By Greg Ferenstein
Christine* had finally managed to get her acute anxiety and depression under control and wean off a decade-long reliance on antidepressants. But when COVID-19 hit in 2020, she became increasingly overwhelmed. Though she had a huge stack of responsibilities—as a mother of three, a wife, and a frontline clinical therapist—Christine was debilitated by constant ruminating fears that she would fail her responsibilities.
“How do you help people when you also feel like you’re drowning?" she remembers thinking.
In her personal life, Christine struggled with a lack of self-worth, which impacted her husband and child.
“I just wouldn't show up as my best self, so I'd be more irritable with them—more easily frustrated with them—even though I was really frustrated with myself.”
The fear and tensions caused further distance from those she loved; she experienced serious physical intimacy issues with her husband, and in social situations, she found herself turning inward rather than being the energetic friend she wanted to be.
Christine began to isolate more and more, describing her collapse inward as a practice of self-care.
“I remember just taking multiple walks a day, just trying to get out of the house.”
Ironically, these attempts took her away from her responsibilities and worsened her mental health challenges.
Feeling defeated, Christine decided to go back on her antidepressant medication to manage her depression. While the medication gave her more energy to be productive, it exacerbated other problems.
“It was really good at helping my depression, but it had the side effect of increasing my anxiety if my dose was too high. And so, there was a lot of playing around with dosages, and I never ever really found something that felt really good.”
The Ketamine Experience
Christine was desperate for a better solution. A few of her therapy clients had told her about their experience with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, in both the underground and with ketamine in clinics.
“I had literally never taken any sort of substance to change my state at all. I really had no idea what to expect.”
Christine was still nervous to try psychedelics by herself, but a colleague had told her about a positive experience at Novamind, a psychiatry clinic that specializes in ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. As a frontline worker affected by the stress and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, she qualified for their ongoing clinical pilot program for group therapy, where she and two others would undergo three sessions of oral and intramuscular ketamine, guided by a licensed psychotherapy team.
Ketamine, a dissociative anesthetic, can bring patients into a daydream-like state where their mental health challenges morph into insightful visualizations.
Going into her first psychedelic experience, Christine had set the intention of processing her issues of “enough-ness” and expected to find an answer detailing why she was an amazing caretaker. Yet, she got quite a different insight.
Christine began to see images of a large tree, which felt as though it represented a long lineage of caretakers, supporting both her and those she loved.
“What the ketamine kind of showed me was how I was actually connected. And I was a part of something much larger. And for me, that was my ancestry. So, I had these visualizations of seeing myself from above and having this family tree.”
Christine, for the first time, began to realize that she was not the only thing protecting her loved ones or her patients.
“I think it really comes down to this sense that I'm not alone and that these things are not just on my shoulders.”
Christine had placed unrealistic burdens on herself as a mom and as a therapist. She realized she could be imperfect and ask for help and this was enough.
Christine also notes that the group aspects of the therapy were essential to integrating these insights into her life.
“They also had some really powerful experiences, and they could understand maybe the weirdness.”
Psychedelic insights can be unusual. For Christine, it was vital to be surrounded by people like herself who understood the experience and why it was meaningful.
A More Confident Christine
Christine is happy to report that she is fully off her antidepressants and feeling much better.
She finds herself lashing out less in irritation at her family. As a therapist, she finds herself more present and grounded with her clients.
“I feel like my nervous system is a tool that I use with my clients and the more regulated I can be and the more I can feel myself in a grounded place, I can show up better for my clients. So, I do think that I'm giving better quality service.”
Perhaps just as important, she feels more vivacious and connected in her social life.
“In those social situations, I find myself sharing more and being more engaged, worrying less about saying the right thing or something that they wouldn't necessarily want to hear. And coming home or coming away from most situations and not being nearly as drained as I had been over the past few years.”
Christine credits new mindfulness skills with her continued mental stability. During one of her more intense psychedelic journeys, she experienced a so-called “ego death”, which she describes as an out-of-body feeling where she could independently observe different parts of her psyche.
During this daydream, Christine could hear the chatter of her negative, depressive, and judgmental self. "When are you going to post about this on Instagram?" she remembers hearing. But as a disembodied observer, she began to understand that these judgmental ruminations were a part of her psyche trying to care for her.
She could listen to the judgmental and worrisome voices without letting fear overcome her.
Now, when she begins to involuntarily ruminate, she’s better able to practice a form of mindfulness and experience a sense of objective awareness of the voices.
“Even significant family issues can be resolved and those feeling that come from that can be resolved in just a matter of hours, versus something that persists. And I ruminate on and it sticks with me for a very long time, and just kind of keeps me in that bogged down stuck place.”
Overall, Christine is feeling less anxious and depressed. She hasn’t resolved all the issues (she still sees a counselor with her husband) but is grateful for the progress made.
“I loved the entire structure of the experience.”
*Christine 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.