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How women are using ketamine to block out emotional trauma

A London clinic has seen a significant rise in women using the drug as an ‘emotional anaesthetic’

“It’s how we cope with not having to talk about certain subjects,” says Bethany, 24, to me. “Like a bad breakup, a friendship group falling apart or trouble at uni. If something shit has happened, or I’m feeling shit about something, I’ll just take a load of K.”

Ever since ketamine broke onto the British drug scene in the 1980s and 1990s, like many drugs, it has been synonymous with escaping the harsh realities of the emotional ups and downs of youth. Historically, the relative affordability of K on British streets (typically costing £20-a-gram until recently) coupled with its disassociative effects created a reputation as a dirty, antisocial drug, for misfits to take in grungy basements.

And while ketamine has for a long time been in development as a medicinal treatment for depression and chronic pain, this street accessibility has resulted in its growing use to deal with the universal rites of passage of being young – of heartbreak, friendship group drama, bitterness and insecurity. Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones who runs the Club Drug Clinic in London, a service for recreational drug users, said in an interview in 2013 that the clinic had seen a significant number of women using ketamine “as an emotional anaesthetic”. But why specifically women?

Users attest to its almost unrivalled ability to offer a quick, no-frills numbing to reality. “It’s people who are anxious socially, (using it) to knock the awareness off,” says Charlotte, 24. “That’s what a lot of women do. That’s why you take a short fix, because you never have to feel out of control for that long.”

“I was happy to have sex with someone, but I didn’t really want to think where I was, I just wanted it to be a blur. So I'd... just say I was going to the toilet and would get really K’d” – Charlotte

When looking at the state of emotional and mental health for young people, it’s perhaps not hard to see other reasons why ketamine has been ubiquitous: over one in four women in the UK aged 16-24 have some mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression or another disorder, according to a recent state-funded survey, which stated “young women have become a key high risk group”. As well as that, one in eight young women screened positive for PTSD in 2014 – a figure that has trebled since 2007, while 31 per cent of young women report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. 

Dr. Glen Brooks, a New York-based anesthesiologist who treats patients with mental health problems with ketamine, said in an interview with Dazed last year that the patients he treats are victims of childhood trauma. “They can all trace their PTSD back to stress, anxiety, pain or some sort of horrific childhood event that morphed into depression by their late teens or early 20s,” said Dr. Brooks. “There are varieties of childhood traumas. It could be something like sexual abuse, incest, physical abuse or abject poverty.”

Some of the first sexual experiences Charlotte had were unpleasant and traumatising, where there “wasn’t much consent”, and at university she took ketamine prior to having sex in order to avoid being triggered by the past experiences. “You’re trying to see yourself as sexual and sexy, and not let that thing that happened ruin that for you,” she says, “then I guess it’s a nice little fix to drop that out, for like 20 minutes”. 

“I was happy to have sex with someone, but I didn’t really want to think where I was, I just wanted it to be a blur. So I’d be back with them and just say I was going to the toilet and would get really K’d, and then came back and did it, so it was fine”.

“Speaking to a doctor or a therapist means you are going to hear things you don’t want to hear. K doesn’t talk back to you” – Charlotte

An increased willingness of people to report and seek treatment for mental health problems (as well as acute emotional distress) is undoubtedly a good thing, though it is typically not matched with a rise in resources provided. While mental issues account for 28 per cent of the total burden of health problems in the UK, it gets just 13 per cent of the NHS’s budget; at the University College of London for example, there are only 13 specialized clinicians in the psychological services team, to deal with the mental health of a student body of around 40,000. 

Learning to confront and deal with emotionally traumatising events in a constructive, empathetic way is something that most young people probably admit they often fail at, but gradually improve on. But it’s easy to understand why alternative ways of dealing with such problems seem inadequate or unwieldy compared to the quick fix of ketamine. “Therapy is very long term, and that involves acknowledging it, dealing with it,” says Charlotte, “Speaking to a doctor or a therapist means you are going to hear things you don’t want to hear. K doesn’t talk back to you.”

Bethany argues that therapy has a “bad reputation,” which lessens its attractiveness compared to K. “You’re seen (by going to therapy) as either weak, or a bit crazy. I know a lot of my guy friends would hate trying therapy, just because of how they’d be seen.”

Of course, the anecdotal evidence that women are using ketamine in this way may of course be a distortion of how comfortable people are talking about their reasons they use drugs in spaces like the Club Drug Clinic, with admitting emotional struggle even less likely for men given the pervasively rigid social masculinity. And while ketamine has always had a reputation as being quite a ‘masculine’ drug, over three times as many women (around 1 per cent of survey respondents) sought emergency medical treatment following ketamine use as men did (0.3 per cent), according to the Global Drug Survey of 2015. 

Whether it is indeed as prevalent among young men as among women, its use is particularly instructive to the intersection of the mental health crisis, emotional stigma and sexual abuse that affect a disproportionate number of young people in the UK today. 

The names of the users in the article have been changed.