Ketamine therapy has given me joy that I never had with treatment resistant depression

Ketamine therapy has given me joy that I never had with treatment resistant depression

As told to Marnie Goodfriend

I was about 6 when I started to feel that the world was dark and I was very lonely. My parents were neglectful and in denial about my mental health. They weren’t equipped to raise a sick child. My father was in the military and appearances meant everything to him. It was the early 1970s and depression wasn’t openly discussed. I still tried to describe how I felt, only to be told I was a “hypochondriac” who was “making a mountain out of a mole.”

I learned very quickly that my home was not a safe place. I was expected to be a perfect kid, do well in school, and be the peacemaker in my family, making sure everyone was happy, except me. I was terribly shy, so I didn’t ask friends or other people for help. In my teens, I developed an eating disorder as a coping mechanism for my debilitating depression and obsessive-compulsive traits, trying to control the outside world because my inner world was chaotic. I was good at wearing a mask to cover my pain, but when I couldn’t cover it, I didn’t leave the house. When I got to college, I knew I had to confide in someone about my depression or I was going to die.

I was studying psychology and got a job in a mental hospital. That’s when I started seeing a great therapist who diagnosed me with depression, anxiety and borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The first drug I was prescribed did nothing for me. A few years later, I met my now husband, Geoff, while continuing therapy a couple times a week, trying different medications and using alcohol for numbness. I desperately wanted to understand why I was always suicidally depressed.

When I found out I was pregnant with my son in 1996, I stopped taking the two medications I was prescribed. Looking back, I probably had postpartum depression after he was born, but I was very focused on taking care of him. Breastfeeding him for the first year kept the hormones at bay, but it all fell apart when I weaned him and tried to take my own life. That was my first time as a patient in a mental hospital.

Over the years I’ve tried antidepressants of every category and a combination of other antipsychotic anti-anxiety meds, but very little has changed. At one point, I was on nine different medications. These drug cocktails had horrific side effects — some were worse than my depression, like ending up in the emergency room because I couldn’t urinate, hearing voices, and having extreme irritability.

After several unsuccessful treatments, which included medications, electrical seizure therapynearly a dozen hospital stays over 15 years and several suicide attempts, my depression was classified as resistant to treatment. I only had two feelings—severe depression and anxiety—and thought about killing myself every day. In 2007, without my doctor’s consent, I decided to phase out my medications because none of them were relieving my depression. Instead, I used extreme exercise to get myself out of my dark world. It worked for a very short time, until it just didn’t work. Drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, exercising, and shopping were all forms of escapism and a way to make me feel like a temporary high, but they didn’t address the core issue and, ultimately, let me down.

Nothing I’ve tried has worked for long, if at all. In 2014 I decided I was done with all treatments and refused to go back to a psych unit. I put all my energy into working with my therapist, who came to my home because I had agoraphobia and couldn’t leave the house for several years. I spent most of my time in our walk-in closet. The therapist and I focused on behavior modification to try and desensitize me so I can enter the world again.

I woke up every day angry, crying and asking God, “When am I going to stop feeling this way?” In January 2015, I nearly lost my life from another suicide attempt and went into a coma. Geoff was desperate, looking for any way to help me, and found a little summary written in Psychology Today about people with treatment resistant depression finding success with psychedelic drugs ketamine. I regained consciousness and agreed to try but told him he would have to agree to let me go if it didn’t work.

Luckily, ketamine was my answer.

Ketamine vials, 2022 (Photo/Susan Gayhart)

Ketamine is stigmatized as a street drug and for its hallucinogenic effects. The treatments are also very expensive, usually not covered by insurance, and there were few clinics in the United States at the time offering the treatment. I found a psychiatrist in New Jersey who could give me the medicine, so I had to travel eight hours to his office and find a hotel to receive six treatments in two weeks under his care before returning home to Virginia.

A person typically knows whether ketamine will be beneficial for them within six treatments, but I knew that from day one, because I was still struggling with agoraphobia at the time. Geoff asked me if I wanted to go to the mall with him, a place that terrified me, but I didn’t feel anxious. I still had scary thoughts about it, but my body wasn’t responding. This was the first good sign. The third treatment lifted my depression enough to make me smile. Other people around me — my family, my husband, and my son — noticed a difference before I did. Taking a shower, which was previously overwhelming for me, also seemed like a good idea. Having a sense of joy, laughing and seeing it genuine were all new feelings for me.

Eventually I found a doctor closest to me who administered intramuscular ketamine, a procedure in which the drug is injected into the muscle from a syringe. After the injection, I’d retreat to a side room, put on headphones, meditate for 45 minutes, and walk away. As I started feeling better, I was able to integrate healthy coping mechanisms into my life. I am now virtually symptom free for the two week period between treatments. I might have a suicidal thought or two, but I don’t entertain them. I have more control over where my mind wanders.

I replaced the word “depression” with melancholy or low mood because that word has a different meaning to me. I can experience a wide range of emotions that I only knew the definitions of, but had never experienced before. Whenever I have a bad day, I think about what my son once told me: “Old Susan lived in a closet. She would have given anything for your bad days today. I keep it close to my heart. I honor my feelings, but they don’t dominate my life.

I never hid things from my son and wanted him to know it was okay to talk about hard feelings and hard situations. Geoff is my person; I literally wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for him. He and my son made this earth worth staying on. It’s hard to raise someone with a parent with severe depression, but I think it’s made my child a more compassionate being. He has a huge heart and works well with other people struggling with depression.

Today my days revolve around getting involved in life, enjoying sunny days or talking to my son. The simple things, like being able to enjoy the company of others or brushing my teeth and taking a shower, are miracles for me. I remember days when I wouldn’t be able to do those things for weeks. I couldn’t be at my son’s high school graduation, but a year ago he got married and I was able to be a part of it.

Joy is also an inner feeling, the feeling of being comfortable in my skin. I had only been told that other emotions would bring me joy. Now I can experience it on a daily basis and connect with people and the world around me. Ketamine didn’t give me life back, it gave me the life I never would have had without it.

Editor’s note: People should not go off any medications without a doctor’s supervision.

If you or someone you know is having a mental health crisis, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline on 988.

Do you have real women, real stories you want to share? let us know.

From articles on your site
  • The life-changing hope of new treatments for clinical depression ›
  • Is it just sadness or is it clinical depression? ›
Related articles Around the web