Shedding the Layers by Mark Flaherty
Originally published in 2012 ‘Shedding the Layers: How Ayahuasca Saved More than My Skin’ by Mark Flaherty is an autobiographical account of the author’s efforts to cure himself of severe eczema by undergoing a series of ayahuasca sessions in Peru.
Mark Flaherty suffered a severe case of eczema, which affected large areas of his skin and Western science failed to bring the condition under control. This resulted in a great deal of pain, the erosion of his self-esteem and disenchantment with life. “While my body cracks and weeps, my mind swells with fear, anger and sadness. I hate my body, and I hate my life with a violence that frightens me” (Flaherty 2012, 50). In a narrative that jumps back and forth between Peru and England, and slides between different stages of Flaherty’s life, the book brings to life a slow journey of self-realisation with the hallucinogenic, South American brew, ayahuasca.
From the very beginning of the book, when Flaherty is listening to a shaman named Hamilton recount his own spiritual story, there is an emphasis on two poles; restriction and release. “The shaman told him that he had two options: forget anything ever happened and go back to his old life, or give himself over and find out what it all meant” (Flaherty 2012, 16). The arc of the book follows a movement from restriction, in his outlook and habits, to the release allowed by love and happiness. As Hamilton tells the initially sceptical Flaherty: “You have a very narrow view of reality” (Flaherty 2012, 20). This restricted reality is prized apart by the exoticism of Peru and the Other world of ayahuasca, in preparation for a release and a new way-of-being in England.
A number of elements, or layers, are drawn out that represent the restrictions that had come to define Flaherty as physically ailed and unconfident. For instance, one root of restriction is placed in an LSD trip he had taken in Zambia in which he had stepped on a bewitched trinket. Ever since, he had purportedly harboured a spirit of ill-will and ayahuasca not only demonstrated this occurrence but led to a way of freeing himself from its yoke. However, more often than not after realisations, Flaherty’s eczema would return with a vengeance. As the story progresses, the layers are textually released through their identification, realisation and integration. On a diet of sanango, the snake becomes an ideal metaphor for shedding:
Alberto tells me that the sanango will cause my skin to peel. In snake-like fashion, I shed my entire body, from scalp to toes. Whereas the snake emerges reborn with a bright new layer, my skin continues to peel, again and again, becoming more tender and raw. It’s as though my entire self is being stripped away, leaving nothing but an exposed, hateful core (Flaherty 2012, 77)
Today, there is a sense of growing movement in the spread of ayahuasca; long tendrils increasingly reaching out and touching Western society in a myriad of shamanic and syncretic forms. This is patterned within the narrative. For instance, an article written by a former guest with Hamilton at Blue Morpho, who was cured, in five sessions, of acute depression and suicidal ideation, is mentioned within the narrative. There are the globe-trotting Western ayahuasca participants. And, moreover, Flaherty’s repeated flights between South America and England makes the world feel all the more smaller and accessible. One has the sense, when reading Shedding the Layers, that a powerful plant is not so far away on our doorstep; restricted, yet awaiting full release.