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How Cannabis Keeps My Bipolar Condition in Check

After countless pharmaceuticals, this writer found a drug that works

Credit: Holmes Awa/Getty Images

II grew up believing my brain would turn to fried eggs in the presence of drugs, and sizzling brains weren’t for me. My firm anti-drug manifesto was practical, not moral: “I’m smart, I need all of my brain cells, so keep your drugs.” I smoked weed twice in college, but it rarely appealed.

My “just say no” attitude persisted until, at age 28, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I’d struggled for years with low moods, but my concentration had become nonexistent, and I couldn’t retain information. I was in grad school, and my depressed brain told me that I wasn’t smart enough for my program, and lulled me to bed, crying, and away from school and social life for days on end. For the first time ever, I felt out of control, and stupid, which was unacceptable. I finally agreed to take an antidepressant, and the fog cleared after two weeks. I didn’t know about brain chemistry then, but I knew that after a few weeks of psych meds, I was myself again. My outgoing, tear-free, competent self was back.

My depression was a hurricane, going out to sea for brief respites, then wrecking the shores of my brain with renewed vigor.

But that didn’t last. My depression was a hurricane, going out to sea for brief respites, then wrecking the shores of my brain with renewed vigor. My brain chewed through antidepressants every few years, rendering them useless. My depression had been re-diagnosed as bipolar, so lithium helped stabilize my mood. For a while. I’d be functioning at work, having a social life, feeling good. Then, my depression would creep back in and steal my joy, my competence, and my brain’s executive processing. I’d get my meds adjusted every few years and hope the next drug cocktail would be The One. But each new script worked less effectively than the one before it. I was moving a step back with every recovery.

TThe depression/medication dance continued until 2013, when my depression turned to suicidality. I quit work and checked into a mental hospital. I was distraught, as work and achievement were a large part of my identity. I didn’t know who I was if I couldn’t stay awake, competent, and tear-free enough to work. And I couldn’t stabilize myself when my depression sucked out my motivation like a greedy newborn on the teat.

During my two-week hospital stay, my care team found a medication that got my brain back to normal. For the first time since my original diagnosis, I was happy and clearheaded. I could read entire books again! I could work on my next career move! I realized that I’d been settling for recovery at 85% when I should’ve been aiming for 100%. I left the hospital with optimism and a prescription for Latuda.

A few months later, my insurance stopped covering Latuda. When I got the news, I stood outside CVS, stooped over in tearful anguish. I didn’t have $1,500 per month to pay for drugs out of pocket, and wasn’t yet fit to work. How could I give up the normalcy I’d been chasing for years? I called my psychiatrist in a panic, and she gave me a Latuda substitute that my insurance would cover. It kept my mood elevated, mostly, but made me sleep like the dead and awaken to hours of grogginess. I wasn’t suicidal, but I wasn’t living.

AA friend suggested I try cannabis. We downloaded a cannabis app onto my phone, through which I learned about different classes of marijuana and their mind and body effects. I researched what seemed like millions of cultivated strains, along with the clinical data that supported medical marijuana for depression. By then, I’d done a lot of research on brain chemistry, and I learned that antidepressants and cannabis worked on the same brain receptors. And I was willing to do anything to stabilize my symptoms.

I was a little floaty, but also focused and motivated. I got hooked on that feeling. Not the high, but the feeling of being competent again.

I got a small amount of weed to sample. I chose a strain that purports to elevate mood and increase energy, because those were my most pressing issues. I felt the effects within minutes. I made dinner from scratch, cleaned the kitchen, and took out piles of recycling — I was more productive than I’d been in months. I was a little floaty, but also focused and motivated. I got hooked on that feeling. Not the high, but the feeling of being competent again. The ability to start a task and see it through to completion. The things that depression had wrecked for so long.

Soon, I smoked every day, sampling different strains. I started working as a writer, and was getting paid for it. Sometimes I overshot and got high, but I mostly microdosed, inhaling only as much of the drug as I needed to tune me back in. It functioned like an antidepressant, taking minutes instead of weeks for symptom abatement.

Eventually, living in a state where pot is illegal became an issue. I needed a curated cannabis experience, and products specific to my ailments. I needed an array of options and an education with my purchase. But then I lost my connection, and our medical marijuana program wouldn’t treat mental illnesses. I had to get my medicine from street dealers. The dude on the corner slipped me a baggie as I slipped him $10, and his merchandise was as disappointing as the transaction.

If my brain on drugs is fried, then I’ll need a side of bacon.

The next time I saw my psychiatrist, I’d been struggling again with unexplained crying and sleeping. I asked her for an adjunct med as a temporary fix. I was planning a cross-country move, and I couldn’t get anything done at all with depression lingering over my life. My doctor gave me a sample of a drug with great TV ads and wonderful promises about bipolar depression. It had more side effects than I liked, but I was desperate. I stopped taking it when my eye sockets went numb, my tongue swelled, and the tremors kicked in. I longed for the succor of cannabis.

FFinally I was able to make my move to Los Angeles, where cannabis is legal. At my local dispensary, I asked the budtender for a sativa, an elevating strain that improves mood, focus, and creativity. I left with a vape of Pineapple Express, a strain that apparently Seth Rogan smokes while writing. One hit of this magic elixir sliced through my brain fog in minutes, without making me high. I had incredible concentration and blew through my to-do list with an alacrity I’d forgotten I could manage. I could work every day for hours at a time. I felt like a member of society, not the layabout that my crippling depression had forced me to be.

Today is another sunny day, as I sit at an outdoor cafe. A breeze blows my spent coffee cup off the table as I work, and my vape pen rolls onto the ground. It is never far away from me. And if my brain on drugs is fried, then I’ll need a side of bacon. Because I’ll take this over the suffering and the side effects any day of the week.

Storyteller. Innovator. Master of most. I write about relationships, mental illness, and all the intersections of my identity. Ask about my cats.

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