A Field Trip through the Mind: Julian's Story

Depression tells you lies about yourself—I’m not good enough, I’m worthless, my future is hopeless—and makes you believe them. But the psychedelic experience has a unique ability to break you out of those destructive thought patterns, allowing you to see your life from a different perspective.

Trigger warning: This post contains frank discussion of depression and suicidal ideation.

I am standing in the desert. The hot sun blazes overhead, and around me in all directions I see nothing but sand dunes and blue sky.

As I stand in awe, gawking at the vast expanse stretched out before me, I’m struck by an insight that’s almost overpowering in its intensity: Each one of the billions of grains of sand in this desert took its own unique journey over millions of years to reach this place. Before being grains of sand, each one was part of a pebble, or a rock, or a boulder, or a mountain. And somehow, all of those billions of journeys led to this place in time and space where I now stand, after taking my own 29-year journey to arrive here. I feel awed by the incredible forces of nature, and grateful to be able to witness them.

If it sounds a little weird to you, well, you kind of had to be there. Because I’m not actually in a desert at all—all of this is happening in my mind’s eye, as I lie in a reclining chair at a clinic in downtown Toronto. I’m on a legal, medically supervised, psychedelic drug trip.

It’s one of six so-called “exploration sessions” taking place over a three-week period at a clinic called Field Trip Health, which uses ketamine-assisted psychotherapy to treat mental illnesses like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’ve suffered through bouts of depression and suicidal ideation since childhood. But months of isolation, uncertainty and fear brought on by living through the Covid-19 pandemic brought my mental health to an all-time low.

In the fall of 2020 I went on disability leave from work. My depression had been getting steadily worse as the year went on, to the point where I was often unable to get out of bed, let alone take basic care of myself or do my job. Thoughts of suicide played on a loop in my mind. The therapy and medication that had kept me functional for the past few years were clearly no longer up to the task. It was time to try something new.

For me, a typical session went like this: I would arrive and spend the first 15 minutes or so talking with my therapist about what was on my mind. When I was ready to begin, the in-house nurse practitioner and respiratory therapist would connect me to their various monitoring systems and administer the medicine in the form of dissolving oral tablets. I would then put on a pair of eye shades and headphones playing a specially-curated playlist, recline in the chair and prepare for liftoff.

Borne on the current of the music, for about an hour I would float through space and time, revisiting old memories and imagining scenes from my future. Some of my visions (I’m not really sure what else to call them) were easy to interpret, while others were more abstract and metaphorical. After the psychedelic effects wore off I would remove the headphones and eye shades and talk to my therapist, who stayed in the room the whole time, about what I had experienced.

The evening before my first session, I had tried a guided meditation to calm my nerves. Instead, I became frustrated and angry with myself because I felt like I was doing it wrong. It soured my mood for the rest of the night and I was still in a funk the next morning when I arrived for my session.

Three hours later when the session was over I felt relaxed and content. My mood stayed positive for the four days until my next session, my longest streak of good moods for months. After the second session, I began to feel not only that my mood had improved, but my perspective was changing for the better as well.

Depression tells you lies about yourself—I’m not good enough, I’m worthless, my future is hopeless—and makes you believe them. But the psychedelic experience has a unique ability to break you out of those destructive thought patterns, allowing you to see your life from a different perspective.

When combined with talk therapy, the results can be profound. In three weeks I went from feeling hopeless and despondent to optimistic and exuberant. And the feeling stuck. Seven months later, I’m now back at work and my depression is in full remission. I count this experience among the major turning points in my life, on par with my wedding day and graduating university.

I don’t attribute this to ketamine alone. The program put a strong emphasis on developing healthy habits and self-care routines as well, which I took to heart. I’m now a daily meditator, which has gone a long way to sustain the positive effects of the treatment—but I don’t believe I could have developed my practice in the first place without the kick-start of the psychedelic therapy experience.

But ketamine is not without its downsides. First of all, it doesn’t work for everyone. Depending who you ask and how you measure success, efficacy rates are anywhere from 40 to 70 per cent. There is potential for side effects such as frequent headaches, sometimes severe, which I experienced over the course of treatment and for several weeks after. Also, unlike the “classic” psychedelics like LSD or mushrooms, ketamine can be addictive if misused, and the long-term effects of using it to treat depression are not well-understood.

And then there’s the cost. This therapy is not covered by OHIP, and it ain’t cheap. My three-week program set me back $4,700 CAD, and other clinics I looked up in Toronto had similar prices. My health insurance, which is pretty comprehensive, covered exactly zero per cent of the cost. I am incredibly privileged to have been able to afford this in the first place, and for people who are marginalized and low-income—who might be in that position because of their mental illness—the options are limited. There is one free program in Toronto at St. Michael’s Hospital, but the waiting list is longer than at private clinics.

There is a growing body of evidence showing the efficacy of psychedelic medicine for treating mental illness. I hope that regulators and insurance companies will come around sooner rather than later—God knows my insurance company has spent way more on my therapy and medication over the years than the cost of this three-week program. But the future of psychedelic medicine looks brighter than it has since before the war on drugs.

As for my own future, I’m looking forward to that, too. And that’s something I couldn’t say before I laid down in that chair.

Watch the Frayme of Mind Webinar on The Role of Ketamine and Psilocybin in Youth Mental Health Treatment

Listen to Julian's CBC Documentary about his experience
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About the author

Julian Uzielli is an associate producer at CBC Radio's Podcast Playlist, and has suffered from lifelong clinical depression. In late 2020 at age 29, he experienced his worst-ever episode, and it was clear that conventional therapy and medication were no longer working. He decided to try a three-week course of ketamine-assisted psychotherapy, and he describes the results as "life-changing." He recently produced a radio story about his experience for CBC's The Doc Project.