Set Point

When I begin a Ketamine session I can feel changes throughout my body. It’s different than the effect of alcohol, but in a manner similar to alcohol, I feel it throughout my body and it’s something I settle into. The next phase is when I begin to merge with my surroundings. To a great degree, it feels like melting and that is the best description I have for that part of the experience. I gradually become less and less aware of my body. It’s as if it becomes invisible to me.

I’ve sometimes wondered what the Cheshire Cat sees when it becomes invisible. I can now answer that definitively. It does not see itself. And that the Cheshire Cat’s smile is the one part of it that may remain, is perfect. The last part of me to leave this realm is my mouth, particularly my lips and tongue. Once those are gone, I’m gone.

Then comes the zoom. I call it the zoom because that’s when my state changes from feeling the effect of a pharmaceutical to either entering another dimension or taking leave of my body. Or both. And possibly something else. The zoom also feels like liftoff, that my mind is taking flight. This is the point where I once laughed and said aloud, “I’m losing my mind.”

I laughed because of the absolute weirdness of the experience. It is my natural habit to laugh at absurdity and the psychedelic experience cannot be divorced from absurdity.

One of the aspects of having a guide or guides with you for these sessions that can only be appreciated once one has had this experience is the reassurance that nothing will happen to your body while you’re gone. It’s called “holding space,” and Michael Pollan explains it elegantly in “How to Change Your Mind.” Until you’ve departed for dimensions unknown, the value of this security cannot be calculated in any meaningful way. During my home sessions I take an extra minute or two to situate myself in my bed with pillows so that I know I’m not going to roll out or grab a pocket knife or put my hand through a plate glass window. Neither of those latter two options are ever close at hand, nor am I concerned about them in any concrete way, but they do serve to illustrate the sorts of worries one might have.

Holding space wouldn’t be a thing, as we say, if at these high dosages I didn’t so thoroughly depart my body. With no sense of my physical being, my ego wants to hold on to reality and can resist the zoom, limiting the experience, a dog on a leash. Having someone hold space for you is to be released into a gigantic dog park. It’s easier to let go.

And the letting go is both literal and metaphoric. These sessions have been instrumental in me letting go in another way—of old wounds, among them the deepest psychic wounds I’ve suffered. So much so, that I took action on one.

My father and I became estranged this time last year. In what may seem an odd twist, the nature of our issue is something I’d rather leave personal. To go chapter, verse, on it feels less like the work of a writer than the airing of dirty laundry and one dimension I need to consider is that while I accept the public position I’ve thrust myself into, not a single person in my life has asked to get on this ride with me, and if I’m really the guy I’m trying to be, I need to allow them the grace to have the thornier parts of their intimate relationships stay private.

That I began this work when I did resulted in a surprising coincidence of time. The anniversary of the day that our relationship got napalmed (yep, passive voice) came last week and I considered it to be a fitting time to walk the walk of my growth. In two of them I had experiences of forgiving him for old hurts. It was fitting to pick that anniversary as the day to begin mending that fence. His response was unbelievably gracious and healing. I feel as if a part of my body was restored.

If that were the only real achievement of this work, I’d judge it a massive success. It is, however, not the most significant development to come out of my treatment.

Let me explain with a brief anecdote.

When I rode the California Coast Classic I arrived there fresh off of my first two Ketamine treatments, the second having taken place the morning of the day that I drove down (six hours passed between when I finished and when I got in the car). My mood was so good on a day-to-day basis, I had to wonder if I was looking at the world through a Ketamine lens; think the psychedelic version of beer goggles. But there was no Ketamine in my system when I got in the car. Trust me, I couldn’t have driven with 200mg of Ketamine in my system.

I’m uncomfortable admitting that I had to ask myself whether or not my experience was honest, or if in some way it was drug-induced. For me, there’s a concern that admitting such a thing will undercut its validity and importance for anyone not traveling this route. I’m also uncomfortable because I fear that the people who met me on the California Coast Classic will wonder if they met the real me. And I’d rather bury myself in mud than have someone conclude they’d met a fake.

The reality is simple: the people I met there are awesome, and because of the improvement in my emotional well-being I was able to see them though a lens undimmed by depression. I could be sad about the tragedy of all that I’ve missed out on due to depression, but that’s a waste of energy. I’d rather just get on with the business of living in this newly Kodachromed world.

The conclusion I arrived at, the only explanation that confirms not only my experience there, but the deep value of this work is that the Ketamine has helped me reach a fresh set-point on my personal emotional thermometer. I’m trying not to be surprised here; this is the very thing I sought, but from where I sat six weeks ago, I couldn’t have described just what the thing I was seeking felt like. If you’ve never been to Paris, and never seen any photos of the City of Light, your first view of the Eiffel Tower will be a shock.

And, good lord, Paris is beautiful. Who knew?

It’s not uncommon for people to think that depression is just an unshakeable sadness. For some, it certainly is. For me, and others I know, the world is drained of color. Any good experience can’t be trusted, friends lie when they tell me they want to spend time with me and I am often unable to give myself permission to do anything pleasurable. The world isn’t exciting or fun and when I encounter something that is fun, I spoil it with dread about how the world will return to a place of unrewarding suffering at any moment.

It’s been said that depression and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, that they share a common DNA in rumination, with depression being rumination about the past and anxiety rumination about the future. I can see now that one of the reasons I have been such a flow state junkie my entire life is that flow is a time when I can’t possibly be anywhere other than the present. In finally understanding that, I could see the heart of my problem; I wasn’t living in the present and the present is the only place where we can find joy.

Following my third Ketamine session I was speaking to a friend and attempting to explain how much my general mood has improved. I referred to it as my emotional set point. I look at it as more than just mood, though. It’s a measure of the temperature of my psychological state, which has risen. If I were to grade myself on a 10-point scale, last winter was a 2. this summer was a 5. The summer before might have been a 7. And today I’m at least a 7.5, possibly an 8.

When I consider all the counseling I’ve undergone over the years and the insights I have gained, what Ketamine has instilled in me in terms of a more deeply realized appreciation for both love and kindness, all those little insights become garden-variety duhs. It’s as if my emotional IQ has gone up by 100 points.

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