I lay on my mat underneath a thin sheet, my eyes closed behind my eye mask, while ambient music filled the air. I was in a room full of 30 people, half of them on mats and the other half sitting next to them. My “sitter” held my hand as one of the doctors administered the intramuscular (IM) shot of ketamine into my right arm.
It stung briefly, and my sitter squeezed my hand and whispered, “I’ll see you soon” as I drifted off into space. Immediately the anxiety and fear of the unknown dissipated, and I melted into myself, floating away from the present into a place where time didn’t exist anymore.
I became a baby again. My mother was carrying me on her back. We were running in a jungle to the beat of the drums overhead. I felt safe, connected and held, attached to this woman who had been such a stranger to me for most of my life.
A few weeks ago, I went to an experiential training for mental health and medical professionals seeking to learn about Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy (KAP) and become KAP practitioners. I spent a week glamping on a farm in Napa, California, and learning about the benefits of using ketamine in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat clients suffering from a variety of problems ― relationship and existential issues including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Bipolar I and II depressive phases, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), psychological reactions to physical illness, personality disorders, life-threatening illnesses, and substance use issues.
What started as an interest in expanding my private therapy practice into the world of psychedelics turned into the most life-changing therapeutic experiences I’ve had so far in my healing journey.
My first memory of my mother is at LAX. I was 3 years old, and had just flown across the Pacific ocean on my first plane ride. I remember sitting on my dad’s shoulders as the glass doors slid open in the arrivals terminal. We spotted her almost immediately, the lone Korean woman with a face that looked just like mine. I knew I was supposed to be excited to see her – I could feel my dad’s joy and I tried to match it, but it wasn’t something that came naturally for me.
My mother left for the United States a year before us, knowing no English and with a few hundred dollars to her name. It was one of the many sacrifices she made for us, and the start of a lifetime of my feelings of guilt, gratitude, love and resentment.
the author and her mother in Korea, before her mother left for the States
My mother worked endlessly from the moment she arrived in the U.S. to support not just us, but also her widowed mother and younger siblings in Seoul. As a nurse, she spent her life taking care of so many people but rarely had the time to take care of me. She left the house at the crack of dawn and returned around dinner time, every weekday for almost 30 years.
All my life, I felt her absence. It was hard not to feel resentful, but when I thought of how much she was sacrificing, I immediately felt guilty for my lack of gratitude. Sadness turned into anger and back into sadness, over and over again for many years as I repeated this trauma not just with her but in my relationships with emotionally unavailable partners. I desperately wanted to feel seen and chosen by people who weren’t capable of doing so.
I grieved our relationship in so many ways ― with my therapist, in family therapy that didn’t go how I wanted it to, at Ayahuasca retreats, during psilocybin journeys, by venting to my family and friends. I tried everything.
But nothing could shake the anger and resentment inside of me. Every time she called, I wanted to throw my phone against the wall. I hated our superficial conversations, and I couldn’t forgive her for all those years of not being there for me.
And then Ketamine changed everything. Ketamine opened my heart.
Ketamine originated as an anesthetic in the 1960s, and in the late 1990s researchers started exploring the antidepressant potential of Ketamine. In the mid-2000s, psychiatrists started administering intramuscular Ketamine within a psychotherapeutic framework. Ketamine has become an increasingly popular way of treating mental health disorders, especially for folks who have been struggling for a while with no improvement.
Ketamine has both antidepressant and dissociative effects. On ketamine, the patient is able to experience a timeout from their usual thought processes, which can lead to a relief from negativity and provide access to the observing self. Ketamine also promotes neural plasticity ― the brain’s ability to change and adapt. These effects can enhance a patient’s ability to engage in meaningful psychotherapy during and after administration.
At the workshop, we first experienced ketamine via sublingual lozenge. Afterward, one of my sitters, a refugee who escaped Vietnam by boat ― and the only other Asian woman there ― shared her revelations from her journey and changed my life.
She talked about how she realized that her mother’s nervous system has been shut down ever since they made it to shore. Maybe it was the post-ketamine glow, but this hit me hard. I never thought to view my own mother in this way, as traumatized and frozen in her survival responses.
I knew I had to work with my kindred spirit and so I asked her to be my sitter for the upcoming intramuscular method experience. I wanted this journey to be about viewing my mother with compassion and for this to take place, I knew I needed a corrective experience.
Ten years ago, I was run over by a taxi while waiting to cross the street. My mother flew to Chicago to take care of me for a month. She bathed me, fed me, slept next to me in my bed, and took care of me more than she ever did when I was a child. It was a silver lining in an otherwise horrifying, traumatic experience.
However, these memories were tainted by another trauma.
After a few weeks in the ICU, I had to return to get surgery to replace the fractured bone under my eye. I was frustrated and annoyed, but I was told the procedure would be minor, more cosmetic than anything.
As I was laying in the hospital bed, about to go in for my surgery, my mother, a conservative Christian, asked: “Can I pray for you?” I sighed and begrudgingly said yes. She knelt beside me and started praying: “Dear God, in case Sharon dies, please take care of her in heaven.”
I felt a wave of anger surge from the pit of my stomach. I started crying, and my last memory before going under was of my mother leaving me as I went into the operating room, now terrified that this moment would be my last. This memory overshadowed the weeks she spent taking care of me.
So I asked my sitter to hold my hand as I went under and to reassure me that she would see me soon. Immediately I was able to relax and surrender to the medicine because I knew that I would be fine.
The IM method, an injection in your muscle, is much more intense than the lozenge ― you feel the effects within minutes and absorption is three times higher. As I started sinking deeper, the sound of my breathing brought me to a meditative state where I was able to let go and just observe.
With negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness and resentment removed, I was left with compassion and curiosity. All of a sudden I saw my mother’s innocence. She was just as lost, confused and scared as I was. Except she was putting on a brave face because she was the adult and I was the child.
My heart opened for her, and I cried as we spoke to each other in Korean, reassuring each other.
“Umma,” I called out.
“I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere,” she replied.
I felt a wave of euphoria flowing through my body. I saw beautiful colors, the sky, I flew into the sun. This must be what heaven is like, I thought. And that’s when I realized ― that’s all my mom wants. She just wants me to go to heaven.
In this dissociative, meditative state, my brain made a new connection that was previously blocked by all the anger and resentment that I hadn’t fully metabolized yet. My heart was bursting with love. I took deep breaths, breathing and spreading this love to every corner and inch of my body and radiating it outward.
When I returned back from my training, the first thing I did was call my mom, who was surprised to hear from me. I told her all about my KAP training. I told her, “I didn’t realize how depressed I was until now I feel how happy I am. Umma, I love you. I’m not mad at you anymore.”
She started crying. “I’ve been praying a lot and realizing how much I abandoned you over the years. I wasn’t there for you, and I didn’t do my job as a mother.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I appreciate the validation and your apology, but I don’t need it anymore. I don’t need you to see me. I understand now… you’ve been living life in a survival response.”
“You’re right,” she said. “It’s how I’ve been coping. I’m so sorry I didn’t see it before.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I want you to do whatever you need to feel safe and happy. Don’t worry about me, I’m OK now.”
Another woman at the training told me on our last day, “Sharon, when you first arrived you looked like an adolescent, but now you seem like a woman.” Her words resonated deeply. I went from an angsty, angry teenager to a mature, compassionate woman in less than a week.
My mother and I had dinner together, just the two of us, for the first time in almost a year. We had a great time catching up, joking about her sisters, and bonded over our love of cold Dongchimi noodle soup at our favorite restaurant in K-town. The space between us felt lighter. I felt lighter.
She prayed silently before she started eating and instead of getting triggered, I thought: How sweet. This is how she’s been surviving. For the first time in 30 years, I showed my mother the unconditional love I had always wanted from her. Once I was able to do this without expecting anything from her, I finally felt worthy of receiving just as much love in return.