Tripping out as therapy
Real men talk
about their feelings
All of a sudden, Groningen psychology student Ben Storbeck had become a drug dealer.
It was October 1, 2019, and the Supreme Court of the Netherlands had definitively banned ayahuasca. Earlier that year, two people had died after drinking the hallucinogenic tea. The government decided it was too dangerous. Ben is frustrated. ‘A few idiots abused the system, abused the drug, and that led to people dying’, he says.
Ben had just finished his training to become an ayahuasca coach and he is convinced he can use it to do good. To help people with their problems. Especially men, since they can have such a hard time expressing their feelings.
The bitter, red tea made from lianas and leaves from the Amazon puts you in direct touch with your soul, he says. ‘I swear, everyone on the planet should try ayahuasca at least once.’
Sweating and puking
Not as a party drug, because its effects are no fun: most people feel sick and start heavily sweating and puking. But they also saw images, symbols, and memories. Traumas and insecurities also tend to surface. A trip can easily last half a day to a day, says Ben, so it’s important that people are properly supervised.
Everyone should try ayahuasca at least once
With the shamans in South America, where the drug has been used for thousands of years, the ritual can last even longer. In the weeks leading up to the final ceremony, the shaman will guide you through a diet to let you get slowly accustomed to the concoction.
But people in the Western world don’t have time for that, says Ben. ‘We just want a pill and a quick solution.’ That’s why people have such a strong physical reaction to the substance. Ben’s body reacts even before he takes it. ‘It knows what’s coming.’ Because the tea kind of smells like coffee that’s gone cold, his body responds to that smell, as well. ‘I’ll get nauseated.’
A few years ago, Maastricht University researched whether these hallucinations are useful. People who used ayahuasca experienced less anxiety afterwards, for up to four weeks. That’s something Ben could use in his work with unhappy men.
A few years ago, he was an unhappy man himself. His relationship had ended, and he was terrified of approaching women. What was wrong with him? Surely he wasn’t a nerd like the guys in the lab where he did his biochemistry research?
Finally, after reading No More Mr. Nice Guy by Robert Glover, an American psychologist who teaches men how to be more attractive to women, he decided he was, indeed, too nice. Glover doesn’t teach men to dress differently, get ripped, or try to get women with gross pick-up lines, but through reassessing their manliness.
Ben was hooked. He joined a men’s group in Leipzig, where he lived at the time, became a personal trainer, became head of the men’s group, quit the lab, and started a master track in Amsterdam in neurosciences so he could learn to understand how men’s brains worked.
That’s where he first discovered ayahuasca. ‘It was an insane experience’, says Ben. His first trip lasted ‘just’ three hours, he says, but his coach convinced him to dig deeper into his feelings. He took another dose and spent four more hours tripping out. While he won’t say anything about the insights it gave him, since ‘that’s too personal’, he decided a week later to become an ayahuasca coach himself.
Since then, he’s used the drug approximately twenty times. As a biochemist, he’s fascinated by what the plant mixture does to the brain. And, as he explains, it was also useful for his work with men and the kind of help they need.
Men have to be leaders, breadwinners, and attractive to boot
‘Men are still having a hard time going to the doctor to talk about their depression or burnout.’ He points out the statistics, which show that women suffer more from depression than men do. However, men commit suicide more often. Twice as often, even.
Saying something is wrong isn’t considered manly, he lectures. ‘Now more than ever, men identify with the values of a “strong man”. They have to be manly, a leader, a breadwinner, attractive, eloquent, etcetera, etcetera.’
Men also tend to compare themselves to others too much, says Ben. That’s a natural way of learning, sure, but because of the internet, it’s now easier than ever to compare yourself with everyone else in the world, including the handsomest, richest, smartest men on earth. ‘One of the first things I tell them is to get off social media or use it as little as possible.’
Talking about your problems helps, says Ben, but not when women are around. First of all: ‘I don’t understand women’, he says. But more importantly: Most men shut down in the presence of women, he explains, because that’s exactly their problem.
‘I work with men who feel they’re not manly enough. They’ve been taught all these different values and they’re confused. Women want them to be sensitive, but then there are all these standards for manliness. They’re caught in the middle. They don’t know who they are anymore.’
Men and women simply are different, and we shouldn’t pretend they aren’t, he says. ‘We’re built differently, we have different values and different hormones.’
Men and women are built differently
Don’t misunderstand him, he doesn’t have any outdated opinions on gay or transgender people, he says. ‘I’m not some medieval peasant.’ But he does think it’s good to choose. ‘Find the real man inside yourself and work towards that. I know it’s risky, but I do think it’s ultimately healthy to put yourself in a certain category and actively work on that.’
Real men know what they want, can express their feelings, and fearlessly approach women. Ben found the real man inside himself with the help of ayahuasca. He says it’s because it makes it easier to get to the core of your being, your feelings, who you really are.
However, the ban put an end to his sessions, which he’d been organising once or twice a week. Sure, he could have continued them illegally. But he didn’t like the energy of the underground ayahuasca scene. He also didn’t want to move to a country where the drug was still legal: he’d made a life for himself here. Psychedelic mushrooms or other plant-based drugs aren’t nearly strong enough. So what’s left? ‘A decade of therapy’, says Ben, laughing.
So he changed course once again: he moved to Groningen, started studying psychology, and founded a new men’s group: Project Urkraft. The group currently consists of just ten or so fellow students, but his goal is to make it the same size as the one he had in Amsterdam, with around a hundred members ranging in age. Once he’s graduated, he wants to help men who are officially depressed who’ve been referred to him.
But he’ll never use ayahuasca as a therapeutic drug again.