Erika Wennerstrom Shares Her Ayahuasca Experience

Musician looks for a new approach to treating her depression.

Posted Apr 17, 2018

“See my bones were weak

And the fibers that hold them together

Twisted through time like the branches on a tree

Beginning to know myself in a way I’ve never known

Getting to be myself in a way I’ve never shown”

From “Gravity” by Erika Wennerstrom

Depression is now considered by the World Health Organization to be the leading cause of disability worldwide. Not only is depression common, with over 300 million people afflicted, and often chronic, but depressed individuals also often suffer from symptoms such as loss of pleasure, low energy, poor concentration and sleep disturbance that makes work and social relationships extremely difficult.

One of the things that makes depression so insidious is that while other medical conditions such as diabetes or coronary heart disease have clear and identifiable causes, at this point in time, we cannot definitively tell people who have depression why they suffer. There are a range of factors that may contribute to a depressive episode, ranging from genetic predisposition to environmental stressors to negative thinking. So, people are often left to hypothesize as to the root of their depression and try different treatments based on their specific theory.

Musician Erika Wennerstrom has suffered from depression and experienced the frustration that many depressed individuals feel—simply not knowing why.

“I think that’s the part that gets confusing. A lot of times people don’t understand why they get depressed. I mean I never did. I think that’s why it’s so difficult at times,” Wennerstrom told me. “I think that’s been my challenge forever.

“You can’t fix a problem that you don’t understand.”

Wennerstrom is a founding member and singer-songwriter of the band Heartless Bastards. Pitchfork described her singing as “powerhouse vocals that electrify a crowd.” And now Wennerstrom has gone solo, with her new album Sweet Unknown, an album Rolling Stone described as a “new album to stream now … spacious, starlit collection that showcases her wail over sprawling Americana.” In this album, Wennerstrom describes her journey of self-discovery in an attempt to better understand her struggles and cope with depression.

Psychotherapy, including behavioral and interpersonal forms of therapy, has been found to be helpful for many people in treating depression. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Wennerstrom, who found that her therapeutic experience didn’t get to the heart of the matter regarding her depression. Rather, she felt that she became comfortable avoiding her experience.

“I’ve done therapy before. I felt like some of my thoughts were so deep within that you can’t fix something if you don’t know what’s wrong. And I think I could have gone for a long time – I don’t know maybe I hadn’t found the right therapist,” Wennerstrom explained. “I just avoided. I feel like it’s not easy to get into the comfort of being uncomfortable. You become so adapted to who you are and how you live your life, and the idea of changing something up can be frightening even if it’s for the prospect of a better future.”

And while for many people, healthier eating and exercise can improve mood, Wennerstrom found that these remedies were not effective for her. “I realized I was still depressed,” she said. “And I’m like god I’m doing all this stuff and I’m eating healthy and I’m exercising and being healthy.

“Why am I still depressed?”

One of the methods Wennerstrom has used to help better understand herself and her depression is ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a psychedelic drug that is often used in conjunction with shamanic ceremonies and is currently being studied to evaluate its potential therapeutic benefits for mental health issues such as depression and alcoholism.

Wennerstrom described attending three ayahuasca retreats in which she and a group of people took ayahuasca and were directed by a shaman. She describes each experience as different and ultimately feels that she had a literal purging of some of the negative feelings with which she has struggled.

“But the third one I finally let go. Sometimes you can purge—sometimes it’s crying, sometimes it’s vomiting. I did vomit the third time, but it was the best feeling,” she recalled. “Every time I did it I felt like I was letting go of something negative in my life that had been within me.”

Wennerstrom feels that in part through her experience with ayahuasca, she has arrived at several realizations that now guide her in her coping with depression. First, Wennerstrom feels that she was extremely hard on herself, pushing to achieve an arbitrary standard.

“I think that I’ve always driven myself. I mean I wanted to succeed and do well in whatever societal standard … Something that has helped me is not thinking in parameters. I feel like we create labels. Like I have more money or I’m more educated or I am this race or this religion or I am from this country that’s not a shithole,” Wennerstrom described. “I’m always pushing myself to grow. But I think there’s always a fine line between trying to grow and also being hard on yourself. And I think learning that delicate balance is a real challenge. I think I had this realization that growing in any sort of external way, like materially or society’s idea of success is … it just never stops.

“Where is the point where I can feel satisfied?”

One of the parameters that Wennerstrom had adopted was feeling that she could not consider a solo career because of her loyalty to her band Heartless Bastards. But feeling empowered to take a break from the band and pursue a solo album was freeing for Wennerstrom both personally and creatively.

“I think at times I can think a little bit too much about others. An important lesson is that I need to put myself first. And I think that’s important for everybody. Then you bring your best self. When the band wanted a break, which was partway through touring for our last album, I realized that a huge weight was lifted that I didn’t even understand that I had,” she said. “I didn’t realize that I had an internal pressure to keep things going because it consistently employs people. So when everybody wanted a break it was just a huge thing for me. I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this?’ And then I had a huge creative opening. I think I’ve spent a lot of time working internally. It’s learning to be kinder to myself—those positive things.”

More, Wennerstrom began to understand that what she considered to be a “healthy” approach to her life was in fact an extension of the harsh approach she took towards herself, and therefore ultimately did not improve her mood. “One thing I realized with depression is … we can seek to try to fill that void ... I think you can be a shopaholic, you can be a hoarder, you can have food disorders, you can over exercise,” she explained. “I realized I was shifting from one thing to the next. And even things that I used to associate with being really healthy like exercise and diet, I was overdoing. I was trying too hard to control my environment. I don’t think people associate shopaholics … or over exercise as just another example of not loving yourself. The more I realized that, the healthier in some ways I got.”

Rather than her previous regimen of intense exercise, Wennerstrom has shifted to a regimen of physical therapy. She feels that she has experienced chronic physical pain as a result not only of her career as a musician but also because of her depression.

“I went to physical therapy and realized how I carry myself had a lot to do with how I felt inside. I mean granted part of it is the guitar too,” she said. “But I’ve noticed that a lot of my physical pain—as I’ve been working on myself internally—it’s been this dual process of working on my physical therapy and internally.

“They’re both seeming to get better at the same time.”

Finally, as Wennerstrom has worked to become kinder to herself, she has also developed more empathy for others. She described how her first experience with Ayahuasca had opened her up to being more understanding of others.

“I think depression happens a lot because we isolate ourselves. We tell ourselves that this thing I’m going through, I’m alone in. And people might not understand. My first experience walked me through my life. And it kind of helped me think about everyone that’s been in my life—even people who have been negative,” Wennerstrom described. “I’ve realized that when people try to make someone feel bad that’s just a reflection of what’s going on inside of them. And it’s given me a lot of compassion for somebody that approaches me in a really negative way.

“We’re all connected. That’s been huge for me.”

Wennerstrom feels that her album is one step in her growth process. Through ayahuasca, she feels that she has been able to step out of her comfort zone to examine her life from a different perspective. And whether or not ayahuasca is the right path for a given individual, she encourages others to take risks to explore their issues.

“I think a message of the album is my growth. I think for myself, I was becoming more healthy and more present. But when you are more present, you do have to face yourself. And I think we create all of these distractions to not have to face ourselves,” Wennerstrom explained. “And my experiences with ayahuasca allowed me to step outside of myself. It’s like when you create new space within yourself it’s kind of frightening. It means you let something go. It’s like the sweet unknown—you don’t know what you’re going to get.

“It’s taking a chance for a better life.”