In the summer, when I was 26, I moved into my parents’ house in suburban Chicago because I couldn’t take care of myself.
I had been severely depressed for most of my life, but that summer five years ago even the most mundane tasks became overwhelming. I spent days on the couch where I rarely spoke, my mind so boring I found it hard to form words. I stayed awake at night thinking, I can’t go on like this.
Some people suffer from episodic depression, but since the onset of my illness in infancy, I have sunk far and fast and have never really resurfaced. When I was 10, I found myself overcome with an inexplicable fear, so uncomfortable I could barely watch a TV show. As a teenager, I would wake up every morning with unchanging sadness and sob on my bedroom floor. Although I used to be a great student, I struggled to do well in class. Finally, at 16, I dropped out of high school.
Over the years, I have tried all the treatments available. I stayed in mental hospitals, took years of therapy and tried antidepressants at a pharmacy, but my condition never improved.
I once came across an article about using ketamine as a promising treatment for severe, unresponsive depression. It was still relatively new at the time and, at $ 500 per infusion, expensive. After seeing the therapist I was seeing at the time, who was supporting me, I found a nearby clinic offering the therapy and made the call.
Ketamine has a reputation for being a party drug, but it was originally developed as an anesthetic. When administered correctly, doctors say it is safe and has been shown to treat major depression and severe PTSD. While other drugs like psilocybin and MDMA are also being studied by scientists as a treatment for depression, ketamine can be prescribed and administered outside of a clinical trial. Traditional antidepressants can take weeks or months to work, but ketamine can work quickly.
The cost, however, is a major obstacle. Ketamine infusion for mental illness is usually not covered by insurance – it wasn’t for me – which means it is financially out of reach for many.
A few days after making the call and completing a screening process that confirmed that I was a good candidate, as I had tried several other options unsuccessfully, I arrived at the ketamine treatment center. I was put on an initial six infusion treatment plan over two weeks, after which I returned for maintenance doses as needed, usually every one to six months.
During my infusion, I sat in a recliner chair while the nurse took my blood pressure, attached a heart rate monitor, and inserted an intravenous line. Once the ketamine was administered and the lights dimmed, I lowered the recliner and took deep breaths as the playlist I had made flowed through my headphones.
For a few minutes, I didn’t feel anything, then the image on the wall in front of me started to split in two. Although my vision is swimming, I did not experience any motion sickness. At the low dose that was given to acclimatize my body to the drug, I only felt a slight and pleasant change.
With each subsequent visit, my dose increased, until the room dissolved around me in a transcendent whirlwind of lucid dreams. I have traveled back in time, inhabiting the memories in a pleasantly detached way. I also traveled forward and visited places that I had never been. I felt like I had let go of my bodily form and melted into the fabric of the universe.
But although I felt at peace during the treatment, my depression did not subside right away. After three treatments, the doctor suggested it might not be worth the cost to continue. Between infusions three and four, I wondered if I should continue. Since I had tried everything before, giving up on it meant giving up completely.
Fortunately, everything changed after my fourth infusion. It was as if a switch had been flipped and my brain had lit up. I noticed that color was returning to the world, and the hard knot of terror and fairness in my chest was dissipating.
My productivity has skyrocketed. Within weeks, I had cleaned and organized my apartment, applied and been hired for two jobs, started a meditation practice, and started learning a new language.
Although my jobs were poorly paid, ketamine allowed me to use the skills I had learned in therapy to reframe the experiences in a positive light. Bleaching gymnastic mats in a martial arts studio and washing buckets in a flower shop have become meditative practices rather than chores. I barely recognized the dynamic person I would become.
When my brother received his first pair of glasses, he was amazed to see individual leaves on the trees. Ketamine felt a lot like this. To be in awe of simple pleasures seemed reason enough to me to live, and I was overwhelmed by a silent revelation: that’s what it means to be happy. I started to consider going back to school. In May 2021, 15 years after dropping out of high school, five years after starting ketamine treatment, I graduated from college.
I know how lucky I am. Ketamine doesn’t work for everyone, and for many, the treatment is financially prohibitive. As more stories like mine emerge, I hope to see this change and others won’t have to give up in finding relief.