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Leave Your Body at the Door

How ketamine became the drug of choice for our dissociated moment.

Photo: Hero Images Inc./Getty Images/Hero Images
Photo: Hero Images Inc./Getty Images/Hero Images

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It was well past the hour for getting trashed, but James still couldn’t switch off his work-brain. The 29-year-old had come straight to the party from the office, and despite the array of Friday-night delights his friends thrust at him — cheap beer, crumbly coke, a hit of a rare mango Juul pod — his mind was still stuck at his job. Then his friend — the kind of friend who carries a coke-spoon on her like it’s an EpiPen — offered him a bump of ketamine.

“Nothing that I’d heard about ketamine sounded appealing to me,” recalls James, who had tried it before in tiny doses, just enough to feel a bit loopy and drowsy. “But something in my mindset switched that night, and I was just like: fuck it, I’ll just go wild and plunge full in, and I took the biggest bump of K I’d ever taken.”

Technically speaking, ketamine is a dissociative anesthetic, meaning that it numbs your body and makes you feel apart from your environment — like you’re watching your own life happen instead of living it. But that doesn’t begin to capture the weirdness of what it feels like to get high on K. As one friend put it to me: “It’s like walking from your kitchen to your living room, and from your living room to your kitchen, and it’s uphill both ways, but you’ve never had so much fun walking up a hill.” It’s true that K can make both you and the world feel tilted — as if you’re walking on an underwater treadmill pitched at a 45-degree incline. Thought-trains jump their tracks, anxieties float off like helium balloons, and everything becomes silly and warped, like filming a movie through a camera with a fish-eye lens. At least, that’s one possible outcome.

Ketamine has a triple-threat of sedative, stimulating, and psychedelic effects, which vary depending on how much you do and what other substances you combine it with. “It’s just a very strange drug — the strangest drug,” Dr. Joseph Palamar, an NYU professor and expert in recreational substances told me recently. It’s also extremely potent; the difference between a goofy buzz and total body paralysis could be as little as one or two baggie-dips. If every generation of partiers gets the drug that speaks to them — the psychedelic ’60s, the coke-and-disco-fueled ’70s, and the MDMA-hued early aughts — then perhaps the end of the decade marks the dawn of the dissociation generation.

Since that night a few months ago, James has joined a growing number of young professional New Yorkers who are trading their white baggies of coke for white baggies of ketamine, or simply mixing them both together (he and his friends call this mixture “revolutionary lines,” while others refer to them as Calvin Klein lines, so named for the combo of C and K). While the sideways-ness of K may not seem like the most intuitive replacement for the pure up of cocaine, both substances can be defibrillators for parties on life-support; dosed right, K has a stimulating effect that can keep an after-party going into the wee hours of the morning. Like coke — and unlike MDMA or psychedelics — the effects of snorting ketamine subside in less time than it takes to watch your average Netflix special, and rarely cause a hangover if consumed in moderation. (One New York drug dealer sells a gram for about half the price of coke, and it lacks cocaine’s stigma as a source of cartel violence and environmental destruction). Most importantly, instead of fueling anxiety and heated close-talk, it makes you feel like you’re giving your brain a bath in a pool of warm macaroni. “Coke brings this intensity to everything,” says James. “K does the opposite — it provides this looseness, and the feeling that things really aren’t significant.” And these days, who really wants to spend their free time doing a bunch of uppers and talking about the news?

For James that night at the party, what rushed over him was a sense of strange wonder. “There was something profound and spiritual about it, where I was having an alternative perception of the world in which time and space had different qualities, and the world didn’t seem real,” he recalls. His limbs felt as heavy as sandbags, and he struggled to drag them the 12 feet from the living room to the kitchen. Eventually — in what he thinks was probably 15 minutes but felt like an hour — the intensity wore off, but a feeling of pleasurable lopsidedness remained. “I felt this sort of ongoing euphoria and silliness that I hadn’t felt since childhood.” What resulted was one of the most fun nights of his life. He and his friends turned the living room into a sweaty dance party, contorting their faces like Plasticine and flailing their limbs like those inflatable tube men at a used-car lot. “It wasn’t like when you’re drunk when you feel really out of control. I felt like I could completely be ridiculous and that would be liberating.” He left the party and walked the entire 40 minutes back to his house, feeling calm, at peace, and happy to be alive. And he had totally forgotten about his crappy day at the office.

“We’re all so overwhelmed, it makes sense that we’re literally taking dissociatives,” adds Claire, 32, a Brooklyn filmmaker, whose group of friends — primarily queer women — have adopted ketamine as their drug of choice in the past few years. “We don’t have time to be hungover, everybody is exhausted, and pulled in so many different directions. It’s the peak of distraction culture.” In 2019, escaping isn’t just something you do for fun; it’s a survival tactic at a time where the world feels so inescapably stressful and out of control. We spend our days being force-fed the unrelenting news cycle — with its heady brew of climate crisis, political chaos, and technological dystopia — then binge TV at night like a sedative. Meanwhile, it’s harder than ever for our minds to take a night off. The internet has eroded the boundary between home and work; even going on vacation provides little respite when you’re still trapped in your phone’s glowing orbit.

But ketamine puts life on airplane mode. “Phones aren’t really a thing when you’re on K,” adds Claire. “You’re creating an internal world. You’re not trying to reach out or engage with anyone but yourself and who you’re with.”

Ketamine was patented in the U.S. in 1966 for use as an anesthetic, and was approved by the FDA in 1970. Its relative safety and efficacy has made it a mainstay in operating rooms around the world, as well as in veterinary medicine (because of its reputation as a horse tranquilizer, one recreational user said his group of friends refer to it as “pony medicine” and greet its arrival at a party with a chorus of neighs.) Like any drug, risks abound: heavy use can lead to chronic bladder and urinary tract damage, while high doses can cause significant cognitive impairment which have led to a handful of highly publicized deaths in the U.K. and elsewhere, often from accidents like falling or drowning. Still the World Health Organization says overdoses are rare, and it has a lower dependence potential than drugs like caffeine, marijuana, MDMA, and alcohol. Most of the stigma comes from the cultural lore of the “K-hole” — the full dissociative experience that ravages your speech capabilities and motor functions and can make you feel, as James did, like he’d entered another dimension. Whether this feels pleasurable depends on your taste in altered states. As Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim, said in a 1998 Muzik article: “Get the quantity right and it’s incredible. Get it wrong and you feel like you’re dying.”

Then again, for some experienced psychonauts, K-holes are the whole point. 30-year-old Luke, a floppy-haired Canadian with a goofy grin, signed up to volunteer at a music festival guiding people through bad trips. But before he did it, he wanted to see what the experience of K-holing might be like, so he got his friend to call him on Skype, and then snorted half a gram of ketamine in one line (which is a lot). “Within 30 seconds it’s coming almost up my feet and up my body; everything’s tingling. And in the instant that it reaches my head, the entire world ceases to exist. Everyone I knew was gone, but for some reason I was very complacent. I was just a ball of energy in a galaxy far far away, and from there I was kind of watching worlds and societies form in fast motion. It basically ended with me kind of waking and coming to in the shower naked half an hour later.” Then he remembered the friend he had called on Skype. “Apparently I just said ‘I’m out, good night, the world doesn’t exist, good-bye family.’ And then I started taking off my clothes.”

Like most new substances, as soon as K was invented, people quickly started investigating whether it was a good thing to shove up their noses for fun. In the 1980s and ’90s, the growth of rave culture brought it onto New York dance floors and it became a staple of the club kid scene, prompting the first wave of ketamine trend pieces. “Whether it’s a gay all-nighter, or at a hard techno rave patronized by young, white out-of-towners, the picture is invariably the same. Come 3 a.m., the dance floor is littered with those wasted on ketamine,” Muzik Magazine wrote in that same 1998 article. American authorities responded by cracking down on its recreational use, and by 1999 the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency had labeled it a schedule III substance. As its popularity waned in the States over the next decade, it became a fixture in places like Russia, South East Asia, and Western Europe. While many millennial drug users in the U.S. may not have tried ketamine until recently, it has long been a staple of Britain’s drug scene. In 1999, Time Out London declared “Ketamine is the new E.”

Yet in the past few years, it seems that ketamine has found its way back into New York’s needy nostrils. While K is still fringe compared to MDMA or cocaine, Palamar, who also works as a researcher at NYU’s Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research, says that he has seen significant increases in the number of nightclub and festival attendees using the drug, with prevalence doubling over approximately the last four years. Brooklyn nightlife institution House of Yes even put on a performance in 2016 called Ketamine: The Musical, with co-founder Anya Sapozhnikova telling the website Splinter that K is to her community what cocaine was to Studio 54.

Most of the people I spoke with are preexisting drug users who discovered ketamine on big nights out; it’s particularly a staple of New York’s booming queer nightlife scene. But in 2019, once-fringe elements of rave culture have bled into the mainstream. EDM is elevator music, banker bros and leather-daddies share bumps at Bushwick warehouse events, Silicon Valley has invaded Burning Man, and the wellness world has turned the drugs of the ’60s counterculture into productivity boosters for start-ups. As rave culture has rebranded, ketamine has pivoted with it. Today’s K users are bringing the drug beyond the dance floor: to chilled-out bar nights and tech-world salons, New-Age wellness retreats and quiet nights at home.

There will always be the Lukes of the world, eagerly passing out naked in front of their webcams, but most of the recreational users I spoke with said they take K in very small doses, seeking a pleasant buzz that wears off within 30 minutes or can be re-upped as needed. It’s often taken to compliment other drugs — a garnish instead of the main course. For a generation that has less free time for sprawling multi-day psychedelic trips, ketamine has an appealing choose-your-own-adventure quality. Ketamine and alcohol are uneasy bedfellows — and often a recipe for a night of puking — but a number of the people I spoke to said that K has led them to pare down their boozing overall. Claire says it actually feels like a healthier and more mature lifestyle. “People are like: I used to go out and have 16 drinks and do a bunch of cocaine and feel like shit the next day. And then it was this total shift of: Oh, yeah, I can do this. And it still feels like stepping out of my life, but I also feel fine tomorrow.” At this point, she says: “I wouldn’t say that it’s different than like, a bunch of people getting off work and going out for drinks.”

Repurposing horse tranquilizers as a healthy life choice may sound like a parody of flaky millennial self-searching, like a more hardcore version of switching your morning Nespresso for matcha, or getting really into Peloton. Yet when it comes to ketamine, the warehouse ravers and the scientific establishment happen to actually be on the same page. Just as researchers have started returning to drugs like LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA for their potential mental-health benefits, ketamine has widely been heralded as a revolutionary treatment for depression. This March, the FDA approved a nasal spray called esketamine for treatment-resistant depression, marking a major development in a field that has been slow to innovate. “This is potentially a life-saving medicine,” said Gerard Sanacora, director of the Yale Depression Research Program. “It really was the first treatment that we had found that could fairly reliably produce antidepressant effects within hours, and definitely within days of taking it.” Still, he adds: “This is clearly not a medication that should be taken at home.”

Which has led, of course, to people trying it at home. Ava, 26, who works in the tech industry, says she’s been “biohacking” since she was 19 or 20. When she went through a serious depression and began feeling suicidal, a friend of hers told her about the emerging research on ketamine, and her ears pricked up. “I had previously known mushrooms as a party drug and then I did a secret ceremony with this New Age Shaman guy, so I already knew that there could be a huge difference between like the party setting and a more intentional one.” With the help of a friend, she bought and self-administered ketamine a couple of times a week for a month, and then once a month after that. The effect on her depression was profound — she says her suicidal thoughts went away, and she was able to socialize with friends once again. “I was able to go to Burning Man again that year, and I didn’t think I would have been able to a couple months before. I thought I was going to jump off the roof of my building.”

The drug has become popular among Ava’s anxiety-ridden tech-world friends in recent years, she says, and not just the ones running ad-hoc mental-health clinics out of their condos. “My theory is that ketamine is a response to the overabundance of information and the disengagement a lot of people have from the millennial job market, and now Trump, and seeing the world burn before our eyes,” she says. Another tech world source I spoke to told me about an industry peer who invited 40 people over for a ketamine party and supplied the drugs for everyone. Ava described how she and a group of co-workers even conducted a ketamine-guided meditation session together. “Some of the leaders in [the tech] industry will talk publicly about it and text our group chat, like: I’m getting so high on K this weekend!” she says.

If there’s any sure sign that ketamine is hitting the mainstream, it may be that for some communities it’s already well on its way to losing its street cred. When I tell Claire, the filmmaker, about the drug’s newfound popularity in the tech world, she scoffs. “That doesn’t surprise me,” she says. “They’ll do anything to do to get themselves out of the misery of the world that they’ve created for us.”

Names have been changed.