It’s Friday evening and you’re having a few drinks. (Or maybe it’s Wednesday morning—I don’t know your life.) As the alcohol seeps into your bloodstream, you develop a buzz and your perceptions start to shift. There’s a faint shimmer in the air and your mind and body feel warm and loose. As if by magic, the night unfolds before you, ripe with potential. Opportunities that weren’t there before, or didn’t seem possible, are illuminated by the flashing neon lights of intoxication: Step right up! Seize the moment! No longer stifled by the burden of self-doubt or that pesky common sense, the alcohol whispers in your ear, See that cute guy at the end of the bar? He’s totally checking you out. Go talk to him! You’ve got this. You stumble your way over there feeling like a million bucks and before you know it you’re making out like a sailor on leave. It doesn’t seem to matter that you don’t know his name or his astrological sign, or that he then tells you his astrological sign as if he thinks it’s relevant to the proceedings. Sure, sober-you might be turned off by this fact (because it’s not a fact—it’s an inane and useless bit of trivia with no bearing on reality and the idea that people set store by such things is completely absurd). And sober-you might be tempted to share these parenthetical musings with the suddenly not-so-appealing man now clamped to your face like a lamprey eel. But sober-you has left the building and drunk-you can’t be bothered. She merely winks at you in the mirror over the bar and cheers you on. This is going great. You’re killing it. You’re on fire. No really, you’re on fire–your elbow’s in the votive candle–but don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing ’til morning. Ahh yes, morning. When sober-you is back on the scene, surveying the wreckage and screaming, What the fuck was I thinking?! Common sense slinks back in with its tail between its legs and, with it, the white hot sting of shame and regret rising in your throat like bile–wait, forget the metaphor and grab a bucket because you’re actually going to puke.
This drug and alcohol-induced confidence is a phenomenon most people have experienced at least once—some, many times over. With any luck, you get it out of your system while you’re young and eventually the novelty and romance of it all wears off and you’ve learned enough to stop making the same foolish mistakes. For some people, of course, the illness of addiction is at play and “growing out of it” isn’t an option. For others, particularly those with mental illness, substance abuse can be a tempting form of self medication. It’s something I’ve struggled with in the past and it has been a terrible source of pain and destruction for me and those around me. But I will admit that it has occasionally been useful in steamrolling a few hurdles and coaxing me off the couch and into the world at times when the inertia of depression or paralyzing anxiety would otherwise have rendered me unable to function. I’m certainly not advocating for this course of action—actually, let me take a moment to state the obvious: Attempting to self medicate your troubles away is incredibly dangerous and will only cause more problems than it solves. Don’t do it. End of story. But it does lead me to my point (you had no idea this long-winded rambling was leading to a point, did you?): What if there were a way for people with mental illness to experience that same sense of possibility and promise without all the negative consequences? Enter ketamine.
Unlike many people with depression, I rarely felt worthless or incapable, or doubted my own inherent abilities. I found I couldn’t access these things in the thick of illness, but I knew they existed somewhere deep inside, buried under a pile of symptoms and neuroses, gasping for air and never dreaming that they might live to see the light of day. Without access to these resources, I lost faith in the concept of possibility. Not only was I lacking the capacity to manifest my desires or ambitions, I didn’t even have desires or ambitions because I couldn’t envision any outcome that didn’t fill me with existential dread. I wasn’t worried that something terrible would occur—some apocalyptic catastrophe. It was far more rational than that. Simply put, no one likes to feel like shit and I felt like shit all the time, so I went through life dreading every moment. That feeling wormed its way into my potential to achieve. If I didn’t trust that the future held anything but misery, how could my endeavors end any other way? On the rare occasions when opportunity came knocking, I’d grab my shotgun and tell it to get the hell off my porch. I couldn’t envision an opportunity with the prospect of changing my dire circumstances, so I just stopped trying. But ketamine has opened up the field of possibility in a way I’ve never before experienced. Suddenly, I have so many options it should be overwhelming, but there’s a little voice in my head (one without liquor on its breath, thankfully) telling me, Don’t worry. You’ve got this.
Ketamine induced potential is different. It’s not about an over-inflated sense of confidence or a lack of inhibition prompting you to strip off all your clothes and jump in the freezing lake for the hell of it. (Not that I would ever do that. Repeatedly.) You retain your rationality and sound judgment (assuming you had it in the first place). It’s less, “I’m on top of the world!” and more, “I could totally write this novel I’ve been thinking about. What’s the harm in trying?” And, if you’re in the midst of treatment, ”Wait, did I already write this novel?” The concept of time distorts and you grow confused about whether or not you’ve already done this thing you aspire to do, so that by the time you come down it all feels so tangible, so destined to be—like a memory that just hasn’t been created yet. Confusing, I know, but I’m high right now and I kind of feel like I’ve already written this blog post. In all seriousness, though, the real trick of ketamine is that it instills in you a sense of possibility that lives on long after the high of treatment has worn off—the road before you no longer seems so daunting and you begin to believe that making an attempt is worthwhile, or, at least, not too scary. I used to conflate having potential with an innate ability to achieve or the promise of success. Now, I understand that potential is about making an effort—not necessarily knowing that something will work out, but accepting that whatever the outcome may be, you will have the resources to deal with it and everything will be okay, so why not give it a shot? If it doesn’t work out, that guy at the end of the bar will always be there, waiting to lift your spirits with a smile and another beer. And did you know he’s a Virgo? You guys are like, so, totally compatible.