MedCircle host, Kyle Kittleson, and MedCircle Head of Content, Brigid McCuen, each received a ketamine infusion treatment and share their experience in the piece below.
You can read how each of them feels after the treatment in the article below.
Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion around the subject of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
I believe I was born with depression.
By: Kyle Kittleson
I have a vivid memory of running into the kitchen in tears, screaming when I was 9 years old.
I opened a drawer and pulled out the biggest knife I could spot. Before I could make another move my mother slapped my hands and the knife fell to the floor.
I just screamed and cried in my mother’s arms.
That same year I was taken to a psychiatrist, diagnosed with depression, and put on the liquid form of Prozac and began talk therapy. Each morning, I stood on my tippy toes over the sink while my mother pushed a syringe full of this awful-tasting liquid in my mouth.
I would swallow and spend the next 5 minutes washing my mouth out with water. It tasted so bad.
About a month later I felt better – great, actually.
Before treatment, I felt like I had sandbags on my back, weights tied to feet, loudspeakers at full volume in my head, and people in my life who had no idea how to help.
After a month of daily syringe sessions, I felt like the sandbags were gone, the weights were destroyed, the speakers were muted, and perhaps for the first time, I saw the kind, empathic, fun, and supportive people in my life.
At some point, I went off the Prozac and was fine for a while. But, when I was in my twenties I had my first breakdown and major panic attack.
I went back on Prozac and added Wellbutrin to the mix. Things got good again, so I went off the medication (a common occurrence with medicated depression sufferers). Shortly after, I relapsed (again). I was placed back on Prozac (again).
And wouldn’t you believe it – once I started feeling good, feeling the relief, and fell into the grips of a false sense of power. I went off my meds yet again and found myself screaming, kicking, crying in my car on the side of the highway – not sure exactly what was happening, not sure exactly of my location, not sure exactly where to go, and not sure at all about who I was.
Luckily, with supportive friends, family, and my now ex-partner, I got back into therapy, back on medications, and started living a good life.
I am now 33 years old. I take my medication consistently and as fate would have it, I work in the mental health and wellness space as the host of MedCircle.
In 2019 I heard about IV ketamine as a treatment for treatment-resistant depression. Typically, a patient will complete 6 sessions over a period of 3-4 weeks. The cost for these sessions can range from $600-$800 per session.
I had been struggling with my depression despite being on traditional medication.
After consulting my therapist and psychiatrist – I decided to give ketamine treatment a try and share the journey with the MedCircle viewers.
I discuss the ins and outs of my ketamine infusion treatment at the bottom of this article and in the video above, but first, let’s talk about what ketamine is and how it is being used to treat depression, anxiety, and other ailments.
WHAT IS KETAMINE?
Ketamine was first discovered in the 1960s and has been used as an anesthetic on battlefields and hospitals for decades. If you’ve had surgery in a major hospital, the chances that you have had ketamine are high.
“Interestingly, studies from Yale research labs showed that the drug ketamine, which was widely used as anesthesia during surgeries, triggers glutamate production, which, in a complex, cascading series of events, prompts the brain to form new neural connections. This makes the brain more adaptable and able to create new pathways, and gives patients the opportunity to develop more positive thoughts and behaviors. This was an effect that had not been seen before, even with traditional antidepressants.”
This 40-minute IV treatment delivered a low dose of ketamine into my bloodstream. This type of treatment is not FDA approved and therefore not covered by insurance. However, in March of 2019, the FDA approved a second type of ketamine treatment called Esketamine, which is delivered to the body as a nasal spray.
While patient testimonials and early studies are promising, there is still side effects to be aware of and more studies to conduct, as this Harvard Health article points out.
MedCircle Certified Educator and double-board certified psychiatrist, Dr. Domenick Sportelli, explains the science behind ketamine better than I ever could. Take a watch/listen to this video:
My Ketamine Infusion Experience
I received my ketamine infusion at TMS and Brain Health (formerly known as Pacific Ketamine Institute). At no point during my treatment did I feel anxious or scared. In fact, I felt very “at home.”
While the treatment was approximately 40 minutes long, it felt like no more than 5 minutes. When the doctor came in to let me know it was over and that I was going to “come back” to the real world, I felt like I had just started.
I did not hallucinate or see anything that wasn’t there. However, objects in the room and the walls of the room did seem to bend and become distorted to a degree.
Because I was well-aware that I was undergoing a ketamine infusion, I was able to understand that the distorted images and walls were simply a side effect of the medication.
There were some major realizations that I will do my best to explain. It’s important to note, that this is how I felt during the ketamine treatment – not necessarily how I now view my life at every moment.
Realization #1: Worrying is a waste of time
There was such clarity during the experience. The idea that we, as a human species, would worry about our past, worry about the present, and worry about the future – seemed so…dumb. It was clear, in that moment, that everything has been and is working out exactly as it is supposed to. There was something so much bigger than us ensuring that everything works out perfectly.
In short, don’t worry.
Realization #2: There is a soul and it is separate from the body.
During the ketamine treatment, I felt like I was trying to leave my body. This is not to say I felt like I was dying – in fact, quite the opposite. I felt like the part of me that is the essence of me, what I call the soul, was trying to “explore” this new world we had entered. However, because it was tied to my physical body, it could only go so far.
If my soul was a dog, my body was a leash.
A few times, I remember really trying to move into this exciting, new space, but my physical head would jerk me back closer to the world we inhabit with our bodies. It seemed like there was another world that we are also a part of but do not realize it in this physical form.
Again, none of this was scary. But it wasn’t what I would consider “thrilling” either. It didn’t feel as though I had just discovered something new. It was more that I had found something I had lost a long time ago and had forgotten about over time.
The entire experience was all very calm, peaceful, and ironically, a grounded one.
Realization #3: We are all connected.
In this world, we look at our physical bodies with such distinct separation.
This is me. That is you. She is over there. They are over here.
We separate people by race, gender, age, location, education, jobs, family role, name, etc. As a species, we love to separate all of us into these incredibly specific boxes.
Think about how we describe ourselves when asked who we are.
“Hi, my name is Kyle Kittleson. I am a male who is 33 years old living in California. I work at MedCircle and I have a dog named Callie. I like sushi and love to watch Netflix.” That’s such a specific description oof “who I am” and one could argue this answer is more representative of what I am, rather than who.
During the ketamine infusion treatment, I was none of those things. I was just a being. A being that was a part of a world where we are all just beings and all connected through some indescribable force. And if we are all connected, then there is no difference between me and you and you and anyone else.
This understanding of that connection was so powerful that the physical part of me felt emotional at all the turmoil people experience because it isn’t just their turmoil – it is all of ours. It is ours…together, as one.
Post Ketamine Infusion Treatment
Immediately after the treatment, I felt tired and lightheaded. I felt as though I had held my breath as long as I could and then finally exhaled. It wasn’t necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it was far from unbearable.
The next day I was tired, but nothing too abnormal.
Part of the treatment included participating in moodmonitor.co – a text messaging service that asks you each day, “How are you feeling today? From 1 (bad) to 10 (great)”
I answered this question each day at 1pm PT for many weeks. Here are my results:
What’s most notable to me is that I had three days of 10/10 ratings immediately following one 40-minute infusion treatment. You can see in the chart that 10/10 days are uncommon. After three days, I had a substantial drop and hovered around the number of about 6.
I credit my three days of straight 10s to my ketamine treatment.
Most ketamine clinics suggest doing six 40-minute ketamine infusions over a 3 week period of time. They say results can last up to 6 months.
What do I believe?
Outside of my ketamine state, do I believe that worrying is dumb, that the soul and body are separate entities, and that every human on Earth is connected through some complex system we can’t see, touch, or prove with modern science?
Nope. Not entirely.
I think any of those questions or theories are too complicated to answer definitively.
However, to experience those intense feelings of “knowing,” even if it was just during that 40-minutes, gave me some peace and understanding that would be difficult to get elsewhere.
I believe ketamine helped me understand myself and our connected world better.
I believe ketamine is a treatment option that some people should consider.
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I don’t believe I was born depressed.
By: Brigid McCuen
I don’t have a way of knowing that for sure—but depression, before I knew it had a name, felt like something that gained on me slowly, over the span of years.
There’s no singular moment I can look back on and say, “yep, that was the first sign.” That’s not how depression works for most people anyway. Especially when you don’t know what you don’t know or that the way you’re feeling doesn’t have to be the norm.
Since I’ve never been able to hone in on a singular “a-ha” “you have depression!” moment, I try to parse my childhood and teenage mental health “red flags” from the bird’s-eye perspective.
For me, it’s not about finding that one life-altering event that changed my mental health forever.
For me, it’s about studying “the everyday.”
When did I start reacting so angrily whenever I felt bullied by a classmate, or embarrassed by a sibling, or felt like I was failing the expectations of an adult?
When did I convince myself that showing those emotions—or any vulnerability, for that matter—was such a bad thing?
When did I start isolating from friends and family to bask alone in the feelings I was afraid to show the outside world?
Without the knowledge of my mental health condition, I didn’t know that these thousands of seemingly insignificant decisions I made—and reactions I had—reinforced my negative thoughts and habits.
My depression almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“A lot of people liken depression to a rain cloud that follows you everywhere. For me, it started from the inside-out. It felt like something lodged in my chest, growing larger with each round of reinforcement, and more ominous each time I tried to ignore it.”– Brigid McCuen
When I underwent ketamine treatment for depression, this feeling in my chest was still there, but by this point, I had some idea what it was. I’d tried Zoloft, Sertraline, and Wellbutrin—never therapy, I told myself I didn’t have the energy for that—and I assumed I had hit the ceiling of “feeling okay.”
After completing our intake questionnaires on depression and anxiety, it was clear I was not feeling okay. Kyle and I both met the criteria to receive the treatment.
I went in with no expectations. I thought I had experienced what it was like to address depression.
This was different.
As I lay back in the reclining chair and started to feel the effects of the treatment, I felt the emotional part of my brain unlatch from the judgmental part. All of a sudden, I could look at my emotions without judging them. I could process them and understand them without the cloud of my own cognitive distortions I’d unknowingly cultivated for years. I could even look at my misguided beliefs and judgments and analyze why I harbor them, like a third party arbitrator.
I was so deeply entrenched in this mental experience that I had no concept of time. The treatment felt like 5 minutes, but apparently it was closer to 45.
The ketamine wore off about 2 hours after the treatment ended.
What a feeling.
You know that happy, semi-carefree moment after you get really great news, or after your team wins a game at the very last second, or you hug a loved one you haven’t seen in months?
That’s how I felt. I felt that kind of lightness, just being.
My emotional state still felt detached from the part of me that judges myself.
The ketamine treatment seemed to put a stop to depression’s self-fulfilling prophecy—at least, the treatment’s effects gave me the wherewithal to stop it myself. I felt no need to isolate. No fear of vulnerability. Instead I felt tranquil and like I had the capacity to handle hardship.
This feeling of lightness lasted about six months after the treatment, but in that time, I had the willpower and the energy to seek out the right therapist, find a new medication that kept my mood consistent, and to improve other areas of my life, especially my physical health and relationships.
This singular ketamine treatment wasn’t a cure-all. It was just the jumpstart I needed to take control of my mental health.