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What You Should Consider Before Trying Medical Marijuana

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Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

More and more states have been jumping on the medical marijuana train over the last decade. What’s more, some states have even legalized recreational use. Here in Los Angeles, the place I now call home, there are dispensaries on every corner and CBD cold brew offerings on plenty of café menus. Marijuana has done wonders for patients with chronic pain and anxiety disorders, among other ailments. But legal or illegal — recreational or medicinal — not everyone is designed to benefit from this drug.

This February, I celebrated my third-year weed-free and this spring I’ll be another year older. Had I been alone the last time I got high, there’s a chance I would have remained 25 forever, which is to say that weed made me a danger to myself. My last attempt at getting stoned turned into what I can confidently refer to as the scariest night of my life.

I guess I should give you a short family history I’ve patched together over the years, despite my parents’ attempts at burying dark secrets. To this day, the full story of my Grandma Helen remains obscured by my parents’ lies about her death. As the youngest in my family, my parents were never forthcoming with the details of her passing. In my early 20s, I learned from a cousin that Helen took her own life after years of psychotic episodes and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). While I’ve had issues with mild depression and anxiety, psychosis wasn’t something I ever talked about in therapy because I’d never experienced any of the symptoms before that harrowing February night.

I was living in upstate New York when I had my first and only psychotic episode. It didn’t come on out of nowhere — well, not exactly. I was with a few friends from work and we had endured a particularly rough Saturday brunch shift at the most popular café in town. It wasn’t customary for me to light up after work, but since a few of my co-workers were planning to pick up weed, I decided to join in on the would-be fun time. It didn’t take long after the first hit to realize I would not be having a fun time after all.

It was as if something swallowed me. I felt like I was seeing the world through the viewfinder of a camera — one with a fisheye lens and an ultra-bright flash. I didn’t last long at my friend’s house before I needed to be picked up. A close friend walked me home the best she could as I continued to fall deeper into psychosis. The fur on her winter coat was changing from tan to purple. Random names were springing to mind, Mommy being the most prominent and Courtney — an old grade school friend — being the second runner up. I blurted these things out seemingly against my will, unable to control my mouth, my body or my mind.

What should have been a 10-minute walk doubled. It couldn’t have been more than 15 degrees outside and Megan was guiding my stiff body along the frozen sidewalks in downtown Albany — my friend wearing the color-changing jacket and me in a tank top and leggings. I was hot, my mouth was dry and my mind was racing. By the time we reached my house, I could barely form real words. It was as if a million random, mostly scary thoughts and images were bombarding me. There was too much racing by for me to catch anything long enough to express it coherently.

Inside my bedroom, it felt like someone else took over my mind. I started going through waves of emotions that looped, coming back more intensely each time. There was the happy Kim who was skipping around and laughing uncontrollably. Then there was the threatening Kim who dredged up every reason I had to be mad at Megan and sneered in her face, making fun of her. There was also a sentimental swing, a sad swing and a violent swing. The second time the violent swing came on, I twisted my necklace around my neck as hard as I could. I paced. I think I could have taken my life. The bombardment of foreign emotions and the complete loss of control I felt that night helped me understand how seemingly stable people succumb to violent temptations at vulnerable times.

In 2017, medical professionals at Columbia University studied the effects of marijuana on individuals at high risk of developing a psychotic disorder. These individuals experienced anxiety and paranoia when under the influence — two things I mildly experienced when I smoked weed heavily in college. In addition to the anxiety and paranoia, there were signs of psychosis, including disrupted sensory perception. While there is still a lot of work to be done on the subject, these findings at least provide a warning to people that are predisposed to psychosis. Marijuana is not always a good-time drug. Not everyone can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

The effects of my psychotic episode lasted for six to eight hours, over the course of which I was heavily supervised. I fell asleep for only half an hour, with the remaining hours filled with delusions that I could find a key and unlock a door that would lead to freedom. I shook, I dry heaved, I froze under a pile of blankets and simply could not warm up. I talked about my funeral. I spoke nonsense words that were mostly made up of vowels. I honestly contemplated asking for an exorcist, though I’m not even sure those exist in Albany, New York in the 21st century.

In the morning, the episode was more or less over. I felt thankful to be alive. I felt fragile. It seemed like one wrong thought could tip my world upside down once more, dumping me into that unknown space again. While I can’t say for certain that I carry a gene that makes me predisposed to psychosis, I can venture a guess that my history of mental illness and my grandmother’s psychosis is what makes marijuana the wrong drug for me.

For anyone struggling with mental health issues, and especially those with family members who have experienced bouts of psychosis, I hope you will consider my story the next time someone passes you a joint at a party or on your walk home from work. Ask yourself if the people around you will be willing to endure what my friend Megan did the night I got swallowed by the high.

Fortunately, I don’t think about that night very often — only on the rare occasion that my friends take out weed at a gathering. Still, with LA being the weed-friendly city it is, my eyes have been opened to a different culture surrounding the drug. Regular users who benefit from marijuana can tailor the THC content to their liking and go for CBD-only products if THC is not for them. It makes me wonder if my perfect marijuana product does exist. But as a second-year LA resident — nearly three years from the incident — I still can’t bury that February night deep enough to bring a joint to my lips.

Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash

Originally published: May 16, 2019
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