In this intertwined, chronological narrative between illness and my travels/experience throughout Europe, this post is about what ensued after my first ketamine treatment. I happened to be in the borough of Steglitz the other day, the district of the Charité campus I stayed at. So memories came rushing back.
I entered the hospital on 4 April 2015 and my first ketamine treatment was on Monday, 20 April. As prescribed and is perfunctory with ketamine treatment, I had a total of six infusions. These were spaced out across the work week, so they’d be Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. They were only offset by any national holidays, like the 1st of May.
I should mention, if I haven’t, I kept a sketchbook during my stay. It also became a notebook for translating group sessions from German to English, general documentation including photos I took. At the time I knew, for personal reasons alone, I wouldn’t want to forget a moment of this whole experience if, in fact, I made it through. So I documented everything as fastidiously as possible. This activity was also something I could simply do on my own, especially as I couldn’t understand any German at the time.
After the first ketamine treatment, where I felt new activity and, literally, motion within my brain for the first time in years, things started to open up a bit. I was still very much in a profound depressive haze but could feel emotion for the first time, in seemingly forever.
I can’t recall the next 24 hours, precisely, after the first infusion but remember I moved through the rooms of our unit. I looked at objects, flowers, and random things as if I’d seen them for the first time. The spread of flowers across the communal spaces of the unit were assigned along with other responsibilities agreed upon amongst all patients and nurses every week. Flowers, somehow, shot up in priority amongst everyone. All said, at this time, I viewed flowers and objects as if I’d been starved of their presence and meaning for so long and, indeed, I was.
Our rec room was a bit boring, a small TV, a couple not-so-comfy sofas, tables and chairs where I drew and drank coffee and some miscellaneous board games stacked on a shelf. Only this day would I thumb through the board games and find an old-school Monopoly set from the 60s or 70s in pristine condition.
Having played countless games of Monopoly with my brother and friends in our youth, I marveled at the full set in the context of West Germany, complete with money in the currency value of Deutsche Marks of that time. I looked for the playing pieces, most importantly, the dog. The dog was (obviously) the best and most fought over in our games as children, especially as it took the form of our very own dog, ‘Zack’, a mini-schnauzer.
The first days were just like this Monopoly experience. I was able to see things in all their dimensions and contexts for the first time. This feeling, not-so-coincidentally, was further exacerbated by my Genuss group on Wednesday, 22 April, following my second ketamine treatment.
My favorite of all the group therapies, Genuss group focused on re-learning our feelings of sensation and enjoyment. In perfect timing, this particular session was a facilitated dialog about examples of enjoyment. These things are fundamental and probably never enter the mind of a healthy person but are stepping stones towards some semblance of enjoying the moment. Exactly the fit for what I was experiencing as the new, small openings my brain allowed. Just a little opening. Just a little, tiny, bit of pleasure in something, anything, however seemingly small.
Two days later, on Friday, another ketamine treatment. This feeling of openness and wonder continued. Saturday, we had our regular quick check in with the doctors, as a group first thing in the morning before the weekend took hold. As days passed and trust was established, patients could leave the campus bit by bit. First an afternoon, then a full day, then a couple overnights at home. I believe this Sunday was my first venture out for the afternoon.
One doesn’t have so many plans in mind whilst in this situation. So, I just went to the center of Steglitz and walked around its main/high street of Schlosstraße. No errands, nobody to meet, no agenda, just walking. This aspect, alone, felt so refreshing. I walked around looking at all the closed store window displays and ended up having a coffee at Starbucks. No thoughts about the evil, corporate beast that is Starbucks. Instead, I sat and could feel and enjoy a cup of coffee out from the cold. It was that beautifully elemental.
Spring was teasing at the time but it was still cold and cloudy out. On my return, as I began walking onto the hospital campus towards the building, I was able to see the beauty in the trees that unfolded along the path. The pre-spring light, the clouds, the naked branches. Nothing really new in my life, my abstract drawings and paintings are very much inspired by the shapes of trees and flora. But this awe was newly renewed at this time. I shot a ton of photos with my phone.
More infusions ensued. With each new one they became increasingly visual and dreamlike but in, now, a memorable way. With each new infusion, a little more opening in my brain afterwards. With a little more opening, a little more feeling I could experience. Both building blocks, interspersed, towards feeling and being and functionality again.
1 May, a Friday. Labour Day for most of Europe. For my American friends, Labour Day is still a meaningful thing here and actually about workers rights. It’s not about a timestamp when one can or can’t wear white (though that never factored into life in LA). Nor is it a marker for Burning Man. It’s a day for ‘the workers’ and increasingly that means the 99.9% of us. Still, it’s a notable holiday in Berlin, especially, as demonstrations often turn violent. Blowing up cash machines and the like. Thus, I was quite happy to be tucked away in Steglitz, a world away from the chaos in other districts of Berlin.
We all had a free day. Again, I had no agenda. My partner was working in Brussels, no real friends or community in Berlin to visit with and my family in Los Angeles. So, naturally, I went to the nearby Botanical Gardens. It was outstanding.
As mentioned, I love the shapes of trees and flora. I walked from species and region to one another, in awe with all the form and light before me. I spent several hours in the gardens and greenhouses snapping photos. I stopped at the cafe and ran into my young roommate from hospital with her parents. She had previously mentioned going to their gardens before and I’d assumed it was belonging to her family. Now it was clear.
It was still early in the afternoon when I left the gardens. With loads of time ahead, I walked towards central Steglitz. Since I had such a great experience at Starbucks, I returned there. The freedom of agenda, the laziness of the day followed by the simplicity of coffee was sublime. I felt perfectly content.