The first time I smoked was pretty uneventful. We were in my friend’s basement, crowded around a circular wooden table. Her parents were safely at work, and we had stocked up on stoner snacks from the local CVS. We were set to get high for the first time. I was incredibly nervous. My fingers were independently shaking, and my stomach periodically seized in fear.
The moment came, and the joint was lit. My friend took the first hit — her first ever. She held it in for a few seconds and then doubled over coughing. She was still coughing when it was my turn. I hesitantly plucked the smoking joint from between her clenched fingers, and took a moment to quickly run through the potentially harmful effects of what I was about to do — all the health class presentations and D.A.R.E. workshops begging me to resist drugs, resist drugs, resist drugs, resist drugs …
And then I was thrust back into reality by the sound of my friend’s voice telling me not to waste the weed, to take a hit already. I decided to forget anti-smoking propaganda and held the joint to my lips, navigating its heavy smoke with my tongue. Someone more experienced told me to inhale so I did, pushing the tainted air into my lungs, causing me, too, to cough, but not as severely as my friend did before me.
I can’t say that I felt high after the hit — I didn’t feel dizzy or confused or euphoric like I had anticipated. I felt pretty much normal. The piles of food didn’t look any more appealing to me than when we had gotten them from the store. At first, I was disappointed — my friends were all playing pingpong, showcasing their slow reflexes and altered depth perception. But then I realized that, for the first time in almost a year, I didn’t feel overwhelmingly anxious.
I couldn’t believe it. I had tried way too many herbal and medical methods to decrease my anxiety, but the weed calmed me down like no other. The churning in my stomach stopped; the tension in my shoulders faded. In that moment, I accepted weed as something that could really help me.
But the relationship between marijuana and mental illness exists in an unusual paradox. Though weed has been found in some studies to improve the mental health of individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD, researchers have also found that it may worsen symptoms over time. In my own experience, I have found this to be true — I am constantly toeing the line between medicinal use and unhealthy self-medication.
My marijuana use crosses into self-medication when I wake up with some of the remnants of yesterday’s depression and immediately turn to weed to soothe my discomfort. I get high to counter the emotional distress I am constantly burdened with. It is easy to justify: As long as I am high, my thoughts are constrained from racing and my mood is elevated. It physiologically prevents me from feeling depressed. It’s a sick cycle, in which the only way to stop a depressive episode is the thing causing me to have more frequent depressive episodes, leading to steadily increasing use over time.
Last week, I finished my classes after going through the day in a funk. I had woken up with a feeling of heaviness in my chest and arms and intermittent negative feelings that had me in and out of tears all day. I was walking back to my house, my heart pounding from the exertion but not as hard as my thoughts, firing off like bullets from an automatic weapon one after the other, begging me to end it all.
And then, I find myself in a cloud of skunk-like smoke, my lungs crying out in pain but my bad thoughts evaporating like stray pool water on a hot day. In this case, without marijuana to shift my mood in another direction, I would have spent my night suffering, desperately clinging to my bedframe, trying to stay afloat in a violent sea of destructive thoughts, searching for some kind of life preserver to reel me in.