A major mental health healing solution is on the horizon: ketamine therapy. A growing body of research shows that the drug, which has long been used as an anesthetic in emergency departments, can be an effective treatment option for several mental health conditions, particularly for people who aren’t getting relief from traditional interventions. It was approved by the FDA last year in nasal spray form for treatment-resistant depression, and many clinics also administer it off-label via IV infusions or dissolvable pills for depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.
So how does ketamine work? For one, its been shown to boost the function of brain circuits damaged by stress, then later actually repair those circuits, per a study on mice in the journal Science. It can also up the number of serotonin receptors in the brain, found a small Swedish study, making it easier to absorb the “happy” hormone. For 72 percent of the 30 participants, this boost occurred within 24 to 72 hours, which explains why ketamine can provide rapid relief for depression.
For the 10 to 30 percent of people with depression and PTSD who don’t respond well to traditional drugs or treatments (mostly women, btw!), options like ketamine offer a new solution. Here, Melanie Lowery shares how ketamine helped her mental health amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and what it’s like to do guided ketamine treatments at home.
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life and been on some form of SSRI since 1992. Those drugs worked for me, but only for a while. About 10 years ago, I started to feel like they were only “leveling off” my emotions, and then that baseline would gradually sink until I tried a new drug and the process started all over again.
At one point, I tried eight different kinds of drugs in one year, and the side effects were horrible: extreme fatigue, weight gain, no sex drive. I reached a point where I just didn’t want to feel numb anymore, so I started looking into alternative treatments.
It didn’t take me long to fall down the psychedelic rabbit hole in my research.
After a lot of Googling, I applied for clinical trials studying psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and MDMA, but I didn’t get in to any of them. I discovered there was legal psilocybin treatment in Jamaica and planned to drop a lot of money to travel there and try it. But in early March, right before the trip, a poster in New York City (where I was on sabbatical at the time) caught my eye. It read: “Psychedelic medicine is here.”
The poster was advertising a new ketamine treatment facility called Mindbloom, a mental health clinic run by licensed pros in psychiatric ketamine therapy, clinical psychology, and psychedelic research. I’d looked into ketamine IV treatment, which was really expensive, but this clinic offered a similar treatment with sublingual pills for as little as $150 per dose. I put the Jamaica trip on hold and went to the clinic instead.
After an initial evaluation to determine if I was a good candidate for this kind of treatment, I had my first session at their clinic in NoMad, New York City (which has since shut down due to COVID-19). The in-person sessions took place in a comfy, living room-like setting. I sat in a zero-gravity chair, the lights were low, and I wore a soft eye shade and headphones that pumped out a calming playlist. A psychiatric nurse practitioner stays in the treatment area the whole time. She gave me the pills, which dissolve in your mouth over a few minutes.
My first ketamine trip was a totally out-of-body, dissociative experience.
I didn’t see the Kool-Aid colors you always associate with psychedelics, but there were pleasant, low-level visuals. I know it sounds weird, but at one point, it felt like I dissolved into my atoms and they floated up into deep space to commingle with the stars. When I came out of it the very first time I was just ecstatic.
I wasn’t cured of depression or anything, but it was such a vacation from myself that I was overwhelming grateful. Even if nothing happened long-term, having an escape outside of my body, outside of my cares, left me feeling so light. I walked home and slept for the rest of the day and most of the next, but then I was back to functioning normally. I knew I wanted to keep going in for treatments.
I was scheduled for one session a week, and then the pandemic happened.
Luckily, Mindbloom was already equipped for telemedicine sessions, so it was a smooth transition to at-home treatment. They sent me everything I needed to keep going on my own: a blood pressure cuff, an eye shade, playlists, anti-nausea medication, and the ketamine pills.
Before my sessions, I did a video consult with the nurse practitioner, and then my partner acted as my “trip-sitter,” occasionally checking in on me and touching my toes after an hour to make sure I was slowly coming back into my body again. Once the ketamine wore off, I debriefed again with the nurse practitioner over video call.
After my second session in mid-March, I noticed that I was doing more around the house; I wasn’t over-sleeping. I was just able to function better. I was feeling good, especially given the stress of the pandemic.
After the third at-home treatment at the end of March, I noticed a real lift in my mood. I went outside and actually said, “Oh, it’s so pretty today.” I noticed I could smile without it being fake. After three home sessions, my partner and I moved to Florida for a few months, where I was able to continue treatment. Now, I’ve completed three rounds, with four sessions each, and recently started on a fourth round of treatment.
Before I started using ketamine, I felt like I had run up against a wall in therapy. Now I feel better than ever.
There was nothing else to talk about anymore in traditional talk therapy for me, without my ketamine experience to complement it. But with the help of this medicine, I’ve dredged up so much stuff to unpack and discuss with my therapist. I increased my talk sessions to twice a week because I had so much to get through.
I feel like my brain is changing too. I no longer want to drink—I don’t like the numbing quality anymore. I make more connections and associations between things around me, like something I see or a song, and a memory, and that integration between my outer world and inner world feels so meaningful.
Honestly, I feel like I’m 100 percent in remission from depression. I’ve spent almost my whole life on pharmaceutical drugs, and I’m so glad that’s over, at least for now. (I weaned off of my SSRIs safely, with my clinician in the know.) I can do these ketamine sessions every few weeks and go about my normal life in between without all the awful side effects I had before. The negative was outweighing the positive when it came to the pharmaceutical drugs I was taking. I feel like I’ve finally found a sustainable solution.
Eventually, I may not need ketamine to maintain my mood, but I don’t want to stop treatment.
It’s enjoyable for me and I only want to go deeper with my introspection. I feel like ketamine is preparing me for when psilocybin is legal, and then I’ll be able to do even further self-exploration through that. My friends think the treatment sounds a little weird—I get a lot of “But isn’t that a horse tranquilizer?” or, “Wait, is that what ‘Special K’ is?” I try to explain that yes, it’s the same thing, but the way it’s used—in a safe, controlled environment, in combination with therapy, is completely different.
No one can really argue with the huge shift in my mood. They’re happy, and a little bit blown away, with how much better I’m doing.
This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Women’s Health. Subscribe now.
You Might Also Like