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A Mother's Role with Elaine Duncan

Updated: May 17

Guests of The Psychedelic Blog do not endorse, support, or otherwise advocate on behalf of any particular treatment approach for mental illnesses unless stated otherwise. The views expressed during this interview do not necessarily reflect the opinions or endorsement of The Psychedelic Blog. Readers should always consult with qualified healthcare professionals and conduct their own research before considering any treatment options. The blog and its authors are not responsible for any decisions made based on the information provided.

The Ceiba Tree, The Psychedelic Blog

"When she fell, the earth shook for days and, in that place where the Mother Tree fell, the Amazon River was born."


There's not a lot that I remember from my college literature courses, but there was one line that stayed with me from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida that said, "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

I have always felt a kinship with trees whether I was climbing them, hanging from their limbs, or raking fallen leaves in autumn. I've spent time with the world's largest trees (by height or volume) in California: the Redwoods and the Sequoias. In Cócora Valley, Colombia, I saw the tallest Palm trees. In Nevada, I stood near what are said to be the oldest living trees, the Bristlecone Pines. In Kenya, I was blown away by the storybook shape and height of the Baobab trees. And, before heading to South America, I read that a cousin of the Baobab, the Ceiba tree, grows in tropical rainforests in the Americas including near the Amazon River. I didn't expect to see any Ceiba trees perched above the rainforest, on the Andean slopes, while hiking with a family from the area. But there it was.

After taking the photo above, I sat down on the grass to rest beside Abuela, the matriarch of the family with whom I was sharing a nature walk. "This is the Mother Tree of the Amazon," she said to me casually while gesturing toward the tree. "Do you want to hear her story?" Yes, please.

"In the beginning, there was only land. She was the first tree. As she grew, seeds fell from her branches. Those seeds became her offspring and they filled the jungle [la selva]. Among her offspring, other plants and trees emerged to cover the ground, flowers decorated the plants, and butterflies made the jungle floor float. In her branches, the birds made nests and the monkeys found safety.

"The Mother Tree continued to grow upward and outward as she nurtured and protected her offspring and all of the life systems that grew around her until a time came when the light of day no longer reached the ground. This worried two gods who decided that they could no longer thrive in the darkness. They decided to cut down the Mother Tree. Knowing they could never do this alone because of her enormous size, they asked the animals of the forest to help them. After much time and great effort by the gods and the animals, the tree began to topple. When she fell, the earth shook for days and, in that place, where the Mother Tree fell, the Amazon River was born. Her branches became the smaller rivers that flowed from the Amazon. This is a sacred tree for our people."

Abuela was staring at the tree in front us with a kind of reverence that I did my best to imitate. She told the story of the Mother Tree with her hands, her eyes, and her head making sure that I understood. When we returned to the trail, toward the hot springs waterfall, I saw each plant and each tree that I passed differently. I kept thinking that all of this was born of the Mother Tree.

I wanted to share Abuela's story because today I'm speaking with a friend about rainforest plants like ayahuasca, a curious medicine that emerges from the same ecosystem to which the Mother Tree gave life in the Amazon Basin. And, since it's Mother's Day, we're talking about mothers too. I'm Robert Benz, say hello to Elaine Duncan.

The Amazon River near Gamboa, Peru, The Psychedelic Blog

"Sometimes, I would return home from school only to meet a new sibling with whom I was required to share not just my room but also my bed."


Robert: Elaine, until recently, we had only known each other as business associates. Can you give us some insight into who Elaine is from a more personal perspective?

Elaine: Well, I was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Eight months later, my parents adopted my younger brother, and that marked the beginning of a series of adoptions that grew our family to 16 children. At first, I found it both odd and special to be the only biological child. Soon, however, it all changed as the dynamic within the household evolved. I went from being an only child to the eldest sibling to being in the middle, and eventually, I found myself lost among the many. Sometimes, I would return home from school only to meet a new sibling with whom I was required to share not just my room but also my bed. The constant addition of new family members would eventually force me into a role of parentification at a young age. There were also instances of both mental and physical abuse that, you know, really challenged my sense of self and made it difficult for me to maintain my identity.

My upbringing was influenced pretty heavily by my grandmother, who often expressed her feelings about the continual adoptions. She couldn't understand why my parents felt the need to adopt so many children when they already had me. "Why would you have this perfect daughter then adopt all these children?" she would ask. These decisions about adoption were really driven by my mother, with my father playing a more passive role. My mother was gone much of the time, traveling abroad, saving children, leaving me alone with many of the household issues. I did accompany her on some of her trips from the age of seven or eight, which exposed me to different cultures and experiences that helped shape my perspective on life.

Things got more complicated at home when my mother began forging my father’s name on adoption papers. I really believe her actions came from unresolved issues with self-love and the strained relationship with her own mother. This relationship got worse as she believed that my grandmother had turned me against her.

At the age of eight, my mother converted our family to the Church of Latter Day Saints, with the idea that this was a community that would truly support its members. (I should note that I was Jewish.) She was right but, despite the Mormon community providing dinners and clothing, I deeply resented all of this. It made me feel like a charity case, adding to my discomfort and resentment towards the situation imposed upon us.

During my teenage years, I tried to achieve a sense of independence by working from the age of 14 to pay for my clothes and other things. This early financial responsibility was a response to the instability and neglect I felt at home, pushing me to take control of at least one aspect of my life.

Elaine Duncan

Robert: I imagine your mother was perceived in the community as a bit of a heroine, yes?

Elaine: Oh, yes. Throughout the 1970s, my mother's adoption story turned into interviews with well-known television hosts like Phil Donahue and Richard Sher. During these times, I was kind of wheeled out when it was convenient for my mother to make her look even better by also having a biological daughter alongside for our incredible journey. This façade began to crumble in 1988 when one of my brothers, who had severe cerebral palsy and was really struggling with his condition, accidentally set our house on fire in a suicide attempt. Tragically, the fire resulted in the deaths of the two youngest boys in our family. At this time, I was away at college, but the tragedy sparked inquiries into the truth about our family life. All of the public scrutiny finally forced everyone to confront the underlying issues within our home, which revealed a much darker reality than the one my mother had portrayed to the outside world for so long.

By the way, just to kind of highlight the level of chaos, when my husband's family met my mother, she told them that she had 37 children. I don't even know where that number came from. My parents ended up getting divorced and she married a Liberian man. I know they adopted a lot of children from Liberia.

As I matured, I struggled a lot with the need to prove my worth, seeking attention and affection that were so hard to find during my youth. My career began early, pushed by the need for financial independence and recognition. This evolved into workaholism through a constant drive to excel. The frenzied pace took its toll, however, and by age 26, I was burned out. Sobriety came at 29, which really marked a pivotal point in my life. A 12-step program introduced me to new ways of managing the chaos, ways that didn't involve alcohol, and opened the door to future healing. While I wasn't an alcoholic in the traditional sense, I believe my drinking was my attempt to suppress the daily internal battle.

My first husband had a pretty big job in Washington. When I met you, I was with America's Promise.

Robert: Yes, I think that was in 2009 at a conference somewhere in the Bay Area, maybe San Jose? You told me something I didn't know that day: what my organization had started doing in schools was called, Service Learning.

Elaine: Yes, I served as the Vice President of Strategy. I got that job because my husband opened a lot of doors for me and we were really active in that political world. We were good partners, but we weren't in love with each other. My life was very different in my 30s after marrying him.

Still, my mother’s complex personality and our difficult relationship continued to influence my mental health and life choices. It feels horrible to say, but I think she loved me the best she could. She just didn't really love herself. Of course, she never taught me how to love myself either. That's a mother's role besides protecting her children. Whatever love there should be between a mother and a daughter, we didn't have it. I think I'm still trying to figure out my relationship with my mother. In fact, I’m writing a book about it all.

Robert: Very complicated.

Elaine: Yes, it really is. My first marriage ended when I was 40 and that was an important turning point for me. It was really about the strain of these unresolved issues, depression, a series of mental health misdiagnoses and medications that didn’t work. This period was filled with personal crises which began my sincere desire to heal.

In my 40s, an awareness about these patterns that were shaped by my early family life really led me to explore my trauma more deeply. I tried lots of different therapies and retreats in this journey of self-discovery. A week-long retreat at the Hoffman Institute became the real key to this transformation. It changed my understanding of self-worth and personal fulfillment. My teacher there said, “I've never heard a story like yours. You're a miracle. The fact that you're still alive is something.” And that's when I began to really unpack this childhood trauma. What I was suffering from is called, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).


The Hoffman Institute

The Hoffman Institute Foundation is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to transformative adult education, spiritual growth, and the personal dimensions of leadership. We serve a diverse population from all walks of life – business professionals, stay-at-home parents, therapists, students, tradespeople – who are seeking clarity in all aspects of their lives.

Through our proprietary methodology, participants learn how to transform

counterproductive beliefs, perceptions, and emotional patterns that are limiting their lives. They are taught how to live from the positive dimensions of their beings, resulting in lives that are more free, open, loving, spontaneous, joyous, creative, balanced, and whole.


Robert: And Hoffman opened the door to doing further work to address your CPTSD?

Elaine: Yeah, Hoffman was really… Hoffman was life changing for me. The work of Gabor Maté and the principles outlined in Bessel van der Kolk´s, The Body Keeps the Score also resonated deeply with me, kind of reinforcing the healing I was experiencing.

During this period, I learned about a lot of people in long-term recovery who benefited from natural remedies like cannabis and psychedelics. These things helped me in my healing process and made me really reconsider traditional views on healing. In the US, we think that shopping or drinking or you know, a new partner, will heal us. I realized that true healing means reconnecting with the natural world and oneself.

A friend from the Hoffman Institute introduced me to a shaman with whom I ended up working for four years. My initial ayahuasca ceremony with him was enlightening, filled with visuals and insights. I remember the first time I participated. I experienced the universe in a way I had only heard about. This ceremony opened many doors, really allowing me to see and understand things beyond my previous comprehension. Over the next four years, I participated in twelve ayahuasca ceremonies, each deepening my connection to the universe and expanding my spiritual journey.

When I think about it, I can see how profoundly ayahuasca has influenced my life. I first approached these ceremonies with a mix of fear and hope, then they uncovered truly deep insights into my past traumas and the complex roles I played in my family. The medicine taught me critical lessons about forgiveness and acceptance, and have shown me that each person who caused me pain had also taught me something vital.

Now, living on my land in Colorado with my husband, I engage deeply with nature. Whether I’m sitting against a tree or on a boulder, I find myself asking the spirit of the universe for wisdom. Psilocybin and other plant medicines have also become important tools in my ongoing quest for understanding and peace. These experiences allow me to absorb the beauty of the natural world around me—the details of leaves, the sky—and from these moments of connection, I gain strength and insight.

I've come to understand that we are all part of something much larger than we might believe. My experiences have helped me to see that everyone and everything has a purpose; we chose to come here to live through these experiences. Learning to forgive has been one of the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of my journey. Forgiving required me to release grudges that stemmed from not knowing how to let go, a skill I wasn't taught as a child.

Now, I can identify and talk about my emotions much better than before. I've let go of the intense energy that once defined me, taking on a more loving and accepting approach towards others. Everyone is on their unique journey, and recognizing this has allowed me to support them more completely and sincerely.

My interactions with ayahuasca went way beyond the physical healing. This deepened my connection with plant medicines. I know many people talk about the benefits of things like ketamine and MDMA, but my bond is with the plants.

When I think about my mother's life trajectory as I approach my 50s, I recognize stark differences in our choices. I was writing down everything in a notebook along the way and it helped me see a lot. Unlike her, I'm embracing the path of healing, which she unfortunately never did. I believe that resulted in a life filled with bitterness and misunderstandings.  I feel a lot more loving toward others and, you know, trusting and supporting that everyone's here on their own journey. This came to me because I had those experiences with ayahuasca.

Today, I live in the mountains of Colorado, far from the urban chaos of my past. Here, surrounded by nature, my supportive husband, and a fulfilling life, I enjoy the simplicity it offers. My plant medicine journeys have taught me to relinquish all of those materialistic needs, finding peace in nature and the clarity that brings. My life is just so much simpler now: walking my dog, being present, noticing a flower that came up overnight. Now, I'm grounded too. Some journeys were very hard, but always, in the end, I received what I asked for, more wisdom.

Robert: Do you recommend ayahuasca to other people you know?

Elaine: It depends. I can only share my own experience. I don't think it is for everybody. A lot of healing can also happen without psychedelics. Holotropic breathwork,* for instance, is very similar to psychedelics. That has been something that I've done several times while in a program like Hoffman which is all about healing your emotional child. Their frame is that we are a quadrenity, which is a body, a spiritual self, an emotional self, and an intellectual self. Most people with severe trauma, their intellectual self may have taken the reins at an early age. So, they have trouble sorting out their feelings.

* Holotropic Breathwork

  • Definition: Holotropic Breathwork is a therapeutic practice that utilizes controlled and accelerated breathing patterns to achieve altered states of consciousness. It was developed in the 1970s by Stanislav and Christina Grof, integrating insights from various psychological and spiritual frameworks.

  • Explanation: This technique involves deep, fast breathing in a group setting, often accompanied by music, to help participants access deeper psychological and emotional states. It aims to release emotional and physical blockages, leading to greater self-awareness and personal growth.

  • Example: In a typical Holotropic Breathwork session, participants are paired off, with one person acting as the "breather" and another as the "sitter" to ensure safety. The sessions, guided by a trained facilitator, can last several hours, during which participants might experience a range of emotions and insights.

  • Quote: "Holotropic Breathwork offers a way to explore and navigate the cartography of the psyche, allowing for a profound journey into self-exploration and healing," explains a facilitator.

Elaine: Ayahuasca and my shaman were very powerful teachers for me because they showed me things in a different perspective, in a way that was so real and so visual. I've never experienced anything like it. It gave me freedom.

Robert: It's interesting and powerful to see how far you've come, Elaine, in your personal journey without having someone there to protect and nourish you, without having the Mother Tree. Mental health can be as complex as you describe it being. Medicinal plants or psychedelics can be a revelation for some, but what is most healing for us all, is when someone articulates their own journey—as you have here—and creates a pathway that we can see. Navigating the thicket of family dynamics, dark histories, betrayals, and abuse, along with economic challenges is a form of mapmaking that can benefit us all when someone speaks out. Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Elaine.

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