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PHOTO: ‘Resettled Farm Child’ Dorothea Lange, 1935
Trigger Warning: This article discusses self-harm, suicide, and bullying.
If you’ve met me in person, you might not realize that I suffer from severe, chronic depression. Depending on what I’ve worn, you might not think someone so outgoing and openly dorky could possibly be hurting. If you’ve only read my writing, then you’ve only seen the confident, self-reliant side of myself I show to the public. Let me remove my digital cardigan and disabuse you of your assumptions.
I was bullied mercilessly as a child. When I wasn’t isolated and alone, I was being picked on. I was bullied at Girl Scouts, at camp, during sports, during bell choir practice, and everywhere else I had to interact with my age peers. No one, not a single adult, ever stepped in to help me.
When I was nine years old, I tried to kill myself. I failed, and I told no one. When I got to high school, I cut my hair off and started dressing in black. The costume kept most bullies away, but it also ensured that I was still on the outside, looking in. The depression stayed no matter how my social situation changed.
I started cutting myself when I was fourteen and it escalated quickly. I dove into it with the same drive and enthusiasm that I feel for all new things. People found out, so I got smarter about where I did it. I picked places not even my cheerleading uniform exposed: under my breasts, on my feet and ankles.
During my academic career, I was an honors student, a student athlete, a member of student government, the honors society, and the school newspaper. I was also flirting with suicide regularly. I would take handfuls of Tylenol PM at night without telling anyone. I cut my wrists carefully with a special blade, exposing the pulsing blue vein but falling short of severing it. I cut other places over and over, using blood loss as a sleep aid because little else worked.
I tried therapy. My therapists have, in no particular order: refused to talk about anything but my illiterate father, touched my knee and told me I was pretty, fallen asleep with their nose hair whistling while I was talking, asked a 16-year old me to explain both Wicca and bisexuality because she didn’t know what they were, and lectured me about drinking for a full session when I came in upset that a guy had slept with me when I was passing-out drunk. Therapy sucked, and I didn’t have the emotional tenacity to try to find a decent therapist in this city anymore.
I tried a half-dozen antidepressants and even some herbs. They sucked too. Worse, I couldn’t write when I took them. I felt like a zombie all day. I gave up on those, too.
In college, I gave up on helping myself and focused on keeping other people from noticing. Given that I balanced 17 or more credit hours with working to support myself during college and kept my GPA high enough to retain my full-tuition academic scholarship all four years of school, I’d say I was pretty good at it.
Still, a writing professor seemed to see through my careful, confident facade. On the day I graduated, she pulled me aside and none too subtly implied I should look into smoking pot.
I’d tried weed a few times, but it wasn’t really my thing. My ex was a total stoner. She seemed to embody the stereotype of the flighty, lazy pothead. My friends who starting smoking during high school could barely remember it just four years later. I had honestly bought the brain damage line for years and hearing a smart woman that I respected admit to using cannabis daily in her past absolutely blew my mind.
It turns out cannabis is a lot like antidepressants. You have to let it build up in your system by using it regularly for several weeks, maybe even a month, before you have totally acclimated to it and can fully function. In time, I went from a couch-locked (but happy) lump to a more productive, less-neurotic version of myself. I could finally talk with someone pleasantly and not wake up later that night thinking about something I said wrong. If people are aware I’m using cannabis, it also makes them more tolerant of my dorky bubbliness.
Cannabis can also be like Xanax, famous for being fast-acting in cases of panic attacks. If I am starting to lose my grip, a few puffs over a couple of minutes will have me calm and rational again. Unlike Xanax, however, one cannot fatally overdose on cannabis.
Of course, I live in Michigan, which is just now, five years in, considering adding PTSD to the list of conditions people can legally treat with cannabis. Thankfully, my carpal tunnel, cheerleading-related disc injury to my spine, lower back pain, and joint problems in my hips, and their impact on my daily life and ability to sleep qualify me for medical cannabis under Michigan state law.
I told the certification doctor that I was using cannabis to help with my pain but also for my depression, anxiety, and insomnia. For his part, he expressed frustration that mental health issues are not qualifying conditions. How many people like me without serious injuries get turned away from the medical marijuana program?
In America, untreated mental illness is a serious concern. Studies indicate that uninsured people with mental illness (like me) may go untreated or undertreated at a rate of nearly 90%. Worse, estimates from some organizations show that at least 10% of the United States’ murders are likely a direct result of these untreated conditions.
For a long time, people explaining statistics on cannabis users claimed that the higher rate of self-reported depression in users indicated that cannabis causes or exacerbates depression. However, closer review has shown that it is likely those with depression or mental illness are more likely to seek out cannabis for self-medicating.
Scientists have pretty thoroughly debunked the idea that the correlation between cannabis use and high incidence of mental illness is somehow causative. There’s no proof that when more people smoke pot, more people develop mental illness.
In fact, more recent studies have shown that cannabis users report lower rates of severe depression symptoms. They also indicate that cannabis may help with more than overall mood regulation. A report last year indicated cannabis may be more effective than heavy-duty medications at reducing or eliminating severe symptoms associated with PTSD, such as stress, flashbacks, insomnia, and anxiety. Even more incredible is that suicide rates appear to drop significantly in male populations in places where medical cannabis is accessible and in people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders who use cannabis regularly.
Because paperwork and appointments can be difficult or impossible for people with mental illness, and because cannabis use poses so little risk to individuals and society, it is clear to me that the best thing America can do to treat its silent mental illness epidemic is legalize cannabis for all adults. That way anyone suffering, even the undiagnosed, can know the relief and calm cannabis has provided me and countless other like me.