I did a medically supervised ketamine journey. This is what happened
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I hit the panic button as I felt the ketamine kick in. As the medicine entered my bloodstream, I felt myself entering a strange dissociative state, my mind drifting away from my physical environment.
I didn’t know what was happening to me. The nurse came in and reassured me everything was ok.
I surrendered to the experience. For the next 60 minutes, I closed my eyes and let myself float along a journey into the recesses of my mind.
“Man’s task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.”
The rise of ketamine clinics
Ketamine, long used as an anesthetic and also known as an illegal party drug, has been gaining traction as an antidepressant. Researchers and psychiatrists have published studies highlighting its benefits in quickly alleviating symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Unlike LSD and mushrooms, ketamine is legal for medical use throughout the US.
Hundreds of new ketamine clinics have popped up across the US. The clinics offer various modes of administration: intravenous (IV), intra-muscular, nasal spray or tablet. Ketamine treatment has been covered recently in the New York Times and the New Yorker.
After my ketamine journey I tweeted about my experience and was contacted by a New York Magazine reporter. She quoted me in this explainer guide to NYC ketamine clinics.
My visit to Nushama Wellness Center
A few weeks ago, I visited Nushama Wellness Center. Nushama is a medically supervised psychedelic wellness center that provides IV ketamine for an ego-dissolving psychedelic experience. It opened in October 2021 with a boutique-like clinic on Park Avenue in New York City.
I’d been introduced to Nushama by my friend Marissa Feinberg, their PR person. She brought me in for a tour. I met Dr. Steven Radowitz, an internal medicine physician who’s affiliated with the Goldman Sachs medical clinic.
When I wrote about my first visit to Nushama, the most common feedback was: “Nice write-up, but what a letdown—I thought you had tried it and were going to share your experience!”
I didn’t fit the profile of a typical Nushama patient. I wasn’t depressed, anxious, or in chronic pain. But I did want to know what a ketamine journey felt like.
As I had written about Nushama for Vitamin Z, their team kindly offered me a treatment. A visit to Nushama typically requires a doctor’s referral for depression, anxiety or chronic pain.
Journey into the dream world
A few days before my appointment, I met with Dr. Radowitz for a zoom medical intake. He asked about my medical history, experience with psychedelics, and my relationship to spirituality.
I was a bit confused by the question on spirituality. How is this relevant for a medical treatment? Later, after my ketamine journey, I was able to reflect on the role of spirituality and transcendence in psychedelic experiences.
The day of my treatment, I checked in at Nushama’s office in midtown Manhattan. A nurse weighed me, took my temperature, measured by oxygen levels and blood pressure. She explained that high blood pressure is a contra-indication for ketamine treatment, as the medicine raises blood pressure.
Dr. Radowitz explained the dosing: It can range from 0.8 to 1.8 milligrams of ketamine per kilogram body weight, higher for a more dissociative effect. For my initial journey, I was given 0.8 g / kg, a lower dose. Nushama co-founder Jay Godfrey said the team is seeing better results with higher doses.
I sat down with James, an “integration specialist.” He led me through a breathwork exercise. Long exhalations to promote relaxation. Then James asked me: What’s your intention for this ketamine journey? What’s stopping you from living a life that reflects those intentions?
I said my intention was to tap back into my sense of wonder, to bring my spirit to the surface. To reconnect with my purpose. To understand how fear and self-doubt keep me from being my best self.
Finally, James led me through an inner child exercise: Imagine your younger self walking on a stage—first as a child, then a teenager, then a young adult. Which one would you want to talk to? What would you say to him? What would he think of you?
I later realized this pre-journey talk therapy was priming my brain for an ego dissociative journey. (Ego dissolution refers to a phenomenon in psychedelic experiences where the sense of being a self or ‘I’ distinct from the rest of the world has diminished or altogether dissolved). By stepping outside myself, I’d be able to tap into feelings and emotions hidden deep within my subconscious mind.
I reclined in a zero-gravity chair, bathed in sunlight streaming in from a window overlooking Madison Avenue. I was given an eye mask and a gratitude journal.
I took a deep breath as the nurse hooked me up to the IV drip. She pointed out the panic button on the side of the chair. I could press that if there was any issue during my journey.
Within a few seconds the medicine kicked in. I felt myself entering a strange dreamscape. I was sailing through forests, over hills and mountains. After an initial moment of panic, I calmed myself to the sounds of a guided meditation.
I realized that music was a big part of the experience. The headphones cycled through a curated playlist of Buddhist chants, classical music, and Beatles tunes. With each new musical track, I stepped into a new chapter of the movie playing in my head.
My first vision was of my late father. The piano music reminded me of how my father and I used to play piano together and listen to Bach fugues.
I had an epiphany: My father is the dominant influence on my life. I keep my memories of him suppressed to avoid the pain, but he defines every aspect of my life—my strengths, weaknesses and insecurities. I thought about my age, and how I’m still my father’s child, even as the world sees me as an adult.
Then I thought about my three nephews. I realized: My nephews see me as old, even as I see myself as young! I was reminded that I have an obligation to be a good role model for my nephews the way my father was for me.
I felt like I was in a dialogue across time. I thought to myself: I’m a bridge between the generations, from my father to my nephews.
I could sense the egolytic effect kicking in. This had been described to me as a state wherein you transcend your ego and see yourself in relation to others. I floated outside my body and saw myself connected to a greater universe.
I had a realization: This is what it feels like to plug into the matrix. I’ve become one with the machine. I’ve gained access to the source code.
By this point the anxiety had subsided. I allowed myself to surrender to the experience. It felt like a waking dream where I was in control.
As I floated through a colorful dream world, I realized that I was the one driving the spaceship. The music, the medicine, my thoughts and feelings: These were controlling the visual experience.
I had another realization: This is like a cheat code for life. It’s a tool to tap into the deep recesses of my brain and unearth hidden truths.
A new song played on the headphones: The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun.” I thought to myself: Wow, what a perfect song to have in my ears right now. This song is the musical embodiment of how it feels to wake up to morning sunshine, a bright new day. I reflected on the wonder of the Beatles—their music seemingly dropped on us from the heavens, engineered to tap into the human psyche, like a drug or a religious experience.
After what seemed like hours had passed, I heard the nurse say “welcome back.” She lifted off my eye mask as I drifted back into consciousness. I emerged feeling calm and soothed, with no side effects.
James, the integration specialist, sat down to ask about my journey. He asked what I saw and felt. He asked me: Did you meet your intention?
Hmm. I wasn’t sure. I did feel like I’d confronted some of my fears and insecurities around family, relationships, time, and getting older.
I reflected on the visions I’d had, the thoughts and epiphanies. Were they profound or trifling? Was I feeling a deeper sense of empathy and connection, or was this self-indulgent solipsism?
“In normal times, your consciousness is limiting the amount of information you’re taking in. The insights you have on psychedelics often feel like revealed truths.
That’s why people who do a psychedelic experience can be so annoying to other people, because they have this absolute certainty they’ve found something profound. That love is the most powerful thing in the universe. But guess what—it is!”
-Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind
I reflected on how Nushama creates a holistic sensory experience—from the colorful psychedelic wallpaper, to the zero-gravity chair, to the headphones with the relaxing playlist. The overall effect is to create a soothing atmosphere that makes you feel comfortable and lets you surrender to the experience.
I realized that ketamine is only one part of a broader therapeutic modality. It wouldn’t be the same without the talk therapy, gratitude, and self-reflection.
I learned about what’s known as integration. What happens during the ketamine journey is only one part of the therapeutic experience. The other part is integrating and embodying the insights, and carrying them forward in your life. To achieve healing, expansion, forward movement.
I realized that psychedelics, like religion, let us experience a deep personal connection to the transcendent. I listened to a podcast with Lisa Miller, director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia. She spoke about so-called spiritual technologies:
“Without tapping into transcendent practices, we don’t have a sacred connection to the loving, guiding universe that lets us be more imaginative and more ethical and allows us to be in deeper relationship to the good earth.”
Ketamine and neuroplasticity
Dr. Radowitz explained that ketamine helps create the conditions for neuroplasticity—a rewiring of the brain’s neural pathways. For some people struggling with depression, ketamine can create the neurological conditions to help them get out of a rut. Unlike conventional antidepressants, which work by increasing serotonin levels, ketamine appears to impact a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which is thought to play a role in regulating mood.
“I do believe having a dissociative or psychedelic experience is a part of the therapeutic benefit,” said Dr. Radowitz. “But we don't have studies yet showing that the deeper you go, the greater the benefit.”
Dr. Radowitz advised me to do things differently the rest of the day: Take a different path home, avoid alcohol, give myself time to reflect on the experience.
I asked Dr. Radowitz about how ketamine clinics like Nushama differ from recreational ketamine use. I’d heard stories about ketamine abuse messing up people’s lives. He said patients should not be self-administering ketamine outside of a clinical setting.
Dr. Radowitz said: “Any drug can be abused. It’s all about the dose, setting, and intention. These make a world of difference.”
Would I do another ketamine journey? Absolutely. I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the power of psychedelic therapy. I can see how the treatment’s neuroplasticity-promoting effects can give the brain a much-needed reset.
“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
The day after my ketamine journey, I walked through Hudson River Park and felt the cool New York autumn air on my face. I felt like I’d had the most intense, mind-altering dream. I felt a sense of calm and peacefulness. Above all, I felt gratitude.
A note of caution: As with any alternative healing experience, you should consult your own medical team and understand the risks before proceeding. Psychedelics are illegal in many countries and unregulated in others. The treatments described herein are legal, but you should independently verify the legal status of any center before undergoing treatment.
Until next week,
By Daniel Zahler
Hi there! Thanks for reading. If you stumble on my newsletter, you will notice that I write about health and wellness trends, and strategies & tactics on how to optimize cognitive, physical and emotional health. I hold a JD and BA from Harvard, have worked at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and serve as a GLG council member advising global business leaders on healthcare innovation.
Check out my articles in Thrive Global here.
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