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My son has never had what he would call “good luck”. He was bullied by his best friends during 6th grade. They went from church preschool to a small private school together, and their parents were for the most part, our close friends. He was embarrassed for us to know, so it went on much longer than it should have. When he finally told us, he was suffering from horrible anxiety. We put him in the neighborhood public school for 7th grade, where he joined the Varsity swim team, was in the National Jr Honor Society and had a kind group of friends. Problem handled.

He is exceptionally smart and was building computers and working on circuits in secret at our house. He didn’t want any of his new friends to know, because he feared the bullying would start again. To address his academic curiosity, we let him look at a boarding school in Virginia, near the one my sisters and I attended. He fell in love with opportunities there, and quickly decided to go. It was there, during his sophomore year, that I first found out he was smoking pot. He “pocket dialed” me and I overhead him telling his friends where he hid the pot at our house. On that same day, we had a biblical -style flood in our town. We really couldn’t process all of that at once, so we confronted him about the pot, and told him he would be regularly drug tested until his school trip to China that summer. If it came back positive, he wouldn’t go. Problem handled. It was almost comical in comparison to the devastation the flood had brought.

My son drew this self portrait while in psychosis.

After he returned home from his China trip, we asked him to commit the rest of the summer to studying for the SAT and taking a cognitive training course to address his ADHD. We wanted to get him off Adderall, because we felt like the “crash” in the afternoons was affecting his friendships, school performance, and school mandated team athletic involvement. What we didn’t know was that at that point, not only was he using cannabis, he was also abusing his Adderall. The remainder of that summer was filled with anger, frustration, and lies. Problem definitely not handled.

I shared concerns over my son’s marijuana use with my closest friends, who all have older children. They reassured me that all boys do it. They didn’t like it, they didn’t condone it, but the reality was, they all did it. Despite that, we still had nagging concerns, so we sent our son to the therapist at his school. We told her about his drug use, his change in friend groups, and his new lack of interest in both swimming and academics. She said it was his assertion of independence. She said he never liked swimming and we had forced it on him. The school said we needed to let him explore his own interests, that this was the time for him to find his own path and their consequences. They had been doing this for 100 years, and this was how it worked. Meanwhile, he began staying awake for days, had adopted extreme religious and political beliefs, and stopped going to class altogether. One day, I got a manifesto from him about how we needed to follow the “humanist” movement. I laughed it off and told him he should spend that much time on his math homework. And then his 13-year-old sister got one about how she needed to leave home and never come back because we were abusive. At that point, we knew we had a problem. But we believed it was behavioral- because he was “only” using marijuana, and that wasn’t a big deal…

We considered bringing him home for his senior year but we never thought of drug treatment programs. It was just pot and Adderall, after all. It was legal in DC, a couple of hours away from his school. And pot isn’t addictive, according to popular culture. We had changed his therapist, another one the school recommended, and that one told us that pot actually may help his anxiety. At this point, he had no friends left at home. He didn’t have anything in common with them anymore. We worried about his anxiety and depression. We thought bringing him home, where he had no friends, would only make him feel worse. The local high school also didn’t offer the advanced courses he would be taking at his school. We didn’t want to interrupt his opportunity to go to a top tier college. So back to school he went.

His Senior year, he rarely went to class, spent every weekend in detention, and clearly had no interest in his own well-being or future. On Super Bowl Sunday of his Senior year, an earth shifting thing happened. His much loved 22-year-old cousin took his own life. After that, he became more angry, more detached, and more isolated from us. He continued to vape and smoke high potency THC. The school sent him home a few times because he needed to take a break from the “pressures of school”. His psychiatrist asked him if he had experienced psychosis, and he said he had. His “book was sending him messages.” The doctor told him that he had cracked open the door to schizophrenia with his cannabis use, and it could never be shut now. BUT that if he didn’t smoke again until he was 25, he could keep from “kicking the door wide open.” He agreed to stop, but the home drug tests kept coming back positive for THC.

The summer after he graduated from high school, he ended up in the hospital while we were out of town. His blood alcohol content was .37. He also tested positive for cocaine, and of course, THC. Our pediatrician called us and said there was no way he was ready to go college. We agreed on a compromise, where he would live at home, but go to class during the day. Despite this, he managed to find a new group of kids to smoke weed with him. His attitude and motivation continued to decline. By October, he became so angry and defiant about his “invasion of privacy” he stormed out of the house and we didn’t see him again, until he ended up once again in the hospital, this time with psychosis. His toxicology report was positive only for THC and synthetic marijuana. He stayed in the psychiatric emergency department over the weekend, because the doctors hoped the cannabis induced psychosis would clear, and because the psychiatric beds upstairs were full. He was in paper pajamas, on a mattress, with a policeman outside his door. As it became clear the psychosis wasn’t going away, he was committed to acute care at a local behavioral health hospital.  

A friend had earlier shared with me that her daughter had suffered from depression and had gone to a mental health hospital in Charlotte, NC. We researched it and it seemed the next most logical step for our son. Convincing him of that, was entirely another matter. He was angry and openly spiteful toward us. Certainly, he was still psychotic. Our youth minister, with whom our son had a good relationship, had recently opened a private counseling practice. He met with my son’s college friends and counseled them about what was the best path forward, and how to talk to him about it. Without them, I am certain there is no way he would have agreed to treatment, but he agreed to go for 2 days. He ended up staying 2 months.

Of course, the hospital was out of network for us. We had no information about other options, not from the acute care center or anyone else. My husband is a physician, and we are lucky that we had enough money set aside to pay out of pocket. We would fight the insurance companies later. If he didn’t go now, he may never go. Upon admission, his doctor told us that cannabis induced psychosis was becoming the next public health crisis, and that the majority of their patients his age suffered from THC addiction and consequential psychiatric problems. His generation is truly having a mental health crisis. During our hospital tour the first day, he bumped into a friend from summer camp, who remarked “I never thought I’d know so many people here!”

During his stay, his psychosis became more acute, and we learned from his roommate at boarding school, that he had been seeing things, and talking about things that weren’t there for the last several months of high school. The hospital in Charlotte diagnosed him schizoaffective disorder and stabilized him. As we looked for the next step, we learned about a program in Atlanta that had a dual diagnosis program for addiction and early psychosis. Their approach was evidence and recovery based. Through medication, therapy, cognitive and nutrition training, kids were able to resume their lives. Again, the program was out of network, but by then we had wrestled our insurance company into acknowledging the need for his treatment, and it was partially covered.

My son’s story, at this point, is one of recovery from THC addiction. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. The doctors say as long as he stays on his antipsychotics, and continues to pursue sobriety, his outlook is very good. But he, unlike many with his diagnosis, has much working in his favor. Everything that could have gone wrong, went right. He has insight into his illness, where many do not. His antipsychotic medication works, and so many others have treatment resistant schizophrenia. He wants to be well and he wants to have his Ability Maintena shot (this is anti-psychotic medication taken monthly by injection rather than a daily pill). He wants his life back. Much of that is because he got early intervention. But, I also believe God and his cousin are looking over him, and leading him on this path of recovery.

Looking back, we fell for many of the myths perpetuated by the pro-cannabis community. We believed that it was harmless, because “everyone his age is using it.” We didn’t know about the new high potency THC available today. We didn’t know that is was affecting the pruning of synapses of developing brains, and that it was THE number one environmental factor triggering schizophrenia. We didn’t know that it was addictive. Commercialization of cannabis is normalizing it’s use, and its use is contributing to the anxiety and depression and increased suicide rates of our son’s generation. We wanted to believe our friends and the press. Just today, on a morning talk show, they referenced being “Cali Sober” which means one isn’t drinking but has consumed edibles or smoked cannabis. To their credit, they did emphasize that NO PART of that means you are sober, but the mere existence of the phrase illustrates the lack of awareness of the consequences of THC use. Education about the risks of using cannabis and the testing of safety limits are crucial for the health of our next generation.

Catherine is a mom from South Carolina.