So the coast shapes the water, the water shapes the coasts. These are the equal yet opposite forces that combine to form the self. I believe we are, within approximate boundaries birthed by nature and solidified by nurture, still amorphous and malleable — each wave imperceptibly alters us with each successive crash. Memories are sand washed out to sea. The maps we draw to chart our terrain, distorted by our own projection and myopia as all maps are, become the seafaring stories we tell ourselves about our selves.
Within our souls lie secrets. Secrets we keep from ourselves. Truths buried at the bottom of the sea by trauma and the tales we tell ourselves. The restless, raging ocean roars above — altered and unnerved. We float above the trenches. Sharp, stinging suffering erodes into dull, aching melancholia. Our stories become our truths. Our maps become the territory. The sea comes ashore … inevitable as change itself, yet as individualized as the breathing vessels of blood, brain and bone we can’t abandon. And in the ocean of my self, this is how it all began.
For the better part of three decades, I have struggled with the twin-barreled blast of depression and anxiety. I don’t remember when it started. I don’t remember how. Around the time of the first Gulf War and the Buffalo Bills’ Sisyphean Super Bowl run, our classroom sent hand-written letters to Western New York troops serving overseas. I remember, even now, claiming my life was like the stock market: finally on the uptick after years of depression. Yes, at age 8. This memory is seared into my brain.
I took the letter home to finish, and as my mother read it, she accosted me: “Johnny, why are you writing things like this? Your life is not that bad!” And, to her credit, she was right — my life was not that bad, and yet my impression and assessment of it was. Depression cares not for objectivity. Emotion pays reason no mind. Just over two years later — as I graduated fifth grade, on my final day of school before moving some 176 miles down the I-90 from Niagara Falls to Utica — I was voted “Most Happy” by my classmates. It was all a ruse.
I smiled because I got sick of being asked “what’s wrong?” and being unable to formulate an articulate nor defensible answer. Better to be the life and the light, than to be abandoned and admonished for your darkness. That was, with rare exception, my default programming from that point forward: Smile and people will feel good. Sit stone-faced and they’ll inquire. Joke and folks will dig you. Express your tumult and folks will joke about you — if they even notice you at all.
As an adult, major depressive episodes raged on six separate occasions, resulting in seven arrests, two DWI charges (neither stuck), $57,000 in toxic debt, a credit score in the 300s, 47 trips to emergency clinics for “heart attacks” (panic attacks), three stints in outpatient rehab, two evictions, an extended era of homelessness, waxing and waning alcohol and drug abuse, and a kind of bitter, spiteful anger that emerged only when the smiles could bury it no longer.
I dropped out of college. Twice. I transferred schools. Three times. I’d been fired from every job I’d ever held, often after less than a year in my role. I was perpetually broke. I perpetually flirted, often without understanding just how nonreciprocal the advances were. My six long-term relationships with partners started blissful and devolved into anxious insecurity, overzealous attachment, and a foregoing of autonomy within six months. I was sexually promiscuous while single, sleeping with somewhere in the ballpark of 300 partners, of which I can remember maybe half of their names, of which some 70–75 still adorn my Facebook friend list.
My only moral compass, or gauge of appropriate and healthy behavior, was “will this make someone mad?” I walked on eggshells. I drank to parade on them instead. And yet, I continually hurt and anger people, let them down, and drive them away. I knew it was my fault, and yet I knew it wasn’t me. Deep down, I still believed I was different than my rotten, broken core. Deeper down, I merely wanted to believe I could be different. I had no idea if my behavior was a manifestation of my mental state, or if my behavior amplified my rage and sadness. Both perspectives, I now believe, were equally true. So the coasts shape the ocean, the ocean shapes the coast.
Despite my best efforts at self-sabotage, I began to turn my life around not long after moving from Upstate New York to Austin, Texas. I secured steady employment as a copywriter at a Fortune 500 global technology conglomerate. I’d always loved to write, yet never studied it in school, nor held a writing job before. I still work there — seven years later and counting — and now after nine raises and three true promotions, I’ve climbed as high as any writer can in my position. I only half-jokingly call myself their “Chief Storytelling Officer.” This is not only the longest-tenured, most-lucrative job I’ve ever held, it is my favorite place I’ve ever worked, and the friends I work with are as radiant and compassionate as anyone I’ve ever met.
In the summer of 2014, I started (infrequently, for the first three years) writing for Medium. In the spring of 2017, to process a particularly swift, harsh and unexpected termination via the rare and high degree-of-difficulty move-out ghosting, I began examining and exploring my life in ruthless and filter-less detail. I wrote my findings here. I began to do the emotional labor and deep self-reflection I’d been neglecting for so long. I grew by leaps and bounds as a writer and person. I found new levels of joy, developed my first-ever moral compass and value system, and cultivated a self that was true. Much of it by accident, as a means to trying to explore other horizons.
By the end of 2017, 50 followers became 5,000. Since then, 5,000’s become — literally, as of this very moment — 40,000. The opportunities and experiences this site has offered me are incalculable and were inconceivable within my wildest imagination. I’d spent over a decade blogging for absolutely no one; I assumed I always would. I even met my current adventure partner here. And, yes, my co-workers are some of my biggest champions and most fervent readers.
I dug my way out of debt, started running and biking long-distance races, carved out a serviceable side-career as a singer-songwriter, started a podcast, became secretary of the board for a local non-profit preschool, and since early 2018, I’ve had the unique and unparalleled honor of occasionally writing policy, copy and communications for the campaign and congressional office of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have a nest-egg now that, assuming an 8% rate of return until age 70, will make me a millionaire — even if I never contribute another time. For an anonymous nobody, I sure seem to have one of the world’s most global, diverse, witty and eclectic friend Rolodexes. I’m in great health. Last year, I spent a month in Europe — in what I termed my “victory lap.” I’d made it out of the darkness and built a life I could be proud of. This was the proof. This was the end-zone celebration.
And yet, just a week after returning, at the zenith (or, more accurately, the indefensible depths) of the Kavanaugh hearings, and just two weeks after appearing on a local Austin television station to talk about my first suicide attempt, I set out a stainless steel knife and an entire bottle of Xanax, and set out to do it again. I almost did. Yet that gave me pause: how could I be so sad, lonely and angry? This life I have now is such a blessing. What gives me the right — nay, the audacity — to give it up? How ungrateful can one man be? If I can’t be un-depressed now, then when? And how?
I spent the next six months engaged in an all-out assault on fixing my feelings: Lexapro helped a little, yet the side-effects included lethargy and the occasional 14-hour nap, and so I discontinued its use in January. I ran when I could. I made it a point to seek out social engagement in real life. I saw a therapist and a life coach. I made dietary changes and lost 40 pounds. I mostly stopped drinking, and started taking THC and CBD for creativity and relaxation.
Equally importantly, I resorted to turning off the news. I don’t need more information on how badly broken we are as a society anymore. All additional info seems gratuitous. Unnecessary additional trauma distracting me from my ultimate goal … Radically reimagining society. It doesn’t solve societal collapse, but it allows me to process it better and adapt to it better, so I can make it better.
In December, I spent a week microdosing psilocybin, where I discovered my root pathology: I am an approval-seeking missile, and all self-destructive behaviors I engage in stem from leaning in too hard for validation, and the subsequent exhaustion-rooted neglect of basic hygiene and upkeep when no one’s watching and nothing’s on the line. The coined term for this phenomenon, “Millennial Burnout,” is too cute and undersells the severity to which I experience it.
I began to uncover layers of pathology, and in doing so, realized at my root, my depression and anxiety — as well as my oversharing, Medium confessionals, defensiveness, self-sabotage and passive-aggressive system of over-promising and under-delivering stem from a validation addiction, fueled by anxious attachment, rooted in buried trauma, and activated by associated triggers: rejection, dismissal, underestimation. I hadn’t yet climbed out of the darkness, yet the sun was rising and the clouds began to part.
Still, I felt underwater at work, overwhelmed with life, and burnt out from our current kleptocratic technodystopia. So, in early March, lacking focus and finally willing to confront my scatterbrained paucity of goal-directed behavior and executive function misfires, I started a daily low-dose course of Adderall. It gave — and still gives — me the clarity and drive I desperately needed to begin to lift myself out of erratic and scattershot solipsism. It was the first glimmer of hope I’d had since the storms first descended down upon me.
March 2019 was, by all accounts, the single greatest, most rewarding and most life-affirming month I’ve ever had slogging around this space-rock. I felt shot out of a cannon. What was once a six-month flat-line, precipitated by a swift and visceral free-fall into darkness, evaporated with an equally astonishing and complete rise back to our regularly scheduled programming. The depressive episode was over, but the series was still in production. And that’s the thing with depression and anxiety: even when you’re happy, youknow you’re still not okay.
“Have you thought about ketamine?” My friend asked me as we engaged in profound discourse in her couch.
“Oh, FUCK no,” I replied, flashing back to my days in the Syracuse University freshmen dorms watching friends sob, rock back and forth, and generally look as put-together as a drifter in mismatched clothing, pushing a shopping cart filled with mannequins.
“My best friend runs a clinic in Austin. Her husband’s the doctor. It just opened. I hear incredible things about it, and it might just give you the results and relief you’re looking for.”
I listened. I googled the website. Illumma. Damn, what a beautiful name for a ketamine clinic. “Find your light,” the tagline read. “That sounds promising.” I read no more about exactly what ketamine did, how it worked, how the clinic administered it, or any research as to its effectiveness or side-effects at all. I wanted my experience to be completely uncluttered and unburdened by expectation. And I scheduled my first appointment for March 27. And now, after that extraordinarily and unnecessarily comprehensive preamble, here is what happened next.Part I: March 27 // 60 mg
I walked into a discretely marked and unassuming clinic enveloped in a ramshackle office-park. The cheerful receptionist greeted me. I filled out some paperwork, and she ushered me back to the infusion room.
They sat me down in a cozy recliner, stuck me in front of a TV playing nature scenery — beaches, mountains, grasslands, coastlines and so on — and soothing music. They hooked me up to some monitors and an IV, asked me a few questions about my general mood, other medications, and then gave me a few warnings of some of the adverse experiences I might encounter. (Frighteningly intense hallucinations, ruminations on painful or traumatic events and thoughts, nausea and blurred vision, cognitive impairments.)
I began to ask myself, “whoa, whoa, whoa … am I really sure I need to go through all this? I’m fine. I feel fine. I’m better now than ever. Really?” But here I was, already in the chair, the needle already lodged into a vein in my right forearm. My doubts and fears don’t much matter anymore.
They told me to “throw out all that outside bullshit” and “set a good intention.” I didn’t come prepared, so I decided I would just try to relax and have fun. They started the infusion. There’s no backing out now. As the nurse left the room, leaving me alone with the medical technician charged to monitor me, she wished me good luck.
I replied, “Enjoy the flight.”
My history with psychedelics — which, technically, ketamine is not, it’s an anesthetic with hallucinogenic and dissociative properties — is checkered and limited. I did acid twice, in 2001 and 2002, and found it profoundly unpleasant. I’ve done psilocybin four times — in 2002, 2003, 2010 and 2018 — and it’s been hit-or-miss. I only like doing it in a tranquil outdoor setting or in the comfort of my own home. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was aiming for better, so when I felt it start to take effect, I unwound and kept an open mind and positive outlook.
After about 10 minutes, I got very cold, and then very warm, and then very sleepy, and then I woke up into a hyper-alert state of awareness. The chair began to breathe, and the natural wonders on the screen began to morph and dance.
The technician came around to check my blood pressure. I called out to him, “Ayo, mate. This shit’s weird ain’t it?” “Sure is,” he replied. Then he tagged out of the room and the nurse tagged in. So I thought, at least.
“You ain’t the same person. I see what you did there, all smooth like.” She replied, “you got us!”
The room began to darken and melt away, and I just watched the TV, completely immersed in waves, grasses and birds. I began to laugh at the preposterous nature of it all. It’s Wednesday afternoon. I should be at the office writing corporate brand messaging. And instead, I’m on a mystical, medicinal journey, traveling through time and space, disembarking from coherence altogether.
Halfway through, I began telling jokes — many of which I’ll never remember, MST3K-style — through the remainder of the session. The nurse cried laughing, and so did I, and she later confessed her face and abs hurt for the next two days. “This is fascinating … and easily the weirdest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I told her.
The infusion lasts just one hour from beginning to end. When time I was up, they flushed me out, and I felt woozy yet pleasant. “Did you dissociate?” the nurse asked me. Dissociation is the goal of ketamine infusion therapy.
“I have no idea,” I replied. “How would I know?”
“It’s really hard to explain how, just … You’d know,” she stated. “So, we’ll bump you up in dosage for next time.”
They called me an Uber — as after infusion, you are definitely not in any shape to drive — and I meandered home. For the next four hours, I felt small electrical charges dancing around my head. My brain was tired, yet my mind was awake.
This was the first of six solo flights to a place I’d never been before, a place unlike any I’ve ever felt or witnessed. I still had five more sessions scheduled. I had no idea what would happen next, or where this mission would take me, yet I felt hopeful. I just needed to remember to enjoy the flight.Part II: March 29 // 100 mg
The second infusion, on a Friday at 10:30 a.m. CST, was not the perpetual giggle-fest of the first. I know that sounds disappointing; it wasn’t. It was disarmingly more profound and beautiful.
Throughout the hour-long flight to god-only-knows-where, I said hello to my best friends in New York, dropped in on my childhood home in Buffalo, and explored the Pacific Coast at every place I’d ever seen it, and some I haven’t yet.
I saw France — both Paris and Marseille — today, and in 1950, when my family still called France home. I stayed there, in my pageboy cap, floating over the ornate row-houses that stretch as far as meets the eye, as the accordions played and I ate baguettes at a cafe with my Papa — dead since 2003 — as a young man.
I, very briefly, found myself understanding something so ephemeral, so ethereal, that for me to attempt to distill it would be to tell you what color I see when I hear a drum roll. Some vision, some sensation, some unknowable emotion appeared out of the abyss, and then vanished into the void.
Halfway through — approximately, anyway, as the concept of time felt moot and indefinite by that point — I felt the harmonious nature of humanity wash over me, and when viewed from where I was stationed, which by then could not have been Earth, felt so vitally important to nurture. I remembered that we, as people, are both the coral and the reef itself. I’d written before about “The Overview Effect,” but that was a mere thought exercise — this was something else entirely.
I don’t know if it was my visions of France amplified by my French roots, or just an extension of my perpetually adventurous astro-spirit, yet during my experience, I was reminded of the book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — one of my favorite works of art ever created.
I remembered why I’d identified so heavily with the novella in the first place: an inquisitive young man, a journeyer, crash-lands on Earth, observes human nature and its myriad complexities and cruelties, and realized that it made him profoundly sad. I know that feeling well.
And yet, armed with my words, forged and weaponized over years of intentional (and semi-compulsive) cultivation, I felt less morose. I began to understand, in the most minuscule of sense, what I was just beginning to see. And yet to catch a greater glimpse and articulate it in greater detail, I knew I needed to go back.
The infusion ended. “Did you dissociate?” The nurse asked. “I’m not really sure,” I replied. “Well, your resting heart rate dropped 25 points over the course of the hour, so you must’ve went somewhere.”
Again, although clocking in at just under an hour, I’d felt like I’d been gone for days. But upon returning, I’d never felt here. Returning home. Grounded in the present. Aware, awake and alive. I took a nap, and when I awoke, I felt light. And I felt ready to continue my quest.
That evening, a line uttered by the desert fox from The Little Prince, kept marinating in mind:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“That’s it,” I thought. It wasn’t a “what” that I’d fleetingly observed while infused at all. It was a “how” I observed it. For the first time I could remember, I saw rightly. I saw with my heart.Part III: April 5 // 125 mg
By the third infusion, we’d throttled up in dosage again, and sorta dispensed with the logistics, and the memories of the exact experiences and visions became foggy. Ten minutes from the words, “let’s start the healing,” I was already seeing Janelle Monae’s likeness carved into the rocks under a waterfall, before the rest of the cast of Black Panther joined her. I distinctly recall screaming, “Wakanda Forever!” I have absolutely no business screaming, “Wakanda Forever.”
I started conducting the hallucinations like a symphony, and narrating them with all the grandeur of a sportscaster calling the World Series, or Ed Harris’ character in The Truman Show, commanding, “Cue the Sun!” My nurse, from a distant planet but almost certainly sitting right next to me, said, “Hey, you don’t have to overthink this. Just take it all in.”
I then began to witness a procession of great activists, stateswomen and civil rights leaders from human history — Malcolm X, Gandhi, Mandela, Maya Angelou, Cesar Chavez, Kendall Jenner (kidding), Elizabeth Warren, and (of course) AOC — and began to understand, on an emotional plane that overshoots the academic level at which I’d only previously understood this— that all that’s come today comes from all that’s come before, and as all things must pass, so must we always find ourselves fighting the same battles forever and ever, until the lesson is learned.
I emerged from that realization inspired, empowered and with a newfound sense of gravitas where my rage and anger once resided. Where we are, now, as a human collective, is farther along on the continuum of progress, yet no closer to achieving it. The moral arc of the universe is long, and bends toward justice, but that bend is fraught with fractious regressions, pauses and misfires.
Reality is an operating system (OS). It’s a social contract, composed of a mutually agreed-upon consensus between its users and developers — and we are all users and developers — and a composite sketch of all varying disparate experiences, perspectives and wisdom.
Life is data. We all capture it — whether we try to or not. It’s in all that we say, feel, touch, eat, experience, witness, strive for, succeed at, see, sense and create. I thought about the various ways we think and process this data. And the meta-data (thought about thought) feels yet incomplete, because what we really need is a way to meta-feel. Something even beyond empathy, should such a lofty ideal exist anywhere in even our most optimal capabilities. That — and perhaps only that — will distill ourselves to our purest, most collaborative and most cooperative essence.
Our perception is the User Interface. Our emotions are the User Experience (UX). In all that we create, learn, experience and share, we create this UX, using the OS to do so. Boiled to its most elemental, our only occupation as humans — at home, at work, at play, in public, in solitude, or abroad — is to create the best UX possible for ourselves and for others. It is our moral, professional and personal obligation.
I now believe there are multiple realities occurring simultaneously — not that we are in a simulation, no, it’s all very much real — yet the many permutations are merely browser tabs. Our paradigms and stories are the algorithms and scripts we run, daily, in service of creating the most optimized UX.
I began to formulate a new framework for identifying evil: people who, out of malice or neglect, create UX that does more harm than good. That’s one postulation. Here’s another: Our societal breakdowns occur because Java and C++ and Ruby on Rails and so on don’t talk to each other. These are ideological and rhetorical clashes, overwriting the simple truth that we all want the same things, and our seemingly profound disagreements are largely over how to most efficiently or effectively code the ideal end-state, and the elements that comprise that ideal.
We need a code that’s more universal. Something that translates. A baseline truth we can harness to break down data silos, and make UX optimally consistent across all platforms. To appropriate the parlance of an American technological innovator, “The value is in the seams.”
There is no real way to express what I learned, or how I began to feel. I cannot accurately nor effectively depict what I was trying to iterate or execute. Even the words I just wrote to you feel incomplete, and only mere centimeters away from tumbling over the cliffs of incoherence. I do know this: I peaked inside the mainframe of existence itself, and began to understand how I, we, they operate. What drives us. What satisfies us.
“Did you dissociate?” The nurse asked me as I came to my senses in the recovery room.
“I believe so,” I said.
“You’re not there, yet,” she replied again. “Really — you’d know.”
I started infusion therapy to cure my depression. And, at the time, I thought, maybe that’s happening. And that’s nice if it does. And yet, what I became determined to do is solve the puzzle. Understand the hardware. Make it all run the way it should.
I want to know. I need to know.
Less than 15 minutes after I left the clinic, I called up my partner, who works in technology but, like, in the actual nuts-and-bolts of it, not in the brand copywriting sense.
“Babe. I need to tell you something. It’s major. You’ll never believe what I saw …”Part IV: April 7 // 150 mg
It was a Friday. And a damn fine Friday. I was looking forward to driving from Austin to the Metroplex to visit my boo. But, before that, I was excited and anticipated something beyond even the monumentally jarring experience of two days prior. I gave myself a pep talk: “Today is the day I dissociate.” I could feel it. I craved it.
We’d been building to this point. Ascent I was a giggly and bizarre trip around the world. Ascent 2 was a meaningful and poignant travel through time. Ascent 3 was a sci-fi journey inside the machine. I had high hopes for Ascent 4. Within an hour, I would explore somewhere else, and experience something else, altogether.
Itstarted the same as it always did. Some warmth. Some laughter. Some room-melting. Some chair-breathing. Some third-eye-type stuff. And yet, within a scant 20 minutes — or however long, that timestamp is an estimate based on it having felt like 53 hours — I went somewhere I never expected. I went … down.
I could see myself, now, viewing the reality OS we know as a two-dimensional plane: a wafer-thin atmosphere buffering a sort of meta-reality, enveloped by a dark abyss of nothingness, monitored by scientists in lab coats. And I just laid there, in what I would guess most closely resembles a cross between an MRI machine and one of those gentle immersive Disney rides, where you meander in a coaster-type apparatus from themed room to themed room to nature to outside and so on. Specifically, the flume ride in the Mexico installation at EPCOT.
I meandered uphill, slowly approaching the end of the track, the end of the ride, and the end of the world. I peered out into the abyss and tried to remain calm as the lights flashed and room vanished around me. The ride pushed me out over the edge, and I left the rational universe behind. I dropped— approximately thousands of meters, without resistance or fear — off the plane of existence itself, free-falling for an eternity through glass floors like a comic-book villain, until splashing down in what felt like the South Pacific. My eyes remained open. Yet I could not see, hear, feel or sense. I laid, lost like baby Moses in a reed basket, as the waves wandered below me.
[test, test] “Am I dead? Hello? Are you there, dog? It’s me, ketamine.”
I washed up onto the shore, swaddled and cradled in a comfortable hammock within a canoe, floating, drifting and gently rocking into a luxurious lull. The sky was a violet twilight, and the ocean was a midnight blue, reflecting the light from above. The crescent moon danced with the stars and the sun. The waves lapped against the coast. A gentle breeze rustled the trees and soothed me into a blissful, unadulterated, unfiltered and unbound peace.
The ride began to move again, even more leisurely than before, and I wondered what I’d discover. I floated from room to room, and the sets changed each time, waxing and waning and melting and shape-shifting. The warmest, brightest, sweetest colors I’d ever seen unfurled before me.
In this space, the boundaries between me, you, life, death, body, surroundings, mind and soul vaporized, sublimated, disappeared completely. In their place: a fluid, amorphous hyper-projection laid out in a dazzling sea of light and color.
Lord almighty, the human mind is wondrous, and capable of just shy of the infinite. I knew this — I have a psychology degree — and yet I’d never experienced it myself, and, therefore, never truly understood it. I, for the first time, felt the weight of depression (not a depressive episode, no — as we discussed seven years ago when you first began reading this essay, depressive episodes are merely flare-ups of a condition that always exist; they are the occasionally months-long asthma attacks of the mind — but the actual dark tinges that let me know I’m “not normal”) recede into the darkness.
All was still. I felt nothing. I smiled. I was free. My beautiful brain, finally unshackled from three decades of anxiety and insecurity, unlimited in its own imagination, was free.
“You dissociated, didn’t you,” the nurse asked me as I re-entered the atmosphere.
I grinned, yawned, and smiled again. “Absolutely.” And I stepped out into the bright Austin sunshine.
Four hours later, I set off on my three-hour drive to stay at my lover’s home for the first time. Three hours after that, I turned onto the last street, less than five minutes before I’d arrive at her place. Suddenly, my 2009 Hyundai Sonata died.
“Oooooooooh! What could this be?” I gently and curiously inquired. I sure didn’t know. I’d had this car for a decade and it’d never died before.
No problem,” I smirked. And I leisurely pulled onto a side-street, parked along the curb, called my boo to come collect me, and AAA to drag my sedan to a garage just up the road. My partner arrived. We kissed and we snuggled. The tow-truck did what it did, then we hopped into her VW to drive two blocks.
Maybe compared to the technicolor vibrancy of the previous vignettes, the preceding tidbit seems mundane, but it was a powerful moment for me. At no point since the second my car conked out on me did I ever lose my cool, blame myself, lament my plight, or plunge into a sea of self-loathing and rage. Not for lack of trying:
“Babe,” I said.
“I know you are, baby,” she reaffirmed.
“No, I mean, like … what happened back there. It’s like … it’s like my mind kept trying to go to a negative place, and it kept short-circuiting on the way.”
“Whoa … what?”
“No, really,” I said. “It’s like — and look, this is going to be one hella weird and specific analogy — if you grew up in a household where you kept the trash can under the sink, whenever you go to someone else’s house, you instinctively open and reach inside the doors under the sink to throw out your trash.”
“Well, imagine every time I tried to worry, or get angry, or get down on myself, I was reaching under the sink to throw out my trash. And then I looked, and the trash can wasn’t there. It was, like, next to the fridge or something.”
“Yeahhhh, right?! … and, get this! This is the best part … and when I opened my hand, I realized I wasn’t holding any garbage at all. And so I’d shrug and laugh and say, ‘of course!’ and think something positive.”
“Holy shittttttt,” she said in her breathy voice that conveys rapturous fascination. “That’s huuuuuuuuuuge!”
She opened the door to her house. I stopped in the kitchen to drink Topo Chico, and took a few pulls on my PAX Pen. Then, we meandered to her bedroom, I laid on her perfectly cradled bed, swaddled and cradled like I was when I first came ashore, as the dim Edison bulbs glowed like the crescent moon. We made love and fell asleep, holding each other like two weighted blankets rolling on ecstasy. All was still. I felt nothing. I smiled. I was free.
Earlier that day, I went off the page, out of the frame, somewhere impossible. When I came back, I wasn’t the same. I found the void where the irrational and imaginary numbers play. I found the asymptote. The origin point. I found the Soul Meridian: the warm glow of your essence between the front of your cerebral cortex and the deepest cave in your heart.
For the next five days, I never left that place. Nor would I have — I was calm, happy, blissed out. And in no rush to do anything. I was free. I. Am. Free.INTERLUDE: April 10 // A Brief Series of Micro-Epiphanies from a Notepad File.
Something profound has healed within me. I am not sure what. But, for the past six weeks or so, every day I wake up a little lighter, a little freer, and a lot more confident than the day before.
It could be the new boo. It could be the new meds — of all things, 2-4x daily 5mg doses of Adderall. It could be all the exciting opportunities in front of me. It could be the twice-weekly ketamine infusions. I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if this is permanent. But it feels permanent.
I have to say this, because I don’t want to undersell it — it’s just too damn important: My depression and anxiety have entirely disappeared. Not in sense that I’ve overcome my latest episode, but in the truest, most holistic of senses — even the dark tinges of sadness and worry that accompany me everywhere are gone.
I imagine, should I ever disclose this publicly, some prick will chime in, “you’re fucking bipolar.” Well, if that is in fact the case, I should’ve crashed by now. From the unthinkable rights I’ve reached? I’m way, way past overdue.
My mom told me, before SXSW ended, “I’m so worried when you come down from this, that you’re going to want to kill yourself again.” And I replied, matter-of-factly, “Not this time.”
Six months ago, as I returned home from a month in Europe, and put a bow on the greatest 12 consecutive months of my life (September 21, 2017 — September 20, 2018), and the preceding five-year uphill slog from my darkest days to my finest hour? That was an ending. This? This feels like a beginning.
This evening, my brain even tried to queue up a panic attack — sitting in stopped traffic, in my Sonata, driving home from Dallas, on I-35, at night, just past halfway home, the exact same scene and conditions of my first-ever panic attack, around 8 p.m. on November 13, 2011, commencing a run of over 100 panic attacks over the next seven years — and it failed. The page result came back: “404. File Not Found.” Instead, I breathed deeply and said, “it’s cool. I’ve got nowhere to be.”
I have never felt like this before. I’ve never felt so self-assured. I’ve never felt so sturdy. So steady. And yet so ethereal. I’m not sure how this portends for the future, yet the present is highly unusual with respect to how space-time seems to have slowed down about 20%. Life feels not just suddenly manageable, but damn near easy. I wish you could feel this. I wish you allcould feel this.Part V: April 12 // 175 mg
I walked into Ascent 5 more nervous than usual. I thought, “What if I don’t need another one? Everything is so perfect right now.” I jittered in the chair as they hooked me up.
“Hey man,” the technician alerted me, “Your blood pressure is 176 over 112 (the exact numbers escape me. They were much higher than my usual 115/75). That ain’t normal. You drink any coffee this morning?”
“Yes sir,” I replied. “My usual two cups.”
“Alright. We’re going to need to keep an extra eye on you, and if your blood pressure spikes, we’re going to need to slow down or even stop the infusion. Just try to relax, man.”
I can’t imagine hearing anything that would relax me less. But I tried. They gave me some Benadryl to take the edge off. They kick-started the nature videos. They flipped the switch on the IV, and the bag began to empty.
From the beginning, something felt off. I twitched and felt a tinge of dread. But I reminded myself of something I’d learned in Boy Scouts as a boy in the 90’s: “If you’re lost, stay where you are.” I repeated this via whisper to myself, as I revisited my discovery of the Soul Meridian from Ascent 4. It worked, I breathed a sigh of relief, and the room began to melt all over again … but when it did this time, where I ended up was a marked departure from even my previously-unparalleled grand departure off the planes of existence.
On April 12, during Ascent 5, at 175 mg, I explored the other side. The other, other side. I found the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. I spent almost an entire hour in a parallel universe that bared no resemblance to the one we live in, nor the ones I’d visited before. Time was gone. Space was gone. The lines between self and environs melted and sublimated. I dropped below the OS of reality, passed the chasm between software and hardware, and wandered into the inner machinations of consciousness itself.
Much of what I experienced was fiery. It was hot. The colors were ember — not dark, nor particularly scary, either, but intense. My teeth started to grind and chatter. I locked the arms of the recliner in a vice-grip. I closed my eyes, and prepared for what I would see.
As I closed my eyes, I noticed instead of the coastlines and forests and calming colors of garden-variety ketamine-trip hallucinations — to the degree that any of them could be called “garden-variety” — the world felt industrial, dark, metallic, silent. I spied strangers silently going about their day-to-day — stoic, faceless, and completely disinterested in my very existence.
I termed this location the “minus-world.” The term draws its origins from Super Mario Bros. It’s an underground (underwater, technically) glitch level that cannot be finished. One where you’re doomed to lose all your lives by either running out of time or being killed by your enemies. And my enemies wasted no time in appearing.
I began to confront things I felt I had forgotten. People I’d hurt. People I’d wronged. People who hurt me. People who wronged me. Traumas of every degree, gradient and sub-genre stretching as far back as preschool. My brother who severed contact with me five years ago. My friends I’d let down. Bosses who fired me. Drugs I wished I’d never done. Drinks I wished I’d never drank. Decisions I made and regretted. Decisions I never made and regretted not making.
I was not scared — I gazed them right in the eyes, and forgave them right in the moment. I forgave myself, too. “It’s okay,” I told them. “You are free.” And then they would leave, or I would leave. Determining who “leaves” during a ketamine trip is a bit like trying to choose which half of the car who want to drive while the other half is a boat. I rose in a grain elevator I didn’t willingly enter, and I escaped the minus-world as it crumbled and roared behind me. Safe.
I laid in a hammock feeling fully safe, loved and supported, as I wandered through various aspects of my life’s work and various places I never thought I would visit. Watching events unfold all around me. Set pieces moving quickly like a NASCAR pit crew working on Broadway. I remained calm. The colors began to brighten, and the sun began to shine.
I remember watching a scroll unfurl across the sky saying, “Congratulations, you made it!” Cartoon birds held ends of it in their beaks. Balloons floated into the sun. I found myself happy in that moment, like I had just set the high score in an e-Sports tournament, except as a six year-old. And then I dropped from the frame.
I caught myself free-falling, except the speed and fury was ratcheted up to “extinction-level-event meteorite.” I burst through the map. I saw split-screen hallucinations composed of people, pictures I’ve taken, and places I’ve been. Occasionally, and with increasing frequency and intensity, they bled into each other, until everything swirled into an indecipherable mixture. The free-fall was over, and I launched into eternity, screaming through halfway between the atmosphere and the multi-verse at the speed of light, my face frostbitten from breaking the wind.
And then it just stopped. All was dark, calm and silent. I floated through space, and found pure consciousness. I discovered the essence of life itself. I held the enormity of existence in a series of visions that were mosaics of what had been before, and what was yet to come. I kept needing to remind myself to breathe — if only to remind myself that I was still actually breathing.
My body, already numb besides my disembodied head, ceased to exist. My skull opened up, and my actual brain projected out onto a landscape. I saw mountains, gardens, forests, oceans, beaches, hills, meadows, rock formations, and deserts. And every time I refreshed, I noticed something peculiar: there was one area — roughly 10–15% of the total land-area of my brain itself — that would grey out. Leaves would wilt. Trees turned to stone. Grass turned to ash. “No, no, no,” I pleaded in my mind. “No!”
Yet even then, I had a charming sense of humor, often saying, “What’s that shadowy place over there?” like young Simba in The Lion King, looking out into Hyena-Land, or whatever they call that particular city-state in the Pride Rock kingdom.
for the first time, I saw my brain for what it was and is: the creator, the container and the controller. All of the travel — through time, space, reality, dimensions — and I realized I’d never gone anywhere. It all existed in my mind. I am the Wizard, the man behind the curtain, the curtain designer, and the Emerald City itself.
It was insane, and jaw-dropping in sheer volume. What I’m telling you is barely 1% of what I saw. It felt like it’d lasted forever, and then it was — mercifully, graciously — over.
“Hey John,” the nurse said, “Your blood pressure shot way up, so we had to dial it back today. You still got the full 175, but we had to throttle down and make it last an extra 20 minutes.”
I hadn’t the wherewithal to form a response.
“Just don’t drink any coffee or take any Adderall next time. You’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” I said, as my head spun and did backflips between dimensions.
I rode in the Uber home in a Jeep with a man who reminded me of one of the dude-bros from Party Down South — the Confederate Jersey Shore — who wouldn’t leave me the fuck alone. I damn near hopped out. I just wanted to — and, 30 minutes later, went to — sleep.
When I awoke, my mind felt like it had been doused in jet fuel and set ablaze. It danced, sparked, crackled and roared … and when I would rub my head, my fingers would leave what felt like a vapor trail. I was perplexed: “It was so perfect beforehand. Please, please, please don’t end like this.”
Thankfully, there was one final journey on my mission. I needed to stick the landing in the worst possible way.Part VI: April 14 // 200 mg
I went into that Friday’s final infusion with just one intention: finish the job. After making sure I ingested no stimulants in the 24 hours prior, and sleepwalking into my appointment, and being cleared for takeoff with normal blood pressure, the nurse asked me, “You want to go 200 today?”
“That’s a nice round number,” I responded. “Sounds perfect. Let’s get all the way weird,” and I made one final push. We selected a 7-hour “Earth From Above” 4K drone video, set to even more soothing and more beautiful ambient music, and we began. The drips began. Prepare for liftoff.
There was no ramp-up. I, almost immediately, began to marvel uncontrollably. I was moved in a way I had never been before, fighting back tears through irrepressible joy. I was able, for one full hour, to live multiple lifetimes, to gape in astonishment at humanity’s and nature’s complexities, beauty and wonder.
The entirety of human, organic and inorganic existence; the history of civilization; the unabridged story of my life and my family; the innermost workings of my mind; the totality of everything, all playing out in different astral planes, blending into and later folding in on each other in a kind of multi-dimensional mosaic — untethered from and ungoverned by the rules of possibility.
I finally understood, after absorbing as much data as I would ever in 60 minutes of run-time, why my life unfolded the way it did, and just how much of a debt of gratitude I owe to the universe that produced me. And then I went even further: I was able to, for the very first time, meta-feel — I was able to go beyond empathy, beyond synchronicity, beyond universality. I found the skeleton key to existence just on the other side of consciousness. I detached from rationality, from imagination, from fantasy, from narrative, from context, from concepts and numbers too massive to calculate or understand. Only then, was I ready to receive what I learned next. Only, I was the one who would tell me.
I stepped out onto a stage and stared out into an endless sea of faces I knew well, and strangers I’ll never meet. I tapped my microphone amidst the eerily calm silence of the infinite. I began to speak.
“We are all here for the same reason: to live — fully, happily and well.
To surrender to our selves,
to trust that we will be cradled, safe, loved and supported,
and to do the same for others so that they may feel the same trust in you.
A life well-lived is guided by love and bliss,
A desperate tango between the ephemeral and the eternal,
wrapped into one transient yet transcendent vessel.
This vessel is your body, yet it is also our humanity.
It is meaningless, yet it is all that we have left, and that’s why it matters.
The infinite and the infinitesimal are contained within us,
and although we are many, we are also one.
We are a harmonious, extraordinary ecosystem of life and light, both in the known realm, and in the unknowns that lay on the other side of magic.
Our only job is to harness that magic, hold it all in our heads and our hearts, and synthesize it into something more beautiful than we first found, and release it into the wild, where it can live on forever — where the universe can harness that magic again, and pass it on into eternity, so long as eternity exists.”
I quietly stepped back from the microphone and walked off stage — not even looking out into the crowd to understand if they got it. It didn’t really matter. I’d said what I needed to say, and learned what I needed to know. I smiled. And then I wept in silence.
The final vignette saw me rise from the depths of the minus-world,with a silent, salient resignation. I thought — yet mostly felt, as thought was largely rendered impossible — I am dead, and yet I am still mercifully, beautifully me. This sensation of death was as comforting as my life has ever felt. I was content and at peace, with nothing left to prove, nowhere left to go, and no one left to impress — only things to appreciate, places to explore, and people to care for and look after.
I left the plane of imaginary numbers and strings and streams of data, and I ascended into a white, plush coffin, where I laid and stared through a crack in the lid as my friends, family and role models peered inside — not crying, or even sad. They were waving, smiling even.
The coffin then tipped upward, the doors opened, and I stepped beyond the warm embrace of the people I care about, and into the gentle white glow of tomorrow. Everything I’d ever felt, thought, touched, seen, loved, known, learned or done swirled around me, and the scene faded to a gentle sky blue.
I opened my eyes. The waves crested against the shore. A serene ocean of deep blue lapped against me, as I sat on a blanket and stared out into the mighty and endless abyss. I was greeted by seagulls. My adventure partner leaned on my shoulder.
“You ready?” She said.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
“John … John … wake up, John,” my nurse said sweetly. “I can’t believe it. You … never said a word. What happened?”
“I saw everything.” I paused to collect myself, and spoke with a measured, impassioned and hushed gravitas I’d never spoken with before, and likely never will again.
“Thank you so much,” I said, on the verge of tears. “That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done.” I waited in the recovery room, my mind floating through space-time with all the grace of a majestic crane. I called my Uber, I opened the door, and I stepped beyond the warm embrace of the springtime Texas mid-day sun, into the gentle white glow of tomorrow.
My life is not trivial anymore. It is a gift bestowed upon me by 15 billion years of eternal light, made possible by the space-rock I call home, protected by the passion and power of all those who came before me, and invested in by the friends and family who believe in me. On April 14, 2019, I rose from the dead to tell you life is extraordinary, that it’s an investment and a legacy, a dream and a reality, data and insights, love and grace and feeling and hope. I liberated my soul and, for the first time in my memory, I am free.Part VII: The Elasticity of Space-Time
30 years of depression. Gone. In six hours, over just 16 days. It hasn’t returned … My brain — my Soul Meridian — just isn’t wired that way anymore. The weight of it all, evaporated into the unknowable ether. I am light. I am alive. I am a soul in a vessel, renting space in this form for as long as it allows. That is all I am. And yet — that’s not all I have been, could be, can be or will be.
I am here, now, merely to live — fully, happily and well. I have surrendered myself, and I trust that I’ll be safe, loved and supported, and I’ll remember to make others feel the same. This is all that I have left to do in life … and this is why life matters so much.
In this journey fueled by love and bliss, in this desperate tango between the ephemeral and eternal, in which we contain and bear witness to both the infinitesimal and infinite, we will transcend our body and humanity one day.
For what are we but — should we choose to lean into that which unites and inspires us, rather than that which divides and attacks us — a harmonious, extraordinary ecosystem of life and light, both in the known realm, and in the unknowns that lay just on the other side of magic.
I am blessed to have been gifted that magic. I am honored to hold it all in my head and my heart. It is my sincerest hope that I shall never squander it, lose it or waste it, but rather synthesize it into something more beautiful than it was when I was first shown it.
I sigh. I press “publish.” I remember I am constantly in beta until my final breath, when I shall release it all into the wild, where I hope it can live on forever. It does not belong to me. It does not belong to you, either. It belongs to no one. And, so, it is on all of us to learn it, share it, nurture it, cultivate it and appreciate it. And, when we are finished and our final breaths are drawn and all is still, we’ll pass it on into eternity, so long as eternity exists. Then, and only then, will be be truly free.
30 years of depression. Three decades of pain, trauma, suffering, struggle, swings, heartache, cruelty, mediocrity, inconsistency, sadness, fear, anxiety, regret, spoiled chances, dreams left undreamed and deeds left undone. Gone in a blink. Vanished. Never to assume the same form again, even should it return one day.
There’s damn near nothing left of the man I was, beyond memories that grow more distant by the millisecond and warm embrace of people I keep with me; nothing left of the life I knew before I dared to dream that my self deserved its freedom.
I found sovereignty in the amphora and malleability of my soul. I cultivated this self — my values, my beliefs, my passions, my commitments, my support system — from scratch, on Medium, in plain sight, and said “yes” to it all so that I could build boundaries strong enough to say “no” to the rest.
My projections and myopia are different now. The stories I tell myself aren’t true anymore. I have no secrets. I’ve unearthed my truths. My map is not the territory. And here in this vessel of blood, brain and bone I can’t abandon, I’m ready to watch the sea return to shore.
And, in the ocean of my self — remixed and remastered and new for 2019 — this is how it all began. So the water shaped the coast, the coast has shaped the water. The seas are calm now. All that’s left is an endless horizon underlining the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. I look forward to exploring it all, and I can’t wait to show you what’s beyond the ocean, on the other side of magic, where all who dare to venture return as someone else.
30 years of depression. Gone. In its place, John Gorman is all that’s left. I was here all along. Did you see me? I waved.Part VIII: May 11, 2019 (Epilogue)
The world is lighter now that it’s ever been. I am energetic, yet not impulsive. I am satisfied, yet not bursting. I am feeling things I cannot recall feeling.
My brain, out of sheer force of habit, keeps trying to send me into panic, or worry, or dread, or sadness. And it keeps saying “everything is good.” I find now I just do hard things because they don’t seem so hard anymore. It’s been huge for me.
I’ve been prescribed a ketamine nasal spray. I do one dose in each nostril before bedtime. Only once — sadly, during a night out in Denver, in the company of one of my favorite people in the world, who I had only first met the night before — has it caused an unpleasant reaction. I threw up in my mouth after eating a bite of pizza, and the heartburn gave me agita, and the stunning surprise turned me just-north-of-unresponsive, and the mix of altitude and moderate amounts of alcohol made me dizzy. I called an Uber and went back to my hotel. Within 30 minutes, I was fine again.
I experience no other side-effects beyond occasional short-term memory lapses, which — for those who’ve known me — weren’t all that uncommon in the first place, and are therefore more than tolerable. Hell, listening to me search for the rest of my sentence is damn near a spectator sport.
I know the sample size is small. I know I’ve only been on this current course for six weeks or so. I know before waving the “Mission: Accomplished” banner, I need to wait. I have a “booster infusion” coming up on May 24, to stave off any kind of rebound effects. Like the Fast and the Furious, I live my life 200 milligrams at a time.
Life feels so impossibly good right now. Colors are brighter. People are kinder. Thoughts are clearer. Feelings are warmer and fuzzier. It almost feels like cheating … almost. And then I remember just how hard I worked to get here. Something I’ve fought for. Something I’ve only dreamed about. I earned this.
In just nine weeks since I first noticed the sun in my life start to rise, I have been left in slack-jawed awe more often than not. So much good has happened. So much has changed.
I know I must now go forth and live the life I never knew I’d live, tell stories that must be told, and do my part to save this burning world and protect its broken people, but for now — if you’d kindly allow — I’d just like to stay here, just for a bit, rest and enjoy the view. It’s every bit as beautiful as I’d imagined, and greater than imagination itself.