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Some Benefits of Ketamine Infusions for Depression (for me)

My last ketamine infusion was much less trippy than the previous one, so I’m relieved to say that I remember absolutely none of it. Much less fun to describe, but also less persistently, somewhat threateningly bizarre. We skipped the magnesium this time, and I did not have any sudden, limb-jerking spasms. It’s good to know that was likely the culprit. When I can’t remember an infusion, I feel pretty curious about the off-putting gap in my memory. I always think it’s interesting to know what I experienced during a ketamine infusion, and when I can’t, I feel like I’m missing out on something that I just can’t access. Thankfully, the benefits of ketamine infusions remain even when I can’t remember them.

Eating Food

I’ve been having some problems with nausea and appetite since starting Wellbutrin. They mimic what I feel when I’m really depressed, just amplified. Food is not appealing, neither in my imagination nor my mouth. When it’s time to eat, my goal is to find something that’s least unappetizing. Eating it is a strangely empty experience, as if I can recognize the flavors but can’t assemble them into something I like. The closest analogy I can think of is that it’s like the difference between sound and music. For a few days following a ketamine infusion, that problem is gone. It’s easy to pick something to eat, and not only does it register as, say, a grilled cheese sandwich, but my brain is also willing to exchange it for dopamine. Things taste like how food should taste, and it’s great.

Making Decisions

Ketamine makes the days following an infusion feel remarkably lighter. The difficulty I have with making even small decisions is much improved. I just go about my days without getting stuck at every turn. Speaking of turns, I’ve really been enjoying my morning walks with Stella. When we come to an intersection, I let her choose, and we amble around a ridiculously inefficient route that’s different each day. I am typically a very routine-driven person, so this microscopic spontaneity is a teeny, tiny sign that says
“ketamine helped!” If the ketamine wears off or some other factor occurs and my depression gets worse, I tend to become more rigid in the route we take. I’m sure Stella prefers our ketamine-lightened walks, and so do I.

Thinking about the Future

The bigger benefits of ketamine infusions, for me, are centered around my attitudes about the future. Depression makes me feel hopeless, and ketamine lifts that – sometimes just a little, but sometimes a lot. I’m not sure what determines the degree of helpfulness, but it’s always a welcome effect. It makes it easier to imagine myself making changes and taking big steps.

Other benefits of ketamine infusions that I notice include:

  • Sleeping less
  • Feeling more social
  • Experiencing something called “fun”
  • Feeling satisfied about completing a task
  • Noticing little things that I appreciate or find interesting
  • Reduced suicidal thoughts (hasn’t been much of a problem recently, but I’ve definitely noticed that in the past)

Lately, I’ve noticed that the most noticeable changes stick around for a few days or a week, then things level off to a pretty neutral place where I’m neither jazzed about life nor am I in the pits of despair. By three weeks, I’m in something like the salt marshes of despondency; not inescapable, but pretty unpleasant.

That is a completely individualized timeline. Everyone is different, and I get the feeling from the forum I’m on that there are a lot of people who go much longer between needing infusions. I kind of try not to think about it because of what they say about comparison, I guess. (They = various quotes)

Musings about Medication

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This was tagged “medication” on Unsplash, and I thought, “that’s a weird swap of the typical ‘pills aren’t candy, kids!’ warning.” (Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon)

My medications may change again sometime soon, and although I just said that ketamine makes making decisions easier, I’m setting that choice aside for now. It’s harder to decide soon after an infusion because I feel like I don’t need to change anything. I feel better, therefore, I should keep things the same. But, ketamine wears off at some point, and even though I feel “better,” should I stop at that point? Maybe I only feel a fraction of my potential “better” but it seems like a lot because it’s better than abysmal. These choices are always hard. I don’t want to settle for just ok, but I worry that I’m expecting too much. Maybe this is exactly how happy people feel – they’re just more grateful for it.

But then a couple of weeks pass and I slowly start sliding backwards into napping and apathy and isolation, and I realize that there was no in-between. It was mildly happy and then increasingly depressed. There must be something more than that. I habitually blame myself for depression in the short term. A bad day or week makes me think that I let myself wallow and didn’t try to change things. I think that I’m lazy and burdensome and why can’t I just be cheerful? But when I look at the long-term – the years I’ve spent with depression – I feel kind of robbed. It’s easier to see the trends of it and the forks in the road where I didn’t pick the option the non-depressed me would have chosen. I may try to blame myself for all of that too, but the more reasonable answer is that depression has been in my way. Sometimes, that perspective makes me determined, and all of the other times, it makes me tired.

My last few months have been saturated with medication changes and mood fluctuations. I go up and down, up and down, and I’m thankful for the ups, but there’s something about the downs that feels so much more impactful. Despite the incremental progress I’m making after starting Wellbutrin, I feel completely insecure in that success, like it’s just visiting and will have to leave soon. A large part of me says that would be disastrous and I’ll just have to claw my way forward from here on out because losing ground would be unacceptable. I guess we’ll find out.

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I Want to Be a Quitter: Thoughts on Growth

Counterintuitively, stubborn determination is a trait that really holds me back. When I start something, I automatically lock myself into seeing it out, even if I don’t like it, am bad at it, or if any number of valid reasons for stepping away from something crop up. So, the thought of doing something new comes with a flood of anxiety about entering into something I would never allow myself to quit. I worry about doing a bad job, letting people down, disappointing myself, ruining something, etc., and ultimately being trapped in a role that doesn’t fit. So, I’m tempted to never start at all. It’s rather paralyzing.

But doing something new is not necessarily forever. You can quit things, and it’s ok. In fact, movement and growth can come from quitting, as taking new opportunities frequently requires that you let go of something else. It inherently results in change, and although change is uncomfortable, it’s how we grow. And so, I want to be a quitter, and despite the negative connotation of the word, I want it to be like one of those positive affirmations that I never say to myself in the mirror.

“I’m a QUITTER!”

I’d say, and then do some fist pumps and charge out of the house, ready to quit some things so that I can start anew, flush with the knowledge that if those new things go awry, I can quit those too. I don’t want to quit everything, of course – I just want it to be easier for me to accept risk and not hold myself to impossible, permanent standards.

I quit a job with no warning, once. In fact, I quit on the first day. It was such a terrible fit for me that the discomfort of quitting something was nothing compared to the prospect of working there every day. I called after going home and explained that, having experienced the job for a day, I definitely would not be able to do the job in a safe, satisfactory way. And it was fine! In fact, they thanked me for being frank with them. I felt awful for wasting their time, but in hindsight, it was 100% the right thing to do. Quitting was good.

For some reason, that experience has not completely impressed upon me the non-world-ending nature of most quitting scenarios. Just the possibility of encountering something I end up wanting to quit still causes me a lot of anxiety. But logically, I know that for the kinds of choices I make in my daily life, nothing catastrophic would happen if I chose to change things. Even in the worst-case scenario, my life would be likely be altered, but certainly not threatened. People are resilient. I could make it through the bumps of quitting, just fine.

If only I could just quit my dedication to not quitting things.

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My Unofficial Therapy Dog

I’ve started bringing my dog to therapy. Does she sit with me and look patiently into my eyes while I cry? No, definitely not. She spends 10 minutes wandering around, smelling the smells of the week with great vigor. She pokes the diffuser with her nose, sticks her whole head in the trash can, and squeeeezes behind my therapist’s chair to not-so-sneakily smell her belongings. Then, she goes back and forth between the window and relaxing on the rug, ears perked up, listening for outside sounds. She comes over to me for pets and cookies every once in a while, but mostly, she’s just nice to have around as my unofficial therapy dog. She’s completely oblivious to my human problems. Looking at her blissful ignorance during therapy is like a brain palate cleanser.

You can’t help but wonder what she thinks of this development. Here we are, in this room we come to sometimes for no discernible reason. Pretty comfy. New smells since last week. 8/10. Would be better if I got second dinner. All that matters to her is that I feed her, walk her, and let her sleep at the foot of my bed. She’s a simple creature – intensely curious and frustratingly smart – but simple in that she really doesn’t need a lot to be happy.

She shares some of that innocent joy with me. She makes me smile every single day. It doesn’t matter how depressed I am – she does something goofy or sweet and has no clue that I find her antics ridiculous. Like how she leads with her face when encountering snowdrifts, or her exasperation at me taking constant photos of her, or the many, many hilarious faces of Sleeping Stella.

Sometimes, when I try to change something in my treatment(s), my depression says, “No, thank you.” Changing my medications has not gone well for me in the past, but I continue to clutch my personal dream of reducing the number of things I pick up from the pharmacy. I recently added a drug which required me to get off of something else, which overall, does not seem to have gone well. The options now are complicated and I don’t particularly like any of them, but I still have Stella! The routine, obligatory outdoor time, and turbo-boosted zoomies have done me immeasurable good. She demands my attention and action, and there’s really no telling her to just go entertain herself. Our walks are sacrosanct to her. No replacements. And no skimping on length, either!

This was part of my goal in adopting her, and it worked in more ways than just the responsibility of it. I thought that it would be healthy for me to be forced to get out of bed and do things, but that the emotional reward of that would come during my good times. I wasn’t expecting my unofficial therapy dog to be able to careen through the fog of my depression and make me smile every single day. A smile or laugh every day certainly doesn’t fix everything, but it’s something to be thankful for.

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“We’re snuggling! This’ll be cute.”

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Post-Infusion Confusion: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 32)

My experience of receiving IV ketamine for depression this time around is now almost completely lost in the recesses of my brain. I do remember having an odd, somewhat uncomfortable feeling early on that I recognized from one of my recent ketamine infusions. My best description of this feeling is that my thoughts were physically too large for my head and too fast to really grasp. But what was most interesting about this infusion was what happened afterward.

First of all, I was so incredibly disoriented that when I thought that my mom was driving in the wrong direction, I asked, “Wait. Where are we going?”

“…Home…?” She replied. It then dawned on me that we were leaving my appointment rather than being on our way there. I was so impaired that I didn’t even remember going to the appointment at all.

The second very strange thing that happened post-infusion was that I began having brief, uncontrollable muscle spasms combined with sudden knee buckling that affected my entire body. I was wobbling along, trying not to fall in the parking garage, when it hit me. My arm shot out in front of me, flinging the apple juice I was holding onto the floor, and the rest of me doubled over for a second. It felt sort of like when you fall asleep sitting up and then violently jerk awake. Except, I was walking. For the rest of the afternoon/evening, this happened in varying degrees at least once per hour. At least, that’s my estimate. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t trust the person who couldn’t even remember going to a ketamine infusion.

The muscle spasms are mysterious but may have been due to the magnesium we’ve been adding, which helps some people see better results from ketamine. We plan to skip it next time, as it hasn’t made a dramatic difference for me, mood-wise. While magnesium may not be important for my depression, something was very different about this experience. The infusion itself seemed the same, but the bizarre visual, proprioceptive, and even auditory components extended far past the time when they usually disappear for me. I can only attribute this to the other measures we take in the effort to slow down my metabolism of ketamine, plus the somewhat recent increase in dose, but to be honest, I don’t know why this one was different.

Generally, by the time I’m capable of putting my shoes on to leave the clinic, things look pretty much normal. This time – not so much. Once home, I noticed that a piece of crumpled paper appeared to have cobwebs on it with tiny insects crawling around inside it. At first, I was completely fooled. Fascinated, unsettled, and fooled. I peered at it from a close-but-safe distance, trying to get my eyes to focus on its movement. I tried alternately holding my breath and blowing on it to see if the gentle movement was actually caused by my own proximity; I tried holding my hand above it to feel for a draft, and I tried touching it with another piece of paper. But, no matter what I did, the cobwebs continued to wave slowly back and forth at their own pace, and the small bugs never explored past the cobwebs. My little tests helped me realize that it wasn’t real, but I was so interested in it that I continued to stare.

Eventually, I dragged my eyes away from the paper to look behind me, and when I turned back, the bugs and cobwebs were gone. After the rather large amount of time I spent engrossed in a crumpled piece of brown paper, I suddenly understood via first-person experience why ketamine’s effects make for a useful clinical model of psychosis. The entire event was bizarre and deeply unsettling in a way I can’t quite describe.

My eyesight was frustratingly blurry, to the point that things actually looked clearer without my glasses. I’m not sure exactly how the physics of that works, but wearing my glasses seemed to make it much more difficult to focus my eyes than it was without them. Attempting to lock my gaze on something flat and relatively close to me, like texts on my phone, made the object recede and push forward into subtle 3-dimensionality on repeat.

Perhaps the most persistent phenomenon of this post-ketamine experience was the sound of voices next to me. I’ve been re-watching a show I like lately, and at some point in the afternoon, I realized that I had been “listening in” on the dialogue of several fictional characters off to my right for at least an hour — not sure about that timeline, though. Their voices sounded exactly like the actors’ voices; so much so that I felt I could identify the person speaking at any given time. There seemed to be a choppy plot- not one familiar to me from the actual show. My brain must have created a whole new plot, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. I again reminded myself that I was just not quite past the effects of ketamine, and that it would pass. It wasn’t that I ever thought those fictional people were actually next to me; the voices just wouldn’t stop. It was like listening to a podcast that I couldn’t turn off. I kept trying to distract myself with something else, but I would eventually drift away from it, back to the voices. Then, after what felt like a few minutes, I’d remember that it’s generally not good to be hearing voices and would try to distract myself again. I was moderately creeped out, but mostly exasperated by the fact that I couldn’t reliably corral my thoughts back to reality.

All of this – the experience of seeing and hearing things so long after an infusion is distinctly new to me. There have been times when I thought I heard things post-infusion, but I’m never quite positive that those sounds weren’t real, and they always happened much closer to the infusion. It seems possible that I might have just been thinking about that show and gotten pulled into an imaginary scene, which doesn’t necessarily count as hearing things. But the cobwebs – which I also saw once during an infusion when I left my eyes open for too long – definitely appeared to be taking up space in the real world, and long after I’m usually good to go.

Today, I feel much more like myself, although I’m strangely exhausted despite doing basically nothing all day yesterday. My vision is still a tad blurry, which I think might have been the scopolamine patch I was wearing, which can dilate your pupils. I’m going to make a checklist before the next time of things that I need to do when I come home from a ketamine infusion. It’s difficult to keep things straight when you can’t remember whether you even made it to the infusion in the first place! I’m going to take this weird continuation of my ketamine infusion experience to mean that it might be more effective against my depression this time. Or, maybe it’s a really bad sign and nobody else ever experiences this. When I find out, I’ll let you know.

If you liked this post, consider starting at the beginning of the Ketamine Chronicles, or visit the archives to find month-by-month posts.

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A Gold Monocle: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 31)

The warm, vaguely citrusy feeling of ketamine spilled down my back while I tried to get my earbuds in and my music started. I fumbled around for a moment, not sure which earbud was which, but finally settled with the knowledge that I had a 50/50 chance of getting it right. I jammed those puppies in there while the world outside my eyeballs spun around. After some time, I realized that I had left my index finger suspended in the air with the pulse oximeter on it. One of those deep-seated memories, the ones that you wish you could get rid of because they always seem to displace more critical information, rose to the surface. Yes. I remembered that SpongeBob episode in which Patrick teaches SpongeBob that holding your pinky up is fancy, so, “the higher you hold it, the fancier you are.” I kind of wanted to laugh, but was afraid that if I started, I wouldn’t able to stop and I’d just spend the whole infusion cackling over fancy pinkies.

I’ve learned that if I don’t put my head back and try to relax my neck before the ketamine gets started, it takes a herculean effort to do so later on. I find this strange. Like I did when I left my finger pointed up, I can go long stretches of time without even noticing that I’m doing it. One would think that sitting in a reclined position with their neck bent to keep their head aloft would be really uncomfortable. But somehow, it’s just easier to forget about it than to try to move. It reminds me of that locking mechanism that birds do with their feet so that they don’t fall off of telephone wires while they sleep. I just get stuck in whatever position I’m in when the ketamine hits me.

I don’t remember much from this ketamine infusion, although I know that it was one of the most choppy, disconnected visual experiences I’ve had during a ketamine infusion. There was a man dressed in 19th century clothing – ruffled white collar peeking out from a buttoned up, navy tailcoat jacket, with a gold monocle arranged over his left eye. He was leaning over me, large grey beard waggling while he spoke, telling me something about achievement and perfection and getting started before it’s too late.

I don’t think that I’ve ever heard my ketamine dreams make any noise at all, except for one time when I heard some garbled gibberish in the center of my head after an infusion, when I was on my way home. Who knows what that was, though – the radio, people on a crosswalk, etc. But in any case, it was startling to realize that someone imaginary was speaking to me during an active ketamine infusion. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the advice the man was giving me wasn’t encouraging. It was more like a stern lecture, siphoned from my own inner dialogue about failure, perfectionism, and growth. Quite strange.

Side note: I started writing this when I got home from my infusion. This morning, I opened up my laptop to see that I had written “before it’s two late.” I must have been more impaired than I thought. It’s not as bad as, say, waking up to find that I’d spent all my money on vintage beanie babies or clown figurines, but whoo, boy. What an egregious mistake for an editor to make.

The image of monocle man is what I remember with the most clarity, but I also remember a taxidermized rat with an oblong hole in its neck. A live white rat emerged from the hole, pulling itself free like some kind of disturbing mammalian version of a snake shedding its skin. Seriously creepy. Other than a lot of colorful TV static and a white sand beach, that’s all I remember.

I wish I had a better way to end this post, but that’s all I’ve got. Go look at something heartwarming to get that rat image out of your brain. Bye, for now!

Search & Rescue Elephants and Other Therapy Tidbits

My mental health has once again taken a turn in a not-fun direction, which I attribute to some recent medication changes. So, instead of sitting here thinking, I should write something. I can’t think of anything to write, and then putting down anything I do write as being the worst drivel ever to appear on my screen because I’m in a rather negative headspace, I’m going to take you on a little diversion.

Did you know that an elephant’s sense of smell is twice as strong as that of a bloodhound’s? (C, that documentary led me astray. Google says twice, not four times.) This is what I said to my therapist the other day in one of my many, futile attempts to distract from the topic at hand. We’ve also discussed, among other things, a documentary I watched called “Octopus Volcano,” how scallops have eyes, and what “horse” is in ASL. Usually, when I share a fun fact like this, there’s a brief exchange and then she goes, “Well, that used up about a minute and a half.” And then we’re back where we started, just a little more entertained. This time, I think we probably used up, like, at least three minutes with the elephant fact. It may have been the most productive time-wasting fact I’ve ever pulled out of my sleeve. We got going on a train of thought that I think has some incredible real-world promise.

Just imagine: search and rescue ELEPHANTS. The police force bring out the specially trained sniffer elephants in super-wide trailers. They step down, decked out in vests that say “DO NOT PET. I’M WORKING”, but the vests are really just tarps secured around their bellies with bungee cords because the elephant service vest market just isn’t there yet. Soon, they’re working in airports, sniffing for bombs and drug trafficking. All floors have widened stairs and elephant-safe ramps, and next to the dog relief areas are rooms with piles of dirt for the pachyderms to toss over their backs. Retired sniffer elephants spend their golden years relaxing with their family herd with frequent visits from their old handlers, revered as heroes for their invaluable contributions. I think we’re on to something, here.

“Sir? Sir! This is a service animal. Please don’t feed her the limp lettuce off your hamburger.”

Is this a breakthrough? Did I have a breakthrough in therapy?! Yeah, yeah, it’s not about me, but a striking realization is a striking realization. Elephants are the next sniffer dogs. Maybe they’re not as motivated to please humans, and they do need to eat a tremendous amount of foliage as they travel great distances throughout the day, but I think those problems could be overcome with some creativity. There really is no limit to what you can take away from therapy.

Non-sequitur segue! Other problems that can probably be overcome include my current difficulties with changing my clothes and eating and getting work done and my general depression problems. Titrating down on an antidepressant can be tricky. I’m trying to figure out whether this dip in my mood is because this antidepressant was helping me more than I thought it was, regular old withdrawal, ketamine wearing off, or any number of other variables. I suppose time will tell. Let’s persist in our efforts to overcome wacky, theoretical elephant scenarios and the challenges of living life.

P.S. Good luck to the Google algorithm in trying to figure out what the heck this post is about. 🙂

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Anxiety is Keeping Me Awake

And I love it. Well, “love” is too strong, but I have distinctly positive feelings about this change in my depression. From the outside, it may sound amazing to take a four-hour nap every day. Living it is a different matter. When you’re absolutely exhausted all the time and you crawl into bed simply because you don’t want to exist as a conscious person anymore, it’s not rejuvenating. When you go to sleep because you just want the day to be over and at least that way, you won’t perceive the passage of time, it’s not indulgent self-care. Instead, it’s just a black hole siphoning days, weeks, months of your life away from you. So, when you suddenly have every precious second of the day to be awake, it’s wonderful – and a little bit uncomfortable.

Wellbutrin is what’s still making me anxious – a side effect that Google says goes away within a week or two. Not so, for me, although hopefully, for a more complex reason. When I started taking propranolol, a beta blocker, to counteract the anxiety and jitters, I hoped that I could start to really enjoy my improved motivation. I’ve been mostly feeling like it arose solely as a product of anxiety that propels me from distraction to distraction. Instead, I encountered a strange result. Two propranolol per day had minimal effect, but three made me so shaky that I struggled to type or to use a spoon. This is weird, and not at all what’s supposed to happen. Perhaps I had a paradoxical reaction to it, but it’s hard to say. As for the anxiety, my psychiatric nurse practitioner theorized that the addition of Wellbutrin made for three medications in my list that deal with norepinephrine. I was making too much of it, essentially leaving me constantly primed for fight or flight. I’m now tapering down on one of those meds in preparation to increase the Wellbutrin.

Although the anxiety is improving, it still keeps me from napping most days. It’s that odd combination of being tired and full of energy at the same time. I want to close my eyes and rest, but it kind of feels like my trachea is the size of a large straw, and I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. It’s a tug-of-war between depression, which still votes in favor of sleep, and anxiety, which votes for frantic activity. Consequently, many of my days feel much longer than they used to because I’m unable to sleep. I’m still not as interested in my, well, interests as I used to be, so although I have this itch to be active, nothing seems quite right. The anxiety is also not nice, but it is a novel experience to be conscious for an entire day. There are so many hours to pass!

In an example day, I’ve:

  • fixed my clogged bathroom sink
  • drawn some potted plants
  • accomplished my part-time work in one sitting
  • refilled the bird feeder
  • took the dog to the vet
  • *perused the web for “doggles”
  • went for a walk

There have been some recent days that included naps, but on the whole, I’m pleased with my daily awakeness. Now to try not to go too far in this direction and become more anxious that I’m only doing very minimal activity and it somehow feels like a lot to me. Don’t. Over. Think. It.

*Doggles, or dog goggles, are on my shopping list because my dog, Stella, habitually develops eye infections, likely in the course of her high-speed, full-contact dog park outings. The doggles are for her to wear while we play fetch, silly as that is. But hey – ten bucks for doggles, or $180 for each vet trip? They also look awesome.

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It’s hard to get photos of dogs playing that don’t look terrifying, but I swear, this is Stella and Tugs having a great time. Imagine how cool they would look with doggles.

Not Much to Report & Ketamine FAQs: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 30)

It’s part 30 of the Ketamine Chronicles! Time flies, doesn’t it? My previous ketamine infusion (which I use as part of my treatment-resistant depression treatment), was surprisingly more effective than it has been in the last couple of months. I’ve been enjoying the general lightness and ease with which I can get out of bed. Last Thursday seemed to take a downturn, although it’s always hard to tell which factors explain which results. In any case, my regularly scheduled ketamine appointment was yesterday, so it was good timing, if so.

Whereas the last infusion was extremely trippy, this one seemed more mundane. That might only be because I don’t have much memory of what I experienced, though. At the start of my infusion, my ears began feeling incredibly hot, as if I’d just said something horrifyingly embarrassing. Once I closed my eyes, I remember feeling a tad uncomfortable, like my thoughts were becoming too big for the confines of my head. It seemed like I was seeing darkness for longer than usual, and I think that the lack of engaging visual noise is what made my thinking feel too big. Of course, I don’t remember what I was pondering, just that it was happening.

Photo by: Leni und Tom on Pixabay

Once again, I fell asleep when I got home and then had several disorienting instances upon waking up and not knowing what day or time it was. It felt like I had been sleeping for many hours when my mom poked her head into my room. All that had registered in my brain a moment before was that my phone said 6:30. So, when my mom informed me of the shrimp and rice on the table, I momentarily thought, “why would she make shrimp and rice for breakfast?” It quickly dawned on me that it was, in fact, the same day. I woke up a few more times during the night, still briefly believing that it was the next morning. The pitch black scene outside my window hinted that no, it was not 11:30 AM. It took me a few seconds to reassess.

Start from the beginning of the Ketamine Chronicles! Or, visit the archives for a list of month-by-month posts. Other posts have far more absurdity and detail in my descriptions of what it feels like during an infusion.

Ketamine FAQs

Since this entry in the Ketamine Chronicles is pretty short, I thought I’d share the questions that I asked when I started ketamine therapy. I’m not sure that these are actually frequently asked, but it made the heading nice and concise, and I do love some organization. The answers to these questions are a blending of what my doctor told me, plus what I’ve learned through personal experience. Everyone is different, so the answers may not apply to everyone.

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I love strange stock images. Photo by: Tumisu on Pixabay

1. How do you know when you should get a maintenance infusion? Is it a sudden change, or more gradual?

For me, it’s usually a gradual change that I notice somewhere between two and three weeks after an infusion over the course of three or four days. I know that it’s time to get another infusion when I find myself doing a lot of nothing and feeling apathetic. My motivation disappears and I usually start thinking that acting to counter my symptoms is pointless.

However, it can be more of a sudden change for some people. They may wake up one morning knowing that, because their symptoms have returned quickly, the ketamine has worn off.

2. Do some people eventually manage their depression with just therapy, etc.? Or is the damage that depression causes a continuous process that you have to constantly work against?

Unfortunately, it’s the latter. After your initial series of infusions, you’ll need to periodically get maintenance, or “booster”, infusions. The effects of ketamine wear off at different rates for different people.

I suppose it’s possible that someone could really piggyback on the results of ketamine therapy and launch themselves into better long-term mental health, but as far as I know, the vast majority of people need booster infusions.

Exercise, therapy, social interaction, and other activities that support your mental health can help the effects of ketamine last longer. It’s possible for some people to extend the interval between their infusions. #goals

3. How do people decide whether or not to keep taking their medicine?

This is a uniquely personal decision that you make with your psychiatrist or other prescriber. I was hopeful that the benefits of ketamine would allow me to at least reduce some of my more side-effect prone medicines, but so far, trying it hasn’t worked out for me.

4. Is it possible that for some people, ketamine makes their meds work better because of the brain repair it facilitates?

Yes! As I discovered first-hand, going off some of my medications had pretty abysmal results. It’s clear that for me, the combination of my usual medications and periodic ketamine infusions is what works best. You can even try medications that you’ve taken and discontinued before, as sometimes they work better with ketamine.

5. Is my reaction to the first infusion a good indicator of whether or not it will work?

No. While ketamine works for some people nearly immediately, it takes longer for others to see any benefit. I didn’t feel better until roughly my fifth infusion.

Additionally, the way you do your first infusion is not set in stone. Sometimes, you need to change the dose or add other medications. It’s not a one-size-fits-all treatment.

6. Does ketamine ever “kinda work,” or is it all or nothing?

I apparently didn’t write down my doctor’s answer to this, so this is entirely my own experience.

I find that it can “kinda work” for me, depending on circumstances that I haven’t pinned down yet. Still, even when it’s not amazingly helpful, it’s still worth it for that small benefit. I tend to vacillate between “meh,” and “wow, I feel so much better.” So, much like question #3, it’s probably worth tweaking things if it’s less beneficial than you hoped.

However, for some people, it seems not to work at all. On the other hand, there are people for whom ketamine makes a dramatic difference almost immediately. It seems to be a continuum.

7. Will I do anything embarrassing during a ketamine infusion?

I don’t think I asked my doctor about this, but it was definitely part of my apprehension. I tend to be quiet during my infusions, in part because it feels nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. When asked if I’m doing ok, I usually just sort of nod my bobblehead a little.

I do know that other people are far more chatty than I am and can just talk the whole time. I doubt they divulge any deep, dark secrets without meaning to, though. Even though I can’t muster up the energy to speak, I have contemplated whether or not I should say something. Some of the things I see behind my eyelids are so absurd that I want other people to know about them. But even with that desire to share something funny, I’m still capable of deciding whether or not to say it. I probably would talk more if it weren’t so hard to work around my bubble gum tongue.

Feel free to leave questions in the comments. If I have an answer, I’d be happy to share it with you.

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Depression on Fast-Forward

Being anxious and depressed at the same time feels like a mental contradiction. I feel mismatched, like my head and my body are going at different speeds. Many times during a day, depression tells me I’d like to sit and do nothing, but my body impolitely declines that option. I feel an almost constant low level of adrenaline, like someone jumps out of a closet and startles me 15 times a day.

Still, for me, this level of anxiety is vastly preferable to the hibernation I was doing before Wellbutrin. At least now, I have more motivation to stay out of bed and put my energy towards something productive. I feel more like a regular human who can get stuff done, as long as I can focus long enough to do it. I’ve decided to call this combination of symptoms “Depression on Fast-Forward”. If these were potatoes, they’d be hot potatoes, never in one hand for very long. Sometimes, they fall on the floor and split open, to later be relegated to the bin.

Distractions are helpful, as I wrote in my last post. My mom and I recently started cross-country skiing again, and wow, does it really shake your confidence in being proficient at standing upright. I fell five times on our first outing, and three times on our second outing, so I’m really improving on my wobbly wipeout score. That’s pretty good, I’d say.

I just recently figured out yet more issues with my pharmacy, so I’ll be able to try a beta blocker to help with the jitters. An added benefit of this is that it may help reduce my essential tremor. Upon hearing the news of my upcoming fine motor skills, my mom said, “You could do eye surgery!” And I said, “That is what’s holding me back from my love of eyeball operations.” My tremor has worsened in recent years, probably due to the lithium I take for depression, which is totally worth it, but still annoying. Sometimes, if I wake up very suddenly, I find my hands shaking so badly that I can’t unlock my phone. It’s somewhat disturbing, but again- worth it.

Depression on Fast-Forward is troublesome. I’m more active, but most of it is hollow. The bigger things I’m doing, like skiing with my mom, feel meaningful, but the rest of my time…not so much. Well, except for all of the puppies I’ve met lately. They were all amazingly, infectiously joyous creatures. That’s the solution – I need more puppies.

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Depression in Men: Why is it Different?

Four times more men die by suicide than women, and yet half as many men are diagnosed with depression as are women (1). In researching this topic, I was encouraged by the shift our society is making towards understanding depression in men and the factors that push them to such lengths. However, there is clearly still a long way to go. A book I skimmed early on in my search, aptly titled Men and Depression, by Sam Cochrin and Frederic Rabinowitz, mentions in the introduction that “A book that examines distress and depression in men may be seen by some as politically provocative.” In 2000, when that book was published, many researchers and clinicians were working to move public perception of mental disorders in men inch by inch. They recognized that the disparity between the number of men diagnosed with depression and the number of men who kill themselves indicates a hidden population of men who battle their depression in secret. 21 years later, the number of articles under a “depression in men” search in Google Scholar numbers over 3.5 million.

As a woman who suffers from depression, I feel relatively safe in disclosing my diagnosis. People are generally sympathetic and understanding when I discuss my symptoms. But how do men feel about the way their depression is received? A man I know has been dealing with depression for a long time, so I asked him exactly that question. Thankfully, he told me that his social circles have been largely supportive, which I think is an encouraging sign for our culture’s direction. But what factors make the rates of suicide between men and women so different? If we’ve come from “politically provocative” to millions of research articles in two decades, why are many men still suffering in silence? I want to dig into this issue to understand the historical trends, what sometimes makes depression in men different, and what we can do to keep the conversation going.

Historical Epidemiology of Suicide

In a really deep dive, we could go way back to Hippocrates and Galen to explore the perceived gender divide on mental disorders, which would be interesting. But in this context, we’ll stick to the 20th and 21st centuries. Let’s take a look at this set of data from the CDC’s Data Finder (12). It’s compiled mostly by decade between 1950 and 2015. This graph of the data, which I made with my rusty skills in Excel, illustrates the suicide trends by rate among men in various age groups.

Although the rate of suicide among all ages has remained relatively stable, trends within age groups are concerning. Suicides among 15-24 year-olds have increased dramatically, as have those among 25-44 year-olds. Despite a somewhat steady decline in the suicide rate of men aged 65 and older, they remain the group with the highest rate. By 2019, the rate of suicide in men had increased from 21.1 deaths per 100,000 to 23 deaths per 100,000 (13). For every 100,000 men, 23 deaths doesn’t immediately sound shocking. But to illustrate the numbers in a different way, consider that in 2019, a horrifying total of 37,256 men killed themselves in the U.S.

It introduces another layer of complexity to compare the data on men to the data on women. The suicide rate among women of all ages has increased since the 50’s more than it has among men, but it still sits markedly lower. In 2019, the overall suicide rate among women was 6.2 deaths per 100,000 people (13). Compared to 37,256 male suicides, the country saw 10,255 female suicides. Both of those numbers are unimaginable to me, but it’s worth investigating; why is the rate for men so much higher than it is for women?

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Photo by Mykyta Martynenko on Unsplash

Diagnostic Factors

The wildly higher rate of suicides among men than in women, combined with the average 2:1 ratio of depression diagnoses in women versus men, convincingly suggests that depression in men is going undiagnosed. An increasingly accepted hypothesis regarding this conclusion is that depression in men and women can be experienced in different ways (10). The current diagnostic tools don’t capture all of the symptoms of depression that men commonly face. The gender differences in symptomatology have led some to argue for the recognition of separate depression diagnoses for men and women. Magovcevic and Addis conceptualized the differences as constituting typical depression plus a subtype, masculine depression (6). Subsequent research shows that some men who don’t fully fit the diagnostic criteria on traditional depression questionnaires may be diagnosed when masculine depression symptoms are considered.

Masculine Depression Symptoms

“Masculine depression” (also called male depression and a variety of other terms), is characterized by more symptoms of anger, aggression, risk taking, and substance abuse than tend to occur in women. These symptoms are examples of “externalizing features.” They serve to express a person’s emotions in an outward, active way. “Internalizing features” of depression are identified by retreating into one’s self, such as by ruminating, engaging in negative self-talk, and isolating from others.

New Self-Report Scales

To investigate the efficacy of adjusted self-report scales at identifying depression in men, researchers created the Gender Inclusive Depression Scale (GIDS) using two other male depression scales validated with small cohorts. When symptoms of masculine depression – the externalizing features – are included in a traditional diagnostic survey, the rates of depression diagnoses among men and women are not significantly different (7). In other words, the gender differences disappear. Another scale, the Male Depression Risk Scale (8), measures emotion suppression, drug use, alcohol use, anger and aggression, somatic symptoms, and risk-taking. The sensitivity of the MDRS is similar to that of the PHQ-9 in recent suicide attempt identification (9).

Why is Depression in Men Sometimes Different?

To be clear, it’s a continuum; many men are diagnosed with depression using traditional questionnaires. But for the ones who aren’t, the answer is probably based in gender norms. Men who have depression and who identify with traditional ideals of masculinity are more likely to experience masculine depression symptoms (4). In a society that has traditionally viewed men who express sadness as “weak” or “feminine,” it makes sense that sometimes, depression in men is displayed as anger or in attempts to cope with it through substances. Sadly, it’s more socially acceptable for men to express anger than sadness, self-doubt, or anxiety.

Photo by Jordan McQueen on Unsplash

Why is the Suicide Rate Among Men so Much Higher?

If newer diagnostic scales indicate that the rates of depression in men and women are actually more alike than previously thought, what is going on with the suicide rates? Why would men die by suicide four times more often than women? It’s hard to know how many suicides could have been prevented by mental health intervention, but it’s logical to think that men who aren’t seeking counseling or who are dismissed without a diagnosis would be more likely to turn to suicide as the answer. Additionally, we know that although men complete suicide more often than women, women attempt it more often (11). Men tend to use more lethal methods, and for some men, the act of suicide represents an affirmation of strength and independence (2). It is crucial that we improve identification and treatment of depression in men (5).

A Note on “Masculine” and “Feminine”

With all of this discussion about a “masculine” depression facet, I have a small fear that readers of this post will leave feeling as though their diagnosis of depression must have been of the feminine kind. It’s not. It’s just depression – men, women, nonbinary people – it doesn’t impose judgement on your identity, it simply is. Just as men may experience more anger and impulsivity as part of their depression, women may be more likely to suffer body image issues and self-harm behaviors. But it’s a bell curve; just because men are more likely than women to exhibit anger as a sign of depression doesn’t mean that women can’t as well. Statistically, neither gender is more closely associated than the other is with the typical symptoms (8). The only gendered difference exists in the subset of “masculine” symptoms. The core set of symptoms that are covered in typical scales like the PHQ-9 remain the main diagnostic components of what we know depression to be. Expanding the criteria by creating a subset of symptoms more associated with men is just a way of widening the net in order to keep people from falling through the cracks.

For more reading on how men can view depression, suicide, and masculinity, check out this article. The author provides evidence for a variety of views that men hold about how mental health and suicide relate to masculinity.

Identifying Depression in Men Going Forward

For a long time, our definition of depression was too narrow. The research on gender differences in depression, which I have only barely scratched the surface of, is vast and still growing. Although the standard depression questionnaires remain focused on internalizing features to the exclusion of the externalizing ones, authorities on the matter have acknowledged the issue in other ways. The American Psychiatric Association has a webpage from 2005 that describes the early research and what to watch out for in men who may have depression. They now have a number of web pages, magazine articles, fact sheets, and books about men and depression. Someday, I hope that standard depression questionnaires will include measures for symptoms that men exhibit, but until then, we can continue to reduce stigma and spread the word about how depression in men can manifest.

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Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

You can pass online resources on to the men you know. You can talk about it with your doctor. You can listen to your friends, fathers, brothers, and sons. Assure them that having feelings doesn’t make them less of a man, it just makes them human.

Resources

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
  • Advice on looking out for friends: beyondblue.org
  • Potential symptoms and tips for self-care: texashealth.org
  • Information, resources, and community: headsupguys.org

Citations

  1. “By the Numbers: Men and Depression,” December 2015. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/12/numbers.
  2. Canetto, Sylvia Sara, and Anne Cleary. “Men, Masculinities and Suicidal Behaviour.” Social Science & Medicine 74, no. 4 (February 2012): 461–65.
  3. Cochran, Sam, V, and Frederic Rabinowitz E. Men and Depression: Clinical and Empirical Perspectives. Academic Press, 2000.
  4. Genuchi, Matthew. “Anger and Hostility as Primary Externalizing Features of Depression in College Men.” Psychological Sciences Faculty Publications and Presentations, August 1, 2015. https://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1223&context=psych_facpubs.
  5. Keohane, Aisling, and Noel Richardson. “Negotiating Gender Norms to Support Men in Psychological Distress.” American Journal of Men’s Health, October 11, 2017. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29019282/.
  6. Magovcevic, Mariola, and Michael Addis. “The Masculine Depression Scale: Development and Psychometric Evaluation.” APA PsycNet, 2008. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-09203-001.
  7. Martin, Lisa, A, Harold Neighbors W, and Derek Griffith M. “The Experience of Symptoms of Depression in Men vs Women: Analysis of the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.” JAMA Psychiatry, October 2013. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/1733742.
  8. Rice, Simon, M, and Anne-Maria Moller-Leimkuhler. “Development and Preliminary Validation of the Male Depression Risk Scale: Furthering the Assessment of Depression in Men” 151, no. 3 (December 2013): 950–58.
  9. Rice, Simon, M, John Ogrodniczuk S, David Kealy, and Zac Seidler E. “Validity of the Male Depression Risk Scale in a Representative Canadian Sample: Sensitivity and Specificity in Identifying Men with Recent Suicide Attempt.” Journal of Mental Health, November 2017, 132–40.
  10. Rutz, Wolfgang, Jan Walinder, and Lars Von Knorring. “Prevention of Depression and Suicide by Education and Medication: Impact on Male Suicidality.” International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, January 8, 1997. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/13651509709069204.
  11. Schumacher, Helene. “Why More Men than Women Die by Suicide.” BBC Future (blog), March 17, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190313-why-more-men-kill-themselves-than-women.
  12. “Table 30. Death Rates for Suicide, by Sex, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Age: United States, Selected Years 1950-2015.” CDC, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/2017/030.pdf.
  13. “Underlying Cause of Death, 1999-2019 Request.” Data Table. CDC WONDER. Accessed January 17, 2021. https://wonder.cdc.gov/controller/datarequest/D76.