Cannabis and ‘The Fear’

For a long time I did no drugs, and then for no particular reason I started smoking weed and didn’t stop for about seven years. A family could have built a comfortable and aromatic house with the amount of weed I smoked.

At a certain point I developed a reaction to the substance that enthusiasts call “The Fear”. This is a sense of dread particular to cannabis smoking, in which a person is plagued by anxiety and terror. For me it has two distinct elements.

The first is that I become convinced that I have not so much gotten high as I have inaugurated an episode of drug induced psychosis that will persist for years. Cannabis people don’t usually like to hear that their drug can, for some, have serious mental health effects, but in a year and a half of working as a patient advocate at a large mental hospital I met several people who attributed their experience of psychosis to their first encounter with cannabis.

Mental health crises are many splendored things. It’s hard to get to the root of precipitating causes, but I think it’s important to center the sufferers experience. So, if they feel that smoking weed set the wheels in motion of the ruination of their life, it’s callous and uninteresting to ignore their assessment.

The second of these elements, and perhaps this is restricted to my experience, consists of a deep fear that my body will begin to operate autonomously of my will, and that it will do things that I abhor. It will become violent and I’ll be in the viewing room just watching a terrible thing happen and that this will ultimately be my fault.

Neither of these ever come to pass, but it’s a remarkably bad time.

Despite this, whenever I’m in too much proximity, I decide that all prior experience isn’t necessarily all future experience, which is a belief that is at once true and stupid. My efforts to dunk basketballs from over the rim have all ended in failure, and while some quirk of gravity might let me succeed at it tomorrow it’s not likely to happen.

All of this is to say that I was around a lot of cannabis in a permissive environment recently and I tried, once again, to dunk that ball. Predictably, I got paralyzed by anxiety, and in this state of anxiety I had an interesting reconciliation with cannabis.

One of the things I like about the drug is that I have a lot of ideas while under the influence. Some of them are stupid, some of them are interesting, and some are both stupid and interesting. Nonetheless, they seem cool.
I have been taking intranasal ketamine and esketamine for over a year. I have started narrating the experiences, in situ, and recording this narration. Originally I wanted to keep track of the sequence of different motifs and identify at which points did new stylizations of image emerge.

This has been a very striking instance of an attempt at measurement leading to a radical change in the phenomenon under consideration. My experiences very rapidly shifted from being rather dark and upsetting to being lucid and useful. As a drug person, this has been a validation of the ‘set and setting’ maxim. While the setting remains full of the sounds of typing, blood pressure cuffs inflating, and the rapid fire rapping of transcranial magnetic stimulation, the set is much different: I’m there to learn and I do.

So, in the middle of a panicked weed high I pulled myself towards paper and a pen and started writing. Not like I was creating a narrative, but in terms of putting all the odd thoughts on paper and fleshing them out. This did two wonderful things: It pulled me out of the punishing anxiety I had inflicted upon myself and it resulted in a bunch of neat ideas preserved for posterity.

But the most important realization was a clarification of the nature of cannabis as it relates to my brain.

I don’t like it anymore, which is a thing I always forget, and knowing myself, will always forget. But, the insertion of documentation into the experience moderates it. For me, cannabis has become a powerful but unpleasant psychedelic that I can consume with the knowledge that 1) I’m probably going to feel like shit and 2) that it’s extremely helpful in regard to creative difficulties.

In my weird conceptualization of drugs as distinct personages that express their agency in the gross folds of the human brain I think this establishes a respectful footing. It takes the drug from a flippant thing undertaken for pleasure (which it is for a great many people and that’s great) to a respectful experiencing of a novel intelligence.

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