As somebody who has experienced psychosis first-hand in recent years, I have no doubt that cannabis had a large part to play. I cannot prove it, of course, and trying to talk to Mary-Janists about it is quite difficult, as I was diagnosed with “Manic Depression” in my teens. Cannabis worshipers will insist that my “predisposition” to mental illness is the primary cause of my recent psychotic experiences.
I am trying to unravel the sequence of events that led to me being locked in a shabby, overcrowded, ill-staffed National Health Service psychiatric ward in late 2016/early 2017. It is very difficult, but one must start at the beginning:
Once upon a time, I was a quiet child, who excelled in sports and could string together good sentences every now and again. I received a certificate at the end of my first year in a boys’ secondary school in east Hertfordshire, given by my departing English teacher, who was called Ms. Prole. It was certified that I was “Most Daydreaming Pupil.”
I was a child who lived inside his imagination, thought deeply about things. I had a fair number of friends, most of them being at least two years older than I. We would break into old bomb shelters, explore hard, found a small wood that contained concrete bunkers, and convinced ourselves we had discovered secret, disused American airbases. I would go on long bike rides, often finding great secluded bodies of water that contained hard-to-catch fish. I played for a local bottom-of-the-league football (soccer) team on often flooded fields that used to be paddocks.
Then something changed. My granddad died when I was 12. Losing a wonderfully wise man whose wisdom I took for granted—well, it hit me really hard. My thoughts seemed to be constantly focused on death. Over the course of the next year or so, my behaviour changed drastically. I became extremely undisciplined, argumentative. I got suspended from school on several occasions. With the help of an Educational Officer, psychiatrists and psychologists took an interest in me. After I had a few sessions with various medical professionals, my parents were informed with confidence that I had a condition called Manic Depression, and that it was caused by a chemical imbalance/deficiency of a salt in my brain. After being sure that my heart, kidney, and liver were free from defects, they prescribed me lithium carbonate.
I took the medication most days between the ages of 14 and 18.
At first, my behaviour did not improve, and it was decided that I should spend time in an adolescent unit of the psychiatric wing of a hospital near St. Albans. It was a very strange place; most of the resident children there were unwanted orphans, I seem to remember. A lot of the nurses were very heavy-handed in their restraint techniques, and doctors loved nothing more than to sedate those of us not willing to take part in various group activities. The heavy-handed ways, the use of an exclusion room, and the sedation syrup, for even the smallest of infractions: It makes me question the ethics and morals of some of the staff, but nothing I was privy to was against the law as far as I can tell. There were some stories in the news recently about the police investigating historic abuse allegations. I can’t testify to being abused, but it certainly wasn’t the holiday camp that the staff tried to portray to my parents. Maybe the memories of that place would have been a lot worse without a father and mother looking out for me.
After a couple of months, I was back to school. I was the shadow of my former daydreaming self, true, but I no longer displayed as much unruly behaviour. I had lost virtually all my friends, and I was increasingly paranoid, increasingly withdrawn. I was already behind in my schoolwork, and I wasn’t able to catch up. By the time I was 15, I had the choice of resitting the year or joining another school out of the area 18 miles away, to be in a fourth year where nobody knew me. So I opted to leave a pretty decent, boys-only comp with a Christian ethos to go to a mixed comp that used to be a grammar school but which had become a third-rate egalitarian mess.
It is safe to say that I did not respond well to the lowering of educational standards. By the final term of my second attempt at being a fourth-year pupil, I was asked to leave. I left the school at the age of 16 without the experience of the fifth year. Then I went to the regional college for two years and completed a couple of National Vocational Qualification modules in I.T. But I spent most of my college time in the library or playing basketball in the gym.
The point here is that I am not convinced I was mentally ill. Maybe I was, but I do not think that medication/psychiatric treatment helped me. The major thing that helped me become a less self-destructive force was time. I think the death of a close family member had really haunted my mind, and I did not know how to deal with it. My childish poetry turned dark and very cryptic then; unfortunately, the caring adults in my life who were interpreting my private words without my permission were totally off the mark in concluding that my literary expression was a sign of my being suicidal. I was certainly crying out for help, but my words were actually full of fear about death—not a single syllable expressed a desire to die.
I wasn’t sleeping much, and prolonged lack of sleep can affect behaviour a lot. I stopped playing football, I stopped going on adventures, I stopped daydreaming. Lack of exercise can cause serious problems, especially in a child who was once very active. Add puberty to the mix, and…
I do not think lithium was the answer to whatever was happening to me. And how did the medication affect the development of my fragile brain? I guess that question is impossible for me ever to answer.
I was lucky to have a good family GP who was close to retirement, a doctor from an older generation who was in agreement with me when I told him that I would be better off without medication. As soon as I was 18, he helped me gradually decrease my doses until I was on the medication no more.
By this point, I lacked a lot of confidence but had no problem finding work (with the occasional kick up the backside from my father). After running into a few dead ends, I eventually became a cellarman/barman in an unusually well-run small pub that was slightly off the beaten track. In my mid-20s, I moved to Manchester with my licensee certificate in hand, but instead of running a pub, I ended up working in a mind-numbing call centre on behalf of a royal Scottish bank. By the age of 30, I was a homeowner. On paper, things seemed good. I even heard from a reliable source that my parents were proud of me.
I was unhappy, though. The relationship with my supposed future wife was on the rocks. I was tired of being a battery chicken trying to get people into debt. I was drinking too much. I had put on a lot of weight. I think I might have been slightly depressed.
Then, one evening, there was a TV show on presented by Stephen Fry about living with “Bipolar Disorder” (The new name for Manic Depression). I think it was on at about the same time that the Disability Discrimination Act came into force. I’d been struggling with timekeeping and discipline at work. Home life was not happy. I was a little drunk and somehow became convinced it was a good idea to talk about my “mental health history” with my partner and to my manager at work. Things went downhill very quickly from there. I went to a doctor, got referred to a psychiatrist. After a 30-minute consultation, it was decided that I had a mild version of Bipolar Disorder known as “Bipolar II.” And lithium carbonate was being prescribed to me once again. It didn’t agree with me, and I abruptly stopped taking it. Bad idea.
I was a mess. The memories of that time are particularly foggy. I became more withdrawn, significantly less communicative. It caused me to be off work for several months. I was often described as lazy, and I had the tendency to be snappy, overly aggressive over the smallest of things whilst appearing to be indifferent to naturally stressful situations. After about two years I had split with my partner, taken my name off the mortgage agreement. I struggled to stay in a regular job because of my erratic, self-destructive behaviour. I was on benefits for a couple of years.
Eventually, I got a job as an assistant manager— in a betting shop, of all places. It was an interesting few years, but working for a morally challenged employer can eventually take its toll on one’s spirit.
This is when I “gave up.” I would get a sick note from my local medical centre once a month claiming I was depressed, etc. I started claiming Employment Support Allowance and Housing Benefit for my “disability.” It was more than enough to exist on as part of a house share in a diverse student area in south-central Manchester. At some point, a cannabis smoker moved into the house I was barely existing in. It didn’t become long before an occasional toke turned into a regular habit. It took a year or so, but I eventually became undoubtedly mentally ill. I was not self-medicating, mind you; I smoked weed because I enjoyed smoking it. I loved getting “high.”
My behaviour gradually started changing for the worse over the course of about half a year of this. I went to doctors complaining of anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, etc. I told them about my cannabis habit, too. The young, funky doctor referred me to a young, hip psychiatrist, who after five minutes of questions decided that quetiapine (U.S. brand name Seroquel) might be the answer to my woes. I wasn’t getting any better, though, and I gradually stopped taking the medication. Instead, I started smoking cannabis again.
I was under the influence of what I’ll call acute mania not long after reading “The Cameron Delusion.” I am fortunate that was the last book I read before I became, once again, undeniably mentally ill.
For several weeks from the beginning of November 2016, I’d been displaying increasingly strange behaviour—in public, but mainly at home. At the height of my illness, it felt like I was inside a vivid daydream, like I was fast asleep and wide awake at the same time. I was aware I was ill, though, so I sought help again. It was eventually decided that I should be “sectioned” but I disagreed, so a bunch of health workers accompanied by police officers came to my front door. One policeman with impeccable customer-service skills informed me I would have to be restrained with cuffs for my own safety, and I was thus escorted into the back of a police van. The police chauffeured me to hospital, where I became a reluctant resident/client in a locked ward for about six or seven weeks.
There I was forced to take a cocktail of four mind-altering drugs on a daily basis. A psychiatrist would see me for about five minutes once a week. I was told after the sixth or seventh short consultation that I could be released under the condition that I carried on taking the drugs. A social worker visited me on two occasions in the two months after my release from hospital to ensure it.
Assured I was taking the medication, the visits stopped. I didn’t mention to the social worker that I was gradually lowering the doses I was taking. The medications I’d been prescribed when leaving hospital in 2017 were called diazepam, valproate, and olanzapine; I do not recall the doses. Reading the lists of possible side effects on the information leaflets did not fill me with optimism! I was worried how the drugs could interact with each other, too, and I was not made aware of the possible side effects of the combination of the drugs, which made me all the more determined to not take them.
Within days of the social worker’s last visit, I had weaned myself of the medication completely. It took several months, but eventually I got a job. And I have been well, in full-time employment for about about 30 months now, or two-and-a-half years (whichever sounds most impressive). I don’t use cannabis anymore either, of course.
And I haven’t knowingly talked to a doctor since my time in hospital. Mind-altering drugs just do not agree with me. If I ever lose my mind again, I hope that psychiatrists in charge of my care will grant me but one wish. By all means, encourage me to have a mild sedative or two if I am finding it difficult to sleep over a prolonged period of time, but please do not force me to take drugs that fill me full of fear.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.