The Altered Universe of Iboga: An interview with David Graham Scott
In 2003, Glasgow based documentary filmmaker David Graham Scott underwent ibogaine treatment for his long-term opiate addiction. After a single session at a London clinic, the director managed to put an end to his drug dependency. The experience is documented in his autobiographical 2004 film ‘Detox or Die’. This year, Scott returns with a follow-up. Although his new film ‘Iboga Nights’ shows that iboga is far from a magic bullet for treating addiction, it does show that the psychedelic still has a great potential of becoming an acknowledged addiction interrupter.
During the three years it took to make the film, David Graham Scott followed various opiate addicts and iboga providers. He travelled to the Netherlands to witness treatments conducted by an experienced iboga therapist, one of which had a very dramatic outcome, as well as stepping in as a provider for a young musician named Sid during his treatment in his home in London. Besides conceiving the idea for the documentary, Scott also acted as cameraman, director and producer. “As this one-man outfit I was able to create very intimate portraits of each individual within the film. That level of emotional involvement can seriously backfire at times though. It can lead me into areas I never envisaged I’d go to and there can be serious repercussions from this approach,” says David.
“Some of the individuals who were initially happy to contribute to the film got cold-feet later on and wanted to withdraw from the project. Without wanting to sound ruthless regarding this matter I have on occasion included their contribution when it has been necessary for the narrative flow of the film. I think this is an issue that every serious documentary filmmaker has to wrangle with until they come to a definite conclusion as to what is pertinent to the film and to the greater good of the viewing public. In making a serious polemic statement to the world it’s inevitable that some toes are trod upon,” he continued. “I do, however, seek to allay the pressure of this toe-stepping by creating sympathetic character portraits. Ultimately, I have to say that I do care for the protagonists within these dystopian worlds I dive into. It’s not an easy existence for many of them and since I’ve been there myself I can and do sympathise with their plight.”
Ever since the 1960s, set and setting are viewed as key factors when it comes to psychedelics. Yet many people who undergo ibogaine treatment are in very bad shape both physically and mentally. Also instead of tripping in an exotic place in nature, or in a psychedelically decorated room with incense in the air and psychedelic music on the hi-fi, most trips in Iboga Nights take place in rather bleak settings.
What role does the notion of set and setting play when it comes to iboga treatments?
“The iboga experience is a very inwardly driven one. That is to say that external stimuli are of lesser importance than with other psychedelic drugs. I think it has been specifically designated as an oneiric experience, rather like a dream that happens while one is wide awake,” says David.
“I did feel there were a few aural stimuli that had an effect upon me however. The sounds of aircraft flying over the house and the underground trains rumbling way below became subtly embedded within the ibogaine visions I had. These visions were very much internalised experiences and it was possible to look around and clearly see I was in a room with the provider sitting beside me. Upon closing the eyelids I was immediately immersed within an altered universe of coded information and distant memories which suddenly appeared with staggering clarity,” he says.
“I would therefore conclude that the iboga trip is best experienced in a dimly lit room with some meditative rhythms played to accentuate the dreams. I may explore this at a later date and when I feel the time is right to dive into that altered state once again. Perhaps with further experience I may unlock some of the complex codes and information I briefly tapped into.”
Was the fear you were experiencing at the start of your ibogaine treatment existential in an ego-death kind of way, or were you mostly concerned with your physical health?
“I would say that both of those issues came into play when I got ‘the fear’ in the moments between ingestion and the drug taking effect. Strangely enough, and I think this may be due to the ibogaine lowering my heart rate, I started to feel much calmer when the psychedelic effects began. I was definitely fearful with regard to the possibility of my heart failing. That fear had been built up in the months prior to the treatment and some of the lurid press articles which exclaimed headings like ‘Filmmaker May Film His Own Death’. There is no doubt that had a profound effect upon me even though I’d dismissed it as press sensationalism,” says David.
“The fear of ego destruction was definitely present through those moments too. Where was I going with this? What would I learn about myself that could be potentially very shocking? Would I survive the total annihilation of my identity and the journey into uncharted realms? I had taken a test dose of the drug on the night before the full treatment and that in itself was quite a full-on experience I thought. Just how on earth would I survive a dose that was 15 times the strength? These questions were running madly through my head through those desperate minutes prior to the start of my ibogaine trip.”
Iboga has a special standing in the Bwiti culture of West Central Africa where tribes such as the Fang ingest the root bark of the plant during initiation rites and healing ceremonies. In the Western world, the drug is mostly used for treating opiate addiction. However, iboga is also seen by psychonauts as a powerful entheogen, and occasionally it is discussed in books on psychedelics. For instance, the American journalist and writer Daniel Pinchbeck opens his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head with a trip report describing his experience of taking iboga in a Bwiti ceremony in Gabon.
The drug’s property as an addiction interrupter was discovered by accident in the early 1960s by a 19-year-old heroin addict called Howard Lotsof. After taking iboga, Lotsof realised he felt no urge to resume his opiate intake after the trip. Today, ibogaine clinics can be found in many places around the world. After a successful treatment a person with a drug dependency will feel no withdrawal symptoms. Needless to say, some people may see iboga as a miraculous substance. But it should be said that not every treatment is effective. In addition, ibogaine therapy is shrouded with controversy. As David Graham Scott points out in the documentary, iboga has been linked to several deaths. An effect of taking the drug is a slowed down heart rate – which incidentally is also an effect of taking opiates – and people with a heart condition should have second thoughts before going through a full-on ibogaine treatment. Still, as seen in Iboga Nights, even a very small dose may have a positive effect when it comes to ending addiction.
Could microdosing be an alternative for people with poor health who are not fit enough to go through the full-on experience?
“That is a very good question and I have found many providers going down this route. I think that Ian, in Iboga Nights, might have benefited from this approach as his health wasn’t the greatest. Many long-term users are well into middle-age now and more often than not have health problems related to this. I think a full-on ibogaine dose is too much for many of these individuals. The risk of a fatality is too great, especially since liver and heart damage is very likely to exist within this group,” he says.
“Indeed, in Iboga Nights, I mention the fact that I too have used small doses of iboga to overcome a couple of occasions when I had minor relapses. I found the iboga had the power to give me the strength and necessary insight to my behaviour and find positive ways to move forward in life without going back into heavy addiction. Iboga not only quells the vile withdrawal from opiates but endows the user with strong psychological perspectives into the nature of their existence and how to deal with the problems encountered.”
Interestingly, in addition to the full-on doses the Fang tribe also take small quantities of iboga. Writing about the drug in his 1992 book Food of the Gods Terence McKenna remarked that, “According to the Fang, many grams of this root material must be eaten in order to open ‘one’s head.’ Lesser amounts are then effective for the remainder of a person’s life” (McKenna 1992, 36).
What safety measures need to be taken in order to obtain a completely safe treatment?
“I did a lot of work on myself to improve my health prior to the ibogaine detox. I took various health supplements to strengthen my liver and heart and did a daily regime of vegetable and fruit juicing. I also did a daily exercise regime in the gym and was probably the fittest I’d ever been in my life! I recommend that others do the same in preparation to this gruelling detox,” says David.
“To negate these health risks as much as possible it’s advisable to get a full health check prior to the detox and look for a provider who has enough medical knowledge to help if cardiac problems arise. Some providers even have an experienced medic present throughout the length of the treatment. Of course, with these added components such treatment sessions are inevitably much more expensive and that can be very off-putting for individuals who have very little spare cash to begin with.”
Apart from giving up opiates, did your ibogaine experience make you alter anything else in your life?
“This is a question that is often asked by people seeking long-term enlightenment from an iboga or ibogaine experience. I have to be brutally frank about this and tell you that I’ve felt no massive turnaround in my life after the trip. Obviously the experience of making the associated documentary and the vast amount of feedback I’ve received from Detox or Die has had a very profound effect upon me. Perhaps we could say that this, in itself, is due to the ibogaine trip and information that was subtly taken on board over the years afterwards. There certainly was a very complex series of scenarios that I experienced during the trip and I have tried to describe those in Iboga Nights and to a lesser extent in Detox or Die. Is that information too much to take on board? Perhaps it takes more regular experience with iboga to clearly determine the effect it has on your life,” he concludes. “I feel that I have much more to learn from this strange exotic plant root.”
Iboga Nights is due to screen at the Newport Beach Film Festival on 28 April and 1 May 2014. Visit the film’s website at http://iboganights.co.uk/