One of the many devastating effects of depression is that it can eradicate one’s ability to feel feelings. Most people associate it with anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, but in severe cases, depression can also mute anger, sadness, frustration, fear and any other emotion human beings have the capacity to feel. Before I started taking ketamine, I don’t remember the last time I actually really felt a feeling. While some may think not feeling sadness, anger or frustration might be a blessing, I can assure you it is not. My whole life I have felt like a zombie disguised as a human.
While I could mimic a smile and fake a laugh, no matter how hard I tried, it was virtually impossible for me to cry. Kat, my therapist, had spent the past two years trying to teach me to get in touch with my feelings. We were able to get to the point where I could identify what I should be feeling in a given situation, and I could even faintly detect the presence of a feeling in extreme circumstances, like a far-off tapping sound I could hear faintly echoing in the background. But I was never able to get any closer to experiencing emotion than that.
Now, in the second week of my ketamine treatment, feelings have rushed to the forefront of my consciousness and they are screaming at me, as if desperately anxious to be acknowledged after decades of suppression. The facade we’ve been chipping away at and had barely managed to splinter has been broken wide open by the ketamine and these amorphous, vague, ambiguous sensations that Kat had taught me to distinguish and title individually — anger, fear, sadness, happiness, joy, excitement, etcetera — have now become real, tangible entities called feelings and I finally understand what everyone else has been experiencing all along.
Even the simplest things, like reading a newspaper article or being unable to get my printer to work, evoke a flood of extreme and seemingly exaggerated feelings that are proving to be quite overwhelming. The amplitude of these feelings is akin to when your ear has been plugged up for a few days, and suddenly it pops and there is a rush of noise. It seems unbearably loud, but really it’s just normal, only you’ve been deaf from your plugged up ear, so now all the usual background noise, and even just the sound of air, which you normally don’t notice, is so very loud and you just want to clamp your hand over your ear and make it stop.
But I don’t want to make it stop. As overwhelming and disconcerting as it is, at the same time it is marvelous and miraculous because, for the first time since I can remember, I actually feel alive! The other day, I was reading the alumni magazine from my high school (an elite and extremely academically rigorous boarding school where I felt very antagonized and was utterly miserable), and I burst into tears. It was like the bubble of sadness regarding that experience that has loomed over me for the past twenty-five years finally broke, and I really felt the emotions, rather than just sensed they were there from the dark cloud hanging over my memories. I cried for a good fifteen minutes and even though I was sad, it felt so good to cry. It was such a tremendous release, every tear expunging one more fragment of my sadness, and when I was done, I felt so relieved that I smiled. Call me crazy, but crying is now one of my favorite experiences.
However, I must admit, anger and frustration are proving to be a difficult adjustment for me. Anger sends my heart racing faster than Usain Bolt and renders me completely incapable of rational thought, so that I am unable to articulate even the most basic argument. Suffice to say, this was not the best time for me to find out that the government has been unapologetically spying on me and the rest of the world. However, with time, at least anger subsides. Frustration, on the other hand, follows me around for hours like a creepy stalker I can’t get rid of. When I am unable to complete a task I set out to accomplish, like talk to an actual human being when I call my cell phone company’s customer service department, a person who can explain why I have no cell service the minute I walk into my house and then fix the problem, frustration makes me want to scream and smash my phone against the wall.
I feel like a toddler experiencing a whole new range of emotions for the first time, but without yet having the tools to navigate this world and manage these feelings that erupt out of nowhere. However, I am an adult, living in an adult world with adult responsibilities. There is no mommy to comfort me or explain how to handle these feelings. There is no corner to retreat to when it’s all just too much. But I do have my therapist, Kat. She has given me hundreds of pages of handouts on emotional regulation and mindfulness, which I have come to realize is the adult version of a time out. Thank goodness for Kat and mindfulness! Without them, I surely would be curled up in the corner of my living room, having succumbed to a total meltdown, stuck in a permanent temper tantrum, fists pounding and legs kicking while I screamed, “But why? It’s not fair! My constitutional rights are not supposed to be violated by my own government, my cell phone should work in my house and my printer should print when I tell it to!”
Yet, as overwhelming as all this is proving to be, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Happiness and joy may be the best feelings in the world, but sadness, anger, frustration and all the others are just as important. Now that ketamine has restored me to the land of the living, I cannot fathom returning to my previous zombie state.