The Personal Journey
On his way to medical school, savoring life as a collegiate athlete, top of his class as a double-major, Academic All American, graduate Summa Cum Laude… Dan Engle broke his neck.
What follows is Dan’s personal story and the journey that led him towards psychiatry and integrative medicine for neurocognitive recovery.
Everything changed when I broke my neck.
In high school/college I was what you’d call a “gunner”: I was on top of everything. I was the kind of guy that would cut you off the team if you were holding me back in any way. I was super tightly wound, super intense, excelling to be the best at everything. Captain of team, graduated with a 4.0 from high school, then graduated with a 3.9 from college as a chemistry and biology double major, Academic All American…you get the idea. My college gave me more awards as a scholar athlete than they’d ever given anyone.
I was that guy.
My plan was to go into surgery or emergency room medicine. Why? It was performance-oriented: you have a goal, it’s intense, you do a procedure and you get out. It matched my mindset, which was attuned to perfection and intensity. I was at a time when I was working intensely and partying intensely, graduating college and heading into med school.
Many tribal cultures have a story of what happens to the apprentice upon initiation. It’s something that brings them deeper to their commitment to their path of study, like a Rights of Passage process.
In some cultures, a teacher uses a mallet or stone and clubs the initiate on the crown of his head. This opening of the crown makes way for the ability to receive new teachings.
I needed that level of intensity to wake up to something greater than the path I was on, and that is what indeed happened.
In the summer after graduating, I dove off a pier and hit a sandbar, landing on the crown of my head in knee-high water from about 15 feet up. I broke my C5, the fifth cervical vertebrae. The vast majority of people (more than 95%) who have this kind of injury are para- or quadriplegic afterward.
I had the option of using surgery to attempt to fuse the vertebrae or wear a halo brace. About to enter medical school, I chose the halo. I wore it for 3 months. It finally Slowed. Me. Down.
As a result, I had more fun in med school and residency than I ever had in high school and college.
I got connected to humility, gratitude, presence, appreciation, slowing down enough to be in life, and be really connected with those around me.
During this process, I developed a strong affinity for psychiatry. It made me curious: what makes us who we are and how we respond to life’s events? You can put 2 people in the same situation, and they’ll have completely different experiences. Why is that?
I’ve been following that thread ever since.
Everything I’ve done since then has been in pursuit of better understanding who I am as a person, and helping others better understand who they are.
I went into psychiatry, and turned towards integrative and naturalistic approaches to see how they interfaced with mental health and illness to stimulate healing at the core.
The next turning point was experiencing ayahuasca.
At this point about 10 years ago, I had a clinic in Portland called Mindful Medicine, an integrative holistic psychiatric clinic for children, teenagers and adults to help them get off psych meds and onto more effective natural protocols to really heal the symptoms and the root causes of them.
After running the clinic for about 3 years, I was invited by a close friend to experience ayahuasca.
It was the first time I’d experienced a psychedelic…and in one weekend, everything changed. I became more aware of myself in that weekend than I had my whole life.
I realized how little I knew about truly helping others get to know themselves better, and it became very clear my path was to study psychedelics more.
As a result, in relatively short order, I closed my practice, left Portland and studied in an ashram for 2 years. (It basically took that long to integrate the initial ayahuasca experience.)
Then I moved to the jungle.
I lived in the jungle for little more than a year, apprenticing with medicines and going through a series of what are called plant “dietas,” which are deeper and longer times in isolation just working one on one with the plants to learn more directly about their medicinal characteristics.
I didn’t plan on returning to the States, really. Living in a little hut in the woods, no running water or electricity and only necessities, my plan was to stay there and learn and go deeper. I didn’t have a desire to come back.
Yet, after my last dieta, I got the clear message that the best service I could do for the world is to share helpful information about traditional plant medicines to the medical community and the larger populus. I was drawn to be a spokesperson and an educator about the right and safe use practices of plant spirit medicine healing.
So I came back.
Then, the 3rd biggest thing that changed my life happened.
When I came back, I couldn’t relate to western society at all. I was lost and perplexed, most definitely like the proverbial fish out of water.
So, I chose to move to the desert to live in a tent, in solitude, to experience my Dark Night of the Soul.
I didn’t want to use medication because I didn’t want to distract or numb it away. I just wanted to be with it. So I did.
It took a year.
Through that dark process, the turnaround point for me was shifting into the appreciation that everything in my life up to that point had been guided and supported by something larger and wiser than the “small me.”
I realized my journey was uniquely scripted for my own growth and healing, for my own personal development and mastery…even the suicidal depression I was currently in at the time.
Why shouldn’t my depression also be for growth and healing? Why shouldn’t that experience also be ordained?
Once I turned towards my darkness with this new appreciation and welcomed it in, I began sending it gratitude. My relationship to it changed. I reclaimed my faith: my faith in a benevolent universe that is here to support our evolution.
Reclaiming my faith, I recognized that no one could do any part of this process for me. I had to choose to do it myself. I realized it was all up to ME.
“The last of the great human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s own attitude in any given circumstance.“ ~ Viktor Frankl
After the turning point, I started the gradual process of reintegrating back into society. I started to take on the physician role again, with a new understanding. I ended up running three of the more well respected integrative healing centers in Sedona, AZ.
Then, my older sister committed suicide.
My sister died of addiction and depression. And she also left a deep message in her legacy. Her legacy to me and our whole family was the message to “Be True to YOU.”
I realized the centers I was running in Sedona were all extraordinary and helpful for people, but not yet the fullest expression of my mission.
Because she had struggled with addiction, I became more curious to learn about traditional medicines to help addiction, and i came across Iboga. It comes from west Africa and is considered the biggest experience of plant medicines, in that it last the longest and is the most grueling. And, because of how it works in the brain it’s proven to be the most healing single plant on the planet for healing for those with addiction. So I experienced iboga.
It was indeed the most arduous psychedelic experience I had ever endured up to that point, and after experiencing the power of the medicine, I became reinvigorated about focusing on Soul-Centered Medicine as the reclamation point for the field of psychiatry. I was driven (and still am) to be a “spokesperson for the soul” and facilitate the deeper understanding of the issues that general psychiatry currently tries to medicate and suppress.
Psyche means Soul, literally, and it is our job as psychiatrists to be a spokesperson for the soul of our clients in order to understand the greater and deeper aspects of healing at the core of one’s being.
The greater mission of Full Spectrum Medicine has come from this latest phase: to help people access a greater understanding of their higher purpose and who they are on this planet at this time.
I believe that the safe and appropriate use of psychedelics provides us the best way to quickly wake up from our delusions, negative habits and unproductive patterns. They can provide insights and understandings that help relieve dependencies on pharmaceuticals, addictions and other surface remedies that only stifle the issues instead of transcending them.
I also believe the imbalances we currently see in our general culture can transform the more we discover how to transcend our own challenges and step into the highest expressions of who we are and what we are here to do.