Discover more from Sacred Basic
How ketamine fixed my lower back
And triggered a non-dual experience in an ambulance
It’s 9am on a Tuesday morning. I’ve just returned to Amsterdam from a conference in Switzerland. I haven’t slept much and I’ve been exercising a lot, hiking mountains and sitting at the majestic Zen centre atop Mount Rigi. I notice that my lower back feels tight and hurts just a bit. My body feels a little crooked due to the tension.
Some moments later, I’m lying on the couch in my houseboat, laptop on lap. And I start coughing. At first, it was just a little pinch in my lower back. Ouch… but it’s okay, I keep typing—I’m tired and have deadlines. Moments later I cough again. This time my upper body spasms forward and I feel a pang. Now I know I’m in dangerous territory. I recognise the nerve pain. I have two protruding discs—old Muay Thai injuries.
But then I cough again. And this time pain electrocutes its way down from my lower back through to my toes, along the outer edge of my left leg. Now I recognise that it’s serious. I’m not going to be walking for a few days. But even that’s not the end of the world. I’ve been through this before. I just have to rest. I can still work, it’ll be a good opportunity to practice in stillness.
Then, I coughed again. Now I start to get lost for words. I haven’t experienced pain like this before. I’ve broken ribs, knees, arms, and torn both my pec muscles. Nothing even comes close. And this, incredibly, was just the beginning.
My cough escalated and a torturous cycle was born: I cough, my muscles contract, then some exposed (apparently sharp) piece of my spinal disc would hit the nerve, and, well… like I said, I have no words. Ineffable pain.
If you haven’t had serious nerve pain, you’ve probably had a taste of it at the dentist when they hit the nerve root of your tooth. Yeah, you want to be anaesthetised for that, right? It’s bad. Imagine that, 10x worse, on repeat, running from your lower back to your toes. Chronic nerve pain (especially the CRPS type) has a super high suicide rate. My sister suffers from it chronically after a horse stepped on her foot. Really understudied thing. Thank God I don’t, or rather, thank ketamine.
This went on for about three weeks. Again, this wasn’t like my previous disc injuries. Which were already pretty bad. Many of you have probably been there. But that’s not even close to this. The nerve was being hit with some piercingly precise ruthless razor-like strikes of terror; insidiously, incessantly, and with bad intent. There was a direct highway to my nervous system’s pain centre, just banging the pure-pain button over and over again.
Below is an eventual MRI in Australia about six weeks later. It’s called a sequestered disc. The disc actually breaks and falls somewhere between the spine and the nerve. It’s the most severe kind of herniation. On the right is a picture of the notes from my med-school buddy. He said it was the worst he’s ever seen.
Back to the boat. The situation continues to get worse as the days go on. My cough doesn’t leave (apparently it wasn’t COVID) and I gradually become completely bedridden. The cycle repeats. Cough, contract, pinch, hell. A few weeks in, I can’t sleep, I can’t get out of bed. My girlfriend (what an angel) has to do everything for me. The doctor comes to my house and gives me the highest doses of oxycodone she can. It doesn’t help. Now I’m just high as hell, but notably, still in hell.
About three weeks later, on a Saturday night, around midnight, I’m starting to lose it. I can’t even open my eyes any more. It’s that bad. I’m considering chopping off my leg, but I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on a knife. I call out for my girlfriend to call an ambulance.
By the time the ambulance arrives, I can’t even tell them what’s happening. My girlfriend’s in a panic. They’re confused, and I’m existing in some kind of dark void, where anywhere my consciousness dares to land it finds only unbearable pain. Pain looped in with anticipatory fear of the next cough that I can’t suppress. Just before they manage to roll me onto a stretcher, the pain reaches some kind of unspeakable threshold. And suddenly I get a wave of endorphins and part of my leg goes numb. I was both relieved and extremely disconcerted by this development.
It was a brief respite, though, since as soon as they started moving me I was back in the torture chamber. They do their best to carry me gently over the bridge/walkway connecting to the boat—a tricky terrain with a stretcher. They take me outside and into the ambulance in what felt like an unusually warm night in Amsterdam, but maybe that was just me.
And we start driving. Some minutes later, the paramedic says: “Hey man, I want to give you ketamine, is that okay?”. This caught me off guard, I struggled to speak, and at first I said no, I thought something that psychoactive would be too weird in this context. Not a great set and setting, and all that. He asked again, “look man, I think it’ll help”. Then I thought: At this point, what’s the worst that could happen. So I agreed. They needled me in and began the procedure. And then…
I recall this moment so vividly. My attention was fixed on my lower back where all the muscles felt like rocks and the pain emanated down my left leg. I wasn’t aware of anything else, the pain and the contraction was all-encompassing. That’s why the moment is so clear. The moment when the ketamine hit.
In just a few seconds, every bit of tension in my back softened, like an ice cube melting. Not just the feeling tone changed, but literally, the muscles that had been contracted for weeks just totally “let go”. I was an ice cube melting. Muscles that were red-hot coals a moment before were suddenly tranquil mountain streams. The electricity burning my skin turned into a cool wet towel wiping away my sweat.
My mind slowed to a standstill and in full awareness I could feel my body and there was… No pain… No tension. And eventually… No body at all. Nobody. Just lightness. Just light. The space opened into an expanse of presence without a person. The body was totally clear of any suffering and was only barely even noticeable anymore, somewhere in the periphery. Just the very soft edges of the forms were there… just barely. Occasionally a thought would arise “Where am I? What’s going on?” — never mind that — whoosh back into the empty light.
Then I’d return back to my body just momentarily. Open my eyes long enough to say— “thank you, you have no idea, you saved me”. Whoosh, and I’m gone again. I can’t describe the relief. All-encompassing relief. At the level of body, mind, energy (or whatever you want to call those channels for the torture signals). All pervading peace. Delicious.
Fast forward some minutes, I’m still high but coming back now, as we approach the hospital. I sort of know what’s going on. Sort of don’t. I tell them, “wow, that was amazing, thank you, all my pain is gone”. With stereotypical Dutch stoicism they just nod along “yep, that’s what we can do for you, happy to help”.
Now I’m in the hospital bed. A neurologist comes and I try to explain what happened. It’s a miracle. I can cough and I have no pain. I don’t think you realise how big this shift was. Night and day don’t contrast well enough. She says, “yes, sometimes people feel better just by coming to the hospital”. I’m speechless, the condescension. I try to tell her I have a PhD in vaguely this stuff but it’s not convincing in my underwear.
The ketamine wears off and I’m fine. I walk by myself to the bathroom. It’s inconceivable how different my state is. I still have some fear, though, and my body is tender and I’m careful—but I already know that the central issue has been resolved. The contracted muscles pinching the nerve have relaxed. The loop is broken. The cycle is relinquished and I’m free. “Will anyone believe me”, I wonder? There must be thousands of people in this kind of pain right now, that could be helped (healed, even). Those opioids did nothing! I can’t emphasize that enough—at a certain level of pain they’re utterly useless. But the ketamine… the reset to my nervous system was so concrete. It was like walking into a new body. Total non-linearity. Total phase shift. A freaking quantum leap.
Connect on Twitter: @rubenlaukkonen