This post first appeared on Medium.com
I’ve struggled with depression for decades. During my lifetime, I’ve had one serious suicide attempt using drugs, one thwarted by gun locks, and more planning sessions than I can count. My diagnoses range from Major Depressive Disorder to Bi-polar II. The disease has taken its toll on my career, family, friendships, and brain.
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to afford therapists, doctors, and medication. To have a partner of nearly 13 years who has stood by me through mood swings, inconsistency, instability, and hospitalization, puts me in a small minority of people who stay in their relationships. The gratitude I have for the support I’ve received, and especially for my husband, is inexpressible.
Even with all of this support, my struggle continues. I ride waves of emotions. On the high, I’m productive and energized. I’m outgoing, social, and look forward to the future. On the low, I’m lethargic, disconnected, and despondent. I look for ways to bring the deep, aching pain to an end, usually while slumped over on the couch or lying on my bed in tears. Each wave can last for three to four days, or just a matter of hours.
Last year, at the suggestion of my psychiatrist, I underwent ketamine treatments. Ketamine, outside of the medical community, is better known as a party drug. It’s often referred to as Special K, K, or Kit Kat, among other names. At a low dose, it can make someone feel fantastic. Higher doses produce a psychedelic effect and can produce dissociative experiences. Larger doses can cause temporary paralysis.
One of the main uses of ketamine in the medical community is for procedural sedation, while mental health professionals use it to treat psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression and suicidal ideation. Ketamine, like more traditional medications, is a mood enhancer. What makes it unique, however, is that it also rewires the brain.
Depression and stress can cause neurons to lose connections, causing sleep deprivation, emotional problems, and lower cognitive function. Ketamine rebuilds those neural connections and, unlike traditional antidepressants, ketamine works quickly. Suicidal ideations are often gone after one treatment.
But ketamine is just one of the psychedelics mental health professionals are using to treat mental disorders. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD in 1938, sent samples to psychiatrists and therapeutic professionals in 1943. Thousands of experiments “led to a better understanding of how LSD affected consciousness by interacting with the brain’s serotonin neurotransmitter system.” Hoffman was also the one who isolated psilocybin, the active psychedelic ingredient in mushrooms, and synthesized it. Again, the drug was shared with psychiatrists and mental health professionals who discovered groundbreaking and life-changing applications.
San Francisco was the epicenter for LSD use in the 1960s. This was the time of the sexual revolution and free thinking, something that scared most lawmakers. DrugPolicy.org states, “In the popular press and among politicians, LSD became associated with this youth-led social movement steeped in antiwar demonstrations, sexual experimentation, and cultural upheaval, which largely ignored some of the potential downfalls of widespread use in uncontrolled settings.” So, on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon declared that drugs were “public enemy number one.” But like prohibition in the 1920s, just because psychedelics were outlawed doesn’t mean people didn’t use them.
The public’s relationship with psychedelics since the 1970s has been a contentious one. Political propaganda perpetuated much of the discussion, shaping the perspective of the drug and those who use it. For example, MDMA, better known as ecstasy, became associated with dance parties and recreational use in the 1980s. The drug had been making great strides in the mental health field before the US Drug Enforcement Agency added it to the list of controlled substances in 1984.
Discussing the use of drugs like ketamine and psilocybin with friends has brought mischievous grins and elbow-poking jabs. One friend asked me what sex was like on Ketamine. Another friend, drunk at the time, called with her friend on speaker to say her friend was also interested in doing mushrooms and wanted me to talk to her about it. An awkward moment, I was caught completely off guard. I clarified that I wasn’t “doing mushrooms,” but was under the care of a psychiatric team. Fortunately, her friend, a nurse, picked up on the nuance and shut the conversation down.
Ketamine changed the course of my disease. For the first time in my life, I could separate feelings from issues. As though depression were an object, I could see it in my minds eye as something different from me. I could choose how I wanted to respond. I felt empowered rather than victimized. On-going use, however, is expensive and not yet covered by insurance. While some changes were lasting, I continue to search for healing.
For years, I’ve struggled in silence. Society hasn’t yet arrived at a place where we see mental health as a physical problem and there remains a stigma around those of us with illnesses and our families. I’m coming to terms with my battle. The treatment methods that are the most promising, like the illness itself, cause smirks and giggles. They generate side conversations about the patients taking them, and our motives. In the meantime, I’m fighting for my life.
The conversation about depression, which now affects over one-third of the adult population in the United States, must continue to be destigmatized. We’ve made great strides as younger celebrities like Demi Lovato, Tom Holland, and Jonah Hill have come forward. At the same time, let’s move the conversation about psychedelic drugs from snickering backroom gossip to a public forum about life-changing treatments.
Learn more by going to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) website to find out if there may be trials in your area, or how you can help