08 Aug Reefer Cures Madness

First published in issue 7
of ISMOKE magazine

A Personal Account Of How Cannabis Saved Me.

First of all I will explain a little about me – I am what you might call a fully-fledged cannabis smoker, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2008, but did not begin smoking on a regular basis until 2010. Despite an initially rocky relationship with the plant, there is now no doubt for me that the so called ‘drug’ has medicinal value, not only for people with mental illnesses, but for an unspeakable amount of people all over the world, suffering with an untold variety of different conditions. I truly believe that cannabis saved me, I able to live a normal and happy life because of it, it helps me to see clearly, for others it eases the pain, lessens the symptoms, for some it heals. I have come to realise that cannabis being illegal is one of the greatest injustices of our time. How can it possibly be just to deny people any form of medicine? Am I to spend the rest of my life classed as a criminal? I have tried to give an honest, personal account of my experiences with cannabis -as someone with a mental illness – and I hope it will go some way to proving that for one person at least, cannabis is not harmful!

‘Bipolar Disorder’ is a label I am still reluctant to succumb to, yet the diagnosis seems to fit well:

In bipolar or manic-depressive disorder, major depression alternates with uncontrollable elation, or mania. Symptoms of depression include loss of interest and pleasure in life, sadness, irrational guilt, inability to concentrate, appetite loss, lethargy, and chronic fatigue. Manic symptoms include sleeplessness, tirelessness (until exhaustion leads to a breakdown), and recklessly gregarious and expansive behaviour, which sometimes turns to irritability, rage and paranoid delusions.

There are many descriptions of the disorder that I could have used; I borrowed this one from an article by Lester Grinspoon, M.D. & James B. Bakala, entitled ‘The Use of Cannabis as a Mood Stabilizer in Bipolar Disorder: Anecdotal Evidence and the Need for Clinical Research‘ and so, it seemed quite appropriate and fits the bill well. At one time or another I have experienced all of the above symptoms, sometimes I wouldn’t even realise I was experiencing them until I looked back on it. Months at a time could go by, I’d feel normal, but I’d be doing everything at a million miles an hour, cramming my days with activities, spending my money like water, feeling invincible. But then my world would all come crashing down around me. What had I been thinking? What had I been doing all these months, racking up debts I couldn’t pay; thinking I was spectacular, but now I felt worthless.

I will not self-indulge in a long detailed account of my history or what I feel may have led to my behaviour. I will simply say that I experienced some difficulties while growing up, as many of us do. I believe no one individual’s hurts should be devalued by another’s who may seem more or less severe- we are all human after all and are all affected in different ways by the events in our lives. Besides, it is hard to say what really triggered my bipolar, it could have been events in my past, it could be hereditary – there is a history of mental illness in both sides of my family – just a chemical imbalance in my brain perhaps.

Since my diagnosis I have searched for answers, reading and watching all I could about people who also lived with this type of mental illness. But the subject still seemed so taboo and to this day I still prefer to keep my diagnosis to myself, fearing what assumptions others may make of me – many times in my life I have been left feeling awkward when people, not knowing that I have the disorder myself, have talked about it as if everyone who has it is crazy. ‘Ooh did you hear, so and so’s son has bipolar disorder… it must be hard living with someone like that.‘ Perhaps it is harder to empathise with mental illness than physical. I can certainly say that from my perspective no one has ever truly accepted its effects on me – I must be able to control it somehow, I didn’t have to be feeling that way. I watched a documentary that asked people with bipolar disorder:

If you had a magic button you could press to take away your bipolar, would you press it?

To my surprise many people said no. For some it was a source of inspiration, it fuelled their talents and was a part of who they were. I would like to state, that if such a button existed… I would press it. I imagine it to be a relief, I have often marvelled at how people around me seem so ‘normal.’ I have always craved that. Now, for me, smoking cannabis is that relief, but it took me time to find it.

I remember attending my first counselling session at the age of 14, being made to go after some mild self-harm. I absolutely hated it, I simply felt uncomfortable being asked to explain to a stranger why I was doing what I was doing. I did not know the answers myself; inside I was ashamed and embarrassed. I have always been self-conscious about my ‘illness.’ I only attended one more session, and that was that for a while. I still continued the way I had, but put it down to the fact that I was a teenager. At this time I had dabbled with cannabis – of course – I had encountered it at house parties, I hung around with an older crowd and some of my friends liked to smoke it. I have to admit although I had tried it now and again; it was more for show than anything, a toke here and there to make sure I fitted in. To be honest I was a little scared of it, I knew that members of my family had had bad experiences with smoking cannabis in the past, I remember hating the dryness it gave me in my mouth, and so seeing no other benefits I disregarded the ‘drug’ as pointless and not worth my time. The few puffs of a joint I had had just made me feel tired, it didn’t make me feel invincible like alcohol did, or on top of the world like ecstasy (which I had also begun trying) and so I never bothered trying it again for a long time.

I am embarrassed to admit that the plant may have even inspired jealousy in me. All I knew is that my boyfriend of the time was smoking it a lot and so were my friends, but I didn’t get it. What was so good about a plant that made my friends not want to go out, and my boyfriend not turn up to meet me? And so I guess a lot of my previous irrationality about weed stemmed from there. It is not that I truly believed smoking the plant to be dangerous, I just developed a dislike for how it made people around me act (not that they were at all a fair sample to base my assumptions about cannabis on.) I had no concept of the vast array of beneficial properties the herb held, like many I was misinformed – or should I say completely uninformed! My life went on, I passed my A levels and went off to university. I had always been pretty independent and living away from home didn’t bother me too much. What I didn’t get on so well with I suppose, was the lack of routine. Of course I had a timetable but social activities took priority over that. My first year was a time of excessive drinking, excessive spending and erratic behaviour and so I decided to see a doctor again.

And so began my nightmare with prescription drugs! Above all else I have always had a desire not to take prescription medication to treat my moods, to be honest I don’t really know why, maybe it was a form of denial, but this time I accepted a prescription of fluoxetine (more commonly known as Prozac.) This drug certainly did not agree with me, I took the suggested dose every day for weeks but only felt more erratic than I had previously, I carried on spiralling out of control, I became more and more of a danger to myself, until eventually it all culminated in a failed suicide attempt- a bottle of vodka mixed with whatever tablets I could get my hands on, a sorry mix of painkillers and the fluoxetine itself. I knew that any prescription medicine came with possible side effects and didn’t put much thought into it. Later I read that any antidepressants may increase the risk of suicide in persons younger than 25. The evidence was based on statistical analyses conducted by two independent groups of the FDA experts in America. They found a 2-fold increase of the suicidal ideation and behaviour in children and adolescents, and 1.5-fold increase of suicidality in the 18-24 age groups. I am very reluctant to blame my suicide attempt on the medication as I feel that would be unfair but suffice it to say that was enough to put me off ever taking fluoxetine again.

After that I was sent to see a psychologist, where I was given my official diagnosis, he tried to prescribe me a variety of medications to control my moods, one was Depakote. This time I flat out refused to take the medication, it may well have been foolish, but looking back I am glad I didn’t. It was not too long now until I would discover the benevolent herb that was to answer all my prayers. Depakote was another drug that came with a long list of undesirable side effects, some listed as ‘common’ include; diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain, increased appetite and weight gain, temporary hair loss – regrowth may be curly, increased alertness, aggression, hyperactivity, shaky movements and unsteady walk (ataxia), drowsiness, confusion, liver disorders, anaemia, acne, increased hair growth and inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). I may have been feeling overcautious but I did not want to run the risk of experiencing any of these side effects. I settled on taking a different type of anti-depressant called Clomipramine, but again I did not like the effect the drug had on me, after taking it I would be nauseous and dizzy, I did not sleep well and even found it gave me blurred vision and the dreaded dry mouth! After finishing what I had I did not continue with the medication. Shortly after this I met my now fiancé, he is the only one who has truly loved me for who I am and for that I am eternally grateful. He dealt with my mood swings well and his love for me never seemed to deviate despite the constant stress I put him under. It also just so happened that the love of my life was a cannabis smoker- in fact he was/is a cannabis fanatic- someone who had already discovered the real wonderful properties of the plant. Finally I had found cannabis.

I won’t pretend that my realisation was instant, or easy. After so long believing that ‘weed’ was a pointless drug, it took me time to adjust to it constantly being a part of my life. I would constantly nag at my partner to stop smoking, I would try to impose rules about the amount he could smoke and when it should be! He already loved smoking recreationally but really he too was just beginning his journey into finding out the truth about cannabis. He began to research and read more and more about the plant and its properties, of course it wasn’t long before he began to realise that there was more to this plant than we could have imagined; its incredible amount of uses, aside from smoking, its medicinal values, the irrationality of its illegality. He shared everything he learnt with me, I was a little slower to catch on but, thankfully his persistence paid off. It is hard to pinpoint when my opinions started to reform, but I think by the time I had had my first trip to Amsterdam I was a changed woman! Not only this but I started to realise that the more I smoked the less I noticed my bipolar disorder, no prescription medication had ever even touched on the herbs effectiveness to control my symptoms. All this and no side effects to speak of, even the dry mouth subsided more quickly than I thought. It truly was wonderful. From then on I knew that cannabis was a viable form of medication, for me, and I do not doubt it is the same for others.

Reflecting on how cannabis has changed my life, I can honestly say it has had nothing but a positive effect. I am thoroughly a more grounded person, so much better able to deal with stressful or upsetting situations than I ever thought I would be. I can think about situations clearly, see and empathise with other people, where before I would have been clouded with unwanted emotion. I have also noticed that the amount of bipolar ‘episodes’ I have has become a lot less frequent, a rarity even. I would be lying if I said I haven’t felt depressed a single time since I started smoking because I have. But the point is how differently I have dealt with it, I haven’t felt out of control, cannabis helps me think rationally, my depression doesn’t take over; it is so much easier to handle. It relieves my anxiety, which used to plague me, I am just generally happier. It also brings into perspective the negative effect drinking alcohol was having on my life- something which I no longer take part in- alcohol led me to act in such a harmful way. Of course I was drunk when I attempted suicide, often after a night out drinking I would find whatever I could to hurt myself with, usually smashing a glass bottle to use the glass to cut my hands. When I think about myself during that time, it is like looking at a different person, if I had continued that way who knows where I would be now.

Smoking cannabis has changed all that, despite what the government and the media would have you believe, getting ‘high’ has actually helped me become much more stable. It certainly does not make me have no ambition or want for success and has never hindered me in securing and holding down desirable jobs. It pains me to think that I, or anybody else in the UK for that matter, are committing a crime every time they light up a spliff, yet could go and buy a bottle of potentially lethal vodka without any questions asked. It is preposterous, that something so dangerous can be very much legal, and something so beneficial, very much illegal. Every day now when I get home from work, I light up my first spliff of the day. Instantly the stress of the day melts away. It certainly doesn’t feel like I am committing a crime when I do this, although technically I suppose I am. Everyone has their ways of unwinding in the evening, I am sure that for many people it might come in the form of a glass of wine and it seems so unfair that they have no need to worry about their way of relaxing, no need to hide it. Sadly that’s not the case for cannabis smokers; I am forced to hide, afraid of how people would react if they knew. In fact I expect that if it was found out that I smoke cannabis by my work colleagues, I would find myself in a very difficult situation. In a previous job I was naïve enough to believe that it would not be problem; one day in idle conversation a colleague mentioned that they had been to Amsterdam and hinted at enjoying the delights of the city’s coffee shops. Thinking that I was speaking with a fellow open-minded person, I foolishly indulged in talking about my own experiences of the coffee shops. This was a mistake. The individual proceeded to tell my manager of the time (despite admitting that they had smoked too, which seemed to be ignored) that I was a ‘weed’ smoker. It turns out this person was not open minded at all, it had only been a one-off trip and their real opinions of cannabis were the kind you would find embedded in newspapers like The Daily Mail. I have seen this kind of hypocrisy before, a boast about smoking the plant on occasion to appear ‘cool’, when in fact they have no idea about the benefits – cannabis is fine out in distant Amsterdam, but not here in the UK. Consequently every problem or ailment that I experienced whilst working there was blamed on cannabis, I would go as far as to say I was bullied, frowned upon and treated like all and any problems I had were all my own fault for smoking. Little did they know that it was cannabis that helped me get up in the morning.

I sincerely hope that things will change. It is a fact that all kinds of people smoke cannabis, there are millions of us all around the UK, and, far from being the stereotype portrayed in the media, a huge proportion are just normal, hardworking, successful individuals, whether they smoke to treat a medical condition or whether they just choose to do it recreationally. Cannabis is a wonderful thing, to so many different people, for so many different reasons. It is hard, as someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder, to explain how truly beneficial smoking the herb is for me. With no outward signs of my illness I have found that many find it harder to relate to the idea that for me cannabis can actually be a medicine. Thanks to the media it is the popular belief that the plant can actually cause mental illness – a claim that I simply do not believe! I hope that by sharing my experiences I can prove that far from causing mental illness, reefer really can cure madness.