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How Ketamine Helps Me to Chase the Muse and Transcend the Blues

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How Ketamine Helps Me to Chase the Muse and Transcend the Blues

Some random thoughts on “psychedelic journalism,” composed in the zone:

All and everything jumbled up in a cosmic swirl of stardust memories flying back down to earth like infinite dots on finite dice, spilling out onto an endless Las Vegas craps table. Earlier, there were sweet moments of gratitude and longing. Mother. Born into a strange world. Father, in this season of dying, carry me, for the ocean is wide and my boat is so small. Chasing the Muse in the music. Exploring that sweet spot between association and dissociation, where grandiosity and despair make way for euphoria and equanimity. Non-binary. Don’t compare. Psychedelics just show the way that’s already there. Melts in your mouth. Then in your mind. Something cracks. Something breaks open. Creativity. Meaning. Connection. The opposite of depression. Remembering. Retrieving. Recollecting. It’s what I do, but don’t try this at home, kids. The ravings of a madman. Coming down. Soundings from a stoned prophet. Meaningful. Meaningless. Write it down. Piece work. Peace work. Dollars and cents. Makes no sense. Profound. Silly. Coming down. Priceless. Worthless. You call this journalism? The nightly news. Our daily dread. Write it up before we’re dead. Ego’s dead. Dying alone. Can’t go home. No senses. All senses. Flying blind. Some pleasure, some pain, but it always ends with John Coltrane. Keyboard scarf swirling in a tenor sax wind. Soul Eyes. It’s the music. That’s real. Don’t forget! Pick up your guitar, man. Sing your song…

Meanwhile, back in the “real” world, what just happened?

That was just an echo of what was happening in my body and my mind during this week’s ketamine music meditation. I conduct this little experiment once a week, no more and sometimes less. It’s legal. The medicine is prescribed by a doctor. I’m not suggesting that you do it, necessarily, but if you suffer from depression, as I do, you might want to cautiously check it out with a trained professional.

You may have heard that psychedelic therapy is going mainstream. Little green sprouts are popping up from the psychedelic therapy underground, tilting toward the rising suns of academic respectability, government approval and entrepreneurial investment.

After decades of dogged lobbying by a dedicated few, the movers and shakers of late-stage capitalism see an opportunity. They’re not sure what it is or how it works, but everybody’s talking about psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Maybe there’s money to be made. Maybe not.

Mainstream antidepressants — including SSRIs, the “miracle drugs” of the recent past — still work for many, but perhaps not for most or not very well.

Melancholy is as old as western civilization, which is not feeling so well itself these days. Those who claim to keep tabs on how many of us are depressed say our ranks are growing. Everybody knows why, or at least everyone thinks they do.

Classic psychedelics like LSD or mescaline are still illegal, but psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may soon get the blessings of the FDA and a pass from the DEA and be available for use as a treatment, along with psychotherapy, for those suffering from depression. MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, lies on the edge of decriminalization for trained therapists treating persons suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Ketamine is not officially classed as a “psychedelic.” But taken at the right dose, in the right context and with right intention, this medicine has powerful dissociative effects that can foster psychological and spiritual insight. What’s unique about ketamine, for the moment at least, is that it’s the only one of these three drugs that’s not classified a “Schedule 1,” which means in the uninformed opinion of the federal government psilocybin and MDMA have no medical value and are subject to abuse. Oh yeah, and they can throw you in jail for possessing a single dose.

So, as things stand now, ketamine is more or less the only psychedelic-ish drug that doctors in the U.S. can routinely prescribe as an “off label” treatment for depression.

Ketamine, traditionally used as a short-acting anesthetic, was developed in 1962 by Parke Davis, a drug company now owned by Pfizer. But it’s now a generic medicine that has lost its patent, meaning it costs next to nothing.

Over the years, medical doctors and patients discovered that ketamine was a fast and powerful treatment for depression, albeit a temporary one. It was especially useful for severely depressed, suicidal patients since SSRIs and similar antidepressants may take weeks to offer any relief.

Meanwhile, under the nickname “Special K,” ketamine became a popular “club drug,” not unlike what happened with MDMA, which helped fuel the rave scene in the 1990s. 

Ketamine, of course, can be abused by addicts, by perpetrators of “date rape,” and by overzealous police officers using it as an easy means of chemical restraint, as happened last year in a deadly incident in Aurora, Colorado. 

At the same time, ketamine can be employed by serious explorers of altered states of consciousness, including the late John C. Lilly. Unfortunately, his excessive use of the drug made him notoriously messianic and scared many psychonauts away from this medicine. 

All drugs, starting with alcohol, can be both used and abused, but Lilly’s story remains a cautionary tale for all explorers of “the K-hole.”

Yet explore we must.

One of the side effects of ketamine is a brief period of “emergence delirium” as patients return to normal consciousness.

From a secular, psychological point of view, ketamine-induced dissociation gives one the sense that they are outside of their own body. This depersonalization can encompass a kind of ego dissolution. Another condition one finds in the K-hole, also called “the transformational zone” by those wanting to put a more positive spin on this condition, is derealization, the sense that everything in one’s personal life and perhaps all of recorded history is a false construct, just a lucid dream. This shift in consciousness can be frightening, but it can also be an insightful state of mind if you are prepared to go there, explore that territory, and remember that you’ll soon return to Planet Earth. 

My doc knows me well and trusts me enough to let me do this at home with ketamine lozenges that melt in my mouth, then in my mind. I set aside two hours to prepare, experience and integrate the experience. I lay on my back, put on headphones and eyeshades, and never get up before I go through a 75-minute-long playlist. If I did get up, I might fall down and hit my head because, make no mistake about it, I am drugged.

At the same time, I’ve come to see that the music is as important as the medicine. This playlist is my personal liturgy, the soundtrack for a home-grown religion. I always do my ketamine music meditation first thing in the morning, often just before sunrise, when I’m least likely to be interrupted. 

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Over the last few years, I’ve developed a playlist of evocative music with deep personal meaning. One track is a shamanic song actually recorded during my first ayahuasca ceremony in the Brazilian jungle. That one evokes Mother Earth. Other tunes on the playlist bring up memories of my biological mother and father. More than half of the music on this album of attitude adjustment are long, ambient electro-acoustic tracks that mix in sounds of nature. Those are composed by East Forest, a musician who crafts tunes specially designed for psychedelic journeys. Those selections let my mind freely wander. “Grace,” from The Prayer Cycle by Jonathan Elias or “You Were Born” by Cloud Cult are the only ones with lyrics. “Ciasconna” by Dominic Miller reminds me that picking up my guitar is a great treatment for the blues. “The Love Dance,” a celebratory song from the Crossing the Liquid Mirror album by Mystic Diversions,  reminds me that dancing is a great antidepressant — although not while stoned on ketamine.

My weekly ketamine music meditation always ends with “Soul Eyes,” a John Waldron tune recorded in 1962 with John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison.

How does this ritual relieve my melancholy?

Like many people with depression, I sometimes get caught in excessive rumination, isolation, negative thought loops, and other traps set by an overactive ego. Controlled states of disassociation can be psychological and spiritually healing because they may remind us that everything is connected, but also that this realization is not necessarily all that important. Equanimity tempering euphoria. You may feel like you have died, or gone blind, but be strangely okay with that. You may find yourself surfing atop waves of gratitude. At other times, feelings of grandiosity arise, especially when you climb out of the K-hole and the ego reasserts itself. The trick, at least for me, is to laugh at all this, to remember that the profound lies next to the silly.

Let go of the grandiosity. Cultivate the gratitude. Like all forms of psychedelic therapy, the preparation before hand and the integration afterward are more important than the drug. The medicine is just a tool to remind us what we already know.

All of this came to mind recently when I read that the U.S. military — through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — has given the pharmacologists at the University of North Carolina a grant of $27 million to develop new antidepressants that will seek to remove the “side effects” from ketamine and psilocybin.

This comes on the heels of a pharmaceutical company, Johnson and Johnson, releasing a ketamine-based nasal spray that attempts the same trick — to take the “psychedelic” out of psychedelic therapy and produce a “safer” medicine that acts more like traditional antidepressants.

My first reaction to this was skepticism and condemnation. Get real, folks. This “side effect” is the main event. It’s how it works. The military-industrial-pharmaceutical complex wants to develop a product that will be less effective than true psychedelic therapy, but one that can be sold to people as a pill or treatment they must use everyday. They are taking the “abuse potential” out of a medicine by making us dependent on a daily dose.

On the other hand, the American military and the U.S. Veterans Administration have a huge problem on their hands. They face a costly and deadly epidemic of depression, addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in their ranks. Many more soldiers and vets are dying from suicide than in combat.

Tripping out on psychedelics — whether on ketamine, psilocybin or MDMA, with a trained therapist or a trusted friend — is not for everyone. But this experience has been proven through decades of underground therapy and years of privately funded clinical trials to be safe and effective for thousands of people.

It’s important to remember that this doesn’t have to be an either-or equation. Maybe the researchers in North Carolina can come up with a pill that’s better than the drugs currently available in the psychiatrist’s medicine cabinet. But let’s not throw out the baby — psychedelic-assisted therapy — and keep the bathwater, a daily dose that may be better suited for the faint of heart.

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