Chewing Coca Leaves – A Reservation for Relapse

I’m back from my trip to Peru. I was excited about going on this trip as it was going to be the first trip I’ve taken with a group. I usually travel alone, but this time I wanted to try something different. Prior to my trip I talked to several people about going to Peru especially Machu Picchu. Everyone I talked to had a positive experience there and gave me a glowing report of the place, so I was ready.

“Recovered” Alcoholic and Sober Support Drinks Kombucha and Coca Tea

One person in particular I talked to told me that he had just came from the trip and said that it was great. When I asked about the altitude he told me that he drank the coca tea to deal with this. I was concerned that this was a choice that he made because he had always presented that he was in recovery. He also provided support and services for those early in recovery. I asked him about relapse and if this was a relapse for him. He stated that it was not because his intentions were pure.

He went on to tell me that he also drinks Kombucha. He also said that he was aware that the drink contained trace amounts of alcohol and that he did not really care. He also said that he in fact drinks this drink in AA meetings. He then stated that people in recovery can get a bit fanatical about this stuff.  I let him know that I was no fanatic but was safe and practical when it came to my recovery. I felt annoyed by the “fanatical” comment along with being disappointed with his approach to the coca leaves and Kombucha. But, this did not deter me from my plan to reach Machu Picchu.

Are Coca leaves A Cure for Altitude Sickness? No Says This Recovering Addict

Two weeks later I was on a flight to Peru. I met up with my group and we stayed in Lima Peru the first night and then flew to Cusco the next day. This is the day the trouble started. I first got a headache.  I initially thought this was due to me not drinking coffee and that I would recover from this soon.

My first walk out in the town I was breathless finding it difficult to walk a block or so without being winded. I needed to rest every twenty steps.  I was now realizing that this was the altitude. At every hotel and every restaurant, I was offered the coca tea. I wondered if this would be a problem. Maybe I could have a cup or so and relieve this terrible feeling I was having. I told myself if it gets bad I’ll sneak a cup or two without telling anyone. I had already announced to everyone  that coca tea was not in my plan for this trip. Two of the people with me were in recovery and knew that I believed this was a relapse.

One Coca Leaf is Too Many and A Thousand is Never Enough

When we first landed in Cusco there was a big barrel of coca leave with a sign “ONLY TAKE THREE LEAVES”. All I thought of was “one is too many and a thousand is never enough”. I know if I tried these leaves I could be on the next episode of “Locked Up Abroad”. Given my history with that particular leaf I stood clear. The next morning, we were on to our hike. I was not able to sleep that night do to the altitude, but I got up that morning met the group and we were off to the trail.

Now as you all know I am a regular participant in Crossfit and am in good shape (for the shape i’m in). I found out with altitude sickness that makes no difference. The better shape you are in the worst off it can be due to the need for more oxygen and that was what I was lacking.  I climbed hill after hill the trek was physically easy. I struggled with the breathlessness, headache, toothaches. I just could not keep up with my group.  We must have hiked 10 miles and 11,000 feet up to our camp site.

I know that I could do no more. I retired early only to be unable to sleep the second night. That morning I gave up. I had to leave and get back to the Hilton. This mountain and altitude combination did not work for me. I was able to leave the group and take the 3-hr. ride back to my hotel. I posted this experience on my Facebook page.

Advice From Professionals Could Have Lead Me To Relapse

The response I got from a social worker was to take the coca tea. This was followed by a nurse who claims to be in recovery saying that the coca would never show on a urine, so I’d be safe. Really? This is the response I get from people in and around recovery? These are people who are in the position to help those in recovery, imagine if I was new in recovery?

What would I have done? I know I would have rationalized and justified this and may not be here to tell the story.  It is clear to me that not everyone understands the nature of addiction nor do they know how to safeguard recovery.  The understanding that this disease is “cunning, baffling and insidious”. I then call my travel insurance company to see if they would pay for my change of flight as I was too sick to remain in Peru. They recommended I see a Doctor first and then discuss leaving.

Actual, Real Doctors Said Coca Leave Do Not Help With Altitude Sickness

I went to the clinic they recommended and I was diagnosed with altitude sickness. I asked the doctors about the coca leaves. They said that coca tea would not help. They said that they would increase my heart rate and cause anxiety. The remedy for this was oxygen and ascending to a lower altitude. Two hours in a clinic on the oxygen machine. Wow and what a difference oxygen makes. There was no better feeling than how I felt when I completed the oxygen, relief. I was not cured from the altitude sickness, but I felt 85% better and was able to  rejoin my group and complete my trip. So what I needed was air and not the coca leaf.

I rejoined my group and made it to the awesome Machu Picchu, which was a magnificent sight to see. I felt a real sense of security in my recovery because I did not compromise and partake of the coca leaf. I thought about what would have happened if I did.  I would have lied and said i did not and then felt guilty.  Honesty is the foundations of recovery. I know me and being dishonest only leads me to trouble. I believe drinking the coca tea or chewing the leaves would be a relapse for me.  I played that tape all the way through and know that could have been the beginning of a run for me. I have twenty-eight years clean and don’t need to gamble with my recovery.

Thank You “True” Members of Recovery for Your Support

I should also say that more than a few people in recovery supported my choice to stay clean. What concerns me are those other people that are in and around recovery and the message they spread.  These experiments in recovery can be fatal. I believe abstinence is the standard for beginning and staying in recovery. When people in recovery talk about using Kava, Ayahuasca, Kombucha and coca leaves, they are on a slippery slope.

It was also interesting to find that those folks who encouraged me to drink the coca tea all had used the “coca leaf” on their trips to Peru. Some of them had also engaged in the Ayahuasca looking for a “spiritual experience”. So I guess to reduce their guilt or support their denial they invited me to join it. What I have learned in my travels is that out of my country, out of my time zone, out on vacation and at home I am still responsible for my life and my recovery.