I'm not anti-drugs, but smoking skunk made me completely lose my mind

I don’t hate marijuana for what happened to me, but more people should be aware that it isn't always benign and cheerful

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The Independent Online

I lost my mind.

The phrase is criminally overused, I know, but there is simply no other way to describe what happened.

It was profound and immediate. I did not know who I was, nor did I recognise the faces of the people around me – friends I’d known for years. We were loitering beneath the designated pot-smoking bleachers behind the school. But I no longer knew where I was.

A tidal wave of panic had engulfed me, accompanied by suffocating paranoia (I am going to be this high for the rest of my life, I thought crazily. This is not going to go away). My heart was beating impossibly fast and I felt faint and dizzy. I was frightened. There seemed to be an invisible but impenetrable screen between me and everything else. I was certain I was dying.

Then I blacked out.

I was told afterward that I spent those lost moments in the throes of panic, foaming at the mouth and pleading with friends to “get me out of here.” But there was no “here” to get away from.

There was nowhere to go, no external threat to evade. I was terrified of what was happening in my mind. But I ran anyway, back to school where I was apprehended, restrained, and rushed to the hospital.

My heart rate had increased to well over 200 bpm by the time I was admitted to emergency. I begged the nurse to knock me unconscious. I threatened to jump out the window. I couldn’t handle the naked terror I was feeling.

It was a full-blown psychotic episode. I lost my mind.

The event proved traumatising. I had only smoked a small amount, but I have never been the same. It was highly potent skunk. And it changed my life forever.

I was in the ninth grade when this happened, but I was no amateur. Even though I was young, I’d done my fair share of drugs before. Yet nothing has ever made me feel that insane and scared. Nothing.

I began suffering daily panic attacks and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that I still suffer from today. Fortunately, the severity of panic ebbs and flows. I’ve been stable for years without the assistance of medication, but in 2010 I couldn't leave my house without being heavily sedated first (I used either alcohol or prescription tranquilisers).

I was jeered and bullied when I returned to school after a lengthy suspension. I was that wimpy geek who couldn’t handle his weed. But such minor social embarrassment pales in comparison to the years of chronic anxiety I’ve experienced since.

I met a friend soon afterward who I’ll call John. He’d had a similarly traumatic experience and confided to me that he’d suffered “weed-induced psychosis for a year.” I’d see him at parties and we’d stand together forlornly, declining sporadic bong offers and wondering what the hell had happened to us.

John referred to his experience as “the time I burned my mind.” I knew that pothead lingo referred to the chronically stoned as “burn outs,” but I interpreted John literally. I imagined the burnt out circuitry of our ruined brains, scorched synapses, grey matter charred black.

The author when he was 14

I’ve since learned that individuals with a history of mental illness in their family (John and I both inherited anxiety) are more susceptible to traumatic episodes like this when smoking potent marijuana. I wish I’d known that before I’d gone to the bleachers.

Given that my siblings have anxiety disorders too, I likely would have eventually developed anxiety anyway, but I believe that the weed episode made the panic far worse.

When an individual suffers an attack for the first time, he or she does not know what is happening. It is an intensely frightening and lonely experience.

Studies have shown that the severity and length of that very first attack can have reverberations that last years, even decades. The first attack sets a governing precedent for all subsequent attacks. And when that first attack is as severe and borderline psychotic as mine was, it takes a very long time to recover and learn how to cope with chronic anxiety.

Friends of mine who habitually smoke marijuana snort derisively when I tell them this story. They don’t believe me, or they accuse me of exaggerating. This probably has to do with the prevailing attitude toward cannabis in Western culture. Pot is roundly considered a benign, cheerful drug. It’s almost wholesome.

Stoner comedies emphasise this common perception, with titles like Half Baked, Smiley Face, Pineapple Express, Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar (among others) featuring genial slackers who become goofy and relaxed when they get high.

I’m not against any of these stoner comedies, and I’d never want to come across like I'm fear mongering. To the best of my knowledge, marijuana has never killed anybody, and I can't see how it ever would. But what I do know is that the stronger stuff like skunk can have devastating mental consequences for certain individuals.

I don’t hate marijuana for what happened to me. I believe that it should be legalised, but it should be categorised and packaged according to potency (in a manner similar to how alcohol percentage is measured and displayed), so that individuals susceptible to anxiety and other mental illnesses might avoid burning their minds.