marisa meltzer

Trying Something New in Isolation

Blackout series Illustration: Jules Julien

The way I imagined my first sanctioned experience with psychedelics was very specific. I had a whole plan: I would be in the Netherlands, eating vegan meals and sitting in a cedar sauna at Synthesis, a retreat outside of Amsterdam where I would participate in psilocybin-truffle ceremonies with a group of 12 women. I am the kind of person who would go to therapy every day if I could afford it, and I’ve never heard of a shamanic ceremony I wasn’t willing to try. The five-day retreat sounded wonderful. It was supposed to begin on March 12, right as the pandemic got very real.

After my plans were canceled and I began self-isolating in my Brooklyn apartment, alone, I spent at least five days being disappointed — crying over a canceled book tour; loss of work; dashed expectations; fear for my friends, the essential workers, the world. Eventually I had to find a way to get over myself, or at least to get through the days.

Mild but persistent depression has been a steady feature of my life, the kind that drapes everything in a dark cloud even in the best of times. While I am often cheerful and function fine, I have a hard time sustaining any kind of happiness, which baffles me, my family, and sometimes, my doctors, too, who have overseen me trying out at least a dozen prescription-drug combinations over the years, none of them really working that well. I often want nothing more than a break from myself, to disconnect a little while.

Psilocybin and MDMA treatments are undergoing clinical trials for FDA approval, but ketamine is the only psychedelic medicine that can currently be prescribed here in New York for depression. If ever there was a moment to try a dissociative drug, quarantine seemed like the one.

Ketamine was first made in a lab in 1962. Approved by the FDA as an anesthesia since the early ’70s, it was used as a club drug (“Special K”) in the ’90s, and has recently made a comeback among recreational drug users. It was also in the ’90s that researchers started to get interested in its use for depression. After the first placebo-controlled, double-blind trial in 2000 and another in 2006 found that subjects felt relief from depression and despair, the field of doctors and clinics using ketamine for mental health slowly took off.

I asked Lauren Taus, who practices ketamine-assisted psychotherapy in Southern California, to explain what ketamine does to the brain in layman’s terms. “Someone might tell themselves that they are stupid or ugly or worthless, or whatever story on repeat. What the psychedelic does is allow them to have a suspension of the ordinary mind and disarm their typical defenses enough that they have a new experience of themselves in the world,” she says. “Connections start to develop in order to shift the story and new brain patterns develop.”

Mindbloom, a psychedelic medicine company, opened its Manhattan location on March 9. The company partners with licensed psychiatric clinicians to treat patients over 18 not just for depression but also for anxiety. A press release notes amenities such as “zero gravity chairs, weighted blankets, eye masks, noise-cancelling headphones and aromatherapy on hand for optimal comfort.” The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, for millennials.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Mindbloom has pivoted, like so many businesses that could, to a slightly different model. Originally, a patient’s first session was at the clinic and subsequent ones — Mindbloom recommends a series of four over about a month to treat depression — could be done at home for $150 to $250 per session. While my home would lack the group-awakening possibilities (and spa services) of my original plans, I realized Mindbloom might help me replicate what I had hoped for — at least somewhat.

After signing up, I had an initial screening with medical director Dr. Casey Paleos that included a discussion of my mental health (depression and anxiety that often defied traditional antidepressants and ramped up due to the current state of things), any previous experience with psychedelics (recreationally and ceremonially, yes, always underground and never with ketamine), and with therapy (I have been in it most of my life). It wasn’t long and relatively easy — maybe too easy — and a few days later the ketamine prescription was mailed to me along with a kind of starter pack: a branded journal and pen, blood-pressure monitor (ketamine can elevate your blood pressure), a really nice eye mask, and some Listerine strips to pop after the ketamine lozenges dissolve (to help with the bitter, synthetic aftertaste). It felt almost too fun for something as painful as depression, and branded in a way that was baffling. What was I supposed to do with the included logo sticker?

Because I was quarantining alone, Mindbloom required that I secure someone in my building to agree to be my minder, or in the lingo of Mindbloom, my “Peer Treatment Monitor.” I would be on a Zoom call with Paleos during the treatment, but the neighbor would be the one I turned to for immediate help if there was, say, a fire in my building while I was tripping (a term entrepreneurs and boosters worried about legitimacy are prickly about). The threat of an emergency worried me much less than asking a near stranger to agree to all of this.

“I’m doing a weird therapy and need someone in the building to agree to be available if there’s like a huge emergency like a fire in the building,” I texted a downstairs neighbor I had spoken to perhaps three times prior. We had chatted in the stairwell about pets, and I had borrowed his phone after I left mine in an Uber about a month earlier, but I didn’t know his job or even his last name. Still, seeming somewhat reluctant, he said yes to being available for a few hours during my appointment. The company sent him a document outlining his responsibilities and he had to do a Zoom orientation, after which he told me he was game but worried about social distancing if something really did come up. I reassured him the best I could, and later left him a flourless chocolate cake at his door as a thank-you.

Before my first ketamine session, I put on a caftan and sat on the edge of my bed. Paleos and I began by going over a checklist: Had I recently gone to the bathroom? Did my neighbor have access to my apartment? Was my blood pressure currently under 150? Then I rambled on about my intentions to understand my role in my life’s seemingly endless disappointment like I was seeing my normal therapist (who knew I was doing this and wished me a nice trip). After about half an hour, I put my laptop on my dresser and popped open two lozenges.

Sitting through someone describing a psychedelic trip is on par with hearing someone try to explain a dream in terms of excruciating experiences, so I’ll stick to the broad strokes. Part of Mindbloom’s treatment plan is to journal after an hour, more or less the length of the trip, although after half an hour I started to feel antsy, hungry, sober, bored. Some of my notes make sense, some don’t (I wrote down both “it’s a dialectic” and “attraction is attraction”).

My body felt like a Slinky. I noticed a sense of warmth. Real feelings of being outside, in the sun, real memories of jumping off boats into the water with friends and driving in a car with a guy I was having a fling with in Cape Cod merged with scenes from movies I had seen and fantasies I had had. The present was where I wanted to be, a feeling I can remember having only a few times in my life. There was quotidian stuff too. Vague concerns, like a nagging reminder that I needed to answer an email, slipped in and out of my head the way they do when you’re falling asleep, not quite awake but not out. I felt happy and reassured and like I really wish I could go dancing. After I did my journaling for half an hour, Paleos told me I looked flushed. I did. I had an afterglow that lasted after the roughly two-hour appointment was over.

Doing ketamine felt like a big hug, especially compared to the ruthless emotional accounting and “off in outer space” experience of doing ayahuasca. It also felt less revelatory. Still, in the weeks since, I have had moments where I feel like maybe my thought patterns have changed. Even when I was sad or my most stressed, I never resorted to my usual conclusion that things haven’t gone well because everyone hates me or that I have a terrible personality. But I didn’t feel that changed. I even forgot to bring it up in therapy the following week.

Trying Something New in Isolation