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Pothead vs. Pillhead

I've been self-medicating mental illness with weed for almost a decade.

by Caitlin Thornton
Feb 24 2012, 5:00am

The first psychiatrist who diagnosed me as bipolar and suggested I go on lithium ended up facing the wrath of my mom, a master in the art of passive-aggressiveness. “Have you asked her how often she exercises? How healthy she eats?” (She said this while eyeing the McDonald’s Value Meal on the doctor’s desk.) “How much pot she smokes?” The doctor walked us out, empty-handed, with the demeanor of a dog who’d just shat itself.

I was confused. I was fifteen. I was sure pharmaceutical drugs would come of this outing. So in the car I asked my mom what the hell had just happened. “That stuff will turn you into a robot, a zombie,” she said. “You’re not going on lithium—you’re creative.”

“Fine,” I said, trying to give the air of an ultimatum, like I had a choice in anything. “I’m going to keep smoking pot then.”

“Go right ahead,” she said. And for the next nine years, I self-medicated with weed.

Medical research can’t agree on whether this was a good decision. Some of it says the sativa strain will alleviate mood disorders such as bipolar disorder. On the other hand, the brain’s cannabinoid receptors are found in the same places that influence critical thinking and perception, so who knows if weed further impairs those faculties? In any case, one out of three people with bipolar disorder report having at least one suicide attempt. I felt desperate, and wanted some “quick” fix or crutch in whatever form I had available. That turned out to be pot.

Before this appointment, I hadn’t been smoking too often. Just sometimes. Like, on the weekends, in the woods, when my friends and I would then go to someone’s house and watch Half Baked and imagine elves were supplying us with endless pretzels.

Upon hearing this diagnosis and being freshly released from an inpatient youth hospital where the other teenaged patients listened to Marilyn Manson, talked about their dads ripping off their fingernails with pliers, or experienced seemingly frightening hallucinations of zombies trying to munch on their scalps, I consciously took my relationship with pot from a casual encounter to a level of dependency.

To quote Nelly: Every four hours, like a prescription, I smoked.

Blending in and not getting caught for being really, really high all the time was much easier than hiding the pus-filled, stitched-up centipede of a scar that ran down my forearm that originally landed me, involuntarily, in that aforementioned hospital.

I went to college and was stoned most of the time there, too, and found it equally easy to get away with lighting up constantly: Go to class… read some books… do a bunch of “extra-curricular activities”… eat cereal… laugh at things that aren’t even that funny… whatever.

There were the interceding few-day intervals when I would stop smoking to “catch up on work”—write a 30-page paper, a few articles, and do everything else I had been too high and didn’t care enough about to do. And after the first irritating 24 hours of sobriety, the beautiful, glorious rush of this thing I would later be told was mania would take over. There’s no other way to describe it besides: fucking awesome. Creativity is at its peak, and after you finish the work you’re supposed to do, you can’t stop going.

In these periods my nonstop conversations with strangers would always feel so “important” and my mind flooded with so many “great ideas” and I would NOT BE ABLE TO STOP WORKING. There's a reason why I joined a bunch of clubs, had two majors, and three or four paying jobs in college--and it still wasn't enough.

One might think all of these gigs and responsibilities would be healthy outlets for this burst of creativity, this energy—though it's weird to call it energy because that almost sounds positive. But while it feels fantastic to get a lot of work done, and adopt an air of extreme confidence (I can talk to anyone or say anything during these times) it’s an incredibly stressful feeling accompanied by grinding my teeth and barely sleeping, tweaker-style.

Once I rocketed to the top of the world, I’d go out, become friends with strangers, and drink and drink and drink. Then I’d have my tongue down a guy’s throat who was not my boyfriend, my thighs would ache from clenching onto a motorcycle going 118 mph, or I’d wake up in a tent on a beach in Australia, unable to remember how I got there or what town I was in or even simple things like my name or age.

Though these times involved talking to nearly everyone, and acutely feeling ultra arrogant, loneliness always washed over me near the end. Everyone else seemed like they could just go home and call it a night and I couldn't. I’d convince myself this feeling would never end, and everyone suddenly hated me and that I could never really blend in or be “a normal.” This is when I’d get self-destructive, suicidal (I hate that word). Sometimes I'd act out on it and overdose or self-mutilate. Two of these times landed me in the hospital--but there have been more near-lethal actions that didn’t.

A few cases of manic behavior have recently made the news: That rich dude last week who lost his shit at a gift expo and spent $20 million on like throw pillows before checking himself into a mental hospital; the kid from Orange County who’d been missing for a while and was found after he robbed a Subway restaurant; the guy in Detroit who failed to choke his stepson to death but was so out of it he thought he actually did kill the kid. And some people can laugh at these ridiculous stories because they’re clearly kind of nuts, but I get how it feels to forget that actions have consequences. When I’m aboard the crazy train, I either want to fuck something or kill something. I feel like a wild animal. I want to stick my teeth in something living, feel it wriggle and die, rip the meat off with my bare hands, and suck on the bones.

I've never actually injured anyone--I just take it out on myself. I get obsessed with severing off my arms. During one episode, I did tell this one girl who pissed me off at a bar when she had mocked the inflection of my voice that I was going to kill her and her whole family. She was disturbed, and I don’t blame her, and I guess that was my point. It’s not like I’d actually go to the trouble of finding out where she lived, or track down her relatives—in manic episodes, I eat up having power, or framing the world with the illusion that I have it.. When maybe, when I'm just numbed out, I actually feel completely powerless.

I have a kind of love/hate relationship with the mania because while clearly frightening strangers with empty threats is a bad thing, I truly do love the upswing and wish I could bottle it up and drink it forever. My doctor says it's common for people with bipolar to resist medication. It does prohibit depression, but also tones down that heightened feeling that a lot of people are in love with--it just levels you out completely.

Realizing I did need to chill it out, sometimes, I would smoke pot to take off the edge and finally go to sleep. Then I’d crash for a few days and not really get out of bed and eat a fuck ton of munchies. I’m not sure if I can say I was depressed, or down or low (I was high, after all). Just not all the way up. The urge to sever my hands or slit my throat has never been present when I’m stoned. I suppose I’m not as productive, although I can eat soft serve ice cream at an alarmingly quick rate. But still, I guess that self-destructive urge is somewhere in me.

Since I recently had a fun, involuntary sleepover at New York’s favorite psych ward, which was overcrowded with prisoners, prostitutes, and an 80-year-old woman experiencing a Requiem for a Dream-esque episode replete with repeating, “Daddy told me not to go in the kitchen” and sweating so much her hair matted to her head, I realize maybe coming out of the haze and coming to terms with some things I may be simply suppressing when I smoke pot is necessary.

The second doctor who told me I was bipolar—or that I might be bipolar, we can’t be sure till I stay “clean” of mood-altering substances—faced the wrath of me acting like an addict (getting defensive, angry, and denying everything). Even though I’m not an addict. I just don’t want to stop smoking pot. Having spent nearly a decade justifying my stonerdom, to think marijuana could be contributing to anything not-right or awesome inside of me makes my back clench. I realize to break this ongoing cycle, I need to change some habits. So I’ve agreed, for the sake of science, and only temporarily, to not smoke.

Sleeping sucks, nothing tastes as good, and I’ve began eating aspirin like it’s snack time. Work’s been coming easy, my creativity is no longer a shallow hum, but an audible, distinct voice, and my energy is up—and so is the stress and anxiety. I’m so scared of fucking up and doing something stupid, I’ve just been staying in, not meeting strangers or rattling off great ideas, and keeping to myself. I feel like a recluse. I’m suffocating.

My new psychiatrist, who’s not so quick to prescribe me, says he can possibly give me a mood stabilizer for this unwarranted anxiety that would be “similar to pot” (his quotes). In which case, why not just smoke pot? Aren’t there noteworthy amounts of Americans on psychiatric pharmaceuticals who are still miserable? Plus, I doubt their medications make Adventure Time the most soothing 30 minutes of entertainment ever created, or give them the satisfaction of quoting Nelly.