Why Nexflix's "A Trip to Infinity" should have a black box suicide label and be part of ketamine training
Do we live in an age where trigger warnings and claims of trauma are trivialized by their overuse? This writer will not opine on that subject, only to say that when I interviewed Bessel van der Kolk on The Soul of Life, his grouchiness on about it was fascinating to me.
However, as many of you know, I run a ketamine assisted psychotherapy program, and offer an IFS-Ketamine day retreat for clinicians (which, I must add, you should really consider this if you’re wondering what the buzz is about psychedelics…while there’s still room left for our September 9th retreat.)
Having quite a bit of firsthand experience with the ketamine journey myself, I am very familiar with ketamine’s strange ability to produce a mind-bending encounter with what seems like an experience of being infinitely small and then, improbably, being infinitely large. Although having this subjective experience during a ketamine trip (technically referred to as a hallucination) is not necessary for ketamine to impart it’s signature anxiolytic and depression-remitting properties, if you do a “full course” of ketamine treatments, you’re bound to have a date with infinity at some point.
I should have been thoroughly prepared, therefore, when I watched A Trip to Infinity on Netflix this week. I was not.
The producers of A Trip to Infinity remark in the show’s subtitle: Eminent mathematicians, particle physicists and cosmologists dive into infinity and its mind-bending implications for the universe.
What could be upsetting about a math documentary?
To be clear this show never mentions, or even hints at, psychedelic experiences.
Yet I would venture to guess that the visual artists that produced the show’s dazzling and complex animations were, in fact, well versed in what a ketamine experience feels like. I will not begin to explain the mathematics of infinity, except to say it is very weird. So weird that mathematician Steven Strogatz confesses that when he talks about the math associated with infinity to his wife, she instantly feels nauseous.
And she is not alone.
For one, I do not recommend watching A Trip to Infinity unless you are in a very strong place spiritually, or have a giddy appreciation for complex math like Strogatz, or have a supported psychedelic experience practice. The show opens many pandora’s boxes related to the idea that absolute nothingness is a real part of the universe’s past and will be a real part of our future. I am not kidding when I say anyone who struggles with suicidal thoughts should strongly consider not watching this show.
Breaking Bad seems like a picnic in Martha’s Vineyard in comparison.
As Benjamin Labatut writes in his book When We Cease to Understand the World, history has shown that pondering the universe’s most perplexing mysteries can share a close association with severe mental illness and suicide, or as he puts it, there is an “unsettling distinction between genius and madness.”
My own experience of the show resulted in a nearly full-blown panic attack. I loved the documentary, but when I realized the sun had set and I had not noticed, some primal subconscious exile inside of me was let loose and rendered me completely shaken and unable to sleep.
This leads me full circle to why I think A Trip to Infinity should be part of training for therapists working with ketamine: The arc of being shaken out of our known sense of existence through a ketamine journey and back into our known bodily existence seems to parallel mathematical models of the universe itself.
It took me a full 24 hours to integrate the terror exposed inside of me by the graphic illustrations of infinity. Thank god and goddess and the universe that our brain contains both the reality of being finite and infinite. Just as surely as I felt crushed by the extremely infinite, a day later, my brain was spontaneously dropping extremely expansive and grandiose images into my diet of mental activities. I found this to be unexpected and fascinating.
Like a progressive relaxation exercise, my brain had exhausted its tension from fear of being infinitely insignificant, and was now seeming to relax into its polarity of magical significance. I rode the wave with amusement and settled peacefully into a much, much wider grounding in reality, somewhere in the middle. Had I just had a ketamine experience, without ketamine?
The “trip” to infinity was, in fact.
Join us for our next IFS-Ketamine day-retreat for clinicians, September 9th, in Bethesda, MD.