One woman's harrowing journey through two decades of insomnia and chemical sleep, and how she found an unlikely savior in a medical version of a maligned club drug.
Med thumb van winkles ketamine

Dr. Brooks snaps the vial into the syringe and pushes it into my vein, correcting an oft-repeated myth in the seconds before I depart. “It’s not a horse tranquilizer,” he said reassuringly. “Vets don’t use ketamine.”

I smiled a little. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have cared if it were used as a whale tranquilizer. I’d been struggling with depression for at least half my life, and was prepared to try anything. The past seven years felt like I was locked in a dolphin tank, drowning.

It’s hard to say when it began, but troubled sleep was a big part of my downfall.

The night terrors began some 20 years ago, when I was in my 20s. I would sit up in bed with my eyes wide open, saying strange incoherent things, sometimes screaming, sometimes clawing my arms to the point of bleeding, often punching my then-husband. It was always the same nightmare: A menacing presence cruelly informing me that I was dead.

Night after night, I lay bolt awake, fearing sleep. Eventually, I found what I thought was a solution: sleeping pills. Specifically, Ambien, which, for me, produced a dreamless, black sleep. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I should’ve known better. When I asked the prescribing doctor if he would take the pills he was pushing, he leaned across the desk and spoke in a subdued voice.

“I took it once,” he said. “I had the best night’s sleep of my life. Never touched it again.”

The problem is, dreams not dreamed can enact vengeance during the day. As I no longer eliminated stresses through my natural stages of REM sleep, the un-dreamed dreams became a ball of ink-black dread. I became plagued by phobias, ranging from fish (in tanks) to airplanes (in the sky). My brain was slogging through the psychological equivalent of an oil spill. The oil was cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone.

Something was very wrong with me, but it was hard to say what. But in the meantime, the pills at least allowed me to put my head down on the pillow — reliably, and for more than a decade.

The Burning Forest

“Tell me about your childhood,” Dr. Brooks said, the first time we spoke.

There are years missing from my childhood, erased film, blank periods. What I do remember, I told him. “I loved my mother,” I said, “she was my everything.” That much is true.

When my mother turned, however, you’d better find something sturdy to hold on to. Her anger came on like a twister, smashing and mangling. It knew no mercy. Hers was annihilating rage with otherworldly, jagged accusations that knocked me down, pleading.

One therapist—a blunt spoken Bulgarian--listened to the details of my childhood, tilted her head and said matter-of-factly, “So your mother was schizophrenic.”

“I don’t know how to answer that,” I replied. To say “yes” felt like betrayal. I’d give anything to have my mother back, alive, even at her worst, even for one minute. Without my mother I would have had nothing, been nothing.

My psyche imploded like cheap drywall trying to bear too much pressure from above.

But almost all my childhood memories are of warfare and chaos. My mother was “clinically paranoid” and there was no way out, for any of us. We were routinely displaced and kidnapped, by turns, by both parents — finally, for eight years, to Sweden, my mother’s native country. At this point, our father, a very popular radio broadcaster who had a three-hour show every night, capitulated.

I remember spending a lot of time on the floor of our Upper West Side apartment, when we had to avoid the windows, or when the bad men were supposedly circling the neighborhood, coming for us. But we also had wonderful times. My mother sent us out onto Broadway in bathing suits during storms to splash around. And we had a light made from spun glass that changed colors and revolved, and a white Christmas tree with pink lights.

In between seizures of rage, she was a loving mother and I adored her. But there’s no denying that something was very wrong with her brain.

Investigating My Mind

I am an investigative reporter. Or I was, before my mind fell apart.

Suspecting that something was wrong with my own brain, I began to look for solutions. I treated my condition like a story, digging into the research, checking sources and learning the local customs. I sought out various alternative-minded places that promised healing. This was more elusive than I imagined.

Health Recovery Center, in Minneapolis, is one of the only places in the United States that tackles depression and addiction by way of diet change and a strict regimen of supplements, primarily amino acids. They know that for alcoholics, for instance, sugar drives the urge to drink. Officially, I checked in for depression, insomnia and dependency on sleeping pills.

At HRC, they pulled us off everything on day one. Not only our substance of choice, but also wheat, sugar, dairy, caffeine and all GMO and chemical-laden foods. I remember asking a Boston businessman, Tim, who was in for alcoholism and diet soda addiction, what was the hardest part.

“The sugar,” he said. Walking past a 7-11 was harder for him to white-knuckle than a bar.

To HRC’s credit, I did learn to sleep without Ambien during that six-week stay, using various amino acids and nootropics like Phenibut, which was invented in Russia. A battery of tests revealed that I was severely hypoglycemic, and I scored among the highest cortisol levels they’d ever seen.

As they explained it, the brain never malfunctions. Instead, it responds. “Your brain is perfect,” Sophie Caballero told me at one point. “It’s doing exactly what it has to do to protect you. You don’t have any mental illness.”

As unlikely as that sounded at the time, she was right. I wasn’t mentally ill. It turns out, I was suffering from trauma. Childhood trauma, which flared up in a new setting, with new characters, in my professional life.

My Abusive Profession

For most of my rocky career, I have been under attack for the scientific and medical taboos I investigated and documented. In the years 2006 to 2008, my opponents in the pharmaceutical industry got serious about destroying me. My crime against them was detail.

For Harper’s, I wrote a 15,000-word expose about a deadly HIV drug and the government corruption surrounding it. The reaction was so violent that it can only be described as psychotic. Paid agents of global pharmaceutical interests designed the attack to discredit me, decimate my reputation and make me unemployable. When they failed to compel the staff of Harper’s — all the way up to editor-in-chief Lewis H. Lapham — to resign in shame, their rage escalated.

Harper’s stood by its article, which had been methodically researched and written over two years, and then fact-checked over a period of four months. The magazine sailed on. The matter was closed. But I remained in the water, a freelancer surrounded by sharks. A website was launched to discredit me and my article — a bully pulpit that proudly featured a photograph of my face with blood splattered across it. When I received a prestigious award, they charged in, threatened the organizers, sent emails declaring me to be a “known fraud and liar.” They filed so many bogus lawsuits against the organization that it imploded and ceased to exist.

The suicidal urge remained like a dark song that wouldn’t stop playing.

Capping off this campaign of terror, the goth singer Diamanda Galas openly fantasized about my murder and dismemberment on Facebook. My death would be filmed as a snuff film, she fantasized, with tickets sold on Pay Per View. This sent me to the FBI, who sent me to the local police. But like most efforts to curtail criminal bullying, it went nowhere. Galas’ Facebook account was not even closed.

This was when I entered what I describe as the Black Forest. Like a TV station in a dictatorship tuned to one propaganda station, my brain produced just one message: Nobody wants you. You can’t ever be accepted or loved, you can’t succeed. You should die.

Finally, in the middle of the afternoon one day in 2008, my brain fell apart. In a matter of seconds, my psyche imploded like cheap drywall trying to bear too much pressure from above. I was sitting on my then-boyfriend’s bed in New Haven; I remember that I said, quietly, “Oh my God.”

And that was it — from one moment to the next, I was no longer there. I lost all contact with the “Celia” that produced the brain chemicals necessary to keep itself intact. I became a wax figure without a soul, a Pinocchio on strings. I lost all sense of aspiration, will and hope.

I spent the next seven years in hell trying to reconnect those neurotransmitters, return to my body and experience peace of mind. I failed on all counts.

Meeting Mr. Wrong

For me, Ambien functioned — brilliantly, darkly — not only as a sleeping pill, but as a chemical ticket out of Dodge. I experienced it as a sedative hypnotic that pushed aside consciousness. I was never an addictive personality, but I had finally met a drug I loved.

After ten years of taking Ambien every single night, my brain was unrecognizable. Over the years, on and off, I was hit by sudden waves of acute suicidal ideation, sending me into fetal position, sobbing from an otherworldly pain.

You might say I was functionally suicidal, occasionally becoming acutely so. In fact, sometime in 2010, I called my then husband from the bathroom floor of a Brooklyn diner, and asked if he would consider helping me stage my death so our son would never know it was suicide. As I said the words, I began to sob. What was I saying? I knew I had to get help.

My brain produced just one message: Nobody wants you.

My son’s existence has always prohibited the possibility of suicide. The urge, however, remained like a dark song that wouldn’t stop coming on the radio. In 2010 I checked myself into a clinic in New Jersey, where they confiscated my sleeping pills and gave me grey sneakers with no laces.

“Do you want to kill yourself now?” they asked. I shook my head. The thing I could never convey: I was certain I was already dead. I knew I was alive, physically, but I was stuck in a twilight zone where my body was operated by an unseen puppetmaster.

During my two weeks in the suicide ward, I met people with much worse problems. Two survivors of sexual abuse had a condition that caused them to pluck out their eyebrows and eyelashes. “I would kill for eyebrows,” one of them said. For some reason, we couldn’t stop laughing in that bleak place. Even the faucets were designed to prevent suicide attempts — strange cones that were incredibly difficult to turn.

I’d ruined my brain, and I knew it. I can’t exactly tell you what it was “about.” The closest I can come is to say I was experiencing self-horror. I needed love, and had no idea how to find it, keep it, deserve it and not wreck it. Because I could malfunction suddenly, I attacked those closest to me, much as veterans with PTSD might wake up and throttle their wives in bed. It’s a vicious cycle. You always think you’re under attack.

What had become of me? I used to be a person who traveled the world, covering stories, driven by a vivid curiosity about life. Now, I sat motionless in my apartment, a canceled person. It was very bizarre. My mind filled with a terrible dense fog that made every single action, even doing the dishes, difficult. This wasn’t depression. It was paralysis. It was utter confusion. I couldn’t make my mind obey.

Unable to complete even the simplest tasks, I couldn’t stay inside. Inside myself, that is — I disassociated constantly. Eventually, it became nearly impossible to leave my apartment. Everything confused me. I could get lost in my own elevator. When people spoke to me, I didn’t understand what they were saying, and always asked if they could make it simpler. I needed direct commands. “Walk to the corner. Stay there.” I experienced everything as raw fear — and abandonment.

The two weeks at the clinic did nothing to cure my underlying issue. The answer was still years away.

The Trials of Trial and Error

For the next several years, I threw everything I could find at my struggling brain. Anti-depressants did nothing. Prayer, meditation, trauma removal modalities, radical diet change, vast quantities of vitamins, herbs, amino acids, EFT, EMDR — these all helped somewhat but true relief remained elusive. I read every self-help book and program known to man. I tried talk therapy, Eastern spiritual practices. I even traveled to New Mexico to lie in a machine that was said to vibrate at the frequency of “love.”

Around this time, one of the doctors who was enlisted to bully me eventually came clean in an affidavit; he told an investigator whom he had been working for and why. It was, indeed, a campaign of vilification orchestrated from the top down. He had, in widely disseminated emails, compared me to to Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and David Duke. I was called mentally ill, a “whore” and (worst of all, to my ear) a journalist who relied on falsified and fabricated information.

Cruelty, I was learning the hard way, is a perversion of human life that causes brain damage.

Sophie Caballero — the somatic trauma resolution trauma therapist I mentioned earlier — intervened like the Red Cross, heroically and tirelessly. For hours, talking over Skype, she worked to retrain my mind. Over the past two decades, trauma researchers discovered that animals, unlike humans, discharge trauma continually through reflexes (tremors, shakes, roars, yawns).

The seminal book Waking the Tiger, by former NASA traumatologist Peter Levine, explains this. It continues the work of the doomed Wilhelm Reich, who tried, and failed, to tell Freud: Trauma is in the body.

Sophie taught me that, with micro-movements along select parts of the body — especially the spine, pelvis and eye area — trauma can be slowly titrated. And that’s what we did. Sometimes, Sophie had me lying on the floor with three tennis balls along my spine. An image would suddenly appear in my mind — a memory. Once, it was a long-forgotten near car crash I’d never considered significant. It replayed itself, and I began to tremble, sob and finally vomit.

This delighted Sophie. “Excellent trauma discharge,” she called it.

Finding the Name

Another office, sometime in 2013. Like always, I asked if they could turn off the fluorescent overhead light.

I was there to meet Dr. Young — bald, kind, covered in tattoos, from Kentucky. “You’re not mentally ill,” he told me. “I am removing all previous diagnoses you have been given and I am diagnosing you with an advanced form of PTSD. It’s called C-PTSD, which stands for complex PTSD. “

I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I knew we were on the right track. I had a new word that felt right: trauma. Now we had something to work with.

There are no effective medications for PTSD. It’s a syndrome of destroyed nerves and neural pathways, leading to auto-generating fear responses and an obsession with not being abandoned. Perversely, PTSD includes a feature that causes you to launch the abandonments yourself — before others get a chance to.

“Ketamine doesn’t care what you think.”

With my diagnosis in hand, I once again set off to find reparation. In 2014, I learned about Dr. Brooks, who operates the only ketamine clinic in New York. By the time I found him, I was past all hope. I had the word — trauma — but I believed my case to be uncrackable. Thanks to various therapies, I was able to go about my daily life (or a rough approximation thereof), but I still couldn’t feel hope, joy or meaning.

A very serene and grounded man, Dr. Brooks speaks slowly. You believe what he’s saying. (I would later learn that he lost a son to suicide.) He listened to my story, then gave me the good news I’d been seeking for 15 years.

“Ketamine works best on people whose brains are damaged by early childhood trauma,” he said. “You’re perfect for it. I’d be very surprised if this does not help you.”

Afraid to hope, I asked, “Will it work even if I obsessively believe it is not working?”

“It doesn’t care what you think. It works anyway. If it’s going to work.”

According to Dr. Brooks, I had a 65 percent chance of success.

During my first session, I leaned back on a pillow, an orange blanket draped over my legs. “Got your music?” Dr. Brooks asked.

“Yep.”

“See you in a bit.”

He flicked off the light and left, leaving the door slightly ajar. I adjusted my headphones and tuned to WQXR, New York City’s classical music station. Within 60 seconds, my blood got warm and I dematerialized under the ketamine’s direction.

To my surprise, leaving my body wasn’t scary at all. I became pure vibration, a kind of subatomic version of myself that suddenly made perfect sense. For the first time in countless years, I was whole again. I experienced myself as pure music — Haydn’s Symphony Number 45, to be specific. I was soaring and dancing. I could do no wrong.

Dr. Brooks had warned of “a slightly out of body feeling,” but he didn’t tell me I would become pure sound wave in a distant galaxy where there was no pain. And best of all, no fear. A voiceless voice told me, “Nothing is wrong, nothing is wrong.”

When it was over, Dr. Brooks came in and told me to rest. Twenty minutes later, I went to his office, sat down and said one word: Wow.

As Dr. Brooks explained it, the brain can heal — the word is “neuro-plasticity.” He told me to imagine our brain’s dendritic system, at birth, as a forest with lush trees. This forest allows all the parts of the brain to communicate; it produces stable moods as well as joy, hope, inspiration and aspiration. Trauma releases cortisol, which begins to strip the dendrites of their foliage.

“Somebody like you,” he said, “with a lot of early childhood trauma, has no trees.”

“What do I have?” I asked.

“Nothing but stubs.”

Ketamine causes the dendrites to grow back and flourish again. Some patients experience relief within just a few hours of their first treatment. For my part, the day after my first ketamine treatment, I woke up, made coffee and looked around. Something was different. Something was missing. I was lighter. I’d shrugged of the bodysuit of psychic quicksand I’d been carrying for so long.

The change was subtle and also dramatic. I felt normal. The fear was gone. And because I felt normal, I soon felt elated. That feeling of being frozen was over.

Two days later, I went back for another session. And then I went back for another.

In each session, waves of blocked pain were dislodged and dealt with. Once, it was my mother. Then, my father. I often emerged with tears streaming down my face (in a good way). Once, I called my father right from the chair and tried to explain the epiphany I’d had. “There was never anything wrong,” I said through the tears.

Clinically speaking, my breakdowns and epiphanies were of no interest to Dr. Brooks. “That’s fine,” he said after one session, “but it’s not what ketamine is about.” It works no matter what you experience, he explained. The healing that follows occurs independently on the patient’s emotional experience.

In the days to follow, the changes continued. Dramatic changes. I wanted to do things. I was suddenly going to parties and poetry readings, talking to people, reconnecting with my fellow writers. Once again, finally, I felt part of life.

Hearing this, Dr. Brooks said, “I wish you and I had found each other sooner.”

With that, he turned off the light. Sixty seconds later, the ketamine took hold, sending me back to that faraway world that allowed me, mysteriously, maybe even miraculously, to come back to this, the real world — once so crippling and cruel.

I sleep just fine now, with no chemicals, and every day is a shimmering gift.

Celia Farber Ketamine Inset by Taudalpoi