Ketamine-assisted psychotherapy helped this pediatric physician and academic excise her own childhood trauma and, finally, understand the power and necessity of integrated care.
This series won a Fall 2022 Digital Health Merit Award.
I took my first psychedelic substance when I was well over the age of 48. It does sound trite to say, I found myself in psychedelics. Yet what did happen with psychedelics helped uncover the darker truth to my wounds.
As a middle-aged, successful physician with my own holistic practice and a history of pediatric hospital care and academia, I was “happy,” engaged, and resilient. Yet, I was beginning to feel the burnout, empathy fatigue, and distraction of daily life. It made sense that I needed more restitution and “self-care.” My sister convinced me of my despondency in myself and suggested ketamine to achieve a “brain reset.”
Looking back, the first ketamine session I had – now one year ago – was one of most pivotal experiences of my life.
I lay in the recliner of my therapist’s center pondering why am I doing this? Ketamine, an anesthetic, still felt questionable as treatment for mental health. Of course, this is safe, I thought. Ketamine is a drug I had used for short procedures in many pediatric emergency rooms I had worked in previously.
The setting my sister referred me to was perfectly designed for the psychedelic experience. The center was tucked on the side of a coastal road of northern California, with jade expanse of the ocean and waves caressing the coastal terrain. We had driven through ancient giant redwoods as they hovered over the forested and sheltered road to the center. Inside the center, I noted the stillness of the space – no screen, only books on plant medicine, philosophy, nature, diet, and poetry. The walls were curated with art of chakra, Buddhas, and nature. Musical instruments lay apparent to be used and heard.
The décor all presented itself with the intrigue of achieving mysticism, unity, and spirituality. The plants both indoor and out blossomed and brightened the space. The flora, self-sustaining, as if they nurtured themselves from the energy of the space within. I, however, didn’t really know what I was doing here.
FINDING MY INNER SELF
I awkwardly eased into the soft leather chair. I was told to lie down in the therapy room, which was more like a living room than a clinic. While my treatment was being prepared, I attempted to focus inward to my intention for the experience.
Thoughts of who I was, as a doctor, mother, and wife emerged. Viscerally encased memories of the loss of my father, biases embodied as an immigrant, and fears of the future, whirlpooled in my head. I would have rather been on the beach than lying here to focus on my pain, I thought. Yet, here I was, curious to the healing impact of ketamine and not fully prepared for what would come next.
I whispered reassurances in my mind that I was going to allow whatever was present in me to be revealed. I didn’t fully realize it then as I do now, what I had denied existed in me.
I had spent years caring for others – my family and countless children in hospitals, refugee camps, and underserved clinics in the US as well as overseas. I had often cognitively reflected on those hard moments, as an attending on rounds with residents and students.
As the ketamine medicine entered my blood stream intravenously, I quickly felt submerged. It came on strong. Like a wave carrying you into the warm ocean waters, I suddenly succumbed to my inner space. The weight of my body lifted. Not having done any sort of substances, I got wary to visual distortions. I looked at a painting in the room that was immersed in geometric shapes. Staring at it, I noticed it was undulating like the ocean waves in and out of the wall.
I asked myself, does this happen quickly? Then I told my guide, who was sitting near me on my “journey,” that I couldn’t move. She reassured me and said to let the medicine take me where I needed to go. I was not supposed to be on the move all the time. She softly guided me to deepen my breath.
The meditative movements of my breathing lured me into a gushing stream of visuals.
I lay there completely limp, floating through memories of my arrival to the US as a 9-year-old. The Texas sky expanded beyond the horizon at 4 o’clock in the morning as we unloaded our belongings from a yellow cab. The sound of glass breaking as a brick is thrown into our living room window while we watched the bombings of the Middle East and our homeland fill the TV screen. The laughter and snicker of kids as they called out the greasy odor of oil used to braid my unruly hair. I am holding the steering wheel of my Honda. I can feel the tension of fear as I scramble to pick up my daughter from the Islamic school in Houston. Peter Jennings is on the radio and the steel and stud of the car melt into the ground. The packaging of our lives and luggage, as we migrated across four continents, East Africa to England, to Pakistan, and finally to Texas.
Skepticism Set In
Even then, I could hear my critical mind questioning the need to take a psychedelic substance. I had held a moral guard against substances for all my years as Muslim and an academic. I often quietly catechized my family and patients for their addiction to alcohol, weed, LSD, ecstasy, and the like. Why do people need substances to escape or distort reality? Why did so many youths that I took care of in the hospital as a pediatric hospitalist become victims to “these substances.” Of course, I collectively included all substances under one category of harm and criminal effects.
I also had grown up with many myths on the war on drugs. Another image popped up of an ad from the 1980s of an egg sizzling on a hot frying pan. Someone cracks an egg on the pan and says, “This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”
Psychedelic drugs are criminal, right? Yet here I was being guided into myself, with a psychedelic substance now legally used to treat trauma, depression, and pain.
(See another perspective on clinical skepticism of psychedelic-assisted therapy)
I lay flaccid as visions of my life filtered through, while receiving signals of calm and acceptance transmit into my body. I was not being governed by any forces compelling to be responsible or busy. I was thoroughly content in that moment. Yet, the juxtaposition of tranquil and past stormy memories abutted.
As a surge of colors and fractals geometrically entered my mind, a caressing sense of bliss infused into me.
The medicine was talking to me, telling me to just be present. Unload the burdens of your stored trauma in childhood. Feel your breath succumb to the synchrony of sounds. Surrender to the energy of the space. I floated deeper in visuals without fear. I wandered through the vastness of my inner world, now oblivious to time.
Excising the Past
No voices spoke to me. Instead, tears streamed down my cheeks, shedding a memory of a big body pressing heavily onto my 6-year-old self. I had repressed this experience for years as only an imagined nightmare and unreal. In the unscaled time that followed, I unveiled this memory – a tumor, so to speak, that I had clandestinely tucked inside my body. The hot flaming mass was layered in a hardened, a calcified mesh. As I incised the lesion open, out poured lava-like self-hatred and shame. So, it was you, I said to the oozing fluid that secreted rage, despair, and distrust in my relationships. The source of my quiescent and chronic pain was pulsating inside of me.
The psychedelic experience exposed my hidden tumor. I had protected and empowered it with neglect. I began to excise the mass inside of me. As I curiously probed the space the mass and the fluid took up in my body, I cried while reciting a poem on hate. The hate that stagnates, hate that we emanate, the hate that desecrates…
I had hated myself for so long.
From Wounds to Lights
Then, the scene switched. In walks Rumi in a white Turkish robe. Rumi was one of my admired poets, whose poetry speaks to the depths of pain and expansive supremacies of love. He held my cracked open hands and he said, “The wound is the place where light enters.”
I said, “What?”
He repeated, “The wound is the place where light enters.”
I looked up at him with gracious gratitude. I can forgive myself for MY pain. I was not responsible anymore. I am not ashamed. I can endear my spirit and body. The lesion began to dissolve.
Psychedelic Medicine Heals with Depth
A few sessions of psychedelic treatments later, and I knew this was my path to healing myself and others. If I can reach the reprieve and source the root of my depression, why can this not be administered to so many suffering from even greater despair?
Our medical system is filled with trauma of loss, death, abuse, neglect, and distrust, I said to my now co-founder of ShaMynds Healing Center. We start to meet people “at the bus stop of trauma.” At the bus stop, train station, or airport lounge, we meet people wherever people are in their lives. It was a flash spark of knowing, that after over 20 years of practice, I could practice medicine with this new realized holism. Integrative and psychedelic medicine has more meaning to the patient than systemized care. I now fully understood how it is possible to integrate conventional medicine with psychedelic therapies to guide people through their own inner healing.
It made sense also, that trauma manifests itself in the body. With all the pathology studied in my training and practice – diseases, diabetes, obesity, heart attacks, immune issues, asthma, pain, and cancers – I had learned it all the wrong way. It was not about disease as an organ system but about the connection of the mind, body, and spirit.
As I closed my eyes and returned from the transient altered state, I cracked the openings of my traumatic memories. I, like so many others, would have kept that trauma locked in darkest recesses of my body if it weren’t for the mind-manifesting effect of psychedelics.
Since that time, I have witnessed people emerge from their own dark dungeons with ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. As I guide, learn, and practice, it is a privilege to do this work. I watch in awe of the beneficial outcomes of ketamine-assisted therapy. Yet, I remain vigilant to myself as wounded healer. The areas of fractures I carry continue to be places of growth, discovery, and humanism.