A Ride Like No Other
I’ve received so many questions about my experience with Ketamine that rather than just writing for myself, it seems that the loving thing to do is to share this journey with you in what ways I can. Yes, I used the word loving. I think to use any other term is to discount the significance and depth of such an experience and the incredible support that I’ve received from family, friends and readers, though those divisions now seem much less distinct. If you are reading this, then you are part of my community, whether we’ve ever met in person or not.
I’ll admit that I also feel a certain duty to relate my experience because of the sheer difficulty of trying to describe such a subjective experience, and who better to try to relate that experience than … a writer? What follows is the best reconstruction I can manage of the session. There are holes in my memory as well as parts that I simply don’t know how to relate.
A riding buddy of mine, Jeremy, drove me down because I was told I wouldn’t be permitted to drive home. He has some flexibility in his schedule currently, and he planned to go for a gravel ride while I was in my session. I’d contemplated taking the bus to the train and then a Lyft ride to the appointment, but I was concerned that the whole Planes, Trains and Automobiles routine might be stressful prior to my session and that seemed not the way to get started. I was beyond grateful to him, knowing that down and back were covered, and that peace of mind was valuable.
My counselors brought me into their treatment room, which had the look of a traditional therapist’s office with some chairs and a couch, on which I was seated, along with a desk and some book shelves. It is a very peaceful space with decorative elements that bring together both Eastern and Western culture. The lighting was warm and the couch was just the sort of furniture it would be easy to pass an entire weekend on. There were plenty of throw pillows to situate for maximal comfort.
It is common with many guides for the patient to bring a memento of value, sometimes an offering. I brought one of the laminated maps from the Grasshopper Adventure Series (Super Sweetwater, the event that sparked the post, “On the Nature of Ambition“) along with a compass. My thinking was that for every journey, one needs a map and to find the way home, so I brought along a small compass as well. I put them on the window sill next to me.
I’m leaving out the name of the clinic and the names of my counselors very deliberately. I haven’t yet asked them if I may reveal their identities or the name of their clinic and I believe that even though this is a legal operation, I have a duty to clear that with them. If/when I get that, I’ll be happy to tell more about them; they are a fantastic team.
We began by discussing my current state of mind: current stressors and the like. I spoke of my concerns about the fact that I may need to move soon and I was uneasy because I wasn’t sure just what the solution to that was. Okay, while I respect that my impending divorce is news to readers, it is old news in my life. I’d resumed dating more than a year ago, and had been seeing a woman until earlier this year. Things ended this spring, with a certain amount of on-and-off following that and I’d struggled to let go. When talk turned to my intention for our session, I spoke of wanting to find resolution to that as well as my previously stated desire to curtail, if not eliminate, my negative self talk. I have long been my own worst critic, to the point that I’ve sabotaged wonderful opportunities both personal and professional. That voice, while mine, began with my parents, primarily with my father. And while he may have taught me how to criticize myself, I picked up the ball and ran with it. I’ve done enough counseling to know that I alone am responsible for ending that talk. That voice can tell me that I’m not talented enough, that I lack the social skills, that I don’t work hard enough, that I don’t deserve success or love or even a stable place to live.
They asked me what was the unhappiest period of my life and I responded that it was my childhood, my elementary school years, which were spent in two different Catholic schools. We discussed my ADD and that it caused me problems throughout my childhood; because it wasn’t being diagnosed in the 1970s, my lack of focus and attention on things that weren’t interesting to me frustrated teachers and made it difficult for me to relate to many of my peers. I wasn’t friendless, but my particular combination of introversion combined with ADD meant that I always had just a few friends at any period of my life. Many of my teachers couldn’t understand why someone so intelligent didn’t do better in school and as a result I had a number of hostile and even antagonistic relationships with educators. And I, being a kid, had no perspective on why my school life was going the way it was. That had been a source of chronic stress and occasionally acute trauma for me.
When I was asked about my larger intention for my life, what eliminating the negative self talk would allow me to do, I didn’t struggle to answer. I would be able to achieve more of what I’m capable as a writer. I’ve got several books I want to write, and this internal editor can kneecap an NFL lineman. We discussed how my internal editor had a hand-in-glove relationship with my modesty. I perpetually walk through my professional life thinking that people don’t know who I am, aren’t familiar with my work, don’t recall who I am, don’t much care who I am. I have a great deal of objective evidence otherwise, but the nature of depression is that it can dispense with realities like the blue of the sky without so much as a wave of a magic wand. My parents raised me not to be egotistical, so no matter how talented and hard-working I might be, there is a processor in me that keeps me in check. Modesty is the only attitude that allows me to sleep at night. Never mind the fact that I don’t sleep all that well.
One of my counselors next asked me, “How would you stack up as a writer? Are you in the top 20 percent?” My mind raced. Of writers in the world? No fucking way. Of writers in the U.S.? In the English language? Surely not. I hedged and my counselor could see it.
“You can’t do it, huh?” His smile was empathetic, but he was going to press me because my ability to state my worth was the objective correlative that I was making progress.
“How about … in Sonoma County? Are you in the top 20 percent in Sonoma County?” I nodded yes; that was easy. Certainly I was at least that good. Of course, this was his low-ball offer. “Are you in the top 5 percent?” I paused, and then said yes with an added nod. Then he went back to the top 30 percent (I think) of writers. My eyebrows went up. He was fishing for a way for me to state my value in the highest possible terms. I then stepped in myself.
“I’ll say I’m in the top 5 percent of people who write about cycling.”
“Yeah, within my professional sphere.” And then I added, “Ever.” That was the best I could do.
Writing this now makes me intensely uncomfortable. The delete key is taunting me.
Finally, we turned to the medicine. The psychiatrist in the team who actually prescribes the Ketamine, explained the procedure to me. I would take the lozenge and hold it under my tongue and allow it to dissolve completely. I was not to swallow for 12 minutes and during that time I was to swish the dissolved Ketamine around my mouth making sure as much of my mucosa came in contact with it as possible, which would speed its absorption. The only option faster than this is an intramuscular injection, which is shorthanded as IM. At 20 minutes I would be monitored and if everything was going well, I would be given more of the medicine. They gave me the lozenge, which was mango flavored and I began my swish and wait.
I was instructed that if I encountered anything that caused me fear or made me afraid, that I shouldn’t run from it; I should move toward it, to face it.
They reclined the couch I was on—it had a fold out leg rest and the back tilted to give me a reclined position. I donned an eye mask that had foam with cutouts over the eyes so that you can leave your eyes open and look around, though in complete darkness. Someone draped a blanket over me. I was as comfortable as I was going to be, short of a nap.
Next, we began some calming breathing exercises. While they didn’t give me much direction, I chose to inhale and exhale on a count of five so that each complete cycle lasted about 10 seconds. At 12 minutes I was instructed to swallow, by which time, due to its anesthetic properties, my mouth and tongue were somewhat numb—not like novocaine numb, but sensation was definitely reduced. I recall moving my jaw, lips and tongue as I tried to accustom myself to the sensation.
At 20 minutes, one of my counselors asked me what I could see. I could tell that the world was beginning to shift, though I really had very little to go on. Something was definitely different, but I couldn’t say that things were just different, because I couldn’t see different.
I thought for a moment and said, “I’m beginning to see purple.”
I take it that was less result than they were expecting; I was given two more lozenges and repeated the previous process. Twenty minutes from that point, the world became very different.
I recall reporting that time was like taffy, that it could be stretched and twisted, that I could go anywhere in time, or in space, for that matter. I could be in my kitchen washing dishes one moment, and the next in my car driving. For reasons I can’t begin to guess, I returned to the uphill time trial I wrote about in the post, “High Water Mark.” I would return to it several times, feeling myself turn over that 53×19, a gear that now seems utterly monstrous, a nitro dragster to my present-day Mini Cooper.
At some point I was asked about my experience and I reported, “The world is beginning to melt.” I can tell you that was absolutely my perception, but I can’t begin to explain why. Things were running together in my head and while I couldn’t see anything, I had a kind of vision of a wall dripping down like paint running on a vertical surface, like so much rain washing down a watercolor painting.
My counselors played music in the background. It was stuff that I’d classify as New Age-y; this was a very deliberate choice on their part. The pieces were long so as not to impose a sense of time on me and were largely meandering and without melody. There was occasionally drumming, even what I might call a beat, but it was more a rhythm than a driving pulse. There were no vocals at all.
At one point one of my guides spoke to me, I believe attempting to give me some instruction or cautioning me about something. Understanding language right then was colossally difficult. Though I knew the words and recognized them in English, connecting them to meanings and arranging them in a grammatical fashion, or perhaps I should say that keeping them in the order in which she said them—remember time was plastic—so that the syntax made sense to my scrambled cortex, well that was asking a lot. I could see her statement hang in the darkness, but there was way too much to it. I could have dealt with a simple declarative sentence, but something with a comma and I think a conditional, well that shit was just too much to deal with. Trying to make sense of it was pulling me back to Earth, so I let the statement, which hung in the air like the arrangement of pipes at an oil refinery, running hither and to, interconnected—I let it settle to the floor where it decayed into a scribble, not something orderly, and I turned and walked away from it. It was the only thing I could do.
My mind turned to the woman who I’d seen until earlier this year. I’d experienced a great deal of pain over the end of that relationship. I could see a kind of ramp representing the end of my marriage, one that was so long and shallow in pitch, that there was barely any grade to it, representing the years over which my marriage came apart. The end of this relationship came much more suddenly to my eye, and was wholly unexpected; it was represented by something with the pitch of a black diamond sky run. I saw her holding a baby and then she and the baby merged into one and suddenly I was holding her, swaddled in an infant’s wrappings; she transformed into an infant. I held her and a feeling of love swept over me. Not a romantic love, but one of caring, of regard of celebration of the beauty of who she was and who she still had room to become. I felt protective, but I also felt the ability to let go and watch her dispassionately, to allow her the grace to evolve without concern for her relationship to me.
I believe it was just after this that I was asked once again how I was feeling. It took me forever to answer, my memory tells me, but that’s as trustworthy as the testimony of a sociopath. Eventually I said, very slowly, “I feel wonderful.”
I paused. I licked my lips and moved my jaw up and down and waggled my tongue in my mouth a bit. Speaking had been novel. Then I added, “I wish everyone could experience this. I’d like to share this with the whole world.” I had a certainty that if the entire planet could have the experience I was having the world would be a very different place. A better, happier, more peaceful one.
What happened next, so far as I can tell or convince myself, was the pivotal moment of the entire session. I’ve written it up as a separate post you can find here.
What I will say about it here is that as happens in these circumstances, I didn’t receive the thing I was looking for. It is said that in psychedelic therapy, you may not get what you want, but you will get what you need. I wanted my inner editor silenced, my self-talk to stop being so negative and harmful and to feel a release from my father’s abuse, and if possible, some greater peace about the end of my most recent relationship. I did receive some of the last, and at least some relief from my father.
However, what played out was me getting something other than what I wanted, truly. And yet, what took place served me well in considering my self talk. I’ll explain this more fully in the other post.
Once I began to come around, I spoke with my counselors and told them about all that I could remember of the experience, beyond what they had already heard me say. Talking with them was difficult as my vision was very altered. One of my counselors had three eyes. I hung out on the couch for a few more minutes until I thought I could walk. I began to notice a bit of nausea. Walking to the waiting room where I’d be picked up later was a challenge. Like I drank a whole bottle of wine and maybe had one shot of bourbon.
Not having been part of the rave scene, I didn’t have any experience with Special K. I’m unable to believe anyone would deliberately take this much of that drug to party on, which means that must have been a pretty standard party dose. Holy cow.
I sat in the waiting room for another 90 minutes before I was really ready to leave. Even then, I was nauseated, unsteady on my feet and my brain sputtered like so many popping carbonation bubbles.
I was grateful for the experience. I was grateful for my guides. I was grateful for the insights I’d gained. Did I have fun? Not anything like it. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Would I do it recreationally? Not a chance.
It’s work. Like all the worthwhile stuff, it’s work.