Discover more from ¡Hola Papi!
Ketamine-induced reflections on abuse and beliefs
Your paid subscription supports my creative projects and allows me to pursue original essays and artworks like these. If you’re already subscribed, I hope you’ll consider upgrading to a paid subscription! Thank you for reading.
I like to believe the very second my long-suffering psychiatrist heard about ketamine therapy she thought, I know someone who will love this.
“It’s this new thing,” she told me, an airy wisp of a woman who wore silk scarves in all seasons of the year and spoke exclusively in soft dulcet tones. Despite this, I still felt I could discern when she was unhappy with me, through some vague psychic ability of mine. “I thought you might be interested.”
I’d tried ketamine before in gay party environments. By “tried,” I mean my friends called me Seabiscuit for how actively I sought out “horse tranquilizer.” I was an expert in identifying “ket guys” by their outfits, a nebulous criteria I would not be able to boil down to anything specific, but did have something to do with certain items of jewelry and tank tops with atypical necklines. I’d never bought my own supply, as that felt like taking things a bridge too far.
“Hmm…” I said, feigning reluctance, but feeling like a Victorian woman who’d just been prescribed a beach holiday to treat her common cold. “You really think it might help?” I was certain she could tell this was the most engaged I’d ever been during one of our calls, calls she frequently ended with, “And you’re sure there’s nothing else you want to say?”
Days later, she was rolling out a yoga mat on her office floor in Prospect Heights. Through no fault of her own, I perceived it as a deeply condescending room. I thought this of every therapist’s office I’d ever been in. The furniture was always comfortable in a sterile way, as if any sudden movement, like a pop of color, might send you into hysterics. The books on the shelves, each with their self-certain steps toward wellness, sat quietly, waiting their turn to have their go at you. There was often a plant or two. Leafy, mute witnesses.
It was winter, and already dark at 5 pm. I arrived exactly on time, having followed the directions of not eating anything before the session and having gotten a good night’s rest, or as good as it got, anyway. My psychiatrist laid a white fur throw on top of the mat. “Are you anxious?” she asked.
“Oh, a little,” I said, trying my best not to appear like a salivating dog awaiting a treat. I still believed that any discernible display of enthusiasm would call the whole thing off. “I hope this gives me a new perspective.”
“Mmhmm,” she said. “So, I’m going to have you lie down on the mat here, and then I’m going to make the injection through your stomach. I’m around if you want to talk, but don’t feel like you have to.”
“Okay.” I was especially excited with the idea of a stomach injection. This portended an altogether different, perhaps even medical, kind of experience than I could anticipate. I had no idea how drugs injected into my stomach might behave, but I did suspect it would be better than snorting it up my nose in a tiny bathroom stall with two other bulky gay men in their thirties.
“It can also be helpful,” she said, preparing her tools, “to set an intention for the session. You don’t have to, of course, but if there’s something you want to work through, it might be nice to place it at the front of your mind.”
Ah, yes, I thought. There was the wishy-washy therapy language of gentle suggestion: if, and her best friend, might. I’d actually forgotten this was supposed to be a therapy session at all. I decided that while I was getting a dose of ketamine measured out for a 215-pound man, I might as well attempt self-improvement of some kind.
Lying on the floor and sliding my eye mask into place, I considered which of my many ongoing maladies was most deserving of the coveted “ketamine therapy” brain slot. I had an eating disorder. I was a sex addict. I was purporting to be an advice columnist while in a long-distance situationship with a man who was using a fitted bed sheet for a window curtain and who I wasn’t sure cared if I lived or died. I went to a Catholic elementary school as a child.
In the end, I chose something else, something a bit more general: I very much wanted to go about my mundane, daily interactions with other people without the attendant anxiety of a person being threatened at knifepoint.
I couldn’t order coffee without saying “thank you so much” and adding an “I really appreciate it” for good measure. I couldn’t make eye contact with strangers or with friends. I approached every last social encounter like it was a hostage situation. I was polite to the point of parody. I smiled too much and too hard, so hellbent was I on proving at all times that I wasn’t a threat.
It would be nice, I thought, to get to the bottom of this behavior. It made getting through life quite the ordeal. My best guess was that it was terminal bashfulness: I was embarrassed to take up space, to be a person, to impose on anyone with my presence. My worst nightmare was inconveniencing someone for five seconds.
A small dose of ketamine solved this problem in clubs and bars, allowing me a backdoor exit from the familiar affair of being me, freeing me from my body and its earthly concerns. Perhaps a large dose, introduced through the stomach, would fix things more permanently.
“I’m going to make the injection,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, before quickly adding, “thank you.”
Waiting in the dark, I gingerly placed my intention at the front of my mind: Dig down to the very bottom. Find out what’s wrong. I want to order cold brew without shrieking inside throughout the transaction.
Awareness crept out of my brain and into my palms, my pulse traveling from my left hand to my right, back and forth, a fish swimming in a steady circuit. “Would you mind,” I asked the fish, “going a little deeper? All the way down? Yes, to the ocean floor, please.”
In the summer of 2022, I returned to my hometown of Lawton, Oklahoma, to do a reading of my debut essay collection, ¡Hola Papi!, which had been published the year before. A good friend of mine from high school, her name is Katie, was the one to organize the event. It involved an appearance from me followed by a sort of town hall centered on LGBTQ issues in the area.
I was in my Brooklyn apartment doing a run-through for the event over Zoom when I was informed there would be a security presence at the event, which was to be held at the McMahon Auditorium, where, I recalled, I saw a production of The Nutcracker as a child, which I had thought was merely okay, or maybe trying a bit too hard.
The need for security was obliquely attributed to some threat made, I believe, over Facebook, or perhaps not, but either way, it didn’t surprise me in the least considering the general climate at the time. It was the summer of protesting drag queen story hours and throwing the word “groomer” every which way. Despite all this, I found myself unable to access what I thought would be an appropriate feeling of anxiety ahead of the event.
For one, I could never picture any of my readings ahead of time, although I had dozens under my belt. I am simply no good at planning these things, as they reliably catch me off guard the second I arrive to carry them out. I can never correctly guess how many people will be in attendance, what the mood will be like, if they will be a giggly crowd or a solemn one, things like that. No amount of preparation does me any favors. A would-be assailant, real or imagined, didn’t change that for me.
More importantly, I simply could not imagine myself being shot at the McMahon Auditorium, and I considered it self-indulgent to do so. My goodness, I thought, don’t we think highly of ourselves? Someone is going to go out of their way to shoot you, of all people? You think you’re the pope, don’t you? You really do.
When I arrived for the event, I met the security guard who’d been assigned to watch over the entrance, a middle-aged man with oily brown hair, a mustache, and bloodhound eyes. “How’s it going?” I asked, a copy of my book in hand.
“I’m just here to make a dollar, brother,” he said.
People from my high school days filtered in, and some family members were there, and I thought now would be a good time to embrace a full-circle sentiment. My childhood in this place had been difficult, and a lot of people had failed me, but a lot of people had supported me as well, and they had come to see me today. This was nice. This was good.
But for whatever reason, my primary feeling was that of guilt. I changed my reading at the last minute. I had planned on reading from the chapter wherein I recounted my experiences being bullied by a group of boys in Cache Middle School in the eighth grade. I wrote about returning to the school building as an adult and being unable to experience any sense of triumph for having survived, and even thrived, after the violence I’d been subjected to under its roof when I was thirteen.
The specifics of those harrowing months have been so frequently revisited that they are familiar and dull. Being called “faggot” more than my own name. Being touched in ways I didn’t want to be touched, having my nipples pinched and a hotdog slapped in my face, being pulled in for a hug (those terrible hugs!) before being shoved away with, “ew, why are you touching me? Are you in love with me?” (The deployment of “love,” here, always struck me as particularly cruel.) I remember, even, what their breath felt like on my cheek when they pulled me in close.
I hid during lunch, was often late to school, received prank calls to my house, daily humiliation, and daily knowledge that it was unstoppable; I was haunted by the practical question of suicide.
I wrote about these things in my book without emotional incident. There was a time when the wet smell of flowers on a dewy spring morning was enough to make me want to vomit, simply and only because those weeks of torture had occurred during April and May. There was a time when hearing the names of any one of these people would have ruined my entire afternoon. But at some mysterious point, this stopped being the case, and I was able to recount details from those days as one might recall details from an apartment they once lived in.
Did I do a good job in my book writing about being bullied? Sure, I think so. But much like how returning to the school building failed to provide a punctuation mark at the end of a long sentence, so, too, did my book fail to provide the closure I once believed it might.
Standing in the McMahon Auditorium, I was met with a dark thought: if someone in the audience were here specifically to hurt me, well, I could understand that. I was less anxious about this potentially nonexistent individual, and more anxious, ashamed, even, about the security guard, about wasting his time, about forcing this middle-aged, heterosexual Oklahoman to think about my fruity little book in any capacity.
A heckler, a bigot, an assassin, those were things that didn’t bother me so much, because they fit quite nicely with how I perceived the world at large, a world of constant conflict. In every person, in every interaction, there was a fight, and there was something almost calming about people and situations where this was made explicit instead of pretending otherwise.
I walked to the bathroom to sit with my thoughts for a while, wondering how my wires had gotten so desperately crossed, and why I felt like readings from my “bullying” chapter suddenly felt so phony. Perhaps there was something I hadn’t quite reckoned with: that being bullied had made me an effective bully.
The word “bully” has been greatly diluted, or perhaps the word, which has always felt a bit twee to me, never really captured the severity of the situation.
Bullying, in my mind, is coercion into a social role. You are stripped of your personhood and a community consensus forms that you are an acceptable subject of humiliation, thus waiving any consequences for doing you harm. Practicing cruelty becomes a rite of passage, a way for others to prove themselves. The silent observers dare not intervene. They know that if it’s not you, it might be them. It has to be someone, after all.
Once you’ve been situated in this niche, there is absolutely nothing you can do. Every possible action you take is grounds for further abuse. Everything you say, everything you do, even if it’s sitting in silence, can be twisted into evidence of your general wrongness and used against you. It teaches you how to hide, how to shrink, how to deny your oppressors more ammo by doing your best to be invisible, to disappear.
Being bullied, however, also teaches one how to bully. Bullying, especially at a young age, arranges the brain in such a way that the victim becomes adept at identifying the inherent conflict in every situation. The bullying victim who survives understands the power struggle present in every single interaction with another person, and understands these interactions as a potential medium in which power dynamics can be expressed to create a winner and a loser.
When I was being bullied, tortured, abused, whatever costume you want to put it in, I was ridiculed for the way I talked, the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I smiled and laughed and ate, all things that exposed me as the wrong, hateable creature that I was. Every last trait was a pressure point to be exploited. Being seen this way taught me how to “see” others through that lens, how to locate those weaknesses in their mannerisms, things they had likely never considered liabilities at all.
The former bullying victim understands, though, that every personality trait is a potential turncoat, much like every individual is a potential tormentor.
I’ve used this knowledge to great effect in my life, particularly in the arena of social media, where there’s no shortage of political enemies who are deemed acceptable targets of artful vitriol. They need only make the slightest error, reveal the faintest defect in personality or in disposition to be destroyed. The flaw is magnified and turned against them, throwing them off balance, giving you the advantage. Anyone familiar with the art of bullying will recognize these familiar shifts in weight.
It is profoundly shameful, however, to notice these things in perfect strangers, or, worse, in friends or acquaintances. It is shameful to see in another person the things you could use to hurt them, things they are quite innocently displaying as any normal person would, things you might display as well, if you hadn’t been taught otherwise, if you didn’t know better.
To read from that chapter in my book, in my hometown, I thought, would be perverse. My brain was arranged entirely into punishments and rewards. Things were either frictionless, or they were battles. I was unable to engage in conflict with any degree of gradation. I didn’t want to, even accidentally, present the audience with anything that might smack of lingering resentment, or to make them feel guilty about anything. To acknowledge that throughout my ordeal I had an interior, that I was a perceptive being, and that I was angry about it, would be to turn the entire affair, I thought, into an act of revenge.
I didn’t want that. These people had gone out of their way to see me.
A person’s beliefs are not a bouquet. They are a forest, an ecosystem of convictions. Truths aren’t plucked here and there and individually placed in the brain-vase, but instead spring from a common bedrock with roots all tangled up with one another beneath the surface. To pull at one is to tug at them all.
It is in this way a person like me, a person who smiles through every interaction, a person who avoids eye contact, a person who won’t walk into a restaurant if it’s within 45 minutes of closing, and a person whose Airbnb reviews uniformly say “you’ll hardly notice he’s there,” can actually be seething with paranoid rage at all times.
“I should be extremely polite,” can be and often is tangled up with, “the world wants to hurt me.” “I don’t want to bother anyone,” can be entwined with, “I’m angry at everyone.”
The world itself works this way, all things existing in relation to each other no matter how distinct they might appear. To be bullied is to be failed hundreds of times a day by people who have tacitly agreed to let you satisfy an unenviable rung of the social ladder. To experience it can sour you on the project of humanity, can make you feel like the whole thing is rotten.
But I like to believe I never lost the urge to be good to people, to connect with people, to do right by people. Maybe that’s why I try to put myself away in my daily interactions, feeling like it’s the nicest thing to do. Maybe that’s why I lower my eyes. I know how dangerous it can be, after all, to be seen.
For most of my session, I was lying in the palm of a massive deity’s hand, a deity made of sunlight who smiled at me and at whom I smiled back. We laughed and gossiped about the silliness of the body I’d left behind, all its nerves hooked up to a broken brain-computer. I was aware I was on drugs, and fully leaning into the experience, eager to have a stereotypical, blissed out trip.
Then, the opposite of drugs—an intrusion from the outside world, a loud HONK! piercing through the diaphanous layers of inebriation, reaching me all the way in the deity’s palm, reminding me, oh, yes, that’s right, I am a person, I am a part of this whole enterprise.
It was no doubt a truck trying to navigate the roundabout just outside the window. The honk had been deep and no-nonsense, like a truck’s. Living in New York, I must hear dozens of car honks every single day without noticing them.
But I felt then an overwhelming deluge of affection for the warm, beating heart behind that honk, an absolute and utterly sincere sense of trust in this person who was trying to get wherever they were going, trust that between people there can be moments of conflict and even frustration without cruelty, that in the complex web of society most people are trying to move along as best they can, that not everyone is a tormentor in waiting, that I didn’t have to be one either.
“I’m an angry person,” I said out loud.
“Mmm,” my psychiatrist cooed.