Purple neon lights in concentric triangle shapes

Familiar Themes: Ketamine Troches Part 2

Listening to music during ketamine infusions usually helped me generate a flow of images connected by associations that were often mysterious to me when the infusion was over. Sometimes, I would be faced with settings or items that had made recent appearances in my life, and other times, the things I saw seemed entirely random. It was always different.

However, there was one commonality between many of my infusions. I often felt as though I were sinking in deep water. It was peaceful but also evoked a feeling of hopelessness, which is what I wrote in my posts at the time. Some of those infusions gave me the sense that water held some significance to my subconscious. I tried to draw some meaning from it – to spin it in a positive way or discern some kind of symbolism. I could only guess that the unsteadiness the ketamine made me feel was connected to the sensation of being underwater, and that my day-to-day sense of hopelessness was intruding on me during my infusions. It made me feel like I was drifting down through a vast body of water, and there was nothing I could do about it.

At some point, the water-based visions stopped, only to be replaced by a similar experience in which I was buried in sand at the bottom of an empty well. I concluded at that time that “my perception of depression [was] manifesting itself as unbeatable natural forces in my ketamine infusions. In my visual experience of ketamine, depression feels like sinking alone in the dark, open ocean. It feels like being buried in sand at the bottom of a well while people far away can only watch.” I don’t know for sure why I had so many experiences like those, but I felt the comparison was apt; depression was pulling me down, and it would be easier to not resist.

I found myself in a similar place when I took the ketamine troche the other day. Deciding which playlist to start proved to be difficult, so I removed my earbuds for the first half and just listened to the sounds of the room around me. Allowing my thoughts to wander on their own without the influence of music might not be the best option for me. Although my mind touched on dark topics during infusions, the progression of one song to the next helped keep my thoughts moving, and frankly, the intensity of the ketamine made controlling my thoughts difficult. They floated from one image to the next automatically. With nothing to pull me along and just enough mental control of myself to not get distracted by random stimuli when I took the troche, I became stuck. Eventually, I found some music to listen to, but my mind was already trapped in a negative space and it seemed to be too late to change it.

I’m planning to find a guided meditation or an audiobook to listen to next time. Perhaps if I begin with a positive intention and impose a framework of some kind, I can herd my thoughts toward something more helpful.

So far, the dissociative effects of ketamine have been limited to a roughly one to two-hour window. Thankfully, it seems that the extended visual and auditory hallucinations that I experienced after a few infusions (notably, this one and this one) were due to the combination of ketamine and Emsam, which I’m no longer taking. I haven’t noticed any giddiness or restlessness after taking the troches, either, which troubled me toward the end of my time getting infusions. That may have also been because of Emsam.

The plan is to increase the dose and continue taking them twice a week. Hopefully I’ll start to notice something positive.

View of milky way in night sky

Renewing The Ketamine Chronicles: Troches Part 1

I wrote in my last post that my ill-advised attempt to get off my medications is not going well. Not much of a surprise, I suppose. My psychiatrist suggested I try an oral formulation of ketamine, known as troches (pronounced “tro-keys”). These are dissolvable tablets that you take home and administer to yourself on a schedule. I’m doing it twice a week for two weeks.

One of the main drawbacks of troches is that the ketamine is less bioavailable compared to IV ketamine, which makes precise dosing a challenge. The risk of addiction can be minimized by carefully monitoring patients’ responses and prescribing ketamine troches in small batches with limited or no refills. An Osmind article written by a physician notes that the ketamine doses that are commonly prescribed are much lower than typical recreational doses but that doctors should have carefully outlined plans for restricting use and halting patients’ access to ketamine troches if necessary.

I got ketamine infusions fairly regularly for two years and then stopped with no problem, so I’m not very concerned about my own risk of becoming addicted. However, a cautious approach seems prudent.

An article on RX Insider describes ketamine troches quite positively, saying that they are a more affordable option than infusions and that they offer relief for patients who may not have access to other forms of ketamine due to logistical constraints or COVID-19 safety concerns.

Even with the experience I have from ketamine infusions under my belt, I was nervous about trying troches. In general, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of not being in control of myself. I managed to let that go when I did ketamine infusions, but the medical monitoring involved in that alleviated some of my anxiety. The uncertainty about what to expect when taking ketamine at home put me on edge, but it has turned out to be fine so far.

What Do Ketamine Troches Feel Like?

I’ve tried two ketamine troches and had very different results each time. Having some idea of what to expect based on my experience with ketamine infusions, I tried to set myself up for a smooth ride. The dog had been walked, my curtains were closed, and I had no obligations waiting for me. I wore comfortable clothes, arranged my weighted blanket on my lap, and chose some gentle-but-compelling instrumental music to listen to.

The first time, I put the troche under my tongue, waited until it dissolved (about 10 minutes), and then waited about 5 more minutes before spitting it out. I may have felt something, but it passed quickly, and I felt completely normal about 5 minutes later. It was so mild that I wasn’t even sure whether I felt it because I expected to or because the ketamine actually had some effect on me. I’d been advised to spit the ketamine out to minimize nausea, but when I reported feeling pretty much nothing, my psychiatrist told me to wait ten minutes after it dissolved the next time and, if I still didn’t feel anything, I could try swallowing it the following time.

A few days later, I tried it for a second time and waited longer than recommended. I think the ketamine that was absorbed under my tongue gave me a very mild dissociative feeling, but it again passed very quickly. This time, I took notes on my phone so I could keep track of the timing. I started at 2:45 and didn’t feel anything until 3:04. I felt a very low level of spatial wobbliness – a lot like how I feel when I’m a little overwhelmed in a busy grocery store. It felt like things were getting a bit hard to track with my eyes, and I felt ever so slightly floaty. By 3:15, it seemed like the effect had already peaked in a mild way and worn off. I felt pretty normal, so I swallowed the ketamine, and a second wave came a few minutes later.

At 3:30, I noted that my fingers felt a little numb and that I was going to close my eyes. Seven minutes later, I wrote, “Music too intense. Felt like being carried on a river of sound.” What does that mean? I no longer know. You might think that I was completely zonked, based on that tidbit, but only one minute later, I held a brief conversation with my mom and managed to seem totally coherent. Compared to ketamine infusions, troches seemed to create a more fragile dissociative state. I was much more able to pull myself out of it when under the influence of troches than I was when I got infusions.

I think my anxiety about what would happen had me coming back to the room frequently, which resulted in a very fragmented experience. I would get sucked into a song for a couple minutes and then reorient myself and write a quick note on my phone about what was happening.

When I closed my eyes, my sense of where my body was and where certain parts of my body were in relation to each other was distorted. It’s a feeling I also tend to experience when I’m on the edge of sleep or when I sit still for too long. Sometimes, it’s only a small discrepancy, such as the difference between whether my hands are resting on my lap or next to me.

The sensation is cranked up on ketamine. This time, it resulted in me feeling like my head was somehow directly connected to my knees. I experienced this kind of bodily confusion frequently during ketamine infusions, so I knew it was nothing to be concerned about. I tried to let go of my desire to organize my body in a certain way and just float along in whatever form I had taken.

Every time I checked back in to the real world, I was surprised to find that only a few minutes had passed. It felt more like 20 or 30.

What I was seeing and feeling during those few minutes was nothing so detailed or bizarre as what ketamine infusions created, but I have the sense that if the experience had not been so fractured, I might have approached a similar level of immersion.

I remember one song evoking an image of the night sky as viewed from a very dark place, with the vast swath of the milky way stretching out overhead. Another song made me feel as though I were standing in my old house as it burned down, sparks and ashes falling around me. The wind had begun to howl outside in earnest, which makes me nervous these days.   

At 3:48, Stella decided to sit on the window seat. She found the break in the curtains and pushed her way through, light streaming in behind her. The light held my attention for a few minutes, but by 3:53, I wrote that I was feeling more normal but also rather sad. I had a bit of a cry, noticed that time was jumping ahead in small increments, and then got up to go to the bathroom at 4:10. Looking in the mirror was an unsettling experience, but I expected that, so it wasn’t too disturbing.

By 4:22, I felt like I was completely past the effects of the ketamine. So, all told, the entire process took about an hour and a half from the time I first noticed the ketamine affecting me.

I haven’t noticed any improvement from the ketamine, but I have two more to do before the end of my two weeks. In the meantime, I’ve decided to get back on lithium. It seems obvious that stopping it was a bad idea and that I’ve clung to the hope that I could make it work without it for too long. I’m trying to keep the perspective that my experiment was informative, and it’s good that lithium helps me. But to be honest, I just feel defeated. The better I feel, the easier I am on myself for needing medication, so hopefully, this ultra-critical side of myself will quiet down when the lithium starts working.

Testing My Mental Health Baseline Is Not Going Well

When some questions about my diagnosis arose a couple months ago, I realized that my medications made it difficult to determine which symptoms were side effects and which were stemming from me. I’ve wanted to get off my meds for a long time, partly because I have an unhealthy tendency to blame myself for my illness and expect myself to fix it through willpower. But that’s a whole separate issue. Don’t do as I do in that regard.

I decided to get off Emsam first, as I suspected that was the main culprit when it came to the occasional hallucinations and sudden mood shifts I was experiencing. Decreasing my dose was difficult, but when I stopped taking it completely, I felt better. Not by a lot, but it was noticeable.

The next step was to decrease my lithium dose. That process has progressed in the reverse of how Emsam went. Lowering it was mostly fine until I got to 300 mg. I started to feel worse, but I hoped that if I stayed at that dose for a while, my mood would even out. I started napping again. If I have nothing scheduled in the afternoon, I spend it sleeping. Walking Stella was one of the only activities I was enjoying before I started changing my meds, and now I don’t even want to do that. I still take her on at least one long walk a day because she needs it, but I find myself getting irritated and impatient the farther we get from home. Sometimes we go to the dog park so I can stand in one place and throw a ball for ten minutes before we leave. It’s a good thing she likes fetch.

A black dog tossing a tennis ball in the air

I stopped taking lithium over a month ago, and I’m still on the fence about it. I’ve definitely crossed into not-okay territory, but I’m stubbornly refusing to reverse my plan. Part of me thinks this is a bad idea and I should go back on lithium, but part of me wants so badly for it to work out that I’m willing to give it more time.

My determination to get off my medication, even though it has a slightly positive influence, seems confusing on the surface, and I struggle to articulate my reasoning for it. I always think that I’m not doing enough to help myself, and I have a long history of feeling ashamed of my reliance on medication. I think the most succinct way I can describe it is that I’d rather believe I’m failing at doing something possible than accept that it’s impossible. Truly accepting that I need medication in order to function would require me to admit that I don’t have full control over myself, and that’s a frustrating and scary thought for a perfectionist.

I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but to be clear: I don’t feel this way about anyone else. It’s a bizarre thought distortion that makes me feel as though everyone else is perfectly justified in taking medication, but I am not. The more depressed I get, the harder it is to see the irrationality of that.

I’m trying to push myself to do things and go places because I want to support my mental health as much as possible while I make these medication changes. It’s hard, though. The holiday season is upon us, and the twinkling lights and pine-bough wreaths on nearby homes are making me sad. I automatically think about all of our holiday decorations burning up in the fire five days after Christmas last year. I felt like I was moving on during the summer, but the cold weather has caused a resurgence of painful memories. It’s probably not the best time for me to be messing with my brain chemistry, but here we are.

I’m just so frustrated with medications. The possibility that I have bipolar disorder offers a nice, neat explanation for why I’ve had such sporadic and limited success with antidepressants. Getting off everything so that I can tell where my baseline is (and whether I eventually cycle back into hypomania without the influence of mood stabilizers) might make a difference in my plan going forward. The diagnosis is arguably not as important as figuring out what helps me, but since I tend to spiral into believing I’m not actually ill but rather just low in the willpower department, having a name for what I’m experiencing would be helpful. I’m just not sure if it’s worth the difficulty of achieving confidence in one diagnosis over the other, and it’s obviously not going great so far.

In fact, my mood has sunk so low that I agreed to retry ketamine – but in a different format this time. My psychiatrist prescribed ketamine troches, which dissolve under your tongue. This formulation of ketamine can be taken at home, which would be new for me. I’m nervous about it – for one thing, it’s much less controlled, in the sense that an IV ketamine infusion can be stopped suddenly; once I take the troche, I’ll just have to wait out the whole dose. I started to really dislike the feeling of ketamine toward the end of my time getting infusions, and although I don’t think troches will feel as intense, the uncertainty is making me anxious.

I am, however, passively suicidal and having trouble keeping up with self-care. I frequently sleep in my clothes and re-wear them the next day, and my hair keeps developing hidden matted sections because I can’t bring myself to brush it. So, perhaps something like a short burst of at-home ketamine would help me get myself into a better routine.

My depression brain is yelling about how I got myself into this mess by stopping my meds, so I don’t deserve help getting out of it. But that’s not healthy at all, so I’m going to try to resist it. I’d like to do some research on ketamine troches tonight so that I know more about what to expect, and then I’ll try to pick them up from the compounding pharmacy tomorrow. Ketamine seemed to stop working for me after a while, so I’m interested to see whether taking a break has impacted its efficacy.

Writing has always been helpful for me, but I’m finding the motivation to do it hard to come by. When I was more actively questioning my diagnosis, having a written record of my symptoms and how different treatments have affected me was incredibly useful in trying to piece together a timeline, so I’m going to renew my efforts to keep up with my blog. It might come in handy later.

Was I Misdiagnosed? Unipolar vs. Bipolar Depression

In late summer of last year, I increased my antidepressant, Emsam, from 9 to 12 mg. I was staying in a hotel at the time, and something odd began to happen. I started to hear music when the AC was running.

It is normal for people to hear tunes in the mechanical background noise of fans. It is not a psychotic illness – merely an odd perceptual idiosyncrasy. However, what I experienced was much more complex than any small, lilting buzz I’ve ever heard in a fan before.

The Musical Phenomenon and A Shift in My Mood

I was hearing soundtracks. Vocalists, instruments, the whole nine yards. I couldn’t decipher any lyrics, but there were distinct genres that ranged from pop to broadway to country. It sounded as if the music were coming from a different room, and for a while, I believed it was. But eventually, I began to get suspicious.

I walked around the hotel room, putting my ear to the walls, listening for a change in volume. I opened the door and poked my head into the hallway. I stood on the bed and listened to the ceiling. It was always the same volume. When the AC shut off, so did the song. A different song would start up after a few minutes of the AC running again. Sometimes, a sudden shift in my attention would cause the music to stop, even when the AC continued to run. It became clear to me that what I was hearing was not real, and it disturbed me.

A Mountain Escape

I was about to go to a new location – a trip with my mom to a small, mountain town for some wilderness relaxation. We planned to hike up to a lodge at 11,000 ft above sea level and stay for a few days. The hike up was arduous; it was the hardest hike I’ve ever completed, despite being shorter and with less elevation gain than other hikes I’ve done.

I remember that I wasn’t sleeping well, and my body just refused to cooperate as I forced myself up the trail. I had to stop frequently and lean on my pole, taking gasping breaths. At the lodge that night, I heard phantom hummingbirds zipping all around me as I lay in bed. In the morning, the sound was gone. I was unsettled, but I tried to put the experience out of my mind.

I was testy on that trip. My head was not in a good place, and my mind was filled with overwhelming irritation. I cried a lot. Neither my mom nor I were having a good time, so we left early and headed down the mountain to get a hotel room.

Upon reaching the hotel, a minuscule setback occurred, and it sent me over the edge. In a second, I went from chill to overwhelming, roiling anger. It was like calm seas to tsunami in the blink of an eye. I contained most of this energy, but some escaped in the form of expletives, fist clenching, and undignified, hurried marching on my way to our hotel room.

I am typically a very levelheaded, patient person. I strongly dislike being angry, and when I am, I make every effort not to show it. (Is that unhealthy? Yes.) In that moment at the hotel, I felt completely unhinged.

My dog had never seen me in such a state, so she hid under the table. The sight of her filled me with guilt and self-loathing. I immediately dissolved into dramatic, uncontrollable sobbing, which only frightened my dog even more. I was convinced that she would be afraid of me forever, a consequence for which I wholeheartedly believed I would never forgive myself.

Luckily, dogs are good creatures, and Stella came around once I had composed myself. Composure took a while to reach, but a hot shower helped.

Looking back, I feel like I was not myself from the very start of that trip. The rest of it passed fairly uneventfully, but I continued to hear sounds and music that were not real until a few days after returning home.

She forgave me quickly ❤

I’ve gone back and forth between 9 and 12 mg of Emsam since then, and the musical illusions occur sometimes when I take 12 mg. Sometimes it’s music, an incessant buzzing, or the murmuring sound of a group of people talking far away. Sometimes I can identify the background noise that accompanies it, and other times, it seems to happen on its own.

The Ketamine Incident

A couple weeks after returning from our mountain trip, I had a ketamine infusion that resulted in a bizarre, seemingly manic few days. I wrote a post shortly afterward that described my experience. I slept a couple hours each night but was compelled to keep moving. I worked on various projects for hours at a time, periodically bothered by the sight of small, insect-like dots scurrying across my visual field. I felt restless, productive, and somehow rather pressurized from the inside. I was also unsettled by dissociative spells in which I’d suddenly feel as though I were wearing my body, but it wasn’t really mine. Or, I’d walk by a mirror and be disturbed by my own face, which seemed unfamiliar.

When the strange symptoms ended, I plummeted back into depression.

I decreased my Emsam dose and my ketamine dose and had much more typical ketamine experiences, although I still found myself unbearably restless after infusions. The incident was strange, but since it didn’t happen again to the same degree, we carried on with treatment for a few more months.

Do I Have Bipolar Disorder?

I explained some of these experiences to a psychiatrist recently. I was being evaluated for ECT, although I’m not yet sure whether I want to do it.

The doctor interviewed me thoughtfully and asked a lot of questions about my symptoms. When we reached the end of the evaluation part of the appointment, he said that I might have been misdiagnosed with major depressive disorder, when really my depression is of the bipolar type.

It’s just a theory, but this would explain why antidepressants haven’t worked very well for me, or at least not for very long. The antidepressants actually seem to trigger these odd experiences.

A blue seven-day pill organizer filled with medication near a glass of water on a coaster

There have been other times when my mood suspiciously shifted, like the first time I took Wellbutrin. A day or two after starting it, I felt dramatically better. I was motivated, energetic, and utterly thrilled with how well it was working. Of course, then I developed a rash and had to stop taking it, at which point, I spiraled in the other direction.

The second time I tried Wellbutrin (the brand-name instead of generic), I wrote a post titled “Depression on Fast-Forward.” Wellbutrin didn’t make me happier that time, but it did make me anxious, jittery, and restless. I wrote about feeling “an almost constant low level of adrenaline” and feeling mismatched, like I wanted to sleep but was unable to. Was this just a side effect, or something more? Was taking lithium what made the second trial less happiness-inducing than the first?

The Antidepressant/Bipolar Controversy

These and the other incidents I can identify always happen in response to something, usually a medication change. The question of whether antidepressant-associated hypomania (AAH), also called treatment-emergent affective switch, or TEAS, indicates an underlying bipolar disorder is a controversial one.

Some people think that you can have unipolar depression and be reversibly pushed into hypomania by antidepressants, while others believe that switch indicates the existence of an underlying bipolar disorder or a shift from unipolar to bipolar illness. It has also been suggested that AAH should form the basis of a new diagnostic label, “bipolar III.”

I have experienced multiple incidents in the last few years that felt like a dramatic change, complete with insomnia, high productivity, perceptual disturbances, and euphoria or irritability. And yet, I find it difficult to verbally describe these events in a way that emphasizes the aspects I think are important. I habitually understate the severity of my symptoms, which doesn’t serve me when I really need help but can’t communicate accurately.

I’ve sought a few opinions from professionals on this matter, and I’m having trouble just reaching a consensus on whether my experiences count as AAH or were simply improvements in my depression with some side effects sprinkled in.

Even when I make a concerted effort to be more emphatic, the theory sometimes gets dismissed because the episodes I describe are too short by DSM standards to be mania, and I didn’t have racing thoughts, go out and spend all my money, take unreasonable risks, or have grandiose plans. These are all excellent points, so I’m really not sure what to think.

The DSM has strict criteria defining bipolar I and II, but that’s not the only way people conceptualize the condition. Some experts believe bipolarity exists on a spectrum, and that viewing antidepressant-associated hypomania as part of unipolar depression contributes to an overdiagnosis of MDD and an underdiagnosis of bipolar II.

On the other hand, some authors argue that bipolar disorder is overdiagnosed due to inflation of the diagnostic criteria, making the concept of bipolar disorder too vague.

Stopping My Antidepressant

Given the number of conflicting theories out there, it seems unlikely that I’ll get a solid answer about my own experiences at this point. One way to clarify the picture is to gradually get off my antidepressant and see what happens.

EMSAM-patch-packaging-with-label

I thought for sure I’d go back to the excessive sleeping I was doing before I started taking it, but so far, that hasn’t happened. I’ve been off Emsam for a couple of days, and the insomnia continues to plague me.

It’s troubling to look back at the last few years and imagine that there may have been a process occurring outside of my awareness. At the same time, I’m ever so slightly encouraged to have a different direction to go in. It could offer an explanation for some mysterious things and provide me with more effective treatments. Then again, maybe I have major depressive disorder, and I’m looking into a problem that doesn’t exist for me. Regardless of how it turns out diagnostically, I’m relieved to be connecting some dots.

A white bottle of white pills spilled out on a black background

Feeling Shame about Psychiatric Medication

The first time I experienced shame related to mental illness, I was 11 years old and caught in the torturous intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors of OCD. Therapy did not go well because I found it nearly impossible to overcome my shame and embarrassment enough to participate. There were times when I was so appalled at myself for having intrusive thoughts that I genuinely feared my parents might stop loving me if they knew what I was struggling with.

The shame about mental illness started early, and the shame about taking psychiatric medication soon followed. Therapy was not going to work, so when I was 13, I agreed to start taking Zoloft. I remember leaving my psychiatrist’s office with my mom after that appointment and just sobbing in the middle of the parking lot. I felt so broken in such horrifying ways, and I thought that taking the medicine meant I was failing to fix myself.

Where My Pill Shame About Psych Meds Started

It felt like a very adult thing, taking medication. I’d carefully dole the pills out into their respective days in my weekly organizer. When I took them, I’d count them over and over and over – One, two. One, two. One, two. Sometimes, I would ask my mom, “Is this two?” and point to the pills in my palm. The root of that counting compulsion was the fear that I might accidentally take more than I was supposed to and overdose. OCD had such a hold on me that I doubted my ability to count to two.

Zoloft completely changed my life. Once I reached 200 mg, it was like my brain had been rebooted and all the bugs were gone. It was amazing. I took it for a few years and then came off it. Although I slip into old patterns sometimes, the OCD never returned in anywhere near full force.

Self-Criticism about Depression Medication in Adulthood

As an adult with treatment-resistant depression, I have mixed feelings about psychiatric medication. The Zoloft helped when I was a kid, but it was still something I considered to be shameful – something to be hidden. Whether that pill shame stems more from my own insecurities, my family’s attitudes, or societal messages, who’s to say? All I know is that I’ve never been able to shake that feeling, despite years of therapy and much contemplation on the irrationality of my beliefs.

I’m always hesitant to write about this. I want to emphasize that I know the way I think about psychiatric medication is unhealthy, and I don’t think anyone else should feel the way I do. It’s odd that being aware of that doesn’t seem to change my thoughts about myself. So, I guess this is a “don’t do what I do, but if you do, you’re not the only one” kind of a post.

A hand holding several pills of different sizes and colors in its palm.

Sometimes, I accept that taking psychiatric medication for my depression is the right choice for me. It keeps me safe-ish and mostly functioning, so I try to appreciate the benefits and set aside my gripes on the subject. When my depression worsens, though, all of that goes out the window. I start thinking that I’m lazy and selfish and a horrible burden on my loved ones. Much like when I was younger, I tend to view my psych meds as daily reminders of my inability to fix myself through force of will.

Psych meds help me attain the activation energy needed to use healthy coping skills, but I also know that making behavioral changes can improve depression on its own. In my brain, if I’m not “better” yet, I must be doing therapy wrong or not trying hard enough to implement new practices.

But, Do I Need Psychiatric Medication?

I’m so tied to ideas of independence and self-sufficiency that benefiting from my depression medication feels wrong. It almost feels like cheating. I tend to think that if I make progress while taking meds, I didn’t really earn it.

Whenever I try to change the medications I take and my depression gets worse, it seems like proof that the work I was doing to help myself wasn’t enough to even make an impact. If a change in my medication sends me tumbling back down the mountain, was I supporting myself at all with other strategies? It’s a discouraging thought that leaves me teetering between believing that I need to try harder and nothing I do will make a difference.

You would think that the solution to that would just be to stay on my meds, but my mind is a convoluted mess, so it’s not that simple.

Is the Improvement from Psychiatric Medication Real?

I try to remember that during the times when my depression has been much better, I don’t feel so strongly about how medication helped me get there. That suggests that I’m not seeing things clearly when I’m depressed.

Photo by Anna Shvets: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pills-fixed-as-question-mark-sign-3683053/

Then again, maybe I don’t care about it when I’m better because the medication is influencing me in such a way that I forget about the beliefs I held before. Maybe I’m seeing the truth about myself and the pointlessness of life more clearly when I’m depressed, and that perspective is covered up by my medication when I’m feeling better. I know that sounds wild, but sometimes I’m moderately convinced by this weird logic.

Self-Compassion and Treatment-Resistant Depression

I’ve spent years trying to learn how to be kind to myself and accept that my mental illness is not my fault. I know that I’ve made progress, but sometimes, it just falls apart. It’s like I’m climbing a flimsy ladder, and every once in a while, I slip and go crashing through the rungs below me. And then I’m in an undignified heap on the ground, berating myself for not accomplishing my goals and using medication when I shouldn’t need to.

I don’t give myself any space to accept that there’s something not right in my brain, and it’s okay if I can’t fix it by myself. I know this cognitively, and yet I can never seem to fully convince myself of its validity.

Do you relate to any of what I wrote in this post? Do you see your medication differently? I’d love to know.

A body of water with four white pelicans on an overcast day

Insomnia and Seeing Spiders

I have not been sleeping well lately. TMS seems to have worsened my insomnia such that I’ve slept five hours a night, give or take an hour, for the last few weeks. It’s not so little that I was dramatically impacted right away, but the cumulative effects are becoming apparent.

For one thing, if I stray below 5 hours of sleep at this point, everything looks like spiders. Little clumps of dirt, loose threads on a napkin, you name it – if it’s small, dark, and in my vicinity, I think it’s a spider. It startles me, I flinch away from it, and then I feel stupid when I realize it’s just a particularly grainy spot on my wooden desk or some other innocuous thing.

Anything in my peripheral vision that seems at all unusual catches my attention. I was sitting at my desk on Friday, trying to work when I got this feeling that someone was standing in the hallway to my left. I looked – nothing there. It happened again, so I looked again – nothing there. I think I was seeing the hinge on my glasses against the empty hallway. The dark spot somehow got turned into a vaguely person-shaped image in my mind, and it unsettled me. Information coming in through my senses feels chaotic, and I find myself being jumpy and on edge.

Trazodone helps me fall asleep, but I continue to wake up after 4 or 5, sometimes 6, hours of sleep. Five hours is unpleasant, but the world looks mostly normal. Four is when things get wacky, and six seems to restore my sanity somewhat. I’ve definitely gone long periods of time on 6 hours a night before and been free of spiders and other illusions, so I guess five hours most nights with occasional dips below that is my limit.

I think it’s interesting that creepy crawly-related hallucinations/illusions/perceptual mixups are so common. Some of my ketamine infusions resulted in hallucinations of insects when I went home. (It is not supposed to do that.) One time, I was transfixed by some bug-inhabited cobwebs that weren’t real, and another time, I mysteriously hallucinated for three days. Small, black bugs scurried from one side of my visual field to the other and sometimes took up residence on tangible objects. I slept about two hours a night and found myself unreasonably motivated to complete tedious jobs like pruning our overgrown grapevines and reorganizing the hall closet.

That incident happened after I had been taking 12 mg of Emsam for a few weeks. My post-ketamine experiences started to become more and more bizarre and culminated in the three-day…whatever that was. I decreased the Emsam back to 9 mg, and my ketamine infusions went back to how they used to be.

Months later, I ran out of 9 mg patches and decided to use leftover 12 mg patches until I could get my prescription refilled. It was an informative experiment. I had horrible insomnia and felt similar to how I feel now. Inanimate objects started to sway back and forth in my peripheral vision, white noise sounded like music, and small, bug-like dots explored the world to my left and right until I looked at them directly. Then, they would disappear.

However, all of those incidents were different in that the insects were completely fabricated; my current spiders are actual things in the real world that my brain is transforming into momentary terrors. Thanks, brain.

I haven’t noticed any benefit from TMS yet, but we’re adding an off-label priming protocol to my regular treatments. Maybe I’ll just be a late responder. I’m trying not to feel discouraged, as I know it’s not a helpful state of mind. I’ve been feeling worse the last few days, which isn’t making it easier to be optimistic about TMS. I suppose I’ll just keep at it.

An outstretched hand holding an outline illustration of a brain against a grey background

What My Initial TMS Appointment Was Like

I recently started TMS for treatment-resistant depression. My first appointment was an interesting process. Regular visits are fairly straightforward, but there are a lot of steps to complete in a first TMS appointment that set you up for the rest of your treatment. Here’s how mine went.

I arrived at the clinic at my appointment time and went into a room containing a large machine with a digital readout connected to a tube with a peculiar-looking black attachment at the end. The room looks rather like what you’d expect if a therapist with a special interest in neurology suddenly switched fields and became a dentist. There’s a painting with uplifting words and two matching prints of the human brain on the walls, a mechanical reclining chair complete with a little paper bib over the pillow, and a desk with a computer and monitor. The walls are a relaxing shade of dark teal, and there’s a TV mounted at eye-level across from the chair.

TMS Mapping

The psychiatrist and two technicians were present, and they began by explaining what would happen. The first portion of the appointment would be dedicated to “mapping.” First, they would place a white cap on my head and take lots of measurements that would be used to mark the location of a couple parts of my brain. Then, I was to sit with my right forearm resting on a pillow on my lap while they held the magnetic coil (the black attachment at the end of the tube) up to the left side of my head and delivered pulses of varying intensity into my motor cortex.

Cortex sensorimoteur1.jpg: Pancratderivative work: Iamozy, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The purpose of this part of the process is to determine the lowest intensity that causes the patient’s thumb to twitch involuntarily. That intensity is known as the motor threshold. Mapping allows providers to tailor the patient’s treatment to specific parameters – the exact spot where the coil should be placed and the intensity of magnetic pulses that is most effective for that person.

What Does the Mapping Process Feel Like?

I found this part of my initial TMS appointment to be fascinating and a bit intimidating. As someone who hates being the center of attention, having three (very nice) people hovering over me, touching the cap, and stretching a tape measure over and around my head was uncomfortable. You only do it once, though, so that cap is now used for all of my treatments.

Determining my motor threshold was the fascinating part. I sat with my elbow bent and my forearm on my lap, oriented with my palm slightly up so that my thumb was visible and unhindered. The team placed sticky electrodes on and around my thumb and connected them to a machine next to me. I was asked to relax my arm as much as possible. The coil was held in contact with the cap. It produced a clicking sound and a small tap on the side of my head when pulses were administered. As they worked, the psychiatrist and technicians watched my thumb for movement and checked the readout on the machine for spikes in electrical activity.

Although it was bizarre to feel my hand moving without my conscious direction, nothing about the process was painful. It’s like when you develop a temporary eyelid twitch; it’s maybe a little disconcerting, but that’s about it. Subsequent pulses became less intense and had mixed results. A slightly different spot on my head would cause all of my fingers or even my wrist to move. Eventually, we landed on my motor threshold, and the electrodes were removed from my thumb.

The First TMS Treatment

At this point, I think I put earplugs in, but I might have done that earlier. Once I was tilted back in the chair, the pillow was adjusted, and someone held the sides of it up by my face. The air in the pillow was then vacuumed out, leaving a stiff, shell-like nest for my head to rest in. It feels a bit weird, but it helps keep your head still.

The coil was then attached to a mount connected to the chair. The mount is a mobile arm that allows the coil to be positioned on the patient’s head. Positioning the coil is a delicate business, so the techs did a lot of adjusting, locking it into place, and walking in front of me to look intently at my head from different angles before walking back and adjusting it some more.

There is a paucity of royalty-free TMS images online, and this is one of the only ones that show anything resembling the position of the coil. This image cracks me up. Is it the inexplicable lack of a shirt? Is it the arms held out to the sides? The coil descending from the heavens on a pole? I don’t know, but I love it.

(MistyHora at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)

What is “Intensity” in TMS Treatment?

We started at an intensity below that of my motor threshold. Intensity is measured in terms of relative percentages. When mapping, intensity is expressed as a percentage of the total output the particular brand of TMS machine you’re using is capable of producing. The motor threshold exists at some level of intensity, which means that it is also expressed as a percentage. For instance, mine is 32% of the TMS machine’s total power.

As the appointments progress, the intensity of the treatments increases. The easiest way to think of this part is to consider the treatment intensity as a percentage of the motor threshold. So, my motor threshold of 32 is the new 100%, and each treatment is set to an intensity that’s described in relation to my motor threshold. We started at 60% of my motor threshold (19 or so on the machine) and bumped it up a few times during that treatment, reaching about 70% by the time it was over.

What Does TMS Feel Like?

I knew that there would be a series of sounds and accompanying taps on my head, followed by a period of a few seconds of nothing, then more taps, and that would repeat. My insurance will cover the “10 Hz” protocol (10 Hz refers to the frequency of magnetic pulses), which follows a 75-repetition pattern of four seconds of pulses (known as trains) and 11 seconds between trains. A frequency of 10 Hz means that there are 10 pulses per second (and 40 pulses per train). 40 pulses times 75 repetitions equals 3,000 pulses per treatment. Each treatment under this protocol lasts 18 minutes and 26 seconds.

Initially, the “taps” didn’t feel much like taps at all. It was like drops of cold water were falling from a great height into a small hole in my head. The sensation would spread out from the center, although it remained restricted to a very small area. When each train ended, so did the sensations.

Every few minutes, someone would ask me if they could turn the intensity up a notch. As the intensity went up, the pulses felt more like tapping. I found it uncomfortable but not painful at that level.

A woodpecker makes for a good analogy when describing how it feels. At lower intensities, it’s like a small bird — maybe a downy woodpecker — that’s persistently curious about the acoustic properties of your skull. The higher intensities I’ve reached in subsequent appointments have replaced the little woodpecker with a much larger one, like a northern flicker.

Speaking as someone who has been licked on the forehead by a flicker and had one land on the top of their head (I worked at a wildlife rehab center), I can say that, like a TMS machine, they make a lot of noise and have incredible persistence. Thankfully, unlike flickers, TMS machines do not scream, and you can stop them whenever you want.

The machine is pretty loud — both the beeps it emits and the clicking pulses — but the earplugs help muffle the sound. The coil is heavy, and I was very aware of it resting on the side of my head. It did help me remember to stay still, though. Talking was a bit challenging, as I’m used to relying on nodding and shaking my head to supplement my conversational skills. I felt rather stunted without it, but we muddled through.

After that, my first TMS appointment was over. I had been a little apprehensive about it, but it turned out just fine. In fact, it was reassuring to know what it felt like and what I could expect going forward. Sometimes, the best way to handle uncertainty is just to jump in and get started.