Dying to Stay Alive: A Ketamine Disaster

I have no idea how I have survived nearly two decades of brutal suffering at the hands of severe type 1 bipolar disorder.

I spent months, even years sometimes, ‘dying to stay alive’, in bed, desperately trying to resist my suicidal thoughts and intentions with the curtains firmly closed; achieving nothing, going nowhere, and seeing no one.

But against all odds, I have not only survived this horrific ordeal, but I’ve stabilised, reached remission, recovered, and reclaimed my life; quite how I’ve managed to do this is so astounding (even to me) that I am now determined to share my story as widely as possible, in an attempt to help and educate others.

February 2022: Finally riding at home again.

I’m essentially ‘back from the dead’ and now I’m writing, reading, riding, walking, swimming, and socialising—things I once thought I would never be able to do ever again, and now I want everyone else to be able to achieve this transformation too.

Throughout the twenty years of this nightmare ordeal, I have been medicated, time and again, with a myriad of different treatments and therapies, yet not one of them has worked in even the slightest way. In fact, all that the traditional psychiatric drugs did was make my condition so much worse!

This has all meant that I have been fighting so much more than just the vicious onslaught of episodes, because I’ve had the side effects of the drugs, the withdrawal problems when they failed me, and the disappointments and failures to contend with too—a hideous situation, and a potentially very dangerous one too.

The initially prescribed antidepressants such as citalopram, fluoxetine, and sertraline induced such panic and fear that I was left constantly on a knife-edge, sweating and trembling, and having to endure crippling bouts of increased agitation, mixed with heightened swirls of terrifying anxiety.

I now recognise that I was experiencing a ‘mixed affective state’ as a direct result of the antidepressants, where I was suffering from depressed and manic features at the same time!

It was at this juncture where I believe my bipolar disorder was first created, yet all of these obvious symptoms went undiagnosed, because the extent of the care I received was so cursory, lacking, and, quite frankly, grossly negligent and substandard.

In those early episodes, I would like awake all-night-long with crippling insomnia, dreading the start of a new day, paralysed by the fear of having to get through another day of ‘faking it’ as a competent and successful international event rider.

Mood stabilisers such as lithium and sodium valproate were introduced, which again did nothing to alleviate my depression yet added only more complications and side effects. At one point I developed a particularly distressing and itchy bout of hives which broke out in their thousands all over my back. I remember thinking “I already want to kill myself and now I’m sweaty and spotty—I really don’t think I can take any more than this—Please God let me die!”

By this point I’d pretty much decided to either kill myself of find a way on my own, so for a while I tried to manage my illness without medication, but when my depression returned with a vengeance in 2017, I found myself desperate again, and (unfortunately, as it turns out), I made the fateful decision to return to the NHS medical profession for help and guidance.

With Princess Anne after winning the novice national championships at Gatcombe 2002, before disaster struck.

By this point I had been forced to relinquish my Olympic dream of representing Great Britain in the sport of three-day eventing and had decided that studying psychology at university might bring a change of focus, some answers, and that I’d be able to carve-out a new career and a fresh outlook. Unfortunately, this dream would be ripped away from me too.

The combination of subthreshold depression, exam pressures, and the general verbosity of the subject itself dragged me down to the point of desperation once more, so when a friend alerted me to the fact that they were using ketamine to treat resistant cases in Oxford, I immediately applied for an assessment.

This would prove to be a near-fatal decision because the treatment, which was being hailed as a ‘miracle cure’, backfired so spectacularly that it very nearly cost me my life.

Ketamine Infusions

Having sobbed my way through the entire assessment, I was duly accepted for treatment with ketamine, which was to be administered intravenously, once a week, over the course of the following three weeks.

The first infusion took me on a frightening psychedelic trip but did absolutely nothing to alleviate my depression. By the time I went back for the second treatment I was in mental agony with almost catatonic depression, and I sat on the waiting room floor crying in pain and desperation.

The psychiatrist first told me off for openly expressing my suicidal thoughts, then threatened to ban me from the clinic after I collapsed on the floor in crisis. The extent of the support was abysmal, and it horrifies me that some of the most vulnerable people in society are being subjected to such an appalling lack of basic care, empathy, and common courtesy and consideration.

The second infusion was equally as hideous as the first and I went home to bed and collapsed in pain and suffering as usual.

Over the next four days my sleep pattern went from 17 hours a day with ‘simple’ depression, to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum where I experienced complete mental disruption, getting absolutely no rest at all, let alone anything resembling relaxation and sleep.

I was now terrified that mania was on its way to me because I knew the pattern from previous episodes, but there was no follow-up between appointments, so I wasn’t able to express my concern with a professional. Repeated attempts proved fruitless, and the response to my urgent email was an auto ‘out of office’ reply which left me in panic and fear with an ever-growing feeling of desperation and anxiety.

Eventually, after much persistence, I did get hold of a healthcare assistant whose advice was to take a herbal sleeping pill!

For what happened next, I hold the clinic entirely responsible.

I was now well on my way to mania, yet the chance to help me was well and truly gone because I was spiralling out of control and unable to form a balanced perspective on my own condition.

By the time of the next appointment, I was in a full-blown manic episode, flying around at a million miles an hour, believing that I was some kind of biblical prophet or disciple, blessing people with holy water, and rambling and pontificating about philosophical and psychological dilemmas like Cartesian dualism and the mind-brain problem.

I was sectioned and incarcerated on a chaotic psychiatric ward for the next three months.

Ketamine had propelled me from the depths of despair to unbridled euphoria in the space of two weeks, but I was now in an even worse situation than before.

During this traumatic admission, I was overpowered and bulldozed in a corridor twice and forcibly injected with sedatives and antipsychotics. All of this could have been avoided if only I’d had access to support, emergency contact, follow-up, and earlier medical intervention. It terrifies me that this could potentially happen to someone else because I know that what I’ve experienced as a result isn’t really survivable.

I was placed under the care of a completely different psychiatrist who had absolutely nothing to do with the ketamine treatment and I spent the whole summer trying to explain what had happened, yet being consistently misunderstood and discredited, with every action being interpreted as symptomatic of mania and madness.

Support in hospital in the form of therapy or counselling was non-existent. In fact, the care was so appalling that when I realised that I would be receiving no beneficial input from the staff, I resorted to putting my earphones in, blocking out the pandemonium, and talking to no one!

I tried to refuse antipsychotics because I knew that they’d cause me more problems and complications, (I was right and haven’t needed any of them since) but my pleas went unheard, and they were forcibly and traumatically administered by injection instead.

When I was finally discharged, my mood dropped from ‘stable’ (in reality, emotionally scarred and traumatised) to suicidal in a matter of about a month and I spent the next 18 months in a catatonic depression, barely leaving my room, let alone the house, constantly having to resist the suicidal thoughts that dominated my every waking moment.

During 2018, I went back to the ketamine doctor and (believing that I had no other option) underwent nearly a whole year of treatment with oral ketamine, which was not only revolting but completely ineffective.

Even at higher doses where I would experience a horrific ‘k hole’ (where I was completely detached from every human concept), my depression did not lift in even the slightest way.

All the other patients that were undergoing treatment alongside me reported no benefit from ketamine either, and we would return week-in, week-out totally demoralised, and in suicidal crisis despite our continuous trips for more downing of the revolting horse tranquilizer at the hospital.

I eventually gave up with ketamine completely, even though I was still in suicidal crisis and desperate for medical intervention, but having had my condition so much worsened, I vowed never to go back to the NHS for mental health care ever again.

The Path to Recovery

By this point, I had virtually given up all hope of survival when, in early 2019, a friend contacted me and begged me to make an appointment to see her private doctor, at the very least just for an assessment. I took a deep breath and decided that before I made the decision to permanently end things, I would give this one last try.

I first went to see Dr Andy Zamar, at the London Psychiatry Centre on Harley Street, at the end of March 2019. I knew that I didn’t have the strength to divulge the horrific truth of the illness, so I wrote the full horror story down before I went.

He identified almost immediately that, as a result of everything that had happened, I was now rapid cycling between ‘simple depression’ (there’s nothing simple about it), ‘mixed state’ (manic negative thoughts), ‘agitated depression’ (where I felt deep inner unrest, my heart twinging constantly), and ‘depression with flight of ideas’ (negative ruminations, constantly returning to thoughts of hanging and suicide).

Dr Zamar took me extremely seriously and went on to question me extensively about my symptoms and experiences—something no other psychiatrist had ever done in twenty years.

I walked out of the appointment feeling more educated about my condition and, more importantly, HEARD—My feelings were valid, and the seriousness of my situation had been finally appreciated.

After the appointment, I said to Mum:

“This man will be enough to save me because he understands.”

There were no deliberations, waitlists, or delays and I started a combined treatment with high dose levothyroxine and rTMS (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation) with immediate effect.

The progression to full remission was steady and took longer than usual because of the damage caused by the failed treatments, but within the space of a few months, things started to become easier.

Eight months of treatment with rTMS and a titration up to 800 mcg of levothyroxine has restored my brain to its original equilibrium, which, after the obliteration of virtually every neurotransmitter and chemical is, quite frankly, a miraculous achievement!

The journey to remission has taken much persistence, patience, resilience, and determination, combined with a huge amount of introspection and self-analysis. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to work through the trauma, reconcile with the past and fully move on with my life. This has not been easy at all and has been made even more complicated by the forced antipsychotics which I have only just managed to withdraw from—something I write extensively about on my blog.

I am now very proud, as well as extremely relieved, to say that I am finally back to the authentic version of myself; I don’t doubt my brain, I don’t have to fight to get out of bed in the morning, and I’m relaxed and happy with life.

I believe the route to full mental wellness is a combination of many, many things which this novel treatment has given me the foundation to work from. I now enjoy exercising, looking after myself through attending to my diet, and have been more than happy to cut out all of the unhelpful ‘crutches’ like nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.

This experience has changed me profoundly and nothing now matters except staying well and helping others to survive and recover.

Somehow, between episodes, I managed to complete an NCTJ in journalism and am now finally using my qualification, over ten years later, to write and document all that I’ve learnt on this journey back to life.

I have detailed the whole story in a combined memoir and self-help book in order to warn others of the dangers of iatrogenic harm, as well as alert them to this ground-breaking approach to treating bipolar disorders. I am currently seeking literary representation for this, and in the meantime am sharing as much gratuitous information on my website as possible. This can be found at www.dyingtostayalive.com

Miraculously, I have now reclaimed my life and have qualified as an NLP practitioner (neuro-linguistic programming) offering support and guidance to fellow patients and sufferers. I hope, very much, to be able to spread a huge amount of hope and understanding around bipolar and many other mental illnesses and disorders.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch should you need help, guidance or support or if you wish to know any other details of this story.

Thank you for reading.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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