weirded out when I came to and was again aware of myself, yet still under the influence of el sapo. Was I taking too long? Did I do or say anything absurd? These desires to control or to adhere to societal control over me: So ingrained, yet so limiting. Yannina reassured me that I should relax and breathe again and once again I visited, full conscious, though vibrating at a higher frequency, people whom I love. I felt the pain that my father felt during his childhood. I felt myself as the highly sensitive individual I am and gave myself permission to be so, and saw myself in new ways that I had never allowed myself to see before.
She told me that she has regular “patients” who come to her once per month for their dose. She herself has switched from traditional therapy to “el sapo” because “therapy is another imperfect human making judgements and inferences into your life. When really, all I ever needed to do was connect with myself so that I can make the best decisions for myself and live authentically.” She did however expound upon how necessary it is that all humans have a spiritual path. “These days, our generation doesn’t really have a religion. So it’s really important to have a level of spirituality that you connect to – something that’s bigger than yourself. If you combine el sapo with meditation practices, yoga, things like that, its effect will be even more longer lasting and profound.”
Whether I’ll be a regular with Yannina is yet to be seen. But I am sincerely grateful that I went and I am still unpacking all the levels at which el sapo has affected me.
In Sturgill Simpson’s “Turtles all the Way Down” – a 2014 neotraditional country song that explores the use of psychedelics in healing – he expresses a thought that I have been ruminating on since I first learned of el sapo and considered adding it to my life:
“Some say you might go crazy, but then again it might make you go sane.”
Gracias, santo sapito, for coming into my life.