What It Was Like

The Ketamine infusion left me tired, cold, and nauseous, with a metallic taste in my mouth. Hell, for me, would be an endless repetition of Ketamine. In fact, I think I would altogether lose my mind after several hours, which has surely been the fate of thousands of lab animals. Even after a mere two hours, the doctor himself wheeled me to the car so Peggy could drive me home.

The nurse who started my IV said, "You might feel like you're floating around the ceiling." It was a gross understatement, because every time I thought the drug had peaked, it laid further waste to my sense that I existed. I became like a compressed ball, a black hole of nothingness, yet I recognized the place Ketamine took me as though I had been there before. I looked in vain for something solid on which to anchor my identity but the more the Ketamine took hold, the harder this became. The room lights had been turned low, but I was seated, as I requested, away from the others in a corner near the door under a softly shining pole lamp. I had brought four books because I had no idea if I would be able to read or would be reduced to looking at photos. Of the four, one was the spiritual memoir of an agnostic, another discussed the spiritual life of dogs, and the final two were oversized books of cat photos. I settled on the cat books, reveling in the beauty of my favorite breed, the ancient and sensuously beautiful Turkish Angora, but when I switched from book to book, the one I was putting away seemed to float downwards while the one I was retrieving floated upwards, my hands following rather than moving. 

Time, space, and even existence came to be mere intellectual concepts, and I had no idea if the music and the whisperings I was hearing came from within or without. When I could no longer focus on cat photos, I tried sitting with my eyes closed, but the blackness pullulated like maggots on a carcass, so I returned to my books. Many things cause me to feel alienated from my species, none moreso than that it allowed the flat-faced deformities called Persians to so displace the ethereally beautiful Angora that the Angora barely escaped extinction. I smiled when I reflected that I have come to adore cats with the same intensity that I once adored women, and that it was the cat photos that were making the Ketamine bearable.

A bed (patients could choose whether to sit in a recliner or lie in a bed) separated me from the other five patients and I could only see the upper bodies of the two nurses, Linda and Vanessa. I would look at them, let what seemed like several minutes pass, and then look again, but they would be in the same place and in the same posture, leaving me to feel frozen in time. I sat opposite a sink, and the cabinet's drawer handles turned into melancholy faces. The nurses, the doctor, and the other patients moved in and out of the room in slow motion like shadowy, surrealist performance artists for whom movement was its own end. Reality became an Ingmar Bergman movie. I had been warned that the drug would make me diurese (which I assume is why the other patients kept leaving the room) so I stopped all liquids three hours prior to the infusion. I was glad for this because I could have neither said that I needed to go or have gotten to the bathroom unaided.

I would occasionally move an arm or leg because it seemed like the right thing to do, but I felt no connection with the seemingly distant flesh that was mysteriously obeying my commands. I kept going back to the same two Angora photos, and despite being enthralled by the textual description, I had trouble remembering the preceding sentence. I imagined that I was leaving visible fingerprints everywhere I touched a page, and this led me to fantasize that I was creating the book out of nothingness. I remembered that Ketamine causes brain damage, and I knew this was true because I was watching my mind disintegrate. If a bear had entered the room, I honestly don't know if I would have been able to flee. I was in awe of the fact that I had once walked, talked, and done the many things that normal people do, and I seriously wondered if I would ever do them again. 

Every time I thought I had reached a peak of disintegration, the Ketamine took me even higher. Like a stealthy shadow, Peggy entered the room, and I saw her with new eyes, a part of my high, a part of my movie, a knowing participant in the existential joke. She looked drawn and worried because her husband was wasted, and Peggy hates being around wasted people, and because, while I was receiving the Ketamine, she had taken Ollie to the vet for the same problem he had two months ago. Now as then, the vet didn't know what is causing the hair loss, but he charged another $175 to guess. He proposed a treatment that Peggy declined because it was toxic, and because she didn't trust him to know what he was talking about. He finally gave Ollie the same two shots that had temporarily helped before.

I think I might have succeeded in whispering a short sentence to Peggy, and I'm sure I nodded my head, but she soon drifted away, phantom-like, to sit in the car with Ollie. She returned when the treatment was nearly over, and this time I giggled and made gestures with my free hand, but I mostly tried to avoid disturbing my fellow patients. It worried me that I was among strangers and expected to maintain a decorum that had become impossible for me. Fortunately, when the Ketamine was withdrawn, I regained the ability to at least speak--however stupidly--and I was even able to stand, although I was too weak and dizzy to remain standing. 

But did it help? My pain level had been higher than usual lately, but it had dropped appreciably before the Ketamine, partly because I was done with the yardwork that had aggravated it, and partly because I was psyched to have a new direction for treatment. Doctors ask their patients to score their pain level on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst imaginable. I hate this because every number is a lie, but doctors demand it, so I gave mine a three going in and a one coming out. I think the anti-gravity recliner might have helped more than the Ketamine. My lowered pain score led the doctor to ask if I would like to come back in two weeks for a higher dose, and I said yes in order to keep my options open. Today, my pain level is higher than it was yesterday prior to the Ketamine, but what of Ketamine's promise of providing quick relief from depression? I don't know. Perhaps, I'm better, but I'm still so shaken by the Ketamine trip that I really can't tell.

Once home from two hours of constant Ketamine, I wanted to settle my mind by watching something happy, so I settled on a documentary about Roger Ebert. I knew he would die at some point in the film, but I assumed it would come at the end, so I was horrified when the film opened with him sitting in a hospital bed with his mouth hanging open and his bandaged neck visible through his mouth. I unsuccessfully tried to deny the reality of what I was seeing, but soon realized that his tongue and lower mouth had been removed, and that his chin contained no bone, which was why it was hanging open like a flap. I remembered Peggy's father's preacher's wife who so trusted in Christ's promise of healing that she refused to see a doctor for oral cancer, only going when it was too late to save her nose or her face from the roof of her mouth down. I don't know how any of us survive decades on this nightmarish planet, and Ketamine seemed like a new hell in a parallel universe.

I persevered with the documentary just as I had persevered with the Ketamine, stubbornness combined with my fear of looking afraid having, for good or ill, gotten me through a great many things. When I got into bed last night, Ollie ran, not walked, to join me. Every night he does this, and every night, he continues the ritual by rubbing his scent upon my book and bedside table. Then he stands upon my thighs and gazes into my eyes lovingly while kneading my abdomen. As our statue of Bastet looks down in divine approbation, I kiss Ollie tenderly, and tell him he's my handsome man. Last night, I asked him if he's worth all the money we spend on him, and he answered by slowly blinking both eyes in tenderness and trust. 

He's now on the chair beside me, taking his late-morning nap, and I am rapturous in the knowledge that it's money that enables me to provide him with what I lack, by which I mean a belief that the universe is safe and that our life together will go on forever.