Ketamine Wings and Dog Beach: A story about how ketamine infusion therapy saved my life.
My mental landscape shimmered silver. My toes twinkled and glimmered with the iridescent blue ocean waters behind. I felt the sun-warmed gossamer-like strands of sand on the skin of my toes. I laid upon my red lounging cushion that I had bought to match the large beach umbrella from Crate and Barrel so I could enjoy the sights, sounds and pleasures of the beach near my home in Florida. It was the only location for miles that allowed people to bring their dogs to the beach. There had to be other people around me, to be certain, but this was my dream, and I was only aware of my own presence. Where was my beloved beagle, Rory? I felt her around me, if only in memory. The warm liquid glowing feeling first emanated from my neck, spread upward to my brain cortex and then eclipsed the core of my physical and spiritual being. The physical and psychic pain I had been enveloped in, for years, dissipated. My brain duck and dove with vision upon vision of past traumas and pain and tears streamed down my cheeks unsolicited. I had never felt more free. I floated and fluttered like a bird between abstract thoughts and the memories of my very real, physical world. I was crying but I felt happy.
“Are you in a pleasant and serene place?” The nurse inquired. I nodded affirmatively. “Wonderful. Now just try to stay there, and do not be afraid.” I had followed her instructions, and thought of one place where I remembered feeling truly happy. That was the place I called “Dog Beach.”
I realized the intensity in which I missed my now deceased parents; though alcoholic, troubled and emotionally neglectful of me; I loved them and mourned their deaths. In this moment, I felt a combination of relief and release, and I was overcome by a girlish giddiness that I hadn’t felt for as long as I could remember. My thoughts would travel to Dog Beach and then into what seemed like the outer stretches of space. I could feel my being, and I was “alive”, but I wasn’t exactly on earth.
“We’re tapering you down now. Just take deep breaths, take it easy and tell me how you feel.” The nurse said this as she laid down the clipboard with paper which detailed my vital signs.
I slowly opened my eyelids to peer about the room I was in. Yep, it looked like the same clinical setting that I had walked into beforehand. There I was in the sparse, pale-blue painted room which contained an array of medical accoutrements for the job at hand: the built-in desk with drawers, the cabinets filled with alcohol wipes, bandages, the sterile packaged syringes, monitors, the stainless steel IV holder and drip stand, the reclining chair replete with a pillow and blanket for patients, the more standardized chair for the nurse to observe the patient. Dog Beach, the warm sand and my glimmering shimmering visions had vanished, and my salty tears had dried leaving the skin on my face taut, but I was left with an overwhelming feeling of well-being.
That was my first experience trying ketamine infusion therapy for the treatment of my chronic depression. You may never have heard of ketamine, or maybe you have heard little pieces of information about it, or maybe you’ve heard a lot. I had heard a bit about it before my experience with it, and I had recently assiduously researched it on the internet, voraciously reading all I could about its use for seriously depressed patients. Ketamine is a commonly used anesthetic that has been shown to revitalize depressed brain cells while also providing a calming, dissociative effect on the user, which can help them detach from some or all of the causes of their depression. It can also be used to heal other forms of pain. Fortified by my research, I decided to embark on a mission that provided promise for my debilitating disease of the mind and soul; a solution in the form of a liquid solution. The question was: would it work for me? I decided that I had nothing to lose by trying it.
Years of suffering from agonizing and debilitating depression and countless ineffective medicines and therapists had led me here, to this place. This was a place that was created for people like me: treatment-resistant sufferers of chronic depression. I had consumed countless pills of promise in the form of anti-depressants, mood-stabilizers, and anti-anxiety medications. I had been in various forms of therapy with several certified therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. I had my first experience with a depressive breakdown when I was thirteen. At that time, I went to school and came home and secluded myself in my dark navy wall-papered bedroom, writing sad poetry and listening to even sadder music. I couldn’t seem to help but to be drawn to other forms of despairing expression. My favorite band in seventh grade was the English group The Cure. The dark-haired goth lead singer spoke to me. I had a momentary ray of sunshine enter my life in the form of boarding school, after eighth grade. You might say, “Really? Boarding school gave you joy?” Yes, it did indeed, because I was away from the people who had created the foundation for my pain: my clueless, neglectful, emotionally-absent alcoholic parents. At school, I was free, I had a predictable schedule, I had rules to follow (though I had a hard time figuring out what those were and I was a bit rebellious by nature), I had friends to study and socialize with, boys to date and I finally had room to breathe and grow. I was a wilting plant that had been fostered back to life with the right mixture of water and fertilizer. However, even in those conditions, the depression and anxiety lingered in the background. I did not realize how ready my affliction was to spring forth given the right opportunity. It never truly went away. After I graduated from boarding school with my high-school diploma I headed straight for college though I had no idea what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do. The only thing I knew was to keep going. To keep going meant survival. To keep going meant staying away from the home I grew up in. I thought I could outrun my depression. I learned that I could not outrun something that resided deep within me, that was enmeshed with my neurons, wispy axions and dwindling dendrites.
College ended with a whimper: my friends had previously graduated the semester before and I had two remaining classes that I could barely muddle through. I spent much of my time curled up in bed, huddled beneath my coverlet, with the curtains tightly shut, occasionally showering before heading off to class, only to return to my small one-bedroom apartment near the Santa Catalina mountains. Before long my mother ventured out to Tucson to take me home, I was too weak to put up a struggle, and I returned to the not-missed homestead with her via a long road trip. It was there, in Oakland County, Michigan, that I began my search for help with depression. Back then I knew nothing about the mental health field…I had yet to learn that the people who were employed within it knew very little about the causes of mental health disorders and that people who claimed to be experts were not experts at all. But still, I had to start somewhere because I wanted to live. I envisioned my life as a black penciled-in box on graph paper, with one or two boxes in the upper right-hand corner uncolored, remaining as white as the paper. Those few uncolored boxes represented hope to me and they were what kept me going all these years. I remembered the poem Emily Dickinson wrote about hope:
“”Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches on the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm…”
In my mind, I symbolized the bird, and my little yellow claws were clutching the blue grid lines in the uncolored boxes of the graph paper, and I flapped my wings furiously beating back the encroaching dark colored boxes.
Those uncolored boxes of hope led me through college, pledging a sorority (gasp! It was a momentary lapse in reason), through traveling to places near and far, to the world of suitable employment, moving to Los Angeles, and to working steadily in public relations for one the largest entertainment studios in the world. I was living in a land of make-believe and eventually the whirlwind led me down dark alleys, into dimly lit music studios and clubs where shadow people were taking drugs and I first heard the desperate whisper of a stripper saying “Special K, oh, K, where am I?” I knew she meant ketamine, a known party drug, and at the time I didn’t feel anything for her or her experience. Who was I to judge? I was snorting cocaine in the next stall over from her in some no-name Los Angeles club. When my friends and I left the stall, she was gone, and inside the club she could have gone anywhere. I had no idea then that this drug she called “Special K” would one day be utilized in a totally different fashion and would save my life. You might be saying, “How insidious! Whatever do you mean?” Well, it’s complicated, as so much is in the uncharted territories of the mind, mood, mental illness and therapy.
Years flew by, friends came and went, and I disavowed many bad habits like the one I was doing in that club. I entered into graduate school hoping to start a new path, and after one year of study I had a long vacation coming up, so I headed from Los Angeles, California, to a small-town north of Fort Myers, Florida, to visit my parents over the Christmas holiday. I had a strong desire to see them after so long. It was like a psychic premonition was telling me to spend time with them. It was during that time that my mother had an accident and died, and I moved from Los Angeles to the Fort Myers area to be with my father, who desperately needed some support. I am forever grateful that I made that choice, because I had eight months with him that deeply healed old wounds. We grieved the loss of my mother, his wife, together and we formed a friendship and union that I had so desperately needed all my life. He passed away eight months later, in a slip and fall accident, as his body was weary from the years of self-abuse it had taken and it was just a matter of time, really. It was during those months and the following year that I found dog beach, and I would pack up my beagle and head out to play in the sand and water. It became a place of sanctuary, providing me a moment of peace amidst the chaos.
I moved to Arizona to start anew, but my problems with depression still plagued me, and they were getting worse. For years, I had travelled down a long and winding road, a mental-health labyrinth, and the road had almost ended for me at a cliff. I had envisioned going over that cliff many times, but those little uncolored boxes halted me from falling over the edge. I think you know what “cliff” I am alluding to. My last cliff moment, before the first ketamine infusion treatment, was July 2014. I was in bad condition. I remember pulling my legs inward into a fetal position as I sat upon my cold beige-colored tiled kitchen floor. I sat beneath freshly sharpened German forged-steel knives that were on the countertop. I knew that it would only take one to do the trick. Tears sprung from my eyes and I couldn’t see anything past my own feet. I was no longer the bird perched on the last uncolored box gridline. My feathered wings lay limply at my sides. I saw black, no future, no point, no more uncolored boxes. I was just so tired. I had just gotten off of what was one of numerous phone calls to discuss matters of my deceased parents’ estate with my three much older half-brothers. They could never get along, and disagreed on every little detail. They always called me and told me all their problems and I was in the middle, per usual, soothing and negotiating the best I could with troublesome people. I had finally hit the wall again, and I hit it hard. The next day I went to see my doctor, the one who plied me with pills, but rarely took me off any of them before trying a new one, and I was a wreck and I begged him for answers. He told me about a center in Phoenix that was trying a new therapy for emergency situations such as mine, and it was called ketamine infusion therapy. He, too, was probably at the end of his rope with me. After our appointment I called the office and made an appointment to meet with the people who ran the center. We met, I filled out forms, took assessment tests, and met with their therapist. I fit the criteria of someone who could possibly benefit from the treatment, and I began treatments a few days later. I learned that they use a ketamine solution that is only 10% actual ketamine. They used an intravenous drip to administer it at a slow rate over forty-five minutes. The patient and facilitators will know if the treatment is going to work within the first session. If it is effective, as it was (and is) for me, the patient usually has three to four follow-up appointments. The ketamine infusion therapy promises no cures, but it does alleviate depression and suicidal thinking at a success rate of 75%. Such a success rate is unheard of in psychiatric medicine. Many patients need “booster treatments” after the initial first few treatments to keep their depression at bay. The amount of booster treatments depends on the patient’s needs, and some may never need any again. I have gone back to receive a treatment about every six months.
With the curtains of depression lifted, I have been able to work hard on the problems that have plagued my heart and soul for so many years. I have had to do the hard work of self-reflection, practice healthy behaviors and maintain healthy thought patterns in my continued journey to a healthier me. I have been able to wean off the numerous medications that were prescribed to me and I have done so slowly and under a different doctor’s care. I was first prescribed anti-depressant medication about eighteen years prior, so to wean off psycho-tropic medications has not been easy. But it can be done, and I am living proof. Ketamine treatments fortified my mental strength during that very difficult process. I can not say that I have been cured, but I am happier, healthier and more stable than ever before. I must stay vigilant about my health and my mood so I can continue to say that. I know that if my mood lowers to depressed levels again, there is a solution available to me and knowing that gives me peace. If I were to describe my mental picture today I would say that if I took out a piece of graphing paper and colored in squares that represented my depression levels that perhaps only five boxes out of a hundred would be colored in. That’s a lot of room for a little bird to fly around in. Shimmering, glimmering gossamer-like wings flapping.