Special K? No way

Words by Samantha (she/her), 29 ACT 

Content Warning

The following piece “Special K? No way” may contain themes that might be difficult to read or triggering to some readers. Readers in need can seek support from the following services 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or Lifeline (13 11 14) – visit our Creating a Safe Space page to see a full list of support services.

Did you know, when you search ‘what is Ketamine?’ the first result is from the alcohol and drug foundation. It states that “Ketamine is used by medical practitioners and veterinarians as an anaesthetic. It’s sometimes used illegally by people to get high.” (Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 2023)

But did you know, ketamine can also be used to assist with chronic pain?

I have had chronic pain for almost ten years.

The condition I have is called sacroiliac joint dysfunction and it results in lower back pain, sciatic nerve pain, numbness and weakness.

Over the years, I have tried almost everything to help reduce the pain. I started with conservative measures like hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, therapeutic massage, chiropractors and acupuncture.

But when these didn’t work, about a year into my journey, I started to notice how pain was now affecting other areas of my life. I was struggling to keep up with university commitments and I was becoming known as unreliable at my job due to the high amount of personal leave I needed to take.

I went back to the GP and was prescribed a cocktail of pain relief, muscle relaxants and medications specific for nerve pain. Although this helped in the short term, it was never a long term solution.

After about three years, pain began creeping back in and grasping every facet of my life. Simply existing was exhausting. I started to become frustrated at the endless cycle of numb relief provided by medications, only for it to return mere hours later and hit me like a truck.

I started to become panicked every time I felt a twinge of pain. I knew how quickly it could escalate. A small sharp pain in my hip could lead to me fainting, heading to hospital, waiting to be seen as every other patient is prioritised above you…

“It’s just chronic pain”, they say, as they pump me full of strong pain relief to help bring it under control, finally heading home hours later. This cycle happened at least twice a month for over a year before a space finally became available in the chronic pain management centre. Four and half years after my initial diagnosis.

The pain management centre was amazing. The only problem was that so many patients needed their services, and of course, staff were limited. A new doctor examined my case and recommended something I had never heard of. A ketamine infusion. This could reset my body and give me 6-24 months pain free. It sounded like a dream.

The waitlist for the infusion was long and the procedure itself takes 5-7 days. But I was desperate for relief and was willing to do anything.

Prior to the infusion, I did some research into ketamine. I was shocked to say the least. But if people took it recreationally, then surely the infusion wouldn’t be too unpleasant?

The day came for the infusion. Ketamine infusions are through an IV where you gradually increase your hourly infusion, hitting a peak dose and staying there for 24-48 hours, before slowly tapering down.

Day one was okay. Sleep was challenging because it felt as if my brain just wouldn’t turn off, but on the whole I was fairly comfortable, in fact, I could almost see why some would enjoy it. I felt like I was floating on a cloud.

Day two, I started to feel uneasy on my feet, I found it difficult to concentrate or even focus my eyes. This made reading, drawing and even watching movies challenging. Sleep was now impossible as it felt like I was on a boat during rough seas, and every time I closed my eyes I had vivid hallucinations. It was like my brain had drunk six cups of coffee; it just didn’t stop.

Day three was the worst by far. At this point, I hadn’t slept for two days straight. I didn’t have the strength to walk anywhere by myself, and it felt like my brain was scrambled eggs. I spent the entire day sobbing as visitors who came to see me stood at my bedside in disbelief.

Thankfully some of the nurses noticed I wasn’t coping and got some medications on board to help me relax and feel a little more at ease.

By the evening of day four, the worst was over, and I was on the downhill slope from the peak dosage. Every time the dose was reduced, I had waves of nausea and dizziness, but I grit my teeth through every drop. I was overwhelmed as I fixed my attention on finishing the infusion and finally getting home.

Once I was discharged, I spent a full 24-hours in bed, mostly asleep. But once I awoke, I was pain free.

I stayed pain free for 18-months after that first infusion, before I felt the familiar pangs of pain pressing into my lower back. Now I have a schedule of yearly infusions to help keep things at a manageable level.

When I first looked up what ketamine and ketamine infusions were, I only saw stories of recreational use in humans, or as a tranquiliser for large animals such as horses. These weren’t overly comforting when I was trying to prepare myself for a weeklong procedure that I knew nothing about. I searched far and wide and couldn’t find any accounts of what to expect from a pain management infusion like mine. So, maybe this will help the next pain patient feel a little more prepared.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

Posted in