Amplify #4 Melissa Whippo - Ketamine Psychotherapist
Updated: Jan 13, 2021
Melissa Whippo is a pioneer in the maternal wellness space with 20 years of therapeutic experience. Her work is deeply influenced by attachment theory, object relations, mindfulness meditation, and herbalism. She is a licensed clinical social worker and certified yoga instructor. Currently, she offers Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy at the Center for Transformational Psychotherapy in San Anselmo, California. She also has an online private practice.
In the fourth interview for our Amplify series, we invite you to learn more about Ketamine, a nonclassical psychedelic, through Melissa’s work in the field.
This interview was conducted and transcribed by Jessika Lagarde and condensed for clarity.
WOOP: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to do this type of work.
Melissa: I am a licensed psychotherapist here in California and I've been practicing for more than 17 years. For the past 10 years, I started working with pregnant women and mothers who have depression, anxiety, and trauma. I support women who have experienced birth trauma and also help them cope with the hormonal and identity changes that come with having a baby. Becoming a mother myself certainly influenced my interest in this group; I have 3 children and a bonus 4th, my partner’s child.
WOOP: Would you say that your personal experiences with psychedelics led you to do this type of work?
Melissa: My experiences with psychedelics absolutely contributed to offering this work as a clinician. I had a very positive experience with psychedelics when I was younger, but I didn't continue my exploration of it for some time. I was reintroduced to Plant Medicine at a later time in my life when I was going through some personal healing and transformation. The containers and safe spaces in which these experiences took place opened my mind to the possibility of working with it in these ways, particularly with new mothers.
As a white woman from North America, I try to be mindful of cultural appropriation and spiritual tourism when it comes to working with Plant Medicine. To me, my interest in ketamine was partly due to the legality and the safety of it. As a compound that has been in use for decades, there is also no cultural appropriation when working with it. My experience of going to Peru and working with a Shipibo elder informed my experiences regarding the possibility of profound healing and transformation with psychedelic medicine, especially when practiced in a safe container.
WOOP: What was your most transformative or life-changing experience with psychedelics? What changed for you after that?
Melissa: When I went to Peru and worked with ayahuasca, I was suffering from a medical issue that I did not mention to the Shipibo elder. In my mind, it wasn’t the main reason I was there. Due to some travel issues, I arrived late and had my first ceremony that very night. During the ceremony, while I was purging, the Shipibo elder placed her hands exactly on the part of my body where I was having the medical issue. I started crying, because I felt such gratitude, relief, and wonder for these healing ways. I felt held.
The elder sent me home with a dieta, a means of purification in the Amazonian tradition and practice, and I was grateful to receive this opportunity to learn. I used non-psychoactive plant medicine for months after that to continue the healing. This was almost two years ago, and the integration work has continued. It’s only recently that I have started to understand the teachings and the offerings that had been presented to me during that experience in the jungle.
My experiences with plant medicine taught me how to slow down and to attune to my body. Practicing deep listening and receptivity can be revolutionary. Sacred reciprocity, Ainy, is one of the Andean codes and has had a profound impact on me. As I am receiving all this healing, it feels like my duty to channel that and help other people. That was probably my biggest lesson: giving and receiving in the way of sacred reciprocity.
WOOP: How did you first hear about ketamine?
Melissa: I went to Peru to work with Plant Medicine in November 2018. But before that trip, I had heard about Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy and became really curious about it. In the United States, it was - and still is today - the only legally available psychedelic medicine. I was excited to learn more about a legal psychedelic that I could work with, in my clinical practice.
When I returned from Peru, I completed a Ketamine training with Phil Wolfson and Julane Andries. They founded the Center for Transformational Psychotherapy in San Anselmo, California, and both of them have been instrumental in MAPS MDMA studies as well.
I had never experienced Ketamine myself but knew a little bit about it as a recreational club drug. I was actually really skeptical about it but had such an incredible experience during the training that I was absolutely transformed. After that, I was convinced this was an amazing medicine I wanted to work with. I was especially curious about whether anyone had previously treated postpartum mood disorders with ketamine.
WOOP: Can you tell us how Ketamine works to positively impact depression?
Melissa: Ketamine is such a safe medicine that anesthesiologists use it as anxiolytic anesthesia for people who are stressed about going into a medical procedure. It has been around for quite some time and is now being used to treat depression. It works differently from the other antidepressant medicines and is not used as a continuous treatment. With Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy, you receive the treatment for a certain amount of time, with integration work during and after the treatment.
Unlike a lot of psychedelics, Ketamine doesn’t simply work with neuroplasticity. So many of us struggle with rumination about the past or struggle to approach problems in new ways, and many psychedelics interrupt the loops of entropy in which we find ourselves. Ketamine not only disrupts the loop; it also works as a time-out for the ordinary mind.
The journey space can be profound and multidimensional. You emerge from that time-out with a completely different perspective. That's one of the reasons why it is so helpful to treat depression, anxiety, trauma, and PTSD. The depression, anxiety, or trauma, gets interrupted - and a new way of being and thinking emerges.
WOOP: What is the difference you see in the effectiveness of Ketamine assisted psychotherapy to the traditional type of therapy?
Melissa: The transformation I have seen in people that I have worked with using Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy is amazing, even with those that have been doing traditional psychotherapy for years. I would attribute a lot of that to the disruption of the mind. In traditional therapy, you can work on the same thing for years and still get stuck sometimes. The psychedelic experience amplifies the work and offers a completely new, different perspective.
Something that we say a lot with our clients is: "Wouldn't you like to leave that pain and that trauma behind?" It is not like we can just get rid of aspects of ourselves that are problematic or troubling, but we can transform how we want to be in relation to these aspects of ourselves. Integration is key here.
The rapidity of transformation during Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy has impressed me. We have worked with people that are really struggling. People that have been taking antipsychotic medication, dealing with suicidal thoughts, or are so depressed that they can't even leave their apartment. The Ketamine work allowed them to remember themselves as a whole person, not someone who is broken.
That's what all psychedelic medicines have in common, whether plant or compound. They allow us to come home to ourselves, to reclaim who we are, to find acceptance and peace inside and out. We are not born with suffering, pain, and trauma; we are born as pure beings. I feel these medicines help us recover who we are - the highest aspects of ourselves.
WOOP: What other things you believe contribute to the effectiveness of this treatment?
Melissa: The effectiveness of Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy has to do with many factors that are common themes in psychedelic psychotherapy. Set and setting, the nurturing support of two therapists working together, and the medicine itself. Other means of treating depression have limitations, and people often come to work with ketamine after other medicines failed to treat their depression. The classical antidepressants, SSRIs, work with serotonin, while Ketamine works with glutamate receptors.
The way that the medicine is administered also has an impact. We work with sublingual lozenges and also Intramuscular injections. Many clinics in the US work with IV Ketamine, but we do not. There is a time-out, as well as a promotion of neuroplasticity, that helps with the effectiveness of the medicine. Psychotherapy supports the changes that occur.
We also understand that ketamine has a cumulative effect; if people have severe depression, they may need 2-3 sessions in the first week of treatment. This treatment might continue for 6 weeks, with the number of treatments per week reduced based on how well the person is doing.
Ketamine also helps you relax your body if you have anxiety and tension. Even in lower doses, we are seeing it can be a helpful treatment for premenstrual syndrome, and for people who have eating disorders or other compulsive behavior. We are talking to our clients about using low-dose ketamine for an anxiolytic benefit rather than benzodiazepines. People can easily develop a tolerance of benzodiazepine medicines and we advise that people do not use ketamine daily, even if using a low-dose for anxiety.
WOOP: Many women in the US are opting for Ketamine therapy when antidepressants fail to help them. How do you think this type of treatment benefits women the most?
Melissa: I'm most excited about working with ketamine to treat post-partum depression, which we are just starting to study. When we looked at the literature, we realized no one had researched the secretion of ketamine in breastmilk. We designed a small IRB study to measure this and found that ketamine has a really short half-life in the system. While we are unable to make clinical recommendations before we publish the study, we are optimistic about the results.
Part of what I see with women in the post-partum setting is that there can be a real loss of self, a loss of identity. Becoming a mother is a transformational experience itself and I don't feel like our culture and society are supportive of new mothers. Ketamine assisted psychotherapy helps with the integration of all the parts of ourselves, disrupting negative loops that interfere with the full blossoming of motherhood.
Many women suffering from postpartum depression communicate that they are not good mothers, don't know what they are doing and have very little support. This medicine can not only provide them with a time-out of the ordinary mind, but can help rewire certain neural pathways impacted by depression, anxiety, or birth trauma.
This medicine can be very helpful in supporting a woman to trust her instincts, herself, her wisdom, and to connect with her ancestral wisdom. Ketamine can connect us with our highest self. Going into motherhood can be transformational for women struggling with depression, anxiety, or birth trauma.
WOOP: How affordable and accessible are these treatments in the US right now?
Melissa: It can be expensive for the average person. A three-hour session with two therapists, including one Medical Doctor, can cost USD1,250. We want this treatment to be more accessible. We work with a nonprofit, The Ketamine Research Foundation, and if a woman has public assisted insurance, she can obtain treatment for significantly less than the full fee.
We are really hopeful that by doing more research, more insurance companies will start to reimburse clients or cover the treatment. This will make it much more accessible for people. We are also starting an online integration group to make therapeutic support in the ketamine space accessible to as many people who need it. People who would like to participate in the group may be working with other practitioners; we want it to be a safe, affordable space for anyone who is doing work with ketamine and needing more integration support.
WOOP: Anything else you would like to share?
Melissa: One of the reasons I was so excited to talk with you and learn more about the work that you are doing with WOOP is that I feel this is a powerful time of the feminine rising. It's a time for women to support one another and each other’s work. Globally, there are so many incredible women offering psychedelic therapy and healing.
I really want to continue to promote collaboration and mutual support amongst women. Rework the patriarchal system that tells us there is only enough room for a few people to be successful, and that we have to be competitive with one another. So many people are ready to shift to a more inclusive model of being.
Psychedelics have for so long been dominated by white male voices, but women have been working with these ways for ages. Women have been healing practitioners from the beginning of time, and have continued quietly in the shadows. We are in a place of recovering our gifts, our strengths, and our collective feminine power.
Melissa Whippo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker as well as a Certified Yoga Instructor. In her clinical work at the Center for Transformational Psychotherapy, Melissa offers therapeutic support to individuals and couples who seek emotional wellness. Working alongside psychiatrist Dr. Phil Wolfson, she provides Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy to people who suffer from depression, anxiety, addiction, grief, and trauma, and also provides integration sessions that do not include medicine. She is also a principal researcher of the use of Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy to treat Postpartum Mood Disorders. If you want to learn more about her work, here is her website and Instagram page.