In today’s world, where mental health concerns are increasingly prevalent, it is essential that people who struggle with difficult-to-treat mental health disorders are able to explore evidence-based therapies that offer hope. Ketamine has been shown to be efficacious in rapidly treating depression, suicidality, PTSD, and other mental health and substance use disorders (Sky, 2022).
In an effort to shed light on the therapeutic potential of ketamine, BrainFutures spoke with a twenty-year-old college student named Li, who sought out ketamine treatment after years of struggling to find relief through traditional treatment options. This is Li’s story.
Li’s battle with depression, trauma, and anorexia had been a long and arduous one, marked by countless attempts at finding relief. Since beginning therapy at thirteen years old, Li had tried a variety of mental health treatment options, but “nothing had helped enough.” By the time they turned eighteen, they had tried virtually every psychiatric medication on the market and had spent time in multiple outpatient and inpatient programs, including a residential eating disorder treatment program.
“Nothing had helped enough.”
Shortly after leaving eating disorder treatment, Li felt as though their eating disorder was better managed but didn’t feel “even partially recovered.” They were still experiencing a host of symptoms that interfered with their everyday life, including trauma flashbacks, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and self-harm urges. More than anything, Li felt hopeless and alone. They sought guidance from their psychiatrist, who informed Li that they were eligible for new treatment options now that they were eighteen.
Li’s psychiatrist recommended a form of care different from those that they had tried before—ketamine treatment. Li wasn’t familiar with ketamine and its medical uses, but their psychiatrist informed them about the promise that ketamine holds for a variety of mental health disorders. Although Li didn’t know what to expect, they felt desperate to try anything that would relieve their suffering. Li’s open-mindedness merged with curiosity, and after spending a great deal of time researching ketamine and how it is used, they decided to contact a ketamine clinic near their university to see if they would be a good fit for treatment.
Li was accepted into the clinic and began to prepare for their six rounds of intravenous ketamine treatments by completing a workbook that the clinic asks patients to complete before starting treatment. This workbook included setting an intention, which Li decided was to learn how to help themself begin to feel better. To Li, trauma recovery meant finding some sense of inner peace.
As Li’s treatment unfolded, they gradually came to understand the profound impact that ketamine had on their ability to confront and process traumatic experiences that they had lived through in the past. Li found that ketamine allowed them to access a unique vantage point that allowed them to revisit these memories in a safer mental space, a state of mind that Li compares to lucid dreaming. This newfound perspective empowered Li with a sense of control over the narrative surrounding their trauma as they began to flashback to different points in their life throughout the course of their treatment.
During one memorable ketamine session, Li envisioned their mother and grandmother speaking with Guanyin, a Chinese folk Goddess who is the Bodhisattva of compassion in Buddhism. For as long as Li could remember, their grandmother wore a necklace with the likeness of Guanyin on it, a symbol of mercy and kindness. In Li’s vision, they saw Guanyin transform from a statue into a human, an ordinary person capable of embodying compassion. As Li listened in on their mother and grandmother’s conversation with Guanyin, they felt a surge of self-compassion flow over them. Their mother and grandmother began speaking about Li, a child in their family who had always meant well but faced many challenges in life. Their words resonated deeply with Li, who was finally able to listen to what they always wanted to hear from their family: that they were smart, hardworking, and most importantly, worthy.
In another session, Li saw themself in an arena fighting every person who had caused them harm. They emerged victorious over every adversary, until a shadowy figure wearing a mask emerged. Li realized this figure represented their depression, and thought, “I have to take this person down.” Despite Li’s best efforts to end this embodiment of their depression, it persisted, and rematerialized into the arena again and again. Slowly, a realization set in. Li didn’t have to kill off this part of themself. Their depression, although severe and persistent, was a part of them. They didn’t need to eradicate this part of themself, but rather learn how to cope with it.
Shortly after this realization, Li saw themself flying through the air and into a hospital room where they saw themself at fifteen years old, during their first experience in eating disorder treatment. Li picked their inner child up, flew out the window, and began giving them a tour of the city they lived in. Li showed their fifteen-year-old self all around their college campus, highlighting an apartment where Li would live with their friends, a restaurant where they’d have an amazing night, and the place where they’d meet their future significant other. Present day Li was overcome with emotion, “suddenly feeling so much more appreciation and gratitude for the beauty that is and will always be a part of life.”
“I have interest in the world again.”
Li integrated each ketamine session with their therapist, which Li says is “the process where I start tying [the experiences] into my actual life.” Li spent hours journaling about each session, sharing their writing with both their therapist and friends to better understand what Li saw and felt. Therapy in particular helped Li take their abstract experiences and translate them into actionable steps that they can take to take care of themself and channel self-compassion. Nowadays, Li does their best to avoid social isolation and food restriction, which in turn has helped with their depression and eating disorder symptoms. Though Li still experiences depressive episodes, the peace they were able to achieve through ketamine and integration sessions with their therapist was unlike anything they’ve experienced with traditional treatment options.
Post-treatment, Li’s seen improvement in their relationships with their friends and their significant other. More importantly, Li has also seen a significant change in the way they experience their relationship with themself, noting that they are “open to what the future has to offer, what life has to offer. I have interest in the world again.”
– – –
Interested in learning more about ketamine? To see if it could be a good treatment option for you, please visit: https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/ketamine-depression-treatment#how-it-works.
For a general overview of how ketamine is used to treat a variety of mental health disorders, please visit page 47 of BrainFutures’ report: Psychedelic Medicine: A Review of Clinical Research for a Class of Rapidly-Emerging Behavioral Health Interventions
Sky, J. (2022, February). Psychedelic Medicine: A Review of Clinical Research for a Class of Rapidly Emerging Behavioral Health Interventions. (H. McCormack, L. Raines, H. Harbin, J. Glastra, F. Wolswijk & I. Burgess, Eds.). BrainFutures. Retrieved March 8, 2022 from https://www.brainfutures.org/mental-health-treatment/patevidence/