As a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police, Matt Chorny regularly responded to car accidents. He often dealt with victims and family members throughout the entire process, from the crash to the morgue.
Over time, such incidents took an emotional toll. These days, he’s coping with the help of a surprising source — ayahuasca.
Chorny’s embrace of the hallucinogenic brew, which is illegal in Canada, is a recent revelation. For many years, Chorny suffered from the trauma that came from his work, which frequently included responding to sexual assaults and other violent crimes.
“The worst is when people die in your arms,” Chorny told Global News.
But he buried his feelings and carried on with the work. He started drinking more to cope. On top of everything, he said he didn’t feel supported by his police service and most of his colleagues.
“The mentality is ‘be tough,’” he said. “Guys are testosterone-fuelled, egotistical guys when it comes to police officers, in many cases. It’s like, ‘no, stay strong, toughen up, toughen up.’”
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In 2016, more than a decade into his career, Chorny found himself on the other side of things the day he crashed his Jeep into a ditch south of Barrie, Ont. Fellow OPP officers arrived on the scene and slapped him with a slew of charges. The accident made headlines and was one of the worst experiences of his life. Chorny, who was 37 years old, was forced to face accusations of impaired driving and drug possession, and the demons of unresolved trauma that led him there.
In those dark moments, he never would have predicted that he would become an unlikely champion of ayahuasca for himself and other first responders in similar situations.
Chorny was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the criminal charges were dropped in 2017. Though his medical leave provided him with therapy and time to recover, he couldn’t get all the death and despair he witnessed in the line of duty out of his mind. It affected his physical well-being and his ability to have functional relationships with his family and friends.
“I couldn’t launch myself forward. I just felt stuck. I was in a desperate situation,” Chorny, who’s now 40, said.
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He started doing research online and came across a video of U.S. army veterans talking about treating their PTSD with ayahuasca, a tea that contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmaline, which are both banned in Canada and the U.S. Only a small number of religious groups have been able to get special federal exemptions that allow them to legally import ayahuasca for religious purposes.
Chorny didn’t know anything about the substance but thought he might as well give it a try.
“I had nothing left to lose,” he said.
So with the surprising approval of his psychologist — “she said it’s gonna be like 12 months of therapy in one night” — Chorny travelled to an ayahuasca retreat in Peru, where it’s legal and ceremonies involving it are easy to find. He participated in three ceremonies, during which the tea is administered by a shaman. It’s an ancient tradition that dates back centuries to Indigenous Peoples in the Brazilian Amazon.
Chorny said his psychologist was right. Those ceremonies have helped him turn his whole life around and finally get a handle on his PTSD. He likened the experience to peeling back the layers of an onion to reveal the roots of his anger and frustration with life.
“I went through these experiences and I had these visions and I was filled with the most intense feeling of love — exactly what I wanted. I can still feel it. It’s still there,” Chorny said.
In a YouTube video posted by the Peru retreat in March, Chorny opens up about his experience.
“I can say that it didn’t take everything and just fix it. It doesn’t just fix things. What it did was it removed the evil; it removed all the things that blinded me,” he says.
“This cloud of crap, it’s all behind me. The storm has passed.”
After returning home, he said he was able to get more out of his therapy sessions and was able to rebuild his relationships with his family.
Chorny’s experience is aligned with a growing body of scientific research that shows the efficacy of ayahuasca and other psychedelic substances for the treatment of PTSD and other mental health issues such as addiction and depression.
“It opens that window into repressed emotions and feelings and memories,” said Brian Rush, a psychologist who has reviewed treatment programs that use ayahuasca in Peru. “The therapeutic benefits seem to be there.”
Over the last year, Chorny has become an advocate for ayahuasca and is helping bring other police officers and front-line workers suffering from PTSD to Peru to try it for themselves. He’s also trying to raise awareness about a police culture that he says perpetuates the stigma of PTSD and mental health among first responders.
Mental health issues disproportionately affect police officers in Canada. Thirty-six per cent of municipal and provincial police officers and 50 per cent of RCMP members have reported symptoms related to negative mental health, according to a 2018 report by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. PTSD is one of the most common anxiety disorders among police officers, the report notes.
The OPP would not comment on the medical situations of specific officers due to privacy concerns. An OPP spokesperson told Global News in an email that the “mental health and wellness of our members is a priority for us. We have introduced and offer several resources that members can access for support and assistance.“
In response to a question about the OPP’s stance on members using ayahuasca to treat PTSD, the spokesperson wrote that it is “no different than people exploring alternative medical treatments/options in different countries that are not approved or available in Canada.“
One of the Chorny’s ayahuasca converts includes his long-time friend Kevin, a police officer who has been with the OPP for nearly 20 years and who has spent 30 years in policing.
Like Chorny, Kevin is on leave from the police service and has been diagnosed with PTSD. Kevin, who’s 51, requested that his last name be withheld as he is still deciding what he’s going to do with his role at the OPP.
“I can retire at the end of next year but I’m just not sure where it all goes for me,” Kevin told Global News.
He says his PTSD stems from a shooting he was involved with about 20 years ago. He didn’t want to go into great detail about the incident.
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“I witnessed that whole thing. I’m with the person who was shot, dealing with it from start to finish.”
Kevin said he didn’t receive much support from the service or colleagues after the experience, other than a debrief that came months later.
“You have a job to do so suck it up and do it. That’s the culture, police culture,” he said. “Get the job done and move on.”
But Kevin said it was difficult to move on as the traumatic incidents continued. He described how he had to take a family to a hospital to see their father, who had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t going to make it.
“When I arrived to pick them up, I knew them personally,” Kevin said. “Now there’s a personal element that goes with it. And then I didn’t get them there on time. I missed that window of getting them to the hospital to say their last goodbyes and so I carried that with me for a long time.”
Kevin said that limited employee assistance programs offered by the service were not nearly enough.
“Three or four sessions doesn’t get you right,” he said.
He began to experience intense anger and frustration every day. It eventually became so bad that he could barely get out of bed to go to work in the morning.
“You get to work and you kind of just go on cruise control,” he said.
After one especially tense day, he received a recommendation from his doctor that he take time off. He was diagnosed with PTSD in November 2017. Months of regular sessions with a therapist weren’t working fast enough, he said.
“I never thought that I would be the person to be battling PTSD,” he said. “I never thought that would be me.”
After a discussion with Chorny about his experience in Peru with ayahuasca, Kevin decided to join him in March. Like Chorny, he didn’t know anything about the substance and decided to try it as a last-ditch attempt to find peace. He did three ceremonies, during which he said he was able to visualize and confront his fears and trauma.
“I felt so good, so relieved,” Kevin said. “Now I’ve been back for 12 weeks. You come back and you’re on top of the world. There’s some levelling off, but I can process bad days so much better.”
Kevin said that he’s not up to speed on the research and science behind the substance. But he’s convinced.
“I don’t know how it works. And to me, it doesn’t really matter how it works. I’m just happy that it does,” he said.
The fact that ayahuasca is illegal in Canada does not bother Kevin and Chorny, and neither of them is fearful of facing reprisals.
“I’m not concerned about them at all because I think the good outweighs the bad,” Chorny said. “I’m gonna help people any which way I can.”