The benefits of ketamine have been numerous and profound despite the fact that our son, Sam, has been in treatment with a combination of partially effective medications for bipolar disorder for over ten years. It would actually be quicker for me to list the ways in which ketamine HASN’T improved the quality of life around our household and for Sam personally, than the reverse. Sam, now 13, was highly symptomatic from his earliest years. Prior to treatment, he had the usual litany of unbearable symptoms that plague most young children suffering from pediatric bipolar disorder including severe separation anxiety, night terrors, rages, sensory integration dysfunction, hyperactivity, aggressive behavior, giddiness, sleep dysregulation and fear with a capital “F”. Our adorable blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy was living a nightmare and we couldn’t rescue him or ourselves.
After being told that we were just overly anxious first-time parents by our pediatrician on more than one occasion, it became apparent that without more data and a different doctor, nothing was going to get better. At 12 months I started charting Sam’s reactions to life each day, describing situations in detail related to sleep, the weather, outings, our dog, night terrors, interactions with other children, his relationship with us, etc. I didn’t know when this information would become relevant but I felt that someday it would be the key that would hopefully help someone figure out what was so terribly wrong. Eighteen months later we learned that there was such a thing as pediatric bipolar disorder and that Sam’s symptoms mirrored many described in the literature. I typed up all of my paperwork and sent it to Dr. Papolos, asking if he would review the information and assess Sam in person. Sam was evaluated, diagnosed and started on medication. He has worked with Dr. Papolos for ten years for which we are eternally grateful.
Sam has had many medication changes and titrations over the years as he has grown. Over time we have seen the harsher symptoms give way to a milder course of the illness. Although his function level has improved a lot over time, we resigned ourselves that less severe symptoms were equivalent to a decent quality of life. Essentially we had lowered the bar with regard to our expectations of what it means to be well. The social issues, anxiety, learning disabilities, executive function deficits, narrow comfort range, chronic mood fluctuations seemed to be part of our definition of “remission”. We were thankful to be managing with these symptoms because we clearly remembered the past and never wanted to live in that neighborhood again.
Enter Ketamine: We decided to start Sam on ketamine in August, 2011 and have seen a dramatic difference in him. After gradually increasing his dose, Sam’s anxiety is practically gone, attention span is longer, organization is improved, mood swings are more level. He made the honor roll at school. Sam is engaging in situations that he would have avoided in the past. For instance, he has always had a fear of heights. His 7th grade class went on a trip to a high adventure course last year which was a miserable day for him. It felt embarrassing for him to back down from challenges in front of his classmates. This year, in 8th grade, it was a whole different story. He turned to one of the kids he viewed as a bully all last year and said, “I’ll do the zip line if you do it.” They smiled at each other and embarked on the challenge. Kids at school who used to seem threatening seem less so. Sam has never liked team sports for many reasons but has now joined the basketball team at school.
Sam will still have to work harder at school than many kids and he may have times when his anxiety gets the better of him. Still, ketamine far surpasses any combination of other medications that Sam has taken. He now knows what it means to feel true joy and happiness.