(note – this is not an actual description of my ketamine experiences but an allegory for what the overall ketamine journey has been like for me)
One day, you hear about a carnival near you that has a new roller coaster. It’s called the K-Tripper, and lots of people are talking about it, but opinions are all over the place as to whether it’s any good or not. After some back-and-forth, you decide to see what’s what, and you buy a six-ride pass.
The first time you go to the carnival, you get to the gate, and there’s a big arrow pointing straight down right next to the entrance that says, “K-Tripper line starts here.” Right next to the sign is a stool with a ticket attendant, so you step up and show her your pass. She seems super nice, and she gives you a big smile, flourishes an ink stamp, and says, “Hold out your hand.”
The instant she stamps your hand, a GIGANTIC man – all dressed in leather and chains – grabs you, drags you around the corner, and throws you into the back seat of a waiting car. Before you can even realize what happened, the car takes off in a screeching cloud of smoke. For the next little while (on later reflection, you realize that it could have been anywhere from five minutes to five hours), you are completely at the mercy of your mystery driver while you go places and see things that are absolutely bizarre.
The next morning, you wake up in your own bed. Your memory of the previous evening is pretty fuzzy. You can’t really remember where you went or what happened, but you do know it was hands-down the craziest thing you’ve ever experienced.
Later that day, you realize that you feel good. Very good. (Like, “WOW! I can’t even remember the last time I felt this good!” good.) Which you can’t make sense of, considering how weird last night was. But you decide not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and you just accept it for what it is.
A few days later, you go back to the carnival with your pass. To say you’re nervous would be a lie. You. Are. Terrified. You drive around the block to see if there are any suss-looking cars lurking anywhere near. (There aren’t.) You watch the place for a long time to see if that guy is anywhere around. (He’s not.) You carefully inspect the area around the entrance to see if there’s anywhere someone like that could hide. (There isn’t.)
The whole time you’re doing your approach, the attendant is watching you and smiling. You ask her how it’s going, and she tells you it’s great – just another beautiful day. You’re still not sure what to think because there’s gotta be something sketchy about this place. But she’s super nice, and she remembers your name and asks how your day went and seems genuinely glad you are back to try the ride again. So you show her your pass.
The big guy jerks you off your feet in one motion, runs around the corner, and throws you into the back of that car! You get another evening full of the craziest kind of stuff – stuff so weird you can’t even find words for it.
And the next day, after you calm down a little, you realize that you feel great again. “What the heck is going on?” you ask yourself.
All six times you visit, the carnival is like that. Each time, you are shanghaied before you ever even get to the gate. Each time, the car ride is different – the crazy stuff is always COMPLETELY nuts, but it’s never the same thing twice. And, each time, you are dumped out on the curb at home, completely disoriented. And absolutely unharmed.
You also feel fantastic the day (and days) after every single visit to the carnival.
So you keep going back. You gradually accept that it’s not ever going to be what you think it should be. You learn to accept that you’re not going to have control over any of it (once that big guy grabs you, you ARE going in the car – and your say over what happens is done until the car spits you out). But you also learn that you always end up completely unhurt by the experience, so you fairly quickly get over (most of) your nervousness about going to the carnival. And you DO keep going because the days after are worth it.
Even though every time is different, you learn to recognize some similarities so that when a weird thing happens, after a while, your reaction is less “What the absolute heck!?” and starts to become more, “Oh yeah, that happens sometimes, but when I’m done this weird stuff will all be gone.” And you learn not to care that you never make it to the roller coaster.
And then one day, after yet another totally, indescribably weird snatch-and-ride experience, you realize that THIS IS THE RIDE! “K-Tripper” was never an actual roller coaster that the big dude was keeping you away from. He was part of the ride the whole time! He and the car.
Now, when you step up and get your hand stamped, you just relax, close your eyes, and let the big guy carry you to your seat. After all, the ride can be as weird as it wants because that isn’t even the important part. The important part is how good you feel the next day.
Because you always feel better.
So, a few thoughts about what this “means”:
The big guy who grabs you represents the ketamine getting into your bloodstream. Once that happens, you are on this “ride” until the end. I realize that some people might be triggered by the imagery of being grabbed and unable to do anything about it, but I wanted to be clear about the fact that there is no control over certain parts of the ketamine experience.
And, yes, that can be frightening. After my second infusion, I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to go back. Eventually, though, you learn that even though you may have no control over what ketamine “shows” you, you aren’t actually harmed by any of it.
I started realizing this after reading about the experiences of someone who had sought out ketamine treatment for PTSD. He said that every single ketamine treatment was the absolute worst sort of miserable horror show. But that the real-life effects were undeniable improvements in his psychological and emotional well-being. Even though he knew going into each treatment that it was going to absolutely suck, he would still do them because the improvement in his quality of life was undeniable.
From this, I began to understand that what happens on ketamine has no real connection to the real-life benefits I always feel afterward. This has proved to be true over time. (I know that some people believe that the things they see and hear on the drug are important and meaningful. I don’t want to be dismissive of their experiences, but nothing that I’ve seen or learned so far supports the idea that the specifics of a given ketamine trip are important to how much that dose is going to help me once I’ve woken up.)
In fact, the more experience I have with ketamine, the more I realize that the “experience” of being on ketamine doesn’t really matter. Ketamine – the chemical ketamine – does things in the physical spaces of my brain that have good effects on my life long after the dissociative experience is over. The dissociation is a side-effect of taking ketamine – just like drowsiness is a side-effect of taking Benadryl.
In fact, Benadryl is a good comparison. If I take it and it doesn’t make me as sleepy today as it usually does, I don’t say that the Benadryl didn’t work. I judge the effectiveness of whether or not my allergy symptoms improved.
Ketamine is similar. For me, ketamine produces a definite improvement in my quality of life every time I take it. That’s why in the story it says that you always feel better the next day. The “K-Tripper” ride can be … well, whatever, but the benefit is still there the next day.
It’s also why the story doesn’t try to describe any of the weirdness of the ride. Because that doesn’t matter, other than the fact that you do have to go on the ride to get anything out of it, the benefit does not depend on anything about the ride itself.
Like all allegories, this one isn’t perfect. But, it is really easy to let the weirdness of being on ketamine become a distraction – to get too invested in the visions and try to force them to mean something important – when it’s the drug’s neurochemical effects on your brain that are important. Hopefully, this little story can help illustrate the fact that ketamine’s value as a therapeutic chemical isn’t dependent on having any particular kind of experience (aka “ride”).