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Friday, January 13, 2006

A Living Loss - Cannabis Psychosis
(First published in "Out of the Chrysalis" 17/5/2004. Updated for this Blog)

This morning, as I drove back from my son's school through leafy country lanes shining with the inner light of spring,I was so overwhelmed with sadness that I had to pull over and cry. Nature fills me up with a sense of the divine, of dimensions of bright radiant beauty. It calms me and conversely elevates me to a state of near bliss. I drink it in with a hunger for its healing. It has always been so. So why did it reduce me to tears of the deepest darkest sorrow this morning?

I was thinking about my little brother, my brown eyes sparkling, much loved brother, third youngest of our tribe. I was thinking about how he no longer sees the beauty of the morning, no longer connects to the deep sweet reality of nature, no longer vibrates with the sheer joy of being alive. Our brother has been lost to us for 15 years following his descent into the hell of drug induced psychosis. He is now42 and his journey into the darkness began at the age of 15 with the sharing of a joint with a few of his friends. Out of all the millions of people in the world who have safely taken this drug, there are some who have a genetic predisposition to an entirely different biochemical reaction which leads to dependency and in this case, schizophrenia. There is currently no test that predicts this outcome, so that first joint is a game of Russian roulette with our lives.

My brother grew up to be a respected, talented business man,in line for the position of CEO of his company. He married his soul mate and he had two beautiful daughters. He lived in a lovely home and was surrounded by supportive loving family and friends. He had a fine mind, a healthy body, a mischievous sense of humour and a magically attractive personality. He was also addicted to cannabis from the moment he smoked that first joint. As his mind became accustomed to it, he took it in ever increasing quantity. His wife knew; some of his friends knew, but no one else in the family knew. It was not until he was in his thirties that we started to see the first signs of trouble.

His work became erratic and he was demoted. He stayed up late at night and his sleeping patterns became disrupted. He would alternate between almost manic highs and a horrible bitter victim mentality, resenting everyone around him, blaming everyone but himself for the state of his life. One morning, he started to express himself in a way that I had never heard before. Alarm bells rang and the family discussed what was going on. The consenus was that he was stressed because of his work situation, his deteriorating marriage; I thought it was more than this but like the others I was not yet ready to face the reality of mental illness.

Then I received a call from his wife, panicked and frightened. He had been up all night, continuously smoking hash, playing his music so loudly that no one could sleep in their home or in his neighbours. He was watching the television and telling her about the messages he was getting from people on screen. He was to tell the world that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that the end of the world had come. She was Eve and he was Adam and they would start the world anew. I told her to take the girls to her mother's house and I would get help.

I called two of my brothers and we went round to his house together. Those hours are burned on my mind forever. In place of my gentle, mischievous little brother, there was a wretched, delusional, wild eyed, mad man. I vividly remember how painful it was as we waited for our family doctor to arrive; how torn I felt signing the certification that would commit him to a psychiatric hospital; the struggle we had persuading him to come with us in the car rather than be taken away in an ambulance. We sat with him. we held him; we listened to his ranting all the way to the bleak psychiatric hospital on the edge of the most god forsaken wind blasted moorland. It seemed like the entry to a kind of hell and that precisely reflected the emotional hell we were also entering. It took six months to stabilise his condition so he could be released but even in the hospital, he continued to access and use cannabis. He was told that he still had the possibility of a full recovery if he stopped but he couldn't overcome his addiction. Within the year, we were going through the same nightmare and this time we lost him forever. He is now diagnosed as a severely paranoid schizophrenic; he has been unable to work since; he cannot concentrate long enough to read or to pursue a hobby; he has lost his wife who stayed by him for many years until she accepted that she needed to create a life for herself and their daughters. He has little or no quality of life. He is often very afraid and he still continues to be addicted to cannabis which he now argues is a sacred herb which enables him to do his healing work.

Medication damps down the full force of his delusions; it stops him accosting strangers in the street telling them that he is their saviour; it stops him visiting sick people or their relatives to distress them with his statements that they have been cured; it stops him from frightening himself and others with the wildness of his behaviour. The price we all pay for this amelioration of his symptoms is a sad, pale, distant shadow of the brother we love. The medication numbs him and dulls down his response to everything; his world becomes a flat, featureless, grey landscape. This lasts only as long as he is on a legally enforceable order which ensures he takes his medication. As soon as this expires, he refuses to take his meds and we see the same hopeless, pain-filled cycle repeat itself. Sometimes he goes to hospital voluntarily and sometimes it is in an ambulance after a difficult process of persuasion; sometimes it is handcuffed in the back of a police car after a nightmarish chase which distresses everyone involved, including the officers for whose kindness and sensitivity I normally have the highest praise.

When he is in hospital, he is difficult and disruptive, agitating other patients and distressing their relatives with his insistence on "healing" them. The hospital has to increase their security when he is in hospital because he is highly intelligent and arranges to have his cannabis smuggled
in which he then shares with other patients, even those who do not normally use it. Unless he is on close observation, he escapes at least once on each hospitalisation, leading to police knocking on my elderly parents' door in the middle of the night. Then we begin a well rehearsed pattern as family and friends search his usual haunts. On one famous occasion, we had to return a stolen car which he used to get away from the hospital. We then endured a court case at which he was declared unfit to plea due to his insanity. Our parents are 83 and 77 respectively; his girls are 18 and 14. What price do they pay?

He lives alone; he is permanently unemployed; he lives on state benefits and if he did not have his family, he would be another derelict sleeping rough. This is an enormous price to pay for a recreational drug.

The block to my heart connection has been my need to tell this story, to reach into the minds of at least some of the young people who might be thinking that cannabis is harmless. So many of my own generation smoked it and they find it hard to accept that it has the potential to create such devastation. How then do they explain to their children that they are at risk if they follow in their parents' foot steps?
I do not take a judgemental or moralistic stance on this. I believe in freedom of choice with this one rider; it must be fully informed choice. Don't just look at all the people who have been unharmed by this drug; come visit my poor, mad brother and see what your future might hold. I spent two hours with him on Saturday and came away feeling as though I had been drained of my life blood. Yes it is just a small chance that you will be the one to have this predisposition; yes it is statistically low; yes it is unlikely .... but you will never know the outcome unless you take the chance and having taken the chance you have pressed the trigger and there is no turning back from the outcome. My brother pulled that trigger at the age of 15 and we entered a circle of hell with him. It's your choice. Chose with wisdom and love.
Do not smoke cannabis in your early teens. Your brain is still developing and you risk permanent disruption of the dopamine receptors, leading to mental illness.
Do not touch illegal drugs of any kind if you have a familial history of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, but do not think that no family history safeguards you. We had no prior know incidence of schizophrenia in our family.
Stay clear of drugs. You do not know what effect they will have specifically on you. This is playing Russian Roulette, only the bullet does not just blow your brain away, it destroys the hearts of everyone who loves you.

Please print this and circulate it to your children and to their friends. Reprint it freely wherever it will reach even one person who might be helped by it. As for me, I have entered my heart space and told my story. Now I can breathe again.
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