Psychedelic therapy holds a lot of promise, which medicine is right for you? Dr. Raquel Bennett describes her journey to find ketamine assisted psychotherapy and launch the first ketamine specific conference. She talks about different methods and approaches used in ketamine therapy.
After struggling for over a decade with severe depression, Raquel Bennett turned to psychedelics after no available treatment made substantial improvement. Working with a psychiatrist and an underground psychedelic shaman over a two-year period, her psychotherapy was facilitated first with MDMA, then psilocybin, then LSD.
As therapeutic tools, these psychedelics provided little relief; two of them made her worse.
“I felt I failed at psychedelic therapy.”
“It was catastrophic,” she said. “At that point, I was really discouraged and I felt that I had failed conventional treatments and that I had essentially failed psychedelic treatment, and I was ready to kill myself. I was really at the edge of that rope there.”
What Bennett didn’t know at the time was that she had an misdiagnosed mood disorder. For people with serotonergic disorders, including major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mood disorders, some psychedelics can have a dangerous impact. Too much serotonin can be destabilizing. “Any of the medicines that are active in the serotonin pathway will really screw somebody up if they have an organic problem with serotonin regulation.”
“It’s very common actually that people with organic mood disorders do very poorly with MDMA,” Bennett said. She notes that people on the bipolar spectrum can have manic episodes during the MDMA experience, followed by an extremely severe depression. For the same group, psilocybin can induce a psychiatric emergency or persistent psychosis that requires hospitalization. “There’s been a terrible job of adequately educating people that you cannot give serotonergic agents to people who might be on the bipolar spectrum because you could hurt them.”
A Spiritual Exploration
Bennett’s shamanic teachers continued working with her in an ongoing psychotherapeutic and spiritual context. Two years into psychedelic work, her teachers suggested using ketamine to aid a spiritual exploration. The intention for the experience was to explore her intense suffering: why was it in her life, and what was its purpose or value?
“It was life-saving,” Bennett said. Under the drug’s influence, the visions began. “My experience was that God came, and God put a giant golden key into my right ear and turned the key and turned my brain on. It was like the whole system got rebooted. I realized that I was awake and that I was alive and that my brain actually did know how to work. It had just been asleep for a long time. I was very excited.” Paralyzed in that moment by the medicine, she wasn’t able to express her immediate excitement to her teachers, and then she continued on a psychedelic journey that, nearly twenty years later, still resonates for her with profound beauty and expansiveness.
From Isolation to Deep Connection with Ketamine Therapy
Poetic and symbolic, a common thread throughout her experience is moving from isolation to a deep connection. After feeling God’s key turn on her brain, she found herself on an orange surfboard on the edge of the outer Universe. Next, she identified herself as a single raindrop, her own autonomous being. Then her drop reunited with other drops into a river she knew innately as a “river of love.” Her psychedelic ketamine therapy experience helped her to recognize her inherent worth and sense of wellness, she said. “At the core of who I think I am, I am not defective or broken. I was ill, I needed treatment, and there was enough reason to stay alive to pursue more treatment.”
For weeks following, Bennett’s depression remained lifted. This came as a complete surprise to her teacher, her psychiatrist, and other mental health providers she spoke to. No one believed an immediate antidepressant could ever exist.
Awe Creates Curiosity
The effect of Bennett’s ketamine therapy experience, as well as the experience itself, captured her attention: how does this work? Is it reliable and repeatable, or was it a fluke? She sees the medicine impacting her in two ways: chemically and spiritually. While the chemical effect relieved her depression for months, the visions she experienced were the most striking.
“There’s too much emphasis on it as a pharmaceutical agent and not enough attention being paid to its very prominent visionary properties,” she said. “Nothing is more profound for somebody who wants to die or who hates themselves so much that they want to kill themselves than to find themselves being cradled in the arms of God, realizing that everything is connected, that their life is meaningful, that they’re an essential piece of the puzzle for what’s supposed to be happening right now on the planet.”
Ketamine Therapy- Key to Your Brain?
How does it happen in evolution that you come to have a lock in your brain with no key?Dr. Raquel Bennett
First synthesized in the 1960s, ketamine has commonly been used as a surgical anesthetic and recreationally as a psychedelic. Unlike other psychoactive medicines, ketamine has no natural analogue. For example, the synthetic psychedelic LSD has an analogue to ergine, which exists in morning glory and Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds. Ingesting these seeds triggers receptors in the brain that LSD also triggers. What strikes Bennett deeply is that nothing in the natural world has been found that hits the same pore on the same receptor that ketamine hits, a receptor that controls the perceptions of pain and separateness.
“How is it that you have a receptor that’s activated by this molecule, but for more than 10,000 years there’s been nothing that’s been hitting that receptor?” She asked. “How does it happen in evolution that you come to have a lock in your brain with no key?”
While the neuroscience is interesting to her, it’s not her primary focus. If ketamine therapy allowed her to lose the sense of pain, to see walls between herself and others dissolve, and to gain deep feelings of connection, could that be healing for others? Could it be reliable and repeatable? Her curiosity drove her to pursue graduate study in clinical psychology where she met new walls: discussing ketamine and other psychedelics was forbidden.
“It was professional suicide.”
Dedication to Lifelong Ketamine Therapy Study
When Bennett began graduate study in clinical psychology a few years later, she planned to devote her career to helping people living with mood disorders, including severe and refractory depression, bipolar disorder, and active suicidal ideation. At the end of her seven years of psychoanalytic study and training, the people referred to her were very depressed and suicidal.