By Greg Ferenstein
Michelle* lived with constant anxiety that she would explode during an argument and enter into a months-long depressive episode. She’d tried so many strategies to manage her mental health, from group discussions to cognitive behavioral therapy, but nothing seemed to work well.
“Most of the therapy I’ve done just kind of muted my symptoms mostly, but I am still walking around with heavy, heavy depression and really terrible anxiety.”
Depressive episodes would socially paralyze her.
“I wouldn’t feel like I had any energy to do anything. I’d isolate myself,” she says. “I'm not social. I don't function besides what I absolutely have to function for.”
She could work but that was about it.
Unfortunately, the most effective solutions for her had intolerable side effects. The generic version of Zoloft, Sertraline, managed her major mood swings but came with “horrible” sweats that left her “drenched” in the middle of the night. Perhaps worse, it severed her emotions.
“It made me not care at all,” Michelle recalls. “I just kind of didn't feel anything.”
After her doctors recommended trying a higher dose, she went looking for something else. Her friends said good things about ketamine, a dissociative psychedelic that is known to help people confront painful topics and manage a range of mental health conditions, including depression.
Michelle was nervous. She had some not-so-positive experiences with psychedelics when she was younger. Even though it was years ago, she didn’t like the idea of losing control of her mind.
The therapists at Numinus made her feel more at ease with their Emotion-Focused Ketamine-Assisted Psychotherapy, which pairs intensive emotional management and trained mental health professionals with multiple rounds of in-person ketamine sessions.
The Ketamine Experience
The psychedelic portions of ketamine treatment typically last an hour and many people report hazy dreams representing unprocessed challenges.
After years of therapy, Michelle believed she knew the source of what she might encounter: being abandoned by her mother as an adolescent and subsequent years in-and-out of near homelessness.
Instead, her most healing psychedelic experiences were simple and pleasant experiences.
She remembers telling her husband, “Maybe this is what it feels like to feel normal.”
The simple absence of anxiety was profound. After one session, she burst into tears.
“I just started crying and crying and crying,” she recalls. “I really felt like it helped me release those emotions, and relieve some of that pain and all of the struggle that I had when I was a child with my family.”
During another psychedelic experience, Michelle set an intention and drifted into a meditative state, daydreaming of swimming. Usually, when water was involved in Michelle’s dreams, it was a nightmare drowning sensation. This watery dream, though, was superbly healing.
“I have been a hyper-vigilant person, always looking for the next thing to crumble in my life,” she says. “But with ketamine, just to even have that feeling that I'm okay—and that I'm happy—was huge for me.”
Introspection, fewer explosions, less depression
In the three months since Michelle had her first ketamine treatment with Numinus, she has learned to better manage her emotional triggers.
One example stands out. Because of their shared traumatizing past, her family has had a tendency to set her off. But the last time they had a fight, Michelle recalls being able to remove herself from the argument, sensing that she was about to explode, and embrace her feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them.
“It's getting easier for me to recognize, even in conversation.”
She feels more in touch with her emotions, and if things start feeling really bad, she can discuss her emotions openly in a way that defuses the situation.
Her relationship with her husband has improved and she is no longer burdened with extended bouts of depression. She’s made incredible progress, but Michelle still struggles with explosive episodes and depression. So, she continues to go in for occasional ketamine treatments.
But she no longer needs antidepressants.
“It has really, really, honestly been the only thing that has helped me feel normal without taking a pill every single day.”
*Michelle is a pseudonym. Some quotes edited for clarity
About the author
Greg Ferenstein is the founder of Frederick Research, a mental health innovation consulting firm. His research has been widely covered in leading publications, including the New York Times, The Brookings Institute and The Washington Post.
His field investigations in mental health have been supported by respected technology companies, from Google.org to Lyft and his public policy papers have influenced bills at the U.S. federal and state level.
Prior to founding Frederick Research, he taught statistics for journalists at the University of Texas and received a Masters in Mathematical Behavioral Sciences.