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Why Did I Think Ketamine Could Cure Me?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

If it’s good quality, the drug comes as semi-transparent shards. I liked to pretend that the bag was full of tiny pieces of broken glass; a very special kind with spiritual significance to it, like a witch’s scrying mirror or crystal ball, a thing meant to assist me in moving through an esoteric ritual. From bitter winter into late spring 2021, my ritual was as follows: After I finished my work for the day, ate dinner, and did my household chores, I would dim the lights in my bedroom, the warm orange glow of my night-table lamps splashing across the duvet. I would choose some down-tempo electronic album to resonate out of the tiny speaker beside me on the bed. Then I would tap a little bit of the glasslike drug onto a surface, crush it up into a fine powder, and snort it. Basking in the low light and ethereal music, I lay back comfortably as everything twisted and stretched and everything stopped making sense. Surprise, wonder, and confoundment took over me as I spiraled deeper into incoherence. What did it mean to be me? What was I doing living in the world? What was the purpose of a body, the purpose of a mind? Coming down from a trip so ruthlessly existential, I felt a visceral understanding of the deep strangeness of life and personhood. My ritual was humbling in a way that was comforting, and that helped diminish my anxiety and stress. It seemed like a godsend.

I had my first experiences with ketamine a decade ago, back when it was still sold in cute little vials meant to be worn around your neck while dancing. My friends and I would take small doses and go to parties or walk around the city laughing at nothing. In tiny amounts, the drug works on you like alcohol’s pseudo-psychedelic cousin, woozy and disinhibiting and fun — hence its popularity within EDM scenes. At larger doses, ketamine is something else entirely. Take enough and you’ll land in a k-hole, a twilight zone where the mind turns in on itself and enters a carnival of flashing thoughts and visions. To the uninitiated, it sounds unpleasant, and sometimes it is. It can be disorienting and even frightening. But a trip, if all goes well, is incredibly rejuvenating, like an accelerated meditative retreat away from the reality of everyday life.

During that period earlier this year, a restorative break from daily life was an idea that packed irresistible allure. Reading the news and talking to others, it seemed like the world was accelerating quickly toward its catastrophic demise. The pandemic was taking the planet like an unstoppable forest fire, and our governments were reacting to it with typical incompetence. The speed with which wealth moved from the poor and working class to the hyperrich exponentially increased. In the U.S., police and the state quashed righteous protests for Black lives; in Canada, where I live, the same was happening to protests to preserve old-growth forest in British Columbia’s Fairy Creek and against illegal pipelines in the Wet’suwet’en territory of B.C. Beneath it all lurked the abysmal specter of climate crisis. I was a horrified and helpless witness to the death rattles of the late Anthropocene. Which is to say, I was deeply, meaningfully stressed out.

Conversations about mental health have never been more common or public. A brief scroll through any given social-media feed reveals endless infographics about the importance of meditation, jokes about the necessity of therapy, and tips on managing anxiety. We’re urged to become knowledgeable about our own mental health, find self-care strategies, and seek out therapeutic and psychiatric treatments that will help us mitigate our symptoms and maximize our ability to be healthy and productive. My ritual with the drug was inspired by the growing interest in its use as a radical treatment for depression and PTSD. Clinics that provide professionally supervised ketamine injections were beginning to pop up in cities across the world, offering mentally ill patients intense trips in safe, clinical environments — provided their pockets were deep. Most insurers don’t cover the still-fringe treatments, which typically cost thousands of dollars. Early research has been very promising; patients have undergone dramatic, profound changes after being treated with ketamine. Headlines have hailed it as a miracle drug for its supposed ability to “cure” severe depression.

I harbored hopes that ketamine would be my miracle drug, shining its bright light on my psyche’s shadow self, spiritually soothing my woes, and rendering me a happy, competent person in my daily life. For a while, this is what happened. After tripping, I would wake the next morning calm and rested, turning to my work with greater attention. I found myself less distractible and embittered, able to handle stressors with more grace. I gushed about my success with the drug to my partner and friends, excited and enthusiastic, relaying my hopes that it was pushing me toward a state of total mental wellness.

But over time, my enthusiasm began to diminish. Late in spring, I was hit hard by personal grief, and again I turned to ketamine to help guide me through it. Instead, I found that I had reached a plateau, that I had maxed out the usefulness of tripping. I increased my doses, thinking that an increased tolerance of its effects was to blame. But the more I used, the less I got out of it. Coming down from a trip, I started to feel anxious and unsettled rather than fulfilled. I had tried to extract more from the drug than it was capable of giving me, and it was telling me to back off. I felt cheated. My general mental health had improved, but I could still be stricken by anguish and pain, and there was no eluding that. My mind and spirit would not be free of worry and despair, despite my hopes.

We want to believe that if we find the perfect self-care regimen, we can live our lives free of stress, but no mental-health treatment is good enough to avoid being crushed between the twin mammoths of communal and individual sorrow. Tripping on ketamine was the treatment most suitable for me, at least for a while. But it was never going to enable me to thrive, because what’s barring me from thriving isn’t just my psychology. How can a person rid themselves of poor mental health while living in a world on the brink of a mass-extinction event? The drug was just one of many tactics I threw at my anxiety and depression, praying for it to stick, to rid me of them. But anxiety and depression are, to some degree, a normal and healthy reaction to the kind of world we’re living in. They just prove you’re paying attention.

Why Did I Think Ketamine Could Cure Me?