Ketamine is a controversial sedative currently banned for use by emergency personnel in Aurora after the August 2019 death of Elijah McClain. But while Denver radio and comedy legend Michael Floorwax certainly doesn't endorse its use in the McClain case, he wants people to know that when dispensed properly, ketamine can be a miracle drug.
Indeed, Floorwax feels that without ketamine, he probably wouldn't be alive today.
"It saved my bacon, there's no doubt," Floorwax says. "I have an anxiety-depression combo that can get so uncomfortable it's hard to stay on planet Earth. So when ketamine came along, I thought, 'I've got a chance now.' It really helped me."
For decades, Floorwax (real name: Michael Steinke) was a constant on the Denver entertainment scene. His team-up with partner Rick Lewis, which debuted on 103.5 The Fox in 1990, was a hit from the beginning thanks to their gleeful dedication to not only pushing the envelope, but ripping it to shreds. They quickly became one of the most popular tandems in Denver radio history — and Floorwax supplemented this success with plenty of live comedy gigs and performances with the Groove Hawgs, a band that also included Lewis.
But in early 2014, Floorwax suddenly went off the air, and Lewis's explanations of his partner's disappearance were vague. He merely said that Floorwax was going through a rough patch and might not be back for a while, but that he couldn't elaborate because of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, whose wide-ranging privacy rules include provisions restricting employers from revealing information about an individual's medical history.
The situation dragged out for months, prompting speculation that Floorwax, who'd previously struggled with substance abuse, had suffered a relapse. But on October 1 of that year, Floorwax attempted to set the record straight with a letter that Lewis read on the air. "I did not fall off the wagon, I have been clean and sober now for 30 years and very proud of that. I did not quit my job and iHeartMedia did not fire me," Floorwax wrote, then added, "I have struggled with certain medical issues" that prompted doctors to "experiment with many different drugs to see what will work. Some work for a while, some don't work at all and others can actually make things worse."
As a result, he revealed, "I will not be coming back as I have to focus all my energy on regaining my health and well-being."
The specifics of Floorwax's condition remained unclear until July 2018, when he discussed them with Westword before a guest appearance with KNUS talk-show host Peter Boyles. He also revealed the details about the treatment that finally allowed him to make significant progress in his health battle for the first time in years.
"It's called ketamine infusion," he told us, "and it's turned out to be a real savior for me. You go into their office and you sit in a room and you get your headphones on, and they hook you up to this ketamine infusion thing and basically take a trip to Mars on this stuff — and when you come down, you're uplifted."
He admitted that "it's kind of funny. I've got forty years of sobriety, but the way you get better is tripping your balls off for an hour. What could be more ironic than that? But that's what it is. When you come down from that stuff, you feel better — a little more each time."
Of course, Floorwax was well prepared for the effects of ketamine, not only because his doctors talked him through the process in advance, but thanks to personal experience during his youth. "For me, it was a flashback," he says. "When I was nineteen years old, I was doing similar stuff for entertainment."
In contrast, McClain received a ketamine injection without his knowledge or consent during what attorney Mari Newman, who represents his family in a lawsuit against the City of Aurora, has characterized as fifteen minutes of torture. The 23-year-old, who'd been stopped by police for simply dancing while wearing a ski mask, soon spiraled into a physical crisis from which he never emerged. He died several days later.
In their independent report commissioned by Aurora City Council and released last month, authors Jonathan Smith, Dr. Melissa Costello and Roberto Villaseñor found significant flaws in virtually every aspect of Aurora's response and investigation into McClain's death. But in the section labeled "Administration of Ketamine," they discussed possible alternatives to ketamine rather than the specific risks associated with it. As of September 2020, "the City has placed a moratorium on the use of ketamine by emergency medical staff and there is an active debate among public officials on the use of ketamine in law enforcement settings," the document notes. "As the review of the sedative is underway, we urge the City to avoid replacing ketamine with other medications that pose a greater risk to patients and to medical staff."
Ketamine isn't a new drug. As noted in this Wired article, it was first synthesized in 1962. Since then, it's gone through phases of popularity as a recreational drug (users call it "Special K") even as physicians searched for pharmaceutical uses. But even when administered under close scrutiny, its effects can vary widely. In "The VA Ketamine Controversies," Dr. Cynthia Geppert points out, "I have seen patients with chronic, severe depression respond and even recover in ways that seem just a little short of miraculous when compared with other therapies. Yet as a longtime student of the history of psychiatry, I have also seen that often the treatments that initially seem so auspicious, in time, turn out to have a dark side."
Still, Floorwax believes that under proper medical supervision, ketamine can work wonders. He previously received treatments weekly, but he's now down to once a month in combination with an assortment of additional prescriptions. "I put on my headphones, play some Lynyrd Skynyrd, and there you go," he says. "An hour later, you come back down and feel strong again. It's amazing. I feel really lucky."
Right now, Floorwax is hard at work honing a new comedy show in which he'll co-star with two other Denver radio veterans, Greg "Uncle Nasty" Stone and Rich "G-Man" Goins. He's looking forward to hitting stages again, though the idea of doing so in front of an audience following COVID-19 safety protocols seems strange. "I keep thinking about them laughing and those little masks going in and out, in and out," he says.
But he's happy to have the chance to try, and he believes ketamine made it possible. "It's the reason I'm still here," Floorwax concludes.