I started smoking cannabis properly for the first time at university. Though I still count the two tokes I took from a boy a couple years older than me in exchange for some kissing, and the 20 bags we used to split between ten of us in our most rebellious friend’s garage, my real love affair with the drug began there.
Under the supervision of a self-confessed stoner and ‘reformed polysubstance addict’ (still using the same drugs just less of them) I was catapulted into the world of bongs and pipes and edibles; I got the munchies and binged on cheap pizza; I watched David Attenborough and Allen Partridge in dark bedrooms, packed with my friends – laughed until I snorted like a piglet; I lay in so many parks under so many suns; then I was diagnosed with bipolar.
For the next four years I was lost in its capricious sea, tossed mercilessly from vertiginous crest to drowning trough. At eighteen I was juggling newfound freedom, university work, my sense of self, friendships, first loves, mental illness, and the ungraceful metamorphosis from child to adult. These immense pressures were compounded further when I entered my first real relationship, which turned abusive almost instantaneously, and which was founded on a culture of taking drugs that quickly surpassed the expected dabbling of the rest of our friendship group.
I emerged from that period of my life almost four years later with a small-scale drug dependency, a botched suicide attempt and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to add to my traumatic repertoire. When my parents finally succeeded in their many attempts to rescue me from my situation, the first thing I did was stop all the drugs I was used to taking. Though I did slip up, and I did yearn for them for a long time afterwards, I no longer felt I needed to escape everyday life, as so many people with drug dependencies do. I didn’t need to stop taking my antipsychotics in order to use psychedelics, which almost guaranteed me twelve hours away from my boyfriend’s drinking, sulking and screaming – on the condition that we both had good trips. Or abusing MDMA night after night, despite its dwindling effects, trying to suppress my burgeoning suicidal thoughts. Maybe I would have continued or found it much harder if most of my friends had not already settled into their respective lives, securely, by the time I moved back home.
However, the ease of the transition must be solely attributed to the support of my parents. Returning to their adoring arms after being isolated from them for so long was like entering heaven, with the comfort of their garden and dishwasher and clean sheets on my childhood bed.
I am aware I am incredibly lucky to have such wildly understanding parents, whose love alone could assure that, no matter how bad I felt, they were only ever at the end of the corridor. Though I wasn’t rid of the suicidal ideation, I was rid of the fear that I would do something impulsive and that I knew I would regret.
Unfortunately, they remained powerless to curb the effects of all I had been through. I was frequently waking them up in the night – if not from screaming myself hoarse while dreaming in bed, then from appearing at their door like an apparition, like a child who has wet themself.
Having always had night terrors that is where my flashbacks struck most often. While trying to sleep, memories of my abuse would puncture the slippery reality – forcing me to relive them. Or deep within dreamland, without tangible rules, he would come, and it would be worse. Often, I would be too afraid to go to sleep, which would trigger my bipolar and I would be awake for days with insomnia. I would crave sleep so badly I would cry. After a while I was too embarrassed and exhausted, and it felt too commonplace, to wake my parents every time this would happen. Though I would still text them in the night if I had been triggered and would be checked over in the morning, either: awake and excruciatingly tired, still mindlessly watching the TV show that has been playing for the last nine hours, or, finally, finally asleep.
I lost whole days to my cavernous depression as I mourned the loss of what I believed was my first love. I was falling headfirst through the stages of grief as well as processing the abuse, the new PTSD diagnosis, and the still seething bipolar – I was unwell. I was referred for CBT only to be told I was told my case was too severe for the service and discharged back into eternal waiting room that is seeking council for mental illness. I received only half of my sessions for PTSD therapy because my therapist, who complained about other clients to me, simply disappeared. I did not have the will power to attend any more appointments with anymore doctors. I did not want new medication that could take months to work, if they worked at all. I wanted a magic wand waved and to be transported to a land where none of this had happened to me and I didn’t live with my parents, and I owned a dog, and I was equal to (if not more successful than) all my cohort, and marzipan grew on trees.
For all intents and purposes, I was still suicidal. Too scared to live and too afraid to die.
I had continued to smoke cannabis socially with the small group of people I knew back in my hometown when my bouts of hypomania determined I was cured of all ailments and needed to get back to my social life – ASAP! I brought the end of a bag home with me one day, intending to just finish it off, but after another painful and ruminative night I snuck outside to smoke.
I believe mental pain is so unique because it cannot be measured, and that quality means it will always be somewhat underestimated. What we do when we are in mental pain, be it grief, or betrayal, or rejection, is often so impulsive and contradictory to our status quo because we’re trying to escape a pain that cannot be evaded or numbed.
But while most people will experience this kind of inescapable duress as a direct response to external stimuli, those with mental illness experience a prolonged state of suffering. It does not disappear with a brief laugh or moment of levity. If you are unwell, it is constant darkness. And, if it is constant – you will gnaw your arm off like a cornered coyote to get free. Smoking gave me some respite from that, enough that I could get back to sleep.
I found at a time where I was truly at rock bottom cannabis gave me my first foot on the cliff face. When I had no friends, no job prospects, no joy, when I was consumed by an exsanguinating apathy and could not get out of bed – I would haul myself to sit in the garden in my pyjamas, unwashed for a week, and find so much pleasure in the small acts of nature all around me. When all I was holding onto was hurt and anger and grief, for a small amount of time I could relax and let it go. Unlike many people it made me the opposite of anxious, giving me motivation on dark mornings where I would wake up and feel the weight of my anhedonia.
To me then, it was the holy grail.
It did not heal me. It cannot heal bipolar. But it allowed me to find relief from some of the worst symptoms. I had something concrete to weaponize against my flashbacks, something I could fall back on when they were done that was softer than my sweat-soaked mattress. Maybe it sounds stupid, but the pageantry of rolling a joint grounded me when my mind was trying to fixate on everything that was wrong with my life.
Even my parents knew about it and, while they did not facilitate it, they agreed it seemed to help regulate my moods and drove me to carve out a somewhat manageable schedule for myself. (Breakfast, exercise, get dressed, walk dog, dinner, read, bed by 11pm.) I don’t think my mother would’ve allowed me to use cannabis as I did if she had not seen an improvement in my wellbeing. At that point we were willing to try anything.
I don’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or party much, and I did these things even less while I was in recovery. It was my both my indulgence and my vice, but also what enabled me to pantomime reality – it made me feel normal. I was never chasing the high; I was chasing a sense of peace, of normality.
Unfortunately, due to the stigmatization of cannabis in the UK, the research into the benefits for those with mental illness are sorely lacking. There is contradictory research on the subject, but we can assume due to the longstanding illegality of drug in this country that there has been a skewed amount done with that bias in mind. For instance, much of the research into cannabis usage and bipolar focuses on how it can trigger mania and psychosis, and in doing homogenises bipolar I and II – even though those with bipolar II are much less likely to experience these symptoms. Oversights like this continue to stigmatize those with bipolar and obfuscates the key differences between the illness, which must be considered in all areas of research.
Two years of smoking daily later, and I was a different woman. Having discarded and regrown all the atoms from the previous year, I stood before my parents a brand-new star in the sky. Still at the tentative start of my recovery, but active, social, clean, stable, smiling – me, again.
I returned to university and graduated with distinction from my master’s course in the arts. I began to see a therapist and forged boldly ahead to make an amazing group of solid friends, who are accepting of all that I am. I got a flat by myself and started to think about dating again. It wasn’t because of the cannabis, which I now centred my days around, no. I knew that the resilience and strength it had taken to face my trauma and trust that the world would be more kind this time came from within myself, but it had helped.
Although, as I blossomed, so did my fears about my ultimately unhealthy habit. Having always rolled my joints with tobacco, I was now dependant on that too. The more I began to fully enjoy living, and the life I had created, the more I worried about smoking and my health. I worried about cancer. I worried about my increasing tolerance and my inability to take a break. I worried about my memory. I worried about the money I was spending. I worried every time I cancelled plans with friends in order to sit alone and smoke. I worried about worrying. It was clear that the habit was limiting me, and it quickly became the biggest issue in my life that I wanted to address.
Without proper regulation it was no surprise that my comfort blanket had turned into a strangling dependency and, while it still served me, still gave me that feeling of silence and peace, it had begun to intrude upon the parameters of my healthy life. I could not justify the risk of losing my beautiful home from being evicted, because of this now incessant need to sit and smoke in my garden three times a day. (Despite neighbours on both sides!) Slowly, spurred on only by the milestones of my personal recovery, the pros and cons began to shift. It was time to let go.
My psychiatrist, who is a nice, rational, unsmiling and clinical man, was all too ready to help me create a nonjudgmental plan to quit and which I find myself now one month into. Three joints a day will turn to two and two to one and one to none – all in several months so as not to shock my system into a relapse, or to enflame my bipolar.
He also suggested that if this method failed, there was always a short inpatient stay. And though I was not, and am not, unopposed to this option, it would be crushing to have to retreat into the liminality of recovery, so soon after leaving it. Trapped with the world turning, and my friends laughing and living, on beyond the glass.
It is bittersweet, as I know that it took cannabis to get to this point, to get me past a sickness that only those who’ve been touched by it can understand. But also, because I enjoy it and it fuels my motivation and creativity. I feel that, for those who are not mentally ill, it is as credible a pastime as smoking, drinking or gambling (if not less damaging!) and if it weren’t for my bipolar, maybe I could have had a more moderate relationship with it. Perhaps if the usage was legal, regulated and not so greatly overlooked, there wouldn’t be any need for the consequences and shame surrounding self-medication. I still maintain that the benefits it gave me far outweigh the painful uncoupling I am now facing.
I am fortunate to have all the support I need, and have needed, throughout my journey and I know that it will not be smooth. That is the downside to all its good, is the feeling now removing it from my life. But there will always be hubris in advocating for the role of recreational drugs in the treatment of mental health disorders. However, it is a plight that is filled with empathy for the people who shoulder those burdens and a sincere hope that their conquest for reprieve in substance use can be evaluated fairly, and without stigmatization and shame.
Abigail Shaw is a freelance writer from the Wirral who now resides in Manchester completing her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She writes poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction. While her work tends to thrive in dark spaces, she also takes inspiration from her wonderful family and the natural world. Abigail now seeks new opportunities in writing for commission and further freelance work. She enjoys the sound of rain, cool handbags, and religious iconography in vampire films. Tweets @a_hackermann