Cannabis and Me

A cautionary tale

Anita Smith

Reprinted from "Cannabis" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (4), p. 17 

stock photoIn January 1998, when I was 27, I began hearing voices. The first voices I heard told me they were going to kill me. I literally ran out of the warehouse studio I was living in and into the street. I was petrified. I rode the busses all night, trying to escape the voices—but they followed me. I couldn’t figure out how these voices could observe me, hear me, know me. I decided they used ‘mind technology’ to do this. The voices had names and histories—some of them were intriguing, others terrifying.

After four days of this assault, one voice, which identified himself as Noah, seemed to be rescuing me from the voices that threatened to harm me. So when Noah told me to go to the hospital, I did what he said. I went to St. Paul’s Emergency and had myself checked into the psych ward.

After a six and a half week stay, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. This was painful to grasp, and I don’t know if I’ve come to terms yet with that diagnosis.

But I do realize now that I’d been delusional and very sick for at least two years before that first terrifying episode.

Weed—very bad for me

In the summer of 1995, at my film school graduation ceremony, I thought a helicopter overhead was tracing my whereabouts and that my life was on display. But that delusion was mild compared to what followed once the voices arrived.

The summer of ’95 was the first time I’d ever smoked marijuana. Before that I’d been a straight-arrow, hard-working kid—a tree planter, finance clerk in the Canadian Army reserves, university student and now film school grad. But that summer my life changed. I was living in a house with other students; that’s where I was introduced to weed. I started smoking it casually with friends—no big deal. But I can remember even then that I felt people could see me when I was in my bedroom, even if I closed the curtain and door. It felt as though I no longer had privacy, that my life was ‘on record.’

After two years of smoking pot casually, my use increased and became a chronic thing. I think it was because I was getting sick; I found I was slipping into another world and pot made it so pleasurable, like a waking dream. I smoked pot every day during the week (I managed to straighten up for a weekend care aide job). I smoked first thing in the morning, right before bed and anytime in between that I could—probably nine times a day.

My life started to deteriorate. I decided to live in a van for the summer and then moved into a warehouse space in the Downtown Eastside that had no kitchen or bathroom. I proudly called myself a “starving artist”—but, in fact, I was losing touch with reality. And the stressful street scene in that neighbourhood really upped my paranoia.

Interlude: still, I wonder . . .

I often wonder whether I’d even have schizophrenia today if I hadn’t been smoking a lot of marijuana back then. I’ve been doing some research, and there is information out there that says marijuana may cause psychotic illness.1

You’d think that after being diagnosed with schizophrenia I’d lay off the pot. But smoking pot was part of my lifestyle. It was how I socialized, relaxed, had fun and related to the world. I would play records, write screenplays and daydream about making it in show business as a Canadian screenwriter.

When I was diagnosed, no one told me marijuana could cause psychosis.1 Or that someone with a mental illness shouldn’t use pot because it makes the symptoms worse and recovery more difficult.1 Although, I don’t know if I’d have listened even if they had told me. I was given antipsychotics and antidepressants—and I continued to toke up whenever I had a chance.

The seductive world of weed and psychosis

Smoking marijuana got me into a terrible state: I was in and out of the hospital system 11 times over the next 12 years.

When I smoked the voices and hallucinations were amplified and took on a life of their own. I believed what the voices were saying to me. Increasingly, I gave up on ‘ordinary’ life, would stay at home, smoke weed and retreat into this ‘theatre’ of fun and drama. Late night talk show host Conan O’Brien wanted to marry me (eromatic delusion).2 Famed film director/producer George Lucas wanted to mentor me. My days came to revolve around the delusions and voices, as I went deeper and deeper into my psychotic world.

An awakening of sorts

Five years ago, I got pregnant. Because of the pregnancy, my psychiatrist recommended that I stop all medication. I was still smoking pot, however. The delusions were growing stronger and stronger, and the voices were now with me 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They threatened to kill my unborn child and me.

I travelled to a homeless shelter in another province, trying to outrun the voices that ravaged my mind—20 voices speaking all at once, non-stop. The wild visual hallucinations—like the fancy dinner parties where secret societies used mind technology to ‘own’ people—were unbearable. These voices were going to ‘own’ me and my child. This was life? I decided to kill myself, to prevent all the future pain my child and I would suffer, to make sure we would die together.

In June 2004 I took an overdose of antipsychotic drugs—and for three days drifted in and out of sleep. In the more conscious moments, I could feel the baby kicking—I was now eight months pregnant. I still thought I was dying—not realizing that antipsychotics weren’t an effective suicide choice. When I awoke, I was full of remorse, shame and guilt.

I decided that I was unfit to be a mother; that my child needed to be raised in a healthy family. I returned to my home province, where I found, through my personal networks, a wonderful family for my daughter. I gave her up for an open adoption, which means that I and my family are part of her life.

I quit the weed—and life is good

I no longer smoke marijuana (though continue faithfully with antipsychotic medication). I was sick of the psychosis—even hospital no longer offered refuge—that in May 2008 I stopped. I’d never have escaped the pull of the voices if I hadn’t.

Giving up marijuana did create a void that I needed to fill. I find other ways to keep myself happy.  I write, volunteer and take classes.

For some people, cannabis can be harmless stuff. But it took me away from everything life had to offer and made me focus only on what was happening inside my head—and that was a pretty scary place.

Since giving up smoking pot , my symptoms have been reduced by at least 50%, which is a life saver. I’m no longer suicidal, and the terror and fear I used to feel is gone. I’m enjoying mental well-being. And I’m able to enjoy seeing my daughter grow up. Giving up marijuana was the best thing that ever happened to me!

 
About the author

Anita is a writer and artist. She volunteers at the Canadian Mental Health Association, Burnaby Branch Volunteers in Partnership program, takes writing classes and enjoys walking the Granville Island seawall. Anita has written screenplays and poetry, and in the fall will be a member of Vancouver Coastal Health’s Art Studios

 

Footnotes:
  1. Kelly, S. (2005). Cannabis and psychosis. BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. www.bcss.org/documents/pdf/CannibisandPsychosis.pdf
  2. Eromatic delusion: the belief that someone, usually of higher status, is in love with you.

 

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