David Wagner serves as a writer, scientific consultant, clinical laboratory professional, and a member of the Inscape Recovery team. David struggled with substance abuse dependencies for decades before finding long-term recovery utilizing a combination of traditional and plant medicine therapies. He studied at the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY) and holds a degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
David will be joining as a guest for the Life After Ibogaine meeting on April 8th, 2020 at 5:30pm PST / 8:30pm EST. The meetings, usually twice a month, are currently being offered weekly. The intro to our group discussion will be called “Integrating Plant Teachings into Recovery Strategies.” You can sign up for call details and join the discussion here.
David, I appreciate you taking the time to share your story of your recovery with ibogaine and other plant medicines. First, can you describe some of the things that you’re involved with right now, and the vision that you have with Inscape Recovery?
My current passion project is Inscape Recovery, a post-ibogaine, residential aftercare and transformational addiction recovery program located in Malinalco, Mexico. My role within the program is primarily administrative, however, I’m also involved in the admissions process. In the future, I hope to be involved in the project “on the ground” so to speak, participating on-site as a group facilitator and an additional peer support for our clients.
What we have established is a unique approach to addiction treatment that utilizes best practices from traditional recovery programs integrated with consciousness expanding activities. That includes bioregenerative nutritional support, advanced phytotherapeutics, shamanic medicine, and psychotherapy. The program is optimized to treat addiction primarily as a spiritual illness with biopsychosocial symptoms. The vision of Inscape is really to provide a therapeutic container for a fundamental transformation and to provide navigational support for long-term transformation.
In addition to Inscape Recovery, I own and operate a moderately successful laboratory business in the midwest US, occasionally publish blogs and online content for recovery-related websites, and help my wife to raise our children.
I think it’s really wonderful work, and it’s a good program. I have recommended it to people and seen it be a really valuable experience. But now going back, I know a lot of times we talk about how recovery is not a linear path, and life generally isn’t. I’m sure there were lots of times you couldn’t have foreseen where you are now. What was this vision that you’re working on born out of for you?
Well, like many people who become addicted to substances, I think my upbringing laid the foundation for the issues that I would need to ultimately deal with and let go of to move forward in life. I don’t think I had a terribly traumatic childhood, but it was sometimes difficult for me to navigate and it led to some unhealthy coping mechanisms even before I found drugs and alcohol.
I always had a high level of anxiety. I often had severe and persistent periods of panic attacks and prolonged depersonalization. I was hospitalized in an adolescent psychiatric facility for part of my senior year in high school following a major nervous breakdown. That was where I was introduced to the use of medications to treat emotional discomfort. I had my first experience with benzodiazepines as a reprieve from emotional baggage. I would say I was probably hooked the first time I took them because I felt like I could actually function normally. This drug provided a much needed liberation from all of that fear, anxiety and unresolved trauma I was carrying around. It was a magic broom that swept everything under the rug.
Some of the step-parents who came into my life in later adolescence had prescription drug and alcohol addictions. Their presence in my life definitely facilitated my relationship with and access to certain substances. Outside of a few limited experiments, it wasn’t until college that I succumbed to social pressure to drink heavily and use other drugs. As long as I had those pills, I could basically manage my emotions with impunity. It also provided a sort of social lubrication that helped me to feel a bit more out-going and less introverted.
Eventually, I found that the drugs were becoming less effective at keeping the underlying fear and anxiety at bay. Naturally, I progressed to using more, combining sedatives, alcohol, and opiates to suppress everything. But the bottled up emotion began finding a way out, often in very intoxicated states. I became very self-destructive and ended up on a path of self-annihilation for many years. My vision at the time was just to survive and to do whatever it took to get the next fix, the next temporary relief of symptoms, the next escape.
A lot of people who end up around ibogaine and plant medicines have had some experience with more conventional treatments first. Were you trying things at home, or in other programs? What did you take from that?
I went through the entire spectrum of available Twelve Step Facilitation (TSF) treatment several times here in the US. That included multiple in-patient residential stays, a prolonged psychiatric hospitalization, intensive outpatient groups, methadone maintenance, suboxone maintenance, partial hospitalization programs, self-help groups, private psychotherapy. I will say that all of the short-comings of my first treatment experiences were my own. I wasn’t ready to stop using and hadn’t had enough tangible consequences as a motivator.
During my last TSF treatment cycle in the mid 2000s, I had a breakthrough. Consequences had definitely started to mount. I had legal problems and a period of homelessness, and felt a real desperation for change and growth that I hadn’t experienced in my active drug use up to this point. After that I stayed clean for several years. I went to meetings, got a sponsor, worked the steps, got involved in NA service work, and started to act like a reasonably mature 30-something. My life improved significantly, beyond even my own expectations during this time. I even eventually saw some material success. I got married, helped raise a child, had a child of my own, had a reasonable job, and then later a partnership building what is now a successful laboratory business. I felt a genuine spiritual connection during that time.
The part of recovery that I missed out on was some of the deeper inner work. The lure of material success, relationships, and getting on with life free from addiction was a bit stronger than digging deep into my massive pile of unresolved trauma, resentment, and other unhealthy coping strategies. This was not the kind of work that self-help groups provided and I didn’t connect with a therapist who could help me through the resolution process. My sponsor helped me to see some of these patterns, but didn’t have the therapeutic accumen to guide me towards resolution of the core issues..
The wheels came off my recovery a few years later when I made the decision to treat a chronic pain condition with narcotics. I managed those medications properly for some period of time, but when I was suddenly faced with a traumatic, life-altering all of the collected issues that I hadn’t resolved were triggered. The panic attacks came back with a vengeance and I was in a considerable amount of physical pain. All of this proved to be too much to handle with the resources I was willing to consult at the time, and so began a several year descent back into the depths of addiction, emotional insanity, and spiritual bankruptcy. Fortunately, I managed to avoid catastrophic material and physical consequences.
At some point you found your way to ibogaine treatment. Did those other experiences prepare you at all for ibogaine? How did that experience unfold?
I had created a reference point for what life could be like, and that helped to motivate me to find my way back to that place. Ibogaine was one of the solutions I found and it seemed like it could work. I investigated the scientific findings around its use for opiate detoxification, and I had several conversations with Asha and Rocky Caravelli of Awakening in the Dream House who helped me make a plan to taper off of Suboxone and the other prescription drugs I was using.
I believe they were fairly skeptical that I would successfully taper off in the time-frame that I wanted to come for treatment. I was taking 16 mg/day of Subxone when I started the taper in October 2016, and between then and the end of December I had some considerable difficulties. Somehow I made it to Mexico at the end of January 2017, having been off Suboxone for several weeks and using only a very low dose of short-acting opiates to avoid full-blown withdrawals.
The most important things for me, going in, were firstly that, even though I knew ibogaine wouldn’t be a magic bullet, I genuinely believed that it was going to help free me from physical and psychological dependence to opiates and other drugs, and that it would be a foundation for a life transformation. Secondly, it was the amazingly supportive and professional care that I received from Asha and Rocky. They helped me through my preparatory phases with numerous phone consults, provided the encouragement and guidance I needed to make it to the treatment and get off of medications and drugs I was on, and provided a safe container for my process to unfold once I was in their care.
The last thing I say is what my ibogaine experience left me with, which included almost no opiate withdrawal symptoms, no cravings for drugs or intoxicants, a mental clarity I hadn’t experienced yet in my life, and a very clear message. The message I got was that I could not go straight back home, that my process was not finished. I listened to the message and Asha helped me to find Living Clean, which was an ibogaine aftercare program that would support the work I was supposed to continue.
I know that a lot of the team involved with Living Clean is who you now work with at Inscape Recovery. I think it was probably, if not the first, one of the first spaces dedicated to aftercare post-ibogaine. Was that helpful for you?
Yes, I believe that Living Clean was the only residential ibogaine aftercare program at the time and the forerunner of the entire idea. I’m very grateful because it provided exceptional and caring staff, engaging activities, and the perfect environment for my process after ibogaine to continue. I went there on a complete leap of faith, not really knowing anything about the program and with an extreme amount of resistance from my family.
The program offered me different things at different phases of my participation. For the first few weeks, it gave me a safe place to recover from and unpack my ibogaine experience. It also gave me an atypical, yet effective way to easily and painlessly finish a taper from a long-term benzodiazepine dependence. Later in the program, I was able to look deeper into my process and core issues through plant medicines ceremonies and had the support of staff and other peers to bring meaning and more importantly, effective change out of those experiences.
I was given the tools to develop a working mindfulness practice, an understanding of how to control the mind with the breath, a complete, cathartic release of years of anger and resentment I carried around, and a reconnection to nature and its healing power. At the end, I felt fortified, nourished, awakened, and ready to meet the challenges that I would face upon returning home. For me, it wasn’t just a transcendental experience, it was a transformative experience. Thankfully, I’ve been able to carry that experience and the knowledge I gained from it into an active program of recovery and transformation since I left.
This is what I hope for clients of Inscape, that they have a similar “transformational” process as I was afforded. I hope everyone gets to know their true selves in this way.
It sounds like that time was pretty critical for you in your recovery, and like it provided a good foundation. I know that part of the program at Inscape involves plant medicine, but there is a lot more involved. What other things have been helpful for you in your own process since then?
The ibogaine experience was a massive neurochemical reset, physical detoxifier, and presented the option to pursue a different life path. My work with other plant medicines since then has brought me to a deeper level in understanding my life experiences, unconscious patterns and how they frame my reality. Plants have provided me illumination and perspective, another direction. It has been up to me to walk the path and do the inner work to manifest a different life than I had been living, and plant medicine is only one aspect of what I feel like helps me today.
The foundational piece of my process has been maintaining a bioregenerative diet. I hold the view that most of the medicine we need can be obtained from the food we eat and water we drink. When our choices here are not in alignment with our bodies, I believe it is the root cause of most modern chronic illness, physical and mental. It’s simple enough. Eat good, you start to feel good. I also practice intermittent fasting. A few times per year I do a strong detox like sapo or a tobacco purge.
The message I got was that I could not go straight back home, that my process was not finished.
Exercise is also critical for me. There are literally volumes of reasons to have a regular exercise program. I don’t have a gym membership or anything like that, but I make time everyday to do something that is at least a moderately stimulating workout. Cardio exercise seems to have the most value for me.
I learned in treatment and continued afterwards a workable and effective meditation/mindfulness practice that I utilize daily. I have a Kundalini yoga kriya I learned in treatment that I use regularly to prepare for meditation. Additionally, I have found Wim Hof breathing and cold-exposure to be profoundly beneficial for a number of things particularly pain management and emotional and physical resilience. I work with these techniques several times per week, sometimes daily.
I also continue to receive weekly, on-going individual psychotherapeutic support. I participate in semi-annual recovery reinforcement retreats held at Inscape Recovery, which provides a week-long therapeutic deep dive back into my process and generally provides months of material to work with in psychotherapy. I attend in-person twelve-step meetings and recovery events on occasion; I don’t currently feel a need for these groups as a cornerstone practice of my recovery now, however, I don’t hesitate to go if I need a meeting and I know I’m always welcome back..
I’ve also supported my process by continuing to connect with nature. There is something fundamentally healing about spending quiet, undistracted time immersed in nature. Creating and playing music has had an important place throughout my life in helping to express myself and provide joy in my life. Addiction always found a way to displace this resource for me and it has been a powerful ally for me in my recovery.
In this whole process what has surprised you the most about yourself? Is there anything that has stood out as something important about recovery for you that you couldn’t really have pictured before going into it?
I think my open-mindedness and willingness to explore inner realms that push me outside of my comfort zone has been the most surprising to me. Personal growth is not a comfortable process. Staying comfortable is a comfortable process. Plant medicine work has not been comfortable or easy for me. I’ve had some really dark nights in those spaces, and have been pushed to the brink of my tolerance for discomfort. I think some of the extreme discomfort that I’ve experienced in these states has made it easier to manage my anxiety in normal consciousness. I feel this is the area that I didn’t excavate deeply enough in my previous recovery efforts, so I’m willing to push on despite the discomfort. The integration of this work and all of my other experiences gives me a sustainable platform for continued recovery today.
Something that was completely surprising to me and is very important to my recovery today is how my process helped to catalyze healing within my entire family unit. Shortly after I returned home from aftercare, my wife attended her own treatment and has been clean since. Our kids have been positively impacted by both our changes and the on-going therapeutic relationship we have with Dr. Lopez and Inscape Recovery. Damaged relationships within our extended families have been repaired or are at least works in progress. I’m grateful that the program was able to help with my family system issues as this is usually a difficult part of early recovery.
I’ve spoken with a few people who have been through Inscape and I think it has really helped them to have some time to do some important exploration and to learn some practices that have been helpful tools for them. What do you think is the most important thing that the program offers?
Yes, it is very encouraging to see the positive results that our participants are having. Some of the transformations have been miraculous to watch unfold. Even in the few cases where clients did not ultimately maintain abstinence from using or had a relapse, they are reporting significant changes compared to their use prior to treatment, including a willingness to continue engaging with addiction recovery support, and overall better quality of life than before treatment.
I think the most important part of the Inscape program is the space we provide for these transformations to occur. Behaviors that separate us from spirit, love, wellness and community are not natural. We help people to connect to their intrinsic, innate wisdom that dissolves all of those illusions of separation, and to find their own medicine within. I think that having a continuum of care, including the community that forms around our semi-annual recovery reinforcement retreats for our alumni, continued psychotherapeutic sessions with our therapists or partners we work with, and pre- and post-treatment counseling like you offer with Ceiba, all help shape the therapeutic container for this work and extend it beyond our residential program. This is an important piece for carrying and applying the work done in our residential setting out into other areas of life.