Ketamine kicks

Rob Doyle says yes to the numinous noosphere of the k-realm

I first took ketamine over a decade ago, in India. I knew it by its notorious reputation as a “horse tranquilliser” (there is truth in this: ketamine is used as a sedative and anaesthetic by veterinarians, as well as on the battlefield), but I’d never heard of anyone taking it in Dublin, where I grew up. On India’s drop-out-traveller trails, I kept meeting young Israelis, letting off steam after their obligatory year in the military, who excitedly told me you could buy liquid ketamine in Indian pharmacies, then dry it out and snort it up. While renting a houseboat for a song on the Dal Lake in Kashmir, with a ring of snowy mountains along the horizon, I decided to give it a go.

Establishing what would prove a reliable pattern, my first experiences on ketamine were altogether astounding. I spent my days writing up my inner voyages in great detail, before plunging back into the numinously weird k-realm by night. Recollecting this curiously scholarly interlude, I’m struck by how it suggests one of the qualities that sets ketamine apart from other mind-altering substances: there’s something in it that encourages an attitude of investigation. Some weeks later, I nearly died – ignominiously – after overdosing in a New Delhi hotel room. I wrote about this queasy episode as a coda to a chapter about meditation and mysticism in my book Threshold – whose working title for a while was The Ketamine Book of the Dead (happily, my editor talked me down).

Ketamine was first synthesised in the late 1950s, in time to anaesthetise wounded US soldiers during the Vietnam War. While Boomer and Gen X culture indicates a broad bi-generational familiarity with cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine and psychedelics, ketamine has only come into its own as a recreational drug in recent decades (the track Lost in the K-Hole from The Chemical Brothers’ 1997 album Dig Your Own Hole is an early cultural flag). My pet theory on the cause of this generational gulf is that the ketamine experience – so sleek, elegantly futurist, synthetic and cool – fits smartly inside a luminous, hi-res world of pristinely interconnected devices: our techgnostic noosphere of screens and pocket-held sorcery.

Though I didn’t encounter ket again for years after briefly caning it in India, in the 2020s it’s everywhere – snorted at nightclubs as a party drug, or at home by psychonauts watching films and listening to music. Among the drug’s attractions are its relative inexpensiveness (€40 will buy you a gramme in Dublin or Berlin; the volume might last for a week of personal use) and its experiential neatness – the effects wear off within a couple of hours, and there is no great hangover beyond mental tiredness and depletion following high doses. You don’t have to ensure your mental state and external conditions are optimal before devoting a whole evening to ketamine, as you do with MDMA, magic mushrooms or LSD. As it wears off it doesn’t leave a bleak and sorrowful emptiness, like cocaine. Nor will it confront you with awful, repressed memories or force you to look at what is best unseen. Its taste in the back of your throat when you insufflate it (the commonest means of ingestion) is jarringly metallic, technoid, alien – a gustatory indicator of its uncanny effects.

So what are those effects? Well, the first point that needs making about the ketamine experience is its singularity – its radical incommensurability with other drugs, even the weird psychedelic ones. There’s nothing like ketamine. I’m not here to promote the use of this substance – it can do real and frightening damage (which I’ll get to) – yet I’m eager to articulate something of how enjoyable and revelatory using the stuff can be.

You sniff up a couple of lines. Fairly soon there sets in a sense of euphoria and calm, coated in a tingling, nascent astonishment – the wonderment you might feel if suddenly you found yourself teleported into the mind of a being in a foreign and marvellous universe. Reality is imbued with an awed sense of impending revelation. At around the sweet spot, ket induces a delightful social ease, dissolving shyness in a lucid sedateness (unless you overdo it, in which case you’ll come across like a malfunctioning robooctopus). Take more of the stuff, and the numinous omniperceptual humming will hit a pitch of awe-drenched intensity and you’ll tumble into the famous “k-hole” – a bit of a misnomer, it turns out, in that “hole” suggests darkness and confinement, whereas the actuality is more like launching outwards through a hypertunnel; an ineffable shifting corridor of perceptions, memories, fantasy, hallucination, and snatches of cultural flotsam and jetsam. In this careening inter-dimensional carnival-palace, portals within portals access remote memory-chambers and psychic potentialities far beyond ordinary experience. Visionary and climactic, the experience is of unmediated ontological inquiry. Taken with friends, ket induces an ecstatically mind-melding communal event.

Ketamine is a dissociative: it unhitches the mind from the body. The k-hole is consciousness unbound, whirling through limitless experiential skies like a kite on a blustery day. This uncoupling abets ketamine’s distinctive and widely reported spiritual tone – the sense of heightened, rapturous significance that surfs a line between transcendental insight and bathetic derangement. On ketamine, everything happens to you in the third person. You are outside of him (this entity Rob), perceiving reality as pure energy and process. That self – you – is one among the humans, a being-in-process. You, and they, are experienced as emanations of species, whose brief time and contributions are part of the mega-phenomenon of a living world from which they are not separate. With no great monk-like effort required, you disengage from the ego, looking on human existence from an awesomely meta perspective. It all gets very Heideggery – portentous words like Being, thrownness and unconcealment feel resonant. Over multiple uses, I’ve found that a subtle but lasting shift in outlook has been effected – an enhanced comprehension of self and world, an all-round wisening up.

You can see how the conceptual loosening-up that ket effects makes it potentially useful to artists, musicians and designers. On a line or two, you don’t so much think outside the box as climb into it, fold it over you, then drop out the other side to a bizarre dimension of limitless plasticity

I don’t want to be on ketamine too often, though. It ungrounds me, lifts me away from the guts, the balls, the blood. My friend Nathan Saoudi of the band Fat White Family, who has had an extensive engagement with ketamine, tells me that girlfriends tend not to like when he’s on it – it draws him onto a rarefied, sexless conceptual plane, and they feel neglected. Nathan, who first turned to ketamine to help him kick heroin, employs it as a supercharged psychotechnology while creating music in the studio. Words like quest, adventure and, again, investigation recur as he discusses the drug (which he advises against using too often without a creative or interrogatory agenda).

You can see how the conceptual loosening-up that ket effects makes it potentially useful to artists, musicians and designers. On a line or two, you don’t so much think outside the box as climb into it, fold it over you, then drop out the other side to a bizarre dimension of limitless plasticity. A substance so powerful is unlikely to come without perils or hidden costs. Due to ketamine’s relative novelty as a popular recreational drug, we don’t yet have perfect data on its long-term side-effects. What we do know is that it can wreak grave damage to the kidneys, liver and bladder. Disturbing reports circulate of ketamine addicts who have subjected their bladders to such toxicity they’ll be urinating through catheter tubes for the rest of their lives. The internet whispers of impairment to short- and long-term memory. There exists a new urban stereotype: the ketamine dope, numb and perplexed as a brain-damaged sloth. While there is an anthropological truth to it, the stereotype also reflects a core ketamine paradox: whereas the inner experience is numinous and unutterable, out here in the material world you’ll find you’re having serious mind-body coordination issues. It may be hard to state clearly your name, rank and serial number, let alone articulate in real-time what you’re experiencing.

Though not physically addictive, ketamine can easily lead to psychological dependency. It feels so reassuring and momentous in there, and the wormhole through realms of pure gnosis is beyond amazing – why would you stay away? As with so much in life, moderation is prudent: not taking it too heavily, too regularly. Besides which, there is new light at the end of the k-tunnel. The drug has recently shown significant promise as a treatment for depression, sometimes succeeding where antidepressants fail. Personal and anecdotal experience attests that, even outside of clinical environments, periodic or once-off use can banish gloom by opening up a clearing of insight and novelty. Out in the world, ketamine will continue to circulate illicitly or otherwise. Inside, it is deep mystery.

Rob Doyle is the author of four books: Threshold, Here Are the Young Men (which has been adapted for film), This Is the Ritual and, most recently, Autobibliography. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, TLS, Observer, Guardian, and many other publications

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