Getting clean and sober isn’t easy. That’s why we celebrate milestones, in the recovery community. Living totally free from substances is one kind of recovery, and once that is achieved, some addicts and alcoholics will go to great lengths to stay that way. So it is kind of surprising that ketamine—that mind altering raver drug of the 90s—is being used to help heroin addicts maintain long term sobriety.
How Do You Dig Your Way Out of a K-Hole?
It’s not exactly a ketamine free for all, though. A preliminary study showed that in a group of 70 detoxified heroin addicts, the people who were given a higher dose of ketamine—high enough to hallucinate—had a better outcome with their sobriety. Using ketamine “produced a significantly greater rate of abstinence in heroin addicts within the first two years of follow-up, a greater and longer-lasting reduction in craving for heroin, as well as greater positive change in nonverbal unconscious emotional attitudes.” People who were given a lower dose of ketamine, not enough to produce hallucinations, did not have the same effects.
he study’s original idea was that ketamine, a powerful drug with psychedelic side effects, could help addicts open their minds in psychotherapy sessions. While they were in a trance-like state, the heroin addicts in the study were more receptive to positive imagery and formed better attitudes towards themselves. Many people in recovery agree that changing perspective and improving your outlook on life is key to maintaining sobriety. Antidepressants can help some people by providing a much-needed mood lift—so why not ketamine?
Better Living Through Chemistry For Addicts
As anyone who’s gotten sober knows, the first few weeks after quitting drugs or drinking can be miserable. On top of withdrawals and detox symptoms, addicts and alcoholics face a serious dopamine drought. The sensors in our brains, deprived of the substances that stimulate us, are gone, and depression and sadness can follow. Unless they can find a mood boosting substitute (Puppies! Sunshine! Yoga! Friends!) or sense of meaning, many people relapse.
According to Celia Morgan, a professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Exeter, “Depression is a predictor of relapse in the first couple of weeks” for people who are alcohol dependent. By giving ketamine in those first, vulnerable weeks, Morgan believes that she can help prevent relapse and increase the odds that someone will stay sober. Ketamine therapy is what it sounds like: ketamine plus therapy. It always includes an intensive session with a trained mental health professional, who can assist the patient as they adjust their deeper beliefs and attitudes. Although some people use ketamine recreationally or even abuse the drug, this therapy isn’t just getting high and watching Powerpuff Girls. It’s serious psychological work, and the results are looking good for people searching for recovery.
Ketamine’s side effects, which include a trance-like state, mild sedation, a floating sensation, disassociation, and visual and auditory hallucinations, create a “suggestible” mindset, which enables a patient, carefully guided by a medical professional, to rearrange their psyche—and maybe even prolong their recovery. The study from the University of Exeter and another one from St. Petersburg Research Center of Addictions and Psychopharmacology focus on recently sober, or newly detoxed addicts. No research is available for the benefits or outcomes of ketamine therapy on people who already have some time sober, or are further along in their recovery.
The Controversy Around Using Ketamine Therapy
Ketamine has been used successfully for over 30 years by the medical community as an alternative drug and alcohol therapy. (Really!) Doctors and scientists acknowledge that the drug can be an immensely helpful tool for addicts who are desperate to get sober. So the controversy around ketamine therapy comes less from the medical community than from the very people who benefit from it.
he recovery community is powerful because it includes people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and all beliefs. We have one thing in common: we are living with the mental illness of addiction. How someone gets sober is not as important as whether or not they’re surviving. However, there is some real prejudice in the community about what “sobriety” means. Some people reject alternate therapies like methadone, ketamine, or even prescribed antidepressants or psych medications and say that the only “real sobriety” is cold turkey.
This prejudice is harmful because it reinforces stigmas and shame in a community that’s already struggling with those issues. Perfectionism kills addicts. Ketamine, and other drugs like it, could potentially buy a newly sober addict two years of recovery—freedom from a lift threatening illness. As more people who got sober with alternative therapies come forward and share their success stories, the recovery community can grow and open our minds to new ways of getting and staying sober.