A woman wearing a black one-piece swimsuit floating in dark water with her knees bent and her arms outstretched to the sides

Underwater: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 12)

Breaking through the thin boundary between water and air is easy, but the farther down you are, the harder it is to swim to the surface. Higher doses during IV ketamine infusions for depression make me feel like I’m sinking beneath vast volumes of water, and the barrier between my mind and the outside world is very far away.

I don’t remember much from this IV ketamine infusion, which I have every few weeks as a treatment for my severe, treatment-resistant depression. I remember sitting in the chair and closing my eyes. Then, a minute later, the machine beeped and the nurse reached over to me. She fiddled with the IV, smiled wryly, then said, “We have to have the clamp open.”

“That helps,” I replied with a smile.

After that, I remember very little. I was listening to classical music in my earbuds, which seems to create (for me) more memorable images than meditation music, but apparently not memorable enough to outweigh the sack of bricks that hit me when the ketamine kicked in. I do remember bursts of thin lines that became ripples on water, and finger painting a nature scene with varying shades of pink. I remember a crocodile, a puffy dress, and watching my inner set of eyelids close to darkness.

It always takes some work for me to come back to the room when a ketamine infusion is over. This time, I kept thinking that people were waiting on me to come out of it, so I thought I should hurry up and return to my body. But, when I dragged my real eyelids open and looked around, somebody said, “Just a couple more minutes.” Oh. That’s why it was so hard to pull myself back. It wasn’t even over yet.

Slow to Return to My Body and Mind

At lower doses of ketamine treatments, I generally feel normal within 30 minutes of the infusion ending, if a little tired. This time, though, it’s all a blur. I remember the rest of the day in jumbled snapshots. Returning to the room around me and talking to Sarah, who mysteriously took the place of the nurse at some point; telling Dr. G that I didn’t remember what I saw; pushing the footrest down with my heels, then walking to the car with my mom. Two kids sprinted past us, almost colliding– wait– was that before the infusion or after? That was before. When I woke up on my bed hours later, I was mildly unsettled that I could remember so little of the day. I know that I wouldn’t have said that I felt weird in the moment, but my memory of it all is so broken that I clearly was pretty impaired.

Four or five hours after getting home, I pushed myself out of bed and tottered to the kitchen for some food. When I turned or bent, mild vertigo briefly grabbed me. A can of soup and a clementine later, I pulled out my laptop to jot down some notes about the infusion, only to sit, stumped by my lack of memory. Listening to the music I chose over again prompted flashes of scenes and images, but I still have the sense that there are some rich plots that I’m missing. It’s like when you know you had a bizarre dream, but you just can’t quite remember what it was about. Ah, well. It’s entertaining to remember my ketamine dreams, but the important part is that it’s getting to work in my noggin to treat my depression as we speak.

If you’d like to read more about my experience with ketamine for depression, start from the beginning of The Ketamine Chronicles or visit the archives. Click here for mobile-optimized archives of The Ketamine Chronicles.

A male lion stretching in the downward dog pose in a field of tall grass

Backyard Lion: The Ketamine Chronicles (Part 11)

I awoke to darkness. And barking. Whipping the blanket off of me, I thought what I always think in this situation, which is: Stella, don’t wake the neighbors up! And then I thought:

Wait a minute, I didn’t let her out this morning, followed by, wAiT a minute, IS it morning? 

It was not. It was 5:30 P.M., the same day as my latest ketamine infusion. I napped hard after this infusion, which was a higher dose than normal. I went in earlier than scheduled because a change in my birth control threw things out of whack (see Part 10 of The Ketamine Chronicles) and my depression made an appearance sooner than we had hoped. This ketamine infusion was longer and felt pretty different compared to my normal dose. I still saw vivid images and scenes, but they felt more immersive, somehow. They were more like realistic, sometimes-lucid dreams rather than IMAX movies.

There always seems to be a lot of water in my ketamine imagery, but this one was especially saturated (pun intended). I remember a lot of ocean waves, people walking on mostly-empty beaches, and the gentle rocking of the tide. It’s odd to have a relaxing experience of being on water. One aspect of my sensory processing disorder means I get motion sickness so easily that escalators can set it off, so I usually dislike any tilting or bobbing motions. The movement of water during this ketamine infusion, however, was very calming. At one point, I was on a boat where I watched water come up through a square hole in the deck, then recede, then repeat. At a different time, I saw foamy waves that I could stop at will, perfect dollops of whipped-cream water, frozen in place.

There were several dream-like plots this time, but I only remember one.

Why is This in My Brain?

This is the “We Bought a Zoo” bootleg knockoff of ketamine dreams. In the actual movie, Matt Damon plays a recently widowed father who purchases a defunct zoo and moves in with his children. They have to earn the trust of the animals and the people who work there in order to save the zoo and reconnect with each other. It’s heartwarming, at times dramatic, and funny. The bootleg ketamine version was like putting the whole script through several layers of Google Translate and getting rid of 90% of the characters.

In a mundane twist of fantasy, my ketamine protagonist buys a house. He moves in, but later learns that there’s a lion living in the backyard (seems like something the inspection should have caught, but oh, well). At first, he throws food into the far corner of the yard to keep it away. Over time, though, he and the lion start to trust each other, eventually becoming friends. The man even goes so far as to buy a puppy for the lion to bond with (à la cheetahs with emotional support dogs). This seems like a supremely bad idea, as the lion is already fully grown, but the protagonist is confident.

(Un)fortunately, I will never know how that turned out because I either “woke up” or simply moved on to some other surreal, mental drama. By “woke up” I mean that some change around me brought my attention back to the real world, not that I opened my eyes and was back to normal. What pulled me back may have been movement in the room, a new song in my earbuds, or the sudden realization that I wasn’t actually in a bizarre plot about a backyard lion (which is, of course, horribly cruel and irresponsible).

Illusions of Ketamine Infusions

I prefer to not wear an eye mask during ketamine infusions, just because I like to have the option to open my eyes, and I’m not a fan of having stuff on my face. However, there are times when I think an eye mask would come in handy. You know that feeling when you’re falling asleep on an airplane and you keep waking up because you feel like your mouth might be open? That’s the kind of sensation I get during ketamine infusions, except instead of my mouth, it’s my eyes. They’re not actually open during ketamine infusions, it’s just that the feeling of “seeing” in my mind is so realistic that sometimes I can’t tell. I used to sleep with my eyes a little bit open, and apparently, it was really creepy. I’d like to spare the occupants of the room my unsettling zombie eyes.

Lately, I have been dreading the morning. Stella’s enthusiasm and relentless needling get me out of the house to tire her out, but depression has made it a slog. I’m hoping that this ketamine treatment will bump me back into feeling good about the day ahead.

Note: this blog recently hit 100 subscribers! Thank you all for reading my ramblings and thoughts about depression and mental health. Just before the new year, too! I hope you’ll stick around in 2020. 

If you’d like to read more about my experience with ketamine for depression, start from the beginning of The Ketamine Chronicles or visit the archives. Click here for mobile-optimized archives of The Ketamine Chronicles.

Week 23 of Working on Us: Medications

Working on Us is a wonderful series over on Beckie’s Mental Mess, where each week has a new prompt meant to get people talking about mental health topics. Check out the original prompt for week 23 and click around to find participants of previous weeks’ topics!

mental health matters

When you first were diagnosed with your mental illness/disorder, did it take a while to get used to your medications that were prescribed to you?  If you answer the question, (YES), How did you feel initially?

It took me a while to get used to the idea of taking medications for my depression, but the first antidepressant I tried had very little effect on me. So, from a physiological perspective, no- nothing wild happened at first. But from a psychological perspective, it definitely took me a while to get used to it. I was a college student when I sought psychiatric help, and I had all kinds of negative beliefs about what it meant for me to be taking medication. It took me a while to accept that I was depressed, instead believing that I was simply not working hard enough. I even believed for a while that I was taking resources away from other students who really needed them by going to my appointments at the student health center. That’s a sad memory.

Depending on how long you have been on medication, how many times do you think it has been adjusted to make you feel stable?

Gosh, I don’t know. Dozens? Counting each medication I’ve tried, there’s been a lot of adjusting. Ketamine infusions have been the most effective treatment for me, but I still take my medications to keep me stable.

Have you ever had a bad reaction to medication?

Twice.

A couple of years ago, I started taking Wellbutrin and almost immediately felt my depression improve. Unfortunately, I also almost immediately had an allergic reaction and had to stop taking it. I developed an intensely itchy, blotchy rash on my chest that spread to my face, back, stomach, and eventually started to cover my arms.

Somewhat recently, I tried adding Abilify to my other medications. I didn’t notice any improvement to my mood, and it made me incredibly shaky. Going down stairs started to feel a little dangerous because my legs were like jelly!

Have you ever suffered withdrawals from a certain type of medication, and if so… What type was it?

No, I was worried about coming off of Effexor because I had heard it could be difficult, but I didn’t have any withdrawals from that or any other med I’ve stopped.

Do you work closely with your doctor in regards to your medication intake?  (In other words, do you have a good relationship with your doctor?)

Yes! Finding a provider I really like has helped enormously. I had such a hard time speaking openly about my symptoms with doctors, so the first year or so of my medication treatment was tough. Once I switched providers and found someone who helped me be honest and upfront, medications have been much less intimidating.

Since your diagnosis, have you ever tried to not take medication and see if you can handle your symptoms of mental illness/disorders on your own?  If so, how did that work out for you?

Nope. I recently tried to decrease my lithium dose and didn’t get the outcome I wanted. I think I’ll be leaving my meds alone for a while.

Tell us briefly how medication has affected your life?

While medications haven’t helped me nearly enough that I would consider myself fully functioning, they have helped me way more than I could do on my own with talk therapy. That is, they haven’t been wildly successful in treating my depression, but they have saved my life and continue to allow me to live with my symptoms and find other treatments.

white bell-shaped flowers pointed down during dusk light

Setbacks in Depression Recovery

Lately, I’ve been excited to begin going in the other direction with medications as part of my depression recovery- reducing rather than adding. Through years of treatment, it seemed like I was always either increasing a medication or trying a new one. I never got much relief from antidepressants (except the one it turns out I’m allergic to), and lithium, the mood stabilizer that has probably saved my life, comes with the risk of kidney damage if the levels of it in your blood creep too high. I still take an antidepressant, two mood stabilizers, and Deplin (because I’m a mutant). These drugs help me function, and although they don’t kick my depression completely out the door, they are important.

I have a love/hate relationship with lithium. It dramatically reduces my suicidal thoughts, and that’s amazing. If I were to describe how it felt when I was at my highest dose of lithium: it’s like you’ve been gritting your teeth for years, and then all of a sudden you realize you’ve stopped. All of that pressure, the wear on your teeth every single day as you work your jaw muscles without cease, suddenly vanished. Like the peace you feel when static background noise shuts off, and you’re left in silence. When I got to a high dose of lithium, I was floored when I realized that I hadn’t thought about suicide all day. In fact, lithium makes it a little bit difficult for me to think about suicide in the same way I do without it. Focusing my thoughts on the idea feels a bit like trying to push the same poles of two magnets together. But when I had to reduce my dose because of the risk of lithium toxicity, the suicidal thoughts started to come back. Not to the degree that they once were, but it was clear that the change in my lithium dose was to blame. Still, I’ve enjoyed a lesser degree of suicidality than I experienced without lithium.

Lithium restrains my thoughts from straying into suicidal ideation, but it comes with some unpleasant costs. Because it’s processed through your kidneys, it has a tendency to make people thirsty. If I go too long without water, I feel like I’m shriveling up like a dry sponge. It also makes me feel absolutely exhausted, napping excessively (even more than I normally do when I’m depressed). So although it does some wonderful things for me, I’ve always hoped that I wouldn’t need it forever.

Overall, I’ve been enjoying a recent improvement in my mental health. This is because of IV ketamine infusions, which treat, among other conditions, treatment-resistant depression. When I started to feel better and my depression recovery seemed to be on track, the spark of hope that I might someday be able to come off some of my medications began to grow. I was excited- why stay on meds that are only half-working if you have something better?

I talked to my psychiatric nurse practitioner about reducing my lithium dose by about a third. Within a week, the consequences of reducing my dose were becoming clear. I started to feel less interested in things again, tearful, and guilty about my depression. The slip was minor; I wasn’t feeling much worse, but it was compounded by my thoughts about the situation. I was looking forward to reducing my medications so much that when it went badly, I let disappointment carry me into catastrophizing. I thought that I’d never be able to leave lithium behind me, and would always rely on it to keep me safe from myself.

I quickly went back to my previous dose and waited for my symptoms to subside. Honestly, if it turns out that I do need it forever, that would be okay. There’s nothing wrong with needing medication. For now, though, I’ll tell myself that I was just too hasty, and try again someday soon.

It’s tempting to beat myself up for “losing progress,” but that’s all just part of life. When I feel trampled by my mental illness, I try to reframe the “progress” I think about as being more about the time you spend living and the things you learn along the way than about the state of your mood. Progress is existing each day and surrounding yourself with ideas and actions that keep you going. You’re living along the course of your own life- whatever that might be- and that’s progress.

watercolor painting of woman's putting hands on face with eyes closed and dark background

The Lithium Slumber

There is no sleep like the sleep of parched eyelids and lithium limbs. Even before you swallow your nightly dose, your breathing deepens, your spine curves forward. Your thoughts retreat to a distant rumble, as if your brain is hosting a party to which you weren’t invited. Perhaps you’re already asleep. Maybe. Did you ever wake up? Maybe not.

In the morning, you place more pills on your tongue and let them be carried down with the water your kidneys are begging for. Today, you tell yourself, no more sleepI have things to do. But then it’s only been three hours since you rose this morning, and you find yourself sitting heavy on your bed, quickly slipping into the horizontal. No! No more sleep. You drag yourself from your cozy nest and plod to a less comfortable seat.

Yesterday, you slept for four and a half hours in the afternoon, and at that point, is it even called a nap? That’s just second bedtime in your book. And so today, like all the other days, you vow no more sleep. But your bed has its own gravity just for you, and before long, you’re crawling in; a perfect cove, with blanket waves and a pillow beach. Through the open window, you can almost taste the breeze, laden with lithium salt.

Love,

Your brain


I should be clear. I’ve been plagued by suicidal thoughts for three years, sometimes worse than others. Taking a high dose of lithium has given me, by far, the most dramatic positive result of any medication I’ve taken in my adult life.

I don’t want this post to be just another internet story about how terrible a particular psychiatric medicine was for someone. Those reviews are usually written by the people who had the worst side effects and the least benefit; after all, they’re the most motivated to write a review. Every medication has benefits and drawbacks. Scrolling through pages and pages of negative experiences paints a picture that doesn’t capture the thousands of people whose lives are vastly improved by that medicine.

It’s not perfect, and I still have bad days. It’s also a possibility that these sleep marathons are partly a symptom of my depression or the combination of meds I take that can make you drowsy. While I hope that lithium is not a medication I have to take long-term, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that taking it has probably saved my life.

Be well,

lumpdates

Medicine

medicineIt’s nothing to be ashamed of I tell myself twice daily. What day is it? They all blend together. I open the third compartment, pour the pills into my palm, wait for a moment. Maybe this day will be the day. Maybe if I give the medicine a moment of silence; infuse it with my desperation before I let it fall down the dark well of my esophagus.

How many have I tried? Not enough that all hope is lost. How many have I tried? Enough that they call it “treatment resistant” depression. I call it drowning by degrees. Later, I open the third compartment, pour the pills into my palm, and wait a moment.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Love,

Your brain