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Thirty Years in Hell: My Mental Health Story

This is a story I share with great hesitancy. I have felt the bitter sting of discrimination for having a brain illness, discrimination no one experiences when they have a problem with a different, better understood organ — the heart, the lungs, the kidneys.

I know what it’s like to have work colleagues ignore you because of your illness, to have people take away your supervisory responsibilities because you shared the specific type of battle you were fighting. I know what it’s like to learn the hard way that, for as far as we’ve come in negating the nasty stereotypes of what is commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as “mental illness,” we still have a helluva long way to go.

So yes, there is a tremendous amount of hesitancy in putting down my journey through hell for the world to see and have it be directly associated with John the Professional, John the Marketing Guy, John the Father, Husband, Coach …. I do so despite the hesitancy because I still have hope — hope that this whole stigma against those with brain illnesses will one day not be so, that we’ll learn more about the neurological roots of such illnesses and they’ll eventually be treated — and cured — like heart issues or lung issues or kidney issues. We’re not there yet — not by a long shot, in my experiences — but I will hold onto that hope until I breathe my last.

Because it’s important. It’s important people feel empowered to discuss their brain illness as easily as they would share a flu or cold or earache. It’s important that their story not matter … just like your cold doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. A cold or a flu or an earache doesn’t define a person. Neither should a brain illness.

I lovingly entitle my story “Thirty Years in Hell,” but that number could just as easily encompass my entire life, which, as of this writing, stands at 48 years and five months. The things I know now about the origins of my brain illness are not the things I knew until about a year ago. But I know them now, and that puts me in a position to tell me story in the hope that it will embolden others to share theirs and that it will enable those who love someone with a brain illness to give that love in a way that — bottom line — helps keep their someone alive. I’m here only because I was blessed with just such a person. We need more people like that.

This is my story.

Neurological origins of my hell

Here’s an undeniable truth: Of all the organs in our body, we know the least about the brain. How little do we know about the brain? Well, let’s talk about caenorhabditis elegans, or, more commonly, the roundworm. Its brain has 302 neurons with 7,000 connections between them. Scientists have absolutely no clue how its brain works.

The human brain, by contrast, has 86 billion neurons with an estimated 100 trillion connections.

Because we have such little understanding of the brain, a whole host of things that have a tremendous impact on a human life get shoved away from medical doctors and into the field of psychiatry and psychology. Neurologists don’t often see patients with depression or anxiety. Those conditions are “other.”

Yet the more time comes by, the more the roots of conditions being treated through psychiatry and psychology are being found to — duh — have biological, brain-centered origins. Nothing we do is anything other than a chemical reaction inside our bodies. How we feel about life and living is just another example of this, no different than the fact that we remove our hands quickly from a hot stove or we really, really don’t like breaking a bone.

The roots of my brain illness, as I understand it today after extensive experience in the psychiatric industry and a great deal of my own research, is best described by Dr. Bruce Perry. He created a model of childhood trauma’s effect on the developing brain. Among his conclusions: It’s worse for a child’s brain to experience a volatile childhood than it is a consistently abusive one.

I’m not here to blame my brain illness on my parents. It’s not their fault anymore than it’s their fault I suck at math with letters in it. What’s pertinent here is that, as my brain was developing even before it was born, it was receiving signals that made it difficult to just … be. We’re all inconsistent to a degree, blown about by the thing the boss says or the traffic on the way home or the insensitive thing our boyfriend does. But when a high degree of emotional inconsistency comes from a parent, it creates a child whose brain is consistently looking out for danger.

As such, the brain’s resting state becomes more anxious and hypervigilant than the average child’s brain. I most definitely felt this as a child.

Because of this, when an actual stressor does occur, the person with this sort of hardwiring — already in an agitated state — is much quicker to feel anxiety and panic. This is not a personality trait or failing. It’s neurology. The brain is all about its meatsack’s survival. It doesn’t want to die. The problem is that those survival instincts exists in the less-evolved portions of our brains. That means that, the more agitated we are, the less we’re using the higher functioning that, as far as we know, is available only to humans. Anyone who’s had a panic attack knows that you can’t reason your way out of one. You’re just trying to survive. Fight or flight. That’s one of the most base instinct all animals have.

All of this is to say that, neurologically, my brain was set up to have some challenges as it developed, and I was hardwired to have some difficulties as I started to take on the world. This was made doubly difficult by something completely devoid of understanding in the neurological world. I’m an empath. That means, basically, I can feel other people’s emotions as they are feeling them.

A lot of people write that off as woo-woo hippie crap, which is fine. I’m not out to justify who I am to anyone at this point in my life. What I know for a fact is this: The brain is not even close to being understood (remember the roundworm?) and if you’d like to say there are five and only five senses, that’s your right, but I’m here to tell you there are more and it’d be good to be at least a little open to the possibility.

The world often describes people like that as “highly sensitive,” and it’s not said kindly. That’s cool too. I love my sensitive side. But it sure has made life more challenging.

Couple constant hypervigilance with high sensitivity and you’ve got the recipe for some issues going forward.

Entrance into hell

Based on what you just read, you could make the argument that my mental health journey truly began at birth. There is a lot of evidence that such journeys actually begin before birth, as the developing baby is flooded with the same stress hormones its mother is experiencing. In other words, a baby can live out his mom’s volatility before he’s able to breathe. Fun times.

I tell people my official welcome to hell started when I was just shy of my 19th birthday, but that’s not entirely accurate. I struggled mightily as a child, and several major incidents left me really not being fond of continuing to live. Is it possible to attempt suicide and for no one to know? Yes. Yes it is. One day after a particularly bad situation at school, I swallowed 15 Excedrin PMs and was fine with not waking up.

But I did wake up. And I had to go to school that day.

No one in my family knows that ever happened.

When it came time for me to go to college, I knew I needed to get far, far away from home. So I went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. That’s about as different from suburban New York City as a person can get.

And I loved it. Two weeks into my freshman year, I met my future wife. The importance of her to this story cannot be understated. Carla was everything I needed at that time, from a neurological standpoint. She was stable, the very opposite of the word “volatile.” She was kind, loving, consistent … and as our relationship deepened, I began to find myself, the real me who had been hidden underneath all the fear I constantly lived with.

Then May came. The end of freshman year.

The day I was to begin the two-day journey home to New York for the summer, I had my first panic attack. I had no clue, of course, what a panic attack was at the time. I just knew I couldn’t breathe and felt like I was going to throw up. It came in like a huge wave and crested right on top of me, knocking me for a loop. Later that day, I had my second one.

The reality is, my body and mind were rebelling against going back home. I know that now. I didn’t know it then. Things got worse when I got home. During a family dinner at Red Lobster, I had a massive panic attack, still not knowing what it was. So massive was it that, by the time I got home and crawled into bed, I was thoroughly exhausted and fell into the deepest sleep I have ever had.

In the pre-internet days, many families had a medical book. Ours was big, blue and old. Yet when I looked up my symptoms one night before bed, I still was able to find “anxiety” and “panic attacks.” I was unfamiliar with these terms. Certainly no one in my family had these things! (I would later learn these types of things ran deeply in my lineage.) I knocked on my parents’ bedroom door and showed them what I had learned.

A week later, I was on Xanax. Now, I’m pretty sure these days the first drug they toss at anxiety isn’t freaking Xanax. But in 1993, that was it. Funny thing: Not being able to control yourself in restaurants or malls or other public places? That can make you kinda sad.

Soon, Paxil was added to the mix because I had depression, too.

Welcome to hell.

Into the fiery depths

It’s so easy to, as the old Seinfeld episode showed, yada-yada-yada my way through so much of the rest of this journey. I mean, considering we’re nearly 30 years away from the entrance to hell and how repetitive those years proved to be, it certainly is tempting.

But truly, that would be like leaving out the filling in a cannoli. It’s not technically necessary, but it’s a damn important part.

Things got worse fast. My grades sophomore year in college were horrible. I lost weight rapidly. I was barely hanging on. More than once, my therapist made me sign a piece of paper saying I wouldn’t harm myself. I was blessed with a good therapist in Des Moines. So many people don’t have good treatment as a part of their journeys, and folks, that ain’t getting any better.

Over the next decade or so, a lot changed. I got married. I had a few months in which I didn’t need any medication. But the dark times and the anxiety would always return. Name an anti-depressant. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Yeah, I’ve taken that. Didn’t help.

Neither did that one.

That one, either.

Then came the concern that Xanax isn’t a good drug to be on long-term. Ever detox from Xanax? Yeah, not fun. But as the road through hell continued, I did that. Then I did it again years later with Klonopin. I had put my brain firmly in the hands of an industry that, while well intentioned, didn’t know jack about shit. My brain was their experiment. They fully acknowledged they didn’t know why certain things worked for some people and not for others. The modern approach to all of this has been to throw a bunch of crap against the wall and see if anything sticks.

Sometimes, something would. But it never lasted. All the stuff I know today about Dr. Bruce Perry’s work and the things I learned about my developing brain? I’d never come close to addressing any of that with a therapist. If anyone tried to talk about my childhood with me, I deflected it and said it was so cliche to talk about mommy issues in therapy. So while all these different drugs tried to “fix” me, the roots of everything lay blessedly undistrubed and fully in control.

The effect on me and my family has been enormous. With the benefit of today’s clarity, I can clearly see how challenging it has been for my wife and for the two boys I have here on Earth to have a husband and father with brain illnesses. Their perseverance and love for me should not go unmentioned. That they are still in my life and love me as they do is a testimony to true love’s power.

My brain illnesses have affected every single area of my life. Every single thing I have done since being welcomed into hell has been in some way tinged by it. Family. Career. Personal life. Friendships. Everything. And it’s most often not good.

The deepest parts of Hell

When you wake up in the morning in the psychiatric wing of a hospital with an older woman standing above you muttering something in Spanish and you realize by remembering just enough of the language from your high school years that she thinks you are her son, you know your life hasn’t gone exactly as planned.

Yet the fact that I was there was actually a good thing. The plan had been for me to be dead.

In 2015, I had moved the family to Florida after nearly a decade in rural Missouri. Big money. Great opportunity. I didn’t see the fact that none of my family members really wanted to be there. Brain illness can make you blind to a lot of things, I have learned.

For the first time in my marriage, we started to fight. Then, after a promising start, things went south quickly with my job. My brain health was not good. Not good at all. I don’t know that I thought about killing myself often, but I definitely didn’t want to be alive anymore. Then, after getting called to HR thanks to the political maneuverings of a “colleague” angling for a job, I was told to go home for the day while they figured out what they wanted to do. It was deplorable, but I had no fight in me. And as I reached my car in a stunned daze, I knew what I was going to do next. I was going to drive my car as fast as I could into the support cement of an overpass.

If not for the pleading call of my wife begging me to just come home, just come home so we can figure it all out, I would be dead. I was right there at that moment when the phone rang. Everything was planned. I knew I was going to lean into the passenger side when I was near impact and had put enough weight in the seat but not too much to ensure the airbag wouldn’t deploy.

Instead, I went home, and by the early morning hours of the following day, I was in a the psychiatric wing being awoken by the elderly Spanish-speaking woman.

I spent three days in the hospital. If you’ve never been in such a situation, you can’t begin to understand what it’s like. I didn’t consider myself insane. I wasn’t like this Spanish-speaking woman. I was an accomplished professional and a family man who once had so much going for him. Yet there I was, unable to have a pencil or pen to write anything with, not free to go outside except for approved rec time, no shoelaces in my shoes, no belts, not even a hardcover book allowed.

This isn’t to say the place was bad. It wasn’t. There were kind people working there. They treated me well. The group sessions allowed me to start seeing at least something of a future beyond the tangled wreckage of my car that I had imagined. But it wasn’t a place I wanted to be, that anyone should want to be. There were seriously damaged people in there around whom I didn’t feel safe, though my heart went out to them. How had I ended up in the same place as them?

Three days after arriving, I was discharged with a prescription for a different anti-depressant and with no treatment plan other than an appointment with a psychiatrist — a month later. I was also promptly fired from my job less than 10 minutes after exiting the hospital door.

I floundered. I found a therapist who tried her best but who wasn’t really that good. I awaited my psychiatric appointment. I felt horrible. I felt like a failure. A disappointment. A loser. I harbored a tremendous amount of guilt for uprooting my family only to wind up collectively like this.

Then, one day, Carla went out and I was home with the boys, feeling miserable. My older son, Joey, had stepped up to do so much, and that day, it included making lunch for his little brother. He wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. As I sat in front of the computer doing nothing constructive, I heard Joey scream ,”Dad! Dad! Help! Jonah’s choking!” By the time I rounded the corner, Joey had swooped behind Jonah and was giving him the Heimlich maneuver. The offending chunk of grilled cheese came flying out as I stood there.

I comforted Jonah as best as I could, praised Joey, and then went upstairs to my bedroom and broke down in sobs. I had failed my son. I had nearly let him die because of how I was. I could not stop crying and, soon, Joey heard my tears and came upstairs. He sat with his arm around me telling me it was going to be OK, that he loved me. That made me feel even worse, that this little boy was seeing so much and seeing his dad as such a mess.

Carla came home shortly after, and with her was a pamphlet about a treatment program that was more intensive than once-a-week therapy. I believe it was her own therapist, whom she’d started to see in the wake of my collapse, who had recommended it. Carla brought it home with apprehension, sure I was going to put up a fight about going. I agreed at once.

It was a five-day-a-week program that went from 9 am. to 3:30 p.m. everyday. There, we would sit around a table and talk. We’d journal. We’d talk some more. We’d eat horrible lunch food. We’d talk some more. We’d shoot basketballs during rec time. We’d go home and do it all over again the next day.

During that time, I had one-on-one sessions with a woman named Ally, who heard my story and casually said, “Oh, you’re an empath.” I’d never heard that term in my life. She told me about it, I did some research on my own and, yup, that was me. I’d grown up feeling so much stuff from other people and just assumed that’s how everyone lived. But it’s not. Knowing about what an empath was and seeing how it described me help me put a lot of things in my life in context.

Treatment rolled on. It went from five days a week to three days a week, as I progressed. That’s when I first heard about something called TMS. The technology wasn’t exactly new, but it was new-ish. It was for treatment-resistant depression, which wasn’t hard for me to demonstrate that I had. I merely checked off all the different medications I’d tried and that had failed. So I started with TMS, allowing them to place something of a helmet on my head in a precise place to send pulses meant to stimulate activity.

Over the course of several months, I began to feel … better. Maybe even good. Whether it was the TMS, the intensive therapy, altered medications or a combination of all three, I suddenly felt like I could handle my life again. Carla and I began to make plans. We were going to move back to Missouri regardless of whether I found a new job there or not. That’s where we wanted to be, back with her family and closer to our roots. Then, just before we were going to let people know that was the plan, I landed a job interview with an employer in St. Louis. I got the job. Two months before my family, I moved up to Missouri and into my in-law’s basement to start a new life.

Things were good. That’s what I thought, anyway. I was healthier than I’d been in a long time, certainly. But there’s a big difference between that and good, I would learn. The root causes of all this stuff remained lurking under the surface, and it wouldn’t take too long to start roaring again.

Out of and back into the depths

The first year back in the workforce in the new job was great. I found my old creativity, I loved my supervisor and I earned a promotion and a raise six months in. Then, there was a regime change in the marketing department. Under these folks, I wasn’t so favored, and the morale there sunk.

At the same time, I had started to develop some actual work friendships. We made coffee runs to Starbucks for each other, hung out at lunch, took breaks at each others’ desks and bitched about the general poor direction of the company.

We bought a house. But the promise of a new start back “home” and all the joy that would bring quickly evaporated. Carla and I were still fighting way too often about way too much stupid stuff, and the fights were now taking on a nasty edge. There is so much I know now that I wish I knew then. Carla will tell you she is not without blame in all of this, and that’s fine. It does take two to tango, as the saying goes, but I was certainly leading the dance.

There came a point in time in which, rightly or wrongly, I felt like I couldn’t really talk with my wife. Not if there was going to be something she disagreed with. And so … I just stopped trying. That’s not a good recipe for any marriage. It’s definitely not a good thing in a marriage in which one of the people is coming off such a major breakdown.

I found solace in some of my work friends, who were more than willing to lend sympathetic ears to my plight. Most of these people were female. It was a powder keg waiting for a match.

Of course, that match would come. It had to, right? And it was ugly. In the wake of it, I found the simple act of going to work a gargantuan task. Those who haven’t been beset by brain illness don’t understand how something like getting up and getting in the car to go to a job can be physically impossible. But it can be. And so one day, I decided I wasn’t going to go. I had the sick days, and I was going to try again tomorrow.

Tomorrow came, and I still couldn’t do it.

The next day, ditto.

Carla had seen this type of descent before, and she wasn’t going to wait until I had my car aimed at a bridge abutment to do something about it again. So she drove me to a hospital. By the time we left, I was enrolled in another intensive outpatient treatment program.

To say I was frustrated in no way does it justice. It was three years later, and I was exactly where I had started, back in intensive therapy. But it got worse. Those powder kegs don’t always blow up completely the first time, and they certainly don’t show mercy to you just because you’re down.

Whether that low was worse than the one in which I woke up with a Spanish-speaking woman standing over me really doesn’t matter. This one was bad. Really bad. I was back at the bottom. As hokey as it sounds, it’s true: I really had nowhere to go but up.

So I started climbing.

Fighting back

There’s something about time and distance that matter when it comes to brain illnesses. In the midst of the battle, there’s absolutely no perspective. You’re just fighting to stay alive. But with some time and distance from the worst of the fight, you can see more clearly what was going on.

I’d like to think that, when I’m old and gray(er), I’ll look back at the set of years between 2015 and 2022 as a short bloc of years in which I did my healing. Hell no, it was not linear. Far from it. But it’s where the healing happened.

In the wake of the collapse in 2019, I started TMS treatments again. It was done by a young woman named Rachel who sat with me during the 35 minutes or so each day my brain was receiving the pulses. We talked. A lot. She was kind and encouraging. She helped me figure out what I really wanted to do next, which was restore my relationship with my family. It was such a basic thing, but at that time, it seemed so impossible.

I continued with my intensive therapy program and struggled mightily on the off days.

I also, for the first time, shared some stories about my young childhood. Here’s the thing: The things I experienced were not horrible or awful in comparison to what others have gone through. They’re nothing compared to some of the horror stories you hear about how some parents abuse their kids. But they also weren’t cool either.

The first time I talked about them in group therapy, I looked up to see the shocked looks on the faces of my colleagues. These were people who’d each seen their share of shit. And I will never forget when one person who had a particularly bad childhood said, “Dude. That’s abuse.” I argued with her, compared what I had gone through to she went through. “Doesn’t matter. I’m different from you. It’s not about what we experienced as much as it is about how you felt because of it.”

Listen, I’m not here to say that I had some awful childhood. I didn’t. From the outside, it was picture perfect. From the inside it was less so. I don’t blame anything I went through with brain illness on my parents. They were doing the best they could with what they knew and they have no regrets about their actions. Do I wish things would have been different? Sure. But I can’t change that, and I don’t expect anyone outside of me to understand my own truth regarding that situation.

Though I don’t blame them, it is impossible to understand the struggles I’ve faced without understanding the things about how the brain forms and how that environment was not conducive to me being healthy. I can say that as truth and also hold no ill will toward them.

Understanding the roots of some of this stuff started me on a path to improvement. I started to feel better overall, but I wouldn’t say that things were anything close to “good.”

Here’s the thing: The damage that I caused to others isn’t easily mitigated by simply pointing out brain illnesses. It would be lovely if it was, but that’s not what happens. I’m responsible for every word, every action I took during the journey through hell. Brain illnesses don’t take that responsibility away. The damage Carla felt, my boys — particular my older boy — felt … that is real. And it’s unfair of me to ask for a pass simply because of brain illnesses. I accept that.

I spent about three months in outpatient treatment on short-term disability from work and then started to think about getting back to my job. Things with my employer had been spotty at best since I’d left. They were already showing how little they understood about brain illnesses in how they instructed people to interact with me during that time. When you’re out on leave with, say, cancer or foot surgery or whatever, these were the people who would organize a meal train for you, who would send cards and emails of support, who would pray for you. I got none of that. Not a word. I was even dropped from the fantasy football league there.

A week before I was to return, my boss called me and told me about my return-to-work plan. They’d come up with new duties for me. Somehow, those duties took away all my supervisory responsibilities and pushed me way off in a corner. That, I knew, was patently illegal in the eyes of the Americans With Disabilities Act. But I just wanted to get back to work and continue healing. So I said nothing.

Then I went back to work. The first day I walked in, there was nothing from my colleagues. No one said, “Welcome back.” They ignored me. It was as if, by seeking treatment, I had done something wrong to them. I was an outcast. Unclean.

This continued up through management. My boss’s boss said to my face that there was concern about me “flaking out” again, which is why they’d taken my supervisory responsibilities away. Every day brought a new indignity. Finally, I had enough and gathered all my paperwork and copies of the appropriate laws and made it be known that something was going to change. Either I was going to have a new supervisor and be compensated for the humiliation I’d faced or they were going to have one helluva fight on their hands. In the end, I was paid to go away quietly.

I say all that not because I want to disparage any particular employer. I say it because anyone who thinks of standing up and being honest about their brain illness struggles needs to know … this happens. No matter what literature the HR department puts out about supporting work/life balance and mental health treatment, no matter what the EAP program is like, this happens. And oh, were I to be the only one I know who’s faced something like this.

Standing up for myself … fighting back … it changed something in me. It gave me a modicum of self-confidence. It was a brick to start building a foundation with, perhaps.

Swimming in deep water

The one thing that I can hang my hat on regarding this whole 30 years in hell is that I never stopped trying. I got knocked down again and again and again. I was blasted by haymakers and hooks and upper cuts and lots of low blows. But I always got back up, long after most people would say it would have been fine if I didn’t.

I’m proud of that. I’m proud that I never stopped searching for something that would work. Something that would make a lasting difference.

In 2021, I started to find it.

Sometimes all it takes is a therapist who sees through your bullshit and who refuses to let you parry his inquiries. I made the decision to find a male therapist around this time. I’d seen almost exclusively female therapists during my 30 years in hell, and I needed a change. Things were OK overall, but there were a lot of unresolved issues causing big problems.

Arti is a country boy from rural Missouri. The first time I met with him via Talkspace, he was on his back deck with cicadas loudly screaming in the background. He wore an old fishing cap and sipped hot tea throughout our appointment. I told him I just needed someone who was going to hold me accountable for all the positive changes in my life. I didn’t need intensive therapy, I told him. Just accountability.

I don’t remember precisely the question he asked that changed things. I don’t know if he even asked a question. What I do know is that, before the end of that first appointment, a whole lot of shit came spilling out about stuff that was truly bothering me, stuff I didn’t even really know was there.

This started what’s now been a year-plus long adventure in which I willingly decided to swim into the deep water with Arti and stay there until the work was done. When I tried to deflect the “tell me about your childhood” stuff, Arti persisted. “Humor me.” So I did. And it all came spilling out, including stuff I’d pushed way down and didn’t even realize I remembered.

It was hard. I would end my appointments with Arti and be drained. And so much of the stuff we were talking about was stuff I didn’t want to share with anyone. No one really could understand. No one really “got it.” But I did. I understood. I knew the significance of what we were doing.

It’d be nice to say that this made everything better, that diving in and swimming out into the deep end was just what I needed and I was able to resolve all my issues and we all lived happily ever after.

Brain illness doesn’t work that way.

Seeing me as I really am

The thing I’ve learned to hate most about depression is its incessant lies that simply reinforce the depressive state. I wish I knew why this happened. I don’t know that anyone does. But I know it happens. Try to build a house in a hurricane. On sand. With straw. That’s easier than climbing out of a depressive hole when your brain is telling you all sorts of horrible things about yourself and who you are at your core. You might have some gains, but depression is the nastiest, dirtiest fighter I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t a matter of if I wanted to get better. Sure I did. More than anything. But I couldn’t. Even with addressing the core issues that I’d avoided so desperately.

Neurologically speaking, depression treatment has been largely based around serotonin. All the thousands of pills I’ve swallowed over the years have been about that one chemical in my brain. It’s what psychologists and psychiatrists give you as the source material for depression. It’s also turning out to be wrong.

Again, we know so little about the brain. Many of the things we have done over the previous 30 years to treat depression, I’m convinced my grandchildren will one day see as barbaric. Throwing brain-chemistry-altering drugs at the problem without knowing what will work and won’t? The side effects these drugs causes? It’ll be seen as inhuman. And truly, from a certain perspective, it is.

In early May 2022, I was beyond frustrated with the lack of progress, the lack of true healing. So when I saw something about a ketamine treatment program near me, I was more than ready to give it a shot.

For those unaware, ketamine was a popular 1960s/70s party drug in the same line as LSD. It’s used as an anesthetic, but it also made a lot of hippies act really, really weird in the eyes of the mainstream. And thus, ketamine’s effect on making these hippies really, really happy people in general was never considered of any significance.

I’d first heard about ketamine being used in the treatment of depression about three years before. I was more than ready to use it in 2019, but there were no programs near me.

Now there were.

I went through the intake appointment and was told I would be a good candidate for ketamine in its mainstream form — Spravato. And so on a Monday in late May, I went to a medical office, sat in a really comfortable chair, took a few snorts of a foul-tasting nasal spray infused with ketamine and let myself fly away.

I understand that anything I say about my experiences regarding ketamine is going to be filtered through the user’s perceptions of hippies, Nancy Reagan, Just Say No and psychedelics. That’s fine. What I’m telling you, however, is that in that moment, in that very first experience, I saw through depression’s lies. I saw myself how I truly am, how — if you’re spiritual — God sees me. I saw that I was a strong, powerful, capable human being who could do just about anything he set his mind to. I literally saw myself on a mountaintop standing strong and firm and in control of everything in my life.

And then the treatment wore off some, Carla drove me home, and I was groggy for the rest of the evening. Pleasantly groggy, yes, but groggy nonetheless.

The next morning I awoke before anyone else, as usual. And I realized something was different. I felt good. So surprised was I at this feeling that I didn’t recognize it because I hadn’t felt that way in so, so long.

I made coffee. I sat down. I was in the midst of a job situation that needed figuring out — and soon. And whereas the day before had been filled with what I now realize was fear and uncertainty, I suddenly had a plan. I wasn’t scared of anything that could happen to me in my job situation. I was the guy on that mountaintop who could do anything.

If someone whispers “You suck” in your ear long enough, you just sort of accept that you suck. But suddenly, I knew … knew … I didn’t suck. I was pretty damn amazing. I wasn’t scared of my boss, being fired, my parents … anything. Whatever was put in front of me, that’s what I would handle.

I know it’s hard to understand or believe that such dramatic change can happen in 24 hours — after 30 years in hell. But here I am, telling you it can. It did for me, anyway.

I went to work. The plan that had started to form in the morning? By the time I got home that evening, it was fully fleshed out and workable. I called a family meeting. I think it shocked Carla to see how lucid I was, how clearly I saw things. This plan involved the family working together on a side gig that might one day become my full-time job. And it’s been awesome to watch it grow since then. Even if it never becomes a full-time thing, I know it could if I wanted it to.

Twice a week for more than a month, I went for ketamine treatments. It was time consuming. It takes coordination with others to drive me home. Insurance pays for most of it, but that can be a fight.

Here’s the thing: It works. On all the scales meant to measure depression, my numbers plummeted from highly depressed to not depressed. But more importantly than that, my life improved. Carla saw the improvements. Our relationship has improved dramatically. I’m a better husband. I’m a better father. I’m a better person.

I am much better able to handle whatever life throw at me. And life keeps on throwing. It always has. It always will. I do not have only good days. Does anyone? What I have are days that remain in balance.

I’m now doing treatments once every other week after doing once a week for a while. I’m good. Beyond good, in many, many ways. Ketamine helped open the door to a lot of truths in my life, both here on earth and important spiritual truths that have helped me rediscover my faith again. Combined with the work I have put in and continue to put in with Arti, I have been able to put to bed several huge, long-term issues that have been plaguing me for years.

When you see yourself and when you know what you’re capable of, well, it’s not difficult to find the mountaintop whenever you need to.

Leaving hell behind

And so here I am, with my brain illness perhaps cured or on the way to being cured. It’s so hard for me to say that. When you’ve been afflicted by something for so damn long, it’s hard to believe it’s really over.

I think it’d be arrogant of me to say it truly is gone for good. I don’t know that I’m hardwired to be completely free. I am, however, much better equipped to address what needs to be addressed in life, whatever the future might hold. I know there are boosters for ketamine. And I know there’s a lot more research being done on other types of “alternative” treatments that show equal promise.

I am beyond grateful for that, beyond grateful to Carla and my boys for never giving up on me, to Arti for being a royal pain in the ass, and to everyone who helped keep me alive and keep me going throughout those years. I’m tremendously grateful for all those who researched ketamine and who still don’t quite understand how it’s working but know that it is, indeed, helping people.

This is my story. It is ugly and sad. Hell is an ugly, sad place.

Being in hell for 30 years leaves no one unscarred, including those who are forced to accompany you on the journey. As I said, I know the damage I’ve done, and though I have been forgiven by all those who matter, I’d be a fool to think these folks don’t have their own wounds that might be slow to heal.

I no longer apologize for the things that have happened during this journey because of me. There’s only so many times you can say you’re sorry, and then you have to move forward. I do not pretend to be a paragon of virtue now, nor a shining example of a healthy brain. I’m not. I still make mistakes, still am a person who feels everything bigger than the average person. I’m still a person who has really strong emotions about things and who can be burdened by the cares of the world. I’m not what anyone should want to be if they want an easy path through life.

I’m just a guy who eventually found something that worked for him. In the end, I’m just a guy who didn’t stop trying.

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