Documentary film-maker David Graham Scott, whose work includes the award-winning Detox or Die and Iboga Nights, which has had a huge impact on the harm-reduction and addiction communities, takes us on a tour of his work and the personal struggles that helped frame them. This article originally appeared in the Psychedelic Press journal Volume XVI.
It’s only recently that I’ve fully acknowledged the underlying issues that led me into the dark subculture of opiate use. A longstanding problem with depression and anxiety broke any confidence I had, and I felt myself becoming increasingly alienated from the world around me. After university I found myself completely at a loss as to what path to follow.
A meandering existence grounded in the dark days of Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain pushed me into a more radical frame of mind in which I sold myself into the punk ethic of ‘no future’, and revelled in the hopelessness. If you find yourself without a grounding in life, mixing with others in the same predicament, then it can be a real struggle to find meaning to your existence. Total boredom, that seems endless, really can be quite a frightening prospect. Looking for a way of filling the gap I started drug experimentation with psychedelics, hashish, tranquilizers and speed.
I never quite lost my creativity amongst all this and actually tried to develop projects around my psychoactive experiences. I had a good grounding in experimental cinema with my studies and from frequent visits to the NFT and ICA cinemas in London. Auto-Death 84 is basically a self-portrait. A portrait of my mind and day-to-day visions, be those real or imaginary. I think it quite accurately portrays what I was at the time. It begins and ends with my suicide by suffocation… essentially, the visions in between are my dying thoughts. These are my notes from Auto-Death 84:
When I moved to Edinburgh from the North Highlands I fully immersed myself in the junkie subculture; more as a nihilistic statement than a particular need or desire for heroin. Strangely, I had to work hard to get myself addicted and was more intrigued by the poetic dynamics of this dark underground than the actual reality. One particular opiate was very popular in Edinburgh in the 1980s. Diconal tablets would be thrown in the back end of your works (syringe), shaken up with hot water to dissolve them and then injected. The rush was like nothing I’d ever felt. Those initial highs were as close to a religious experience as I can imagine. Diconal when injected was so giddy that I would, in fact, describe the initial rush as psychedelic in nature.
Another experimental film I made in that period was Opus Morphia. This was a summation of the psychedelic opiate I previously mentioned and the visions I experienced. There are scenes of real addicts doing their routine activities (including my wife at the time, Denise) mixed into a colourful spectrum of scratched lines and animation. I tried to make a narrative structure and then decided to reassemble some episodes in a somewhat random fashion à la Burroughs and Gysin’s cut-up technique. A flawed work of art perhaps, but now it’s a unique inside visit to the era of Trainspotting!
Notes from Opus Morphia:
An experimental project made on Super8 film in 1986 with my then wife Denise. It was intended as a dark story of love for junk superseding all other forms of that emotion. I constructed a narrative then deconstructed it in a cut-up Burroughs fashion. Made in Edinburgh and featuring real addicts doing real drugs. Various scenes have been used in several of my other documentaries. Soundtrack created especially for the film by Andi Vincent.
For a good number of years I actually stabilised on the methadone programme and lived a relatively normal and productive existence. The darkness within me never quite dissipated though and I returned to morbid subject matters with my first serious documentary, Hanging with Frank (1996). All my films are insights into my obsessions, desires, my likes and dislikes. Every major character I’ve filmed I have developed a close relationship with, and parts of them are also parts of me. This has continued right up to the present day with my latest documentary The End of the Game (working title), about an old colonial going on his last big game hunt. I may be an animal loving vegan but I cannot deny that something excites me in the midst of the hunt, even though I use a camera and not a gun.
The methadone programme is a reasonably good effort to try and bring some sense of stability into an often chaotic lifestyle. It brings the addict into the realm of harm-reduction and all its associated health professionals. The problem is that many methadone users find it very difficult to quit the substitute opioid. After many years parked up on methadone I sought for a way out of it, without the experience of hellish withdrawal that can go on for weeks.
In 2000 my brother sent me some literature he’d come across in New York where he lives. It was about a bizarre African plant root called Iboga tabernanthe that was used for shamanic purposes by initiates within the Bwiti religion. It was oddly found to reduce withdrawal symptoms in addicts and an underground network of providers had started up. There were two forms of the substance mainly used by these providers; a more raw form of the plant called iboga, and a refined psychoactive element of this called ibogaine.
I attended an ibogaine conference in London in 2001 and met a guy in London who was doing treatments. It was 2 years of decision-making before I finally committed to doing the treatment and I decided to make a film about it. I read that iboga (or ibogaine in its more refined form) can seriously diminish withdrawal after a 36 hour psychedelic trip. It works on the level of soul-searching journey (like weeks of psychotherapy in one night) and by physically interacting with the brain’s functioning to lessen withdrawal. It sounded like a Godsend and I just had to go for it. The downside was, there had been a few fatalities associated with ibogaine ingestion.
Being a documentary filmmaker with a few serious films under my belt I thought it was worth recording the experience. Perhaps a film could be built around the event; and that’s exactly what I did. The result was a great success and to this very day I get a great deal of feedback on the BBC broadcast and award-winning documentary, Detox or Die. It definitely made its mark on the world and will undoubtedly live on well beyond my finite existence. I have never before published my account of the ibogaine trip I had, but here are my notes:
My Ibogaine Experience (21-22 August 2003)
This is an account of my experiences of the drug ibogaine. At the time I was a long-term user of methadone linctus. I found it impossible to deal with the hellish withdrawal symptoms experienced in trying to come off it and I hoped that ibogaine might break my habit once and for all.
On the Thursday night I took a test dose of ibogaine hydrochloride. Edward (my guide) said it was roughly 200mg. After 35-40 mins I could feel the drug start to take effect. I looked at my hand and it seemed so primitive, perhaps Neanderthal. It felt like some form of anaesthesia and a distortion of sound and vision were noticed. What I do remember though was an intense connection to the old photographs and toys I’d brought (I’d thought a connection with my childhood would be healing). It was really a very emotional experience but I was apprehensive as regards taking the full dose the next day. I felt taking 7 or 8 times this dose could kill me but, according to my body weight, that’s what it was going to take to end my methadone addiction.
My withdrawal symptoms from methadone had however temporarily abated.
I prepared myself the next day for the experience. I was starting to get bad withdrawal from the methadone. I wore a white robe and painted myself ritualistically for the treatment. This was to be a statement of my methadone addiction; after all I’d been a ‘methadone ghost’ for so many years. As the face paint fell away over the next few hours the methadone addiction would also fade away. (This was also a tribute to the Bwiti cult of Gabon who use the drug in spiritual ceremonies.)
I took the ibogaine at 10:20am on the Friday. I took four capsules to begin with. The fifth I’d take later. After about 40 mins I felt a heavy emotional trauma come over me. I grew very apprehensive about the dose and feared that I may die. Edward reassured me. I lay down to let the ibogaine work. Light and sound were being affected. The yellow painted wall opposite me glowed with a burning intensity. I knew that this was going to be a strong experience. The noise of the underground trains became amplified into the sound of a thousand Nazi bombers. I felt the approach of something huge, something menacing perhaps. I called out Bwiti 3 times. The words appeared in my head in large green slimy letters. The first visions that I experienced when closing my eyes were yellow grids stretching into the empty darkness of space. These stellar grids then took me into another dark and ominous landscape with a particularly eerie resonance. A strange sound permeated the atmosphere… it was like a thousand million aircraft drifting overhead. The hum or resonance permeated the whole experience and I understood this to be an essential component of existence, a binding force that was always there, but that the ibogaine helped me recognise. I then felt I was on board a strange spacecraft viewing the landscape before me. Small portraits drifted by of myself as a child. They stopped when I contracted a hellish skin condition at age 17. This was where my development was seriously affected and I journeyed into heavy depression and low self-esteem.
Next a figure that had haunted me for years appeared. It was the Chinese torture victim from Georges Bataille’s Tears of Eros. This photograph of a young man being systematically sliced to pieces was the most disturbing image I’d ever seen. The text mentioned that a large dose of opium had been administered to the victim prior to the torture. A curiously beatified expression was on the guy’s face. In my trance state the figure flew towards me in an inset box. He was glowing silver, completely transcended from the torture he was undergoing. The beauty outweighed the horror. I realised then that I too had been a torture victim. I had been torturing myself with opiate addiction.
I then experienced a complete atomic breakdown. I was viewing myself at a molecular level. The molecules of my existence had information imprinted within. The information was all to do with evolution. I experienced life in the primordial swamp, viewing ancient life forms that I had once been. A cycle of death and rebirth appeared. A lizard popped out of a hole and jumped down another. Next an animal skull popped out of the first hole, went down the next, and the whole cycle continued with the lizard again.
These are the key moments of the experience. There’s a lot of it that I can’t recall. The intensity was often overwhelming and it was impossible to take on board all of the information. Ataxia hit me heavily and I found it impossible to walk without help. Jagged lines appeared around lights and the strange resonance permeated my head for a long time after the visions ended.
I was a little sick and went to bed. I didn’t feel great but it wasn’t withdrawal at least. I felt I was being cured of my addiction.
It took me about 3 days to start walking properly again. I did have residual withdrawal symptoms but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I’d say it cleared 85% of the rattling. There was no way I’d feel this good if I’d tried to come straight off methadone. I didn’t have much strength over the following 2 weeks but it’s gradually coming back. It’s now the 15th day since I used to take methadone and I feel really good. Ibogaine has ended my addiction.
Addenda: I’ve now gone almost 8 months without methadone and my life has completely altered. A voice spoke to me at the end of the treatment. I took it to be the God of Ibogaine. He told me I would be healed within the next few weeks and my life would change around (I had been dreadfully unhappy prior to taking the treatment) . I was, and I am a much happier person now. The anguish of depression has been vanquished… I am whole again! - David Graham Scott (2004)
I have to admit that my closing statement about my depression being completely lifted turned out to be untrue in the long run. While I do firmly believe that psychedelics can be beneficial in the treatment of mental health and addiction issues I think they need to be used in conjunction with specialist psychotherapy if serious long-term change is expected.
With the success of Detox or Die and the great deal of positive testimonials I received from addicts who had been ‘saved’ by taking the same path, I decided it was time to make a follow-up film. This was the genesis of Iboga Nights. The film recaps the major events of Detox or Die so that it can be viewed as a standalone documentary without actually viewing the original film. I’d obviously recommend that one should look at the prequel film if possible. It’s freely available to watch on the internet (links at the end of this article).
I had received so many positive testimonials from long-suffering addicts who had managed to quit their drug habit by taking iboga/ibogaine that I was incredibly moved that a simple documentary could have such incredible power. Coming close to 10 years after my treatment in 2003, I decided to embark on a journey to follow some individuals who intended to try the same detox route. I knew this would take some time to complete and it ended up being a three year journey, with a bizarre mix of highs and lows I had never expected at the outset. I started out with the idea of making a piece of propaganda to prove the true efficacy of iboga through the stories of the addicts I’d follow. Well, things didn’t always go as initially planned and there are stories that are quite shocking. I realised that my primary function is as a documentary filmmaker, a teller of truths as I experience them, and not as an iboga propagandist.
One of the main subjects we encounter is an incredibly eccentric chap from Notting Hill in London, Mickey Waldorf. I took a great shine to Mickey and saw him as a kindred soul in many ways. He talked about how iboga had changed his life for the better and how it had helped him quit using hard drugs for seven years. He had relapsed though, and mentioned that he was considering doing another treatment sometime in the future.
I really didn’t think it was a good idea for Mickey to do iboga again as his health wasn’t great and he was almost 60 years old. Iboga can slow the heart down and if there are any underlying health problems it can prove to be fatal. Unfortunately, this is what happened to Mickey just a few months after the film was completed. He had a heart attack soon after ingesting his initial dose of iboga. I cannot help but feel some sense of responsibility for this happening but I had no idea he’d gone to Spain to do his treatment. I’d have tried my best to talk him out of it.
I have also experienced stories of miraculous pain-free recoveries from drug addiction with the same substance. If anything, I’ve come to realise that this treatment provision must be done with every safeguard possible being put in place. Iboga is not a ‘cure for addiction’ but can certainly help in many cases. By showing both the good and bad side of iboga treatment I’ve steered clear of blatant propaganda and made it clear that preliminary health checks must be undertaken and the client very carefully monitored throughout proceedings. This is not a detox option one should take when alone. The risks are far too high.
I feel my time spent exploring drug subculture may be at an end. There is a more cynical type of documentary style that prevails on many TV channels, and empathy forms no part of it. I have no desire to sell-out to such blatant propaganda that seeks to humiliate and name-call. I have also found that I really need to move on from such subject matter if I’m to engage with a wider audience. My current project has nothing to do with drug issues and as I mentioned above, is about my journey to Africa with an old colonial big game hunter. The bizarre thing being, I’m a vegan!
An extensive interview with David is available here: