Exploring Ketamine Therapy

What does it feel like to take ketamine for mental health reasons? Purist tried it out.
Clients work with a trained therapist to set treatment goals, and when the ketamine is administered, they have a hallucinatory experience.  Photo: Adobe Stock

By Ray Rogers

Widely known as a tranquilizer for horses or elephants and a dance-club drug (Special K), ketamine, first discovered in 1962, is experiencing a revival as a tool for mental health. Used to treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, eating disorders and addiction, ketamine therapy is a hot topic in mental health circles, with several new clinics offering in-house and at-home treatment through a variety of delivery modes: IV drips, pills, nasal sprays and shots in the skin and muscles. Psychedelics such as psilocybin (from mushrooms), LSD, MDMA and DMT (the main psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca) continue to be studied and employed for a variety of health reasons. Volumes could be written about each, and the history of their use, dating back to the 1950s (and centuries prior, for the plant-based medicines).

What separates the use from a recreational psychedelic trip to a clinical, mental health tool? It all comes down to what’s referred to as “set and setting”: what the intention is and where it is being administered.

In Southampton, Dr. Lea Lis is offering ketamine therapy at her new Hampton Insight Institute (61 Main St., second floor; hamptoninsightinstitute.com) in an office that she describes as “nature-based, with dried and natural plants.” Sound is a key component to the “journey” as well. Clients work with a trained therapist to set treatment goals and when the ketamine is administered, with noise-canceling music in headphones and eyes covered—all the better to go inward—they have a hallucinatory experience. After the fact, they work with a therapist or integration specialist, to discuss what happened and glean insights.

In Manhattan, there are a handful of places offering ketamine therapy (Mind Medical, Mindbloom, MindBody Therapeutics, NY Ketamine Infusions among them). The latest, Nushama (nushama.com), whose flagship is on Madison Avenue and 53rd Street, offers IV drips of ketamine in a protocol that calls for six doses administered in quick succession (either two to three times per week over a course of two or three weeks, or a more leisurely pace of six doses over six weeks). Co-founder Jay Godfrey, a former fashion designer, started the legal psychedelic wellness center after experiencing the positive effects of psychedelic treatments firsthand. “It’s about breaking down the ego. Psychedelics break down that wall, and open the doors of perception, as Aldous Huxley called it, so you can experience yourself as more of who you really are—so you can experience your own divinity,” he says. “You can access the unconditioned self, rather than the conditioned self.”

It’s not all just woo-woo speak. There is science behind it as well. Ketamine, according to John Krystal, M.D., chief of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, “triggers reactions in your cortex that enable brain connections to regrow.” The compound can literally reshape the brain, by reactivating synapses (and glutamate receptors), which may help it shift out of depression.

The name Nushama is a Hebrew word roughly meaning “spirit” or “soul” and it has the added benefit of sounding like “new shaman,” which is apt for the founder’s intentions. “As a Parsons-trained womenswear designer, I felt my job was to make women feel confident,” he recalls. “On this side of things, it’s a similar goal, just a different way in. It’s not about buying or acquiring something that’s going to make you feel better. Here, it’s about looking under all those layers of justification, validation, explanation and righteousness to see who you truly are.”

Staff and clients alike have noticed immediate effects, one participant weaning off SSRIs completely after the full six-dose ketamine regimen, another ending a serious romantic partnership that was no longer serving them after just one dose.

Intrigued, I signed up for a ketamine “journey.” I had some recent traumatic pandemic-related events I was still processing and figured, beyond just research for the story, maybe this would help me personally as well. In addition to my time on the couch—or FaceTime, these days—for traditional talk therapy, could this be another tool in the arsenal to help me move forward in a healthy way? An hourlong Zoom consultation with Medical Director Dr. Steven Radowitz, perhaps the most compassionate and emotionally intelligent doctor I’d ever been to, assured me this was a reasonable undertaking.

Here’s what happened.

My trip started before I even got to the office. I had a fitful night of sleep, worried that I wouldn’t be up in enough time to have a shot of espresso before my morning appointment. (They recommend coming in on an empty stomach to get the full effect of the ketamine.) My father, who died several years ago, appeared in a dream, ready to drive me to the appointment. “I’ll do the driving,” I told him, and we both got in the car. It was a comfort, and an empowering notion: We’d go together, and I would steer. (We all have childhood baggage to process, and I wasn’t surprised this was part of my journey.)

Nevertheless, when I awoke that morning, I was still frightened by what lay ahead. If you have a fear of needles, the prospect of an IV can be a terrifying notion. Once in the zero-gravity chair I began my yogic Ujjayi breathing as I heeded the words of the integrationist therapist: “You can choose to go into this with clenched fists and fear or take a deep breath, relax and set forth with an open mind.” Once I put on the noise-canceling headphones and eye mask—to immerse in the experience more fully—I was instructed to imagine a stage to my right and invite various versions of myself onto that stage: me as an infant, toddler, preschooler and so on, up until the present me. I chose the me that had been recently floating in the warm surf of Playa Guiones in Costa Rica, my happy place.

As the ketamine began to take effect, and the mystical-sounding recorded instructions in the headphones started, the new age-y vibe was a bit of an eye roll for me. “Is this the part where I am indoctrinated into the cult?” I cracked, laughing to myself. “Is it time to put on the blue Nikes and join Bo and Peep?” No one was in the room to hear my jokes, but I couldn’t resist the urge to make them anyway. The feeling itself was a bit like being in the dentist chair, high on laughing gas (and then, as it ended, like Novocain wearing off).

Once fully in the trip—at a dose of 1 mg per kilogram of body weight—I was no longer scared, but in a state of awe as healthy skepticism gave way to a kind of wonder. You’re not fully in another realm, but somewhere in the in-between. Though I was still aware of my physical being in a Midtown Manhattan office festooned with trippy blooms and rooms named after psychedelic pioneers throughout its corridors, it actually felt like being hooked up to the Matrix, flying through space with bright beams of neon green and blue guiding me upward. It took me to all kinds of places from my past, revisiting pleasurable memories—a night under the stars in the Maldives; a treasured sunken tub on First Avenue in the ’90s—as a cavalcade of beloved pets from throughout my life popped in to offer comfort along the way.

What was this experience trying to tell me? Perhaps, simply, to remember the good and let go of the bad. And what were my main takeaways from the experience? I couldn’t immediately say, to the chagrin of the integrationist who wanted results. It was more amorphous for me, a feeling of lightness and a bit of disbelief accompanied by self-lacerating questions like, ‘Why did I put myself through that?’ and ‘Is this what I need to do to feel OK in the world?’ which had to be reframed: I am a seeker, and I long to know myself as deeply as possible. Ketamine therapy provided a fascinating glimpse into another realm, and yes, I would try it again, even if I remain a bit of a skeptic.

When the lovely nurse who had inserted the needle into my vein called to see how I was doing in the days after, I told her: “Well, I quit my job, shaved off all my hair and joined a commune.” She cracked up, and so did I. But in truth, it did have some positive, tangible effects.

One unexpected result was that I didn’t crave a drop of alcohol for six weeks after, and although I didn’t have a big problem with booze going in, it did change my relationship to it. I no longer needed it as a salve to help ease some social anxiety at events or gatherings—and I would rather skip it altogether when on my own relaxing at home, even after stressful days. The treatment is said to be very beneficial for addictive behaviors, and I can see why now. That alone was worth the trip