Ketamine Therapy: Unlocking and Freeing the Brain

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The three dimensional boxes are everywhere. I am surrounded by them and they come at me in varying widths and speeds, but always with three colors. Almost every box is hued in dark tones. Grey, black, and navy blue might bleed into the darkest red, green, and gray.

As I follow them and try to process all that is going on around me, I remind myself to remain calm despite not having a clue where I am headed. I am taken through one portal after another. Sometimes I am flying, other times I feel like I am piloting a machine I have no training on and am unable to stop this endless ride.

There is sound everywhere and it is nothing like anything I have ever heard before. Its intensity outweighs anything I have blasted through my ears from a stereo or phone. There is no rhythm, guitars, strings, horns or any instruments, but it seems to coincide with this ride I am unable to stop or get off of.

I am no longer able to feel my face. My eyes, ears, and nose are missing while my mouth feels like it has been pried open to the point it is beyond cartoonish in shape. And those boxes just keep whisking by me. No, wait, now I am being pulled away from them while it feels they are coming after me. Am I moving in reverse? How do I operate this machine?

It was just a few minutes ago when I felt the sharp prick of a needle being inserted into my left shoulder. I was lying flat on a couch, covered with a blanket, blind folded and with headphones over my ears. As the doctor injected me, I reminded myself to practice the breathing methods a yogi spent 90 minutes teaching me prior to the shot. I wait patiently and nothing seems to happen.

Suddenly, I am surrounded by a world of white before I see the first boxes slowly appear. Soon, a euphoria will engulf me as I am launched into another world. That world happens to be my deep subconscious and I am under the watchful eye of a doctor who I have asked to help me find a way to get past all that causes me to still suffer from depression. My worst episode was just a week earlier.

For the first time ever, I was unable to get out of bed for the better part of five days. I fed myself only because I knew I needed to eat but had no recall of what I fixed or how it tasted. Sleep was of little use because I only woke up feeling more fatigued than before I nodded off. I picked up the phone and dialed my oldest sister. I told myself if she wasn’t home I was going to dial 911.

My sister greeted me in her usual nice manner, but as soon as she heard my voice she was urgently asking if I was alright. She already knew the answer but what else do you say when caught off guard like her? We spoke for over an hour and by the end I was feeling calmer, less anxious, and reassured about life moving forward. My sister has a gift for helping people in the worst situations. I assured her I was going to call a doctor the next day before hanging up and she let me know she would be checking in with me as well.

The next day, I called the doctor, a psychiatrist, who oversaw my three eight week treatments of TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) which is a cutting edge way to treat disorders like chronic depression, pain, fatigue, bipolar disorder and more brain related issues. While we talked, I asked him about Ketamine therapy and whether I was a good candidate for it. He said I was and he urged me to contact his Ketamine department. Unfortunately, when I did, I learned just how expensive the treatment cost and knew right away I could not afford it.

Illustration by Tim Forkes

I turned to my computer and searched for other clinics that provide Ketamine therapy and only two came up near me. I emailed both clinics and made sure to provide them with my history. The next day, I received an email reply from one with a link to the cost of their program. Again, way more than I could afford.

As I sat down to eat some dinner, my phone rang. When I answered it, a soft spoken man identified himself as the other person I emailed the day before. He read my history, asked me several questions, and then explained his program as well as why he offers it. He offered up his medical training and the two hospitals he works for but never mentions his fee. He went on to explain the other services that come with his program, the specialist he has hired who runs it and her training background as well.

He then asks me what I am thinking and I let him know it all sounds great but I need to know what the fee is. When I hear his four week program is less than a week and a half at the other clinics, I am happy. I can afford it. I made an appointment for my first session the following week and set about finding someone to drive me to and from.

The next day, the doctor calls me again just to check in and see how I am doing. It will not be the last time he calls me. I realize I am not a number to him, but rather an actual human being who has entrusted him with my care.

So what is Ketamine therapy? It is a non-FDA approved treatment for those of us who suffer from one or more mental disorders that have not responded to FDA approved treatments like drugs or TMS. Ketamine is a drug that started out as an anesthesia in the 1970 and has morphed into a street or club drug called Special K. Researchers have found small doses of the drug have helped soldiers overcome extreme PTSD which led to more research on its use for other brain related illnesses. When administered in a setting like I was in, it helps to unlock the deepest parts of our brains where we store memories, many of which have been forgotten and others which have constantly tormented, and in the process frees the patients from the issues that plague them.

My doctor runs a new clinic that also teaches us how to remain present and to put the past behind us for good while learning not to fixate or worry about the future. Depression, anxiety, chronic pain; the big three I deal with, will hopefully become far more manageable.

I arrive at my appointment and am greeted by one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She naturally glows as she welcomes me in her old sweatshirt and form fitting yoga tights. She is soft spoken and as the door closes behind me, I remove my shoes and realize the bulk of my doctor’s office is a well heated yoga studio.

Everything is about me and only me.  There is no waiting room or office staff.  It is just me and my yogi. She explains what her goals are for the day, we discuss my history, and she educates me on how anxiety is passed on through the womb, how important it is to remain present, and how through controlled breathing we can continually calm ourselves from the triggers of the world we live in. By the time I am being readied for my first injection of Ketamine, I am about as relaxed as I have ever been.

There was a time during my Ketamine trip where a large object appeared above me. Clad in black, charcoal gray, and blood orange, it begins to slowly lower itself toward me. I realize I am going to be crushed by its weight if I do not do something, so I remind myself to breathe and let things happen instead of trying to control them.

As the object hovers mere inches from me, I can feel my arms being lifted. They seem to be reaching toward something, but what? I begin seeing a small white dot. As my arms are pulled toward it, the dot begins expanding and as it does, the dark presence above me begins to break up. I am now being pulled up off the couch and standing upright, but I feel completely weightless.  As I rise up further, the light expands more and before I know it there is no longer a dark presence engulfing me. I am soaring upward and into a light brighter than a million suns, but one I trust is safe to look at.

The boxes reappear and the journey continues only now their shades include white, light gray, and my favorite color, blue. I feel free and am no longer looking for the cockpit controls to a machine I have no idea how I was locked inside of.  The music is lifting me higher as well and my nose becomes aware of scents it has not smelled in ages.

As the drug wears off, I slowly become more aware of my surroundings. I can feel the couch. I am aware I have been injected with Ketamine, and the euphoric feeling has slowly been replaced by a return to reality, or whatever has been reality up to now.

Once I am fully awake and feel ready to sit upright, my doctor and I have a brief discussion about what I just experienced. He hands me a book to take home to read and then asks me if I have any questions. Eventually, I asked him if he wanted to be paid for the three hours I was there. He tells me his office is not fully complete yet, and that I am patient one in his new building. He is not set up yet with a credit card machine.

I let him know I did not have the cash with me and my checkbook was at home to which he softly replied, “Don’t worry about it. You can bring it next week or the week after. I’m not worried.”

Imagine a doctor not worried about being paid for his services. My father, a doctor, would be spinning circles in his grave over all of this. Then again, he would have been a perfect candidate for a four week treatment like I am.

What I have realized from this first session is when you blend the more person first and mindful approach of eastern medicine with the research application of western science, there can be massive gains for both the patient and doctor that we rarely see with the more insurance driven approaches we have grown tired of.

Illustration by Tim Forkes

Will Ketamine be the answer to my longtime struggles? Time will tell. However, I do not mind being a guinea pig in this case if it helps not just myself, but others down the road. I also know, I have zero concerns or anxiety about my next appointment and look forward to seeing, feeling, smelling, and maybe even tasting new places in my brain.