Ketamine Is Revealing a New Understanding of Depression and the Brain

Some experts view ketamine as a tool to unravel the biological causes of depression and, perhaps someday, cure it

Lauren Tanabe
Elemental
Published in
11 min readJan 18, 2021

--

Illustration: Simone Noronha

If you or someone you know need help, consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273-TALK (8255) for English, 1–888–628–9454 for Spanish.

“Some people say ketamine makes them feel like a marshmallow.”

That’s how the ketamine clinic’s therapist explained it to me through my computer screen during our initial meeting. I’d already asked several people what ketamine would feel like, and each time I got a slightly different answer. But the overall consensus was that I’d feel floaty, that I might see things, and that I might feel relaxed or unnerved. My greatest fear was having a panic attack during the experience. “We can always give you something for that,” the therapist assured me.

My recent path to ketamine treatment was at least 20 years in the making. I could no longer remember what it felt like not to be depressed, and not reflexively jump to the worst possible outcome of any scenario. I could not remember what it felt like to want to exist. The isolation and tragedy of the pandemic — saying goodbye to my unconscious grandmother over a screen, living through my own Covid-19 infection after taking every possible precaution, being thrust back into the role of full-time caregiver to a toddler and kindergartener while my career shriveled — all clamped down around me, and I feared I’d leave my girls without a mother. I decided I needed to find a new treatment.

Celexa, Lexapro, Elavil, and Cymbalta are just a few medications I’ve unsuccessfully tried in the past to quell the harpies inside my brain. As I grew older, my depression spawned anxiety and panic attacks. Becoming a mother maxed out the volume on all of it. And yet psychiatrists continued to write out prescriptions for the same types of pills. “These don’t work,” I’d protest. “We have to keep trying different ones,” they’d respond.

--

--

Lauren Tanabe
Elemental

I’m a writer in Detroit and former scientist. I have a sciencey PhD from Columbia University and two young kids. I like coffee, silence, and brains. ltanabe.com