I Tried Clinical Ketamine Therapy

By Justin Caffier on March 6, 2019

Ambient music played, tears streaked my face, and I began to sink into the aquamarine ocean photo in front of me. Then the doctor returned to my room for one final check-in, temporarily breaking the spell, before wishing me “a great journey” and letting me slip back into the ether. I was only a minute into my first round of ketamine therapy and already the intensity of the experience was unlike anything I’d previously felt. Little did I know just how much further into my psyche I’d be spelunking the remaining 45 minutes of that IV drip.

Ketamine, the infamous horse tranquilizer turned club drug, has recently found a third life as an experimental treatment for severe depression. With more 300 million individuals around the world (and 16 million within the United States) suffering from major depressive disorder, this relatively new form of treatment shows drastic results in only a few hours. With the potential to produce better treatment outcomes in certain patients than more traditional antidepressants, ketamine therapies are being cautiously but excitedly explored.

Though the long-term effects of dozens of “upkeep” infusions remain to be seen, pending further study, there seems to be little health risk for moderate use in a controlled environment. So, after The Ketamine Clinic of Los Angeles offered me a three-infusion trial as a means of managing my lifelong battle with depression, I figured I had nothing to lose by taking them up on the offer.

During my intake, the clinic’s founder, Dr. Steven Mandel, assessed my current mood and explained how the procedure would go down. After reclining the comfy chair that would be my home base for the following hour of mental disassociation, Dr. Mandel covered me with a warm blanket, put some headphones playing primal, minimalist music on my ears, and tapped my arm with an IV infusion of the drug.

Within minutes, I felt my consciousness slipping into an abstract realm, propelled by and perpetually morphing with the music. Though I have a fair bit of experience with hallucinogens like psilocybin and LSD, this was an altogether different trip, one much harder to describe.

“I can’t say I envy the task you have before you,” Dr. Mandel told me in a follow-up call after my rounds of treatment. “I’ve found that these infusions defy the confines of language, so even for someone who makes his living with words, articulating the experience can be quite the challenge.”

With that in mind, it would be easiest to separate the effects of the infusion into two separate categories: visuals and thoughts.

To the left, you’ll see the wall and photograph that was in my field of vision for all three procedures. Somehow, this photo acted as a visual portal to a number of worlds. Some were vaporwave-y and full of A E S T H E T I C imagery, others had gleaming white sheens, like circa 2002 Steve Jobs’ vision of the future.

My train of thought as I was wooshed from one celestial stage to the next seemed to be the feeling of an epiphany on repeat. I pulled so far back from the trivialities of my own life that every obstacle that lay before me back in the real world was rendered ultimately insignificant and, thus, manageable. I could see how, were I to be seeking this treatment to overcome a specific tragedy like the loss of a loved one, this sort of reformatting of my feelings could help clear such a hurdle.

I’ll spare you a full recount of the two subsequent infusions as—let’s be honest—hearing about someone else’s hallucinations is about as interesting as hearing about their dreams, but here are some highlights: I forgot Donald Trump was president and when, mid-trip, I recalled this fact, I found it hilarious and something the world will push through. I realized China is simultaneously both the utopian and dystopian model for mankind’s future. I forgave my dad. I couldn’t remember who I was to be writing this account for and grappled with the absurdity of commerce in a whole new way. I’m pretty sure I even experienced the fabled “ego death” I’d heard so much about.

At the end of my session, regaining lucidity and struggling to hold on to the ephemeral realizations and positivity I’d gleaned, I asked Dr. Mandel his advice on how to best hold onto these feelings.

“It’s best to try and think of this as a journey,” he told me.

At the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to take Dr. Mandel’s advice but, in the coming days, as I reflected on the mental hurdles I’d cleared that week, it started to make sense. My depressive thoughts had been somewhat abated by the infusions. I couldn’t deny that. But these enlightening sessions were merely pit stops in a never-ending series of self-audits and self-care.

I’m so grateful to have experienced this form of therapy, even if my symptoms warranted it less than those with more severe forms of depression. As the memories of those infusions continue to fade, I’ll do my utmost to keep a grasp on the feelings of hope and tranquility they imparted upon me. And, who knows, maybe I’ll stop in again someday for an optimism top-off when my reserves are inevitably depleted again.

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