I had never heard of the drug ayahuasca until this week. I knew nothing about its origins or why people take it. But after reading Vox writer Sean Illing’s first person essay about the drug’s impact on him during a retreat in Costa Rica I understand more of what it’s like to be in his shoes. After seeing the illustrations that accompanied his story, I could almost feel what it was like to be in his shoes.
The psychedelic drug was originally concocted in Colombia and Peru and is used for its psychological healing powers. It turned Illing’s life upside down and he wanted it to, it’s the entire reason he went on the retreat.
“…dissolving the wall between my self and the world. I also stared into what I can only describe as the world’s most honest mirror.”
“Ayahuasca exposes the gap between who you think you are and who you actually are. In my case, the gap was immense, and the pain of seeing it for the first time was practically unbearable.”
This story drew me in through its use of graphic design to create still and moving illustrations of the writer. (Special shoutout to the photographer Kainaz Amaria and illustrator Javier Zarracina)
- Illustrative: These photos don’t just accompany the story, they also tell the story. Because Illing is telling his narrative and helping create the pictures that accompany it, you can be certain that these images are the best way to visually represent what taking the drug Ayahuasca did to his psyche. He does an incredible job of expressing how he felt with words but the images bring the issue close to home (in fact right in front of your face). The above gif of Illing looking down while clouds of darkness and light fill his head precedes the section of the story about his first night at the Rythmia retreat. The images help readers see how Illing reacted to the drug, at first contemplating who he wanted to be and how the drug would help him realize it, and then his brain getting clouded with quickly changing thoughts.
“About 30 minutes pass, and I start to feel … strange. I can see colors, shapes, and shifting shadows on the wall. I’m nervous that something is about to happen, so I go outside and gather myself. I settle in one of the hammocks and stare at the stars.
Suddenly the stars start to spin in a clockwise direction. Then a little faster. Then, for reasons that escape me, I start yelling at the moon, saying over and over again, “Is there anyone up there? Is each other all we have?” (Don’t ask me why I did this.)
So it goes, for what feels like an hour or two. I keep hurling those two questions at the heavens but get no answers, no insights, just silence and spinning.”
- Story enhancement: The Rythmia retreat Illing went to sounds like one of those “you just had to be there” stories. Like a very strange out of this world experience but the photos help enhance the strangeness. This blurred photo of him with snakes coming out of his mouth precedes the section titled “Night 2: Don’t Fight the Medicine.” It conveys the strange experience he had on the second night of the retreat, when everyone was purging all the negativity out of their systems, when he hallucinated another participant throwing up snakes into his mouth. Reading that line was one thing but seeing this image, along with the yearning in Illing’s eyes, shows just how confused he was about who he had become. Illing recounts that while he can’t explain most of what he saw that night it was the most authentic experience of his life, and through this illustration we get a glimpse into that experience.
All of a sudden, Andrea has 40 or 50 yellow snakes gushing out of her mouth and into mine. And then I’m immediately racked with the worst nausea I’ve ever experienced. First I curl up in the fetal position and then I spring onto all fours and try to puke. But I can’t get it out. I stay on my knees for another five or 10 minutes waiting for something to happen. Nothing.
Then I lie back down, roll onto my left shoulder, and am flooded with a resounding message for the rest of the night: It’s not about you! Andrea’s pain and suffering — the snakes — had passed into me, and that was the whole point.
For the rest of the night, maybe another three hours or so, I lie there thinking about how selfish I often am, and about the symbolism of the snakes. The feeling was so powerful that I started to cry. (Side note: People cry a lot on ayahuasca.)
- This image appears above the “Night 3: making love to my wife for the first time — again” section. In the third ceremony of the retreat Illing finally experiences what he’s been waiting for: a confrontation of his past. On his third trip with the drug he sees his and his wife’s relationship and hyper analyzes every moment that he could’ve been better to her. The jumbled up image of him facing several different directions above a labyrinth conveys his yearning to go back and pick different paths.
I start to see every moment of our relationship in which she reached out to me and I missed it. I see her asking me to go to a meditation class, and I decline. I see her pause to ask me to connect at the peak of a mountain after a long hike in Boulder, Colorado, and I shrug it off. I see her ask me to go dancing at a show near our apartment, and I watch myself mindlessly decline.
I see myself stuck in my own head, my own thoughts, my own impulses. And I see the disappointment on her face. I see her see me miss an opportunity to reconnect.
Then I relive all those moments again, and this time I see myself do or say what I should have done or said. And I see the joy on her face. I see it so clearly that it hurts. I see how much time I wasted, how much love I withheld.
I’m crying again, this time even louder, and the smile on my face is so big that my jaw hurt the next day. And I think about how I’m going to look at my wife when I get back home, and how she’ll know I’m seeing her — really seeing her — for the first time all over again.
Night 4: the most honest mirror you’ll ever see
I cared too much about what other people thought.
This story doesn’t include any actual photographs from the retreat, but instead photos that have been modified by illustrations. I would argue these illustrations would help the reader connect more to the subject than actual photographs would, especially since Illing probably partnered with the illustrator and explained all of his feelings after the retreat.
This story, on the other hand, about Trump voters who actually believe in universal healthcare could’ve benefitted from portraits of each of the voters who were interviewed.
The writer essentially had a round table discussion with a handful of voters, and names each of them in the piece, but photos of each person would’ve been more impactful. It would help us understand that yes these people are real and this what they think.
Vox’s written explainer stories don’t often have a lot of visuals, occasionally there are charts and graphs. But their video section is informative and visually pleasing. They make explainer videos about everything you may want to: how to understand a new tax bill, as represented by cereal, where babies in movies come from and why there are more concussions in women’s ice hockey than in football. The videos are edited to be engaging with their graphics. Vox should definitely try to bring more of those elements to their written stories.
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