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Marijuana Not Harmless for Everyone
When my son Brant was 17 years old, he had an experience with marijuana that triggered a sudden,major change in his mental state. Overnight, he felt permanently damaged and even ruined. During the next three days it became apparent that his deteriorating condition was the result of a psychotic break, and it soon led to emergency care at two hospitals. While many people smoke marijuana with no immediate adverse effect, it can be psychologically harmful and even devastating to a small portion of the population, especially teens like my son and young adults.Before this experience, Brant was a healthy, happy, bright and normal teenager.
He was a senior in high school, got excellent grades, and planned to attend college in the fall. He had a part-time job on weekends in a restaurant, and he also cut lawns in the neighborhood to earn money. He never had any discipline problems either at school or with the law.
Brant had a gentle, quiet and reflective side to his personality, and at the same time a fantastic sense of humor. He was good at keeping long-term friendships, and he liked spending time with his close group of male friends. He liked girls, but was still somewhat shy around them. Like most boys his age, he loved Pink Floyd and playing computer games.
Brant was still undecided about a college major and was considering everything from philosophy to engineering, but there was no doubt that his future looked bright—until things went terribly wrong.
In December of 2006, Brant went to a party at a friend’s house, and smoked a lot of marijuana. There was no other drug mixed into it, as other kids were also smoking the exact same pot, and none of them had a bad reaction. This was not my son’s first experience with marijuana, as he had used it socially for about a six month period, and had said that he liked the “high” and thought it was a “good thing”. He never used any other drug other than marijuana, as was later confirmed by his close friends.
That night after smoking so much, Brant’s outlook on marijuana changed drastically. He and others had spent the night at his friend’s house, and when he arrived home early the next morning, there was a radical change in his personality. I immediately knew that something was very wrong. He told me that he had stayed up the entire night,staring at the walls, while everyone else slept. He repeated the same ideas over and over—that he had made a big mistake smoking so much pot and he would pay for it—that God was angry at him for this and would never forgive him. He repeated this theme in a very flat, blunted and unemotional tone. The pupils of his eyes were dilated to 2-3 times their regular size and they stayed dilated, and he complained that his peripheral vision was gone, giving him a sort of tunnel vision.
Brant became increasingly delusional, paranoid and hopeless. His delusions took on a religious theme—which is not uncommon with psychosis—but which was completely uncommon for Brant. He had never before focused his attention on the Bible, but in the next couple of days he began reading it constantly, and he confided in me that he thought that he might be the Second Coming of Christ. Less than three days after his eerie behavior began, I came home to find that he had cut his arm with a knife, and swallowed a lot of ibuprofen in an attempt to kill himself. I immediately took him to the hospital emergency room.
In the ER the nurses tried to get him to drink an activated charcoal substance to dilute the ibuprofen in his system, but he refused and began yelling at them to just leave him alone, that he just wanted to die and would find another way to kill himself if they made him drink the solution. They were starting to force a tube down his throat when I was able to persuade him to drink the charcoal. I cannot begin to tell you how shocking it was for me, his mother, to hear him yelling this completely unprecedented, sudden death wish and to see him in this condition. Three days earlier I would never have believed that anything so terrible could happen to my child.
A few hours later at approximately 3 a.m., a hospital psychiatrist showed up to conduct an interview with Brant. He said that it would probably take a few hours and I told him that I would wait while they talked. It was only about 20 minutes later when the psychiatrist emerged from their interview, and said that Brant was “playing games” with him. I asked him what he meant, and he said that Brant kept insisting to him that he had been fine until he smoked marijuana with his friends on Friday night, and that it had ruined him. This doctor did not believe that marijuana could cause such a reaction in anyone and it seemed to make him angry that Brant was insisting on this. I assured him that my son was not playing games, that he was deadly serious, and that no one had put these ideas into his head—they were completely his own ideas. The psychiatrist sent him to an adolescent care unit hospital for a 72-hour hold.
Over the next five days at this hospital, Brant was treated with an anti-psychotic drug, and given a “mood disorder” diagnosis. According to the notes that doctors wrote, he “became psychotic” when smoking marijuana with friends. The notes recorded Brant as saying that “I can’t shake” the feelings of paranoia, that marijuana really “messed me up”, and that he knew that “something bad is happening,” although he was unable to explain what it was.
There were two circumstances during Brant’s stay at this hospital that did not help his situation. A huge snow blizzard kept many hospital employees from coming to work for a 2-3 day period, so Brant never saw the same doctor twice. Also, on the day before Christmas Eve, the hospital closed the adolescent care unit and released all the patients including Brant, an unfortunate decision. When I drove Brant home from the hospital he was very quiet, but I soon realized that there was very little improvement in him. The anti-psychotic drug they put him on made him very tired and slow to communicate, but he was still insisting that he was ruined and that marijuana had caused his problems.
What Brant was experiencing was not a short-lived psychosis—it continued on for three weeks. There was no school because it was winter break, and I spent a lot of time talking with him and trying to encourage him. During that time period he wrote the following words in a notebook, and I think these words are very representative of his state of mind. He wrote: “I made a terrible mistake, I damned myself to hell. I can only help my friends and pray. I killed my memory for no reason—now I’m just a burnt out star. I bit off more truth than I could handle. My eyes—I killed them. I shouldn’t let them open anymore—I’m a ghost. Why? No reason.”
There is no doubt that he felt hopeless about his situation. I tried so hard to convince him that he would get better, and that God would never be angry at him or punish him for smoking pot, but he only would repeat that he had made a big, unforgivable mistake that he couldn’t take back.
Two weeks after Brant returned home from the hospitals, he took his own life. It happened at 2:00 in the morning on a cold, snowy January night. Brant had vowed three weeks earlier that he would never, ever use marijuana again, and he never did, but it was apparently too late at that point. In his mind the damage was irreversible.
Brant left two notes, one to me his mother, and one to God.
To me he wrote: Mom, I am sorry for doing this. I just feel so lost and hopeless. I only hope you can move on & be OK. I love you always. Love, Brant
To God he wrote: For my Father who is in heaven. I am sorry for what I have done to my self. I wasn’t thinking the night I smoked myself out. I am unable to do any good without you in my heart. I love you and am sorry I didn’t love myself more. Eternally yours, Brant
I still tell Brant’s story today because so many people now believe that marijuana is harmless and should be legalized everywhere. There is little understanding among the general public that marijuana can be very harmful to some individuals and trigger psychosis and even suicide. There are a few issues regarding his experience that I would like to comment on:
First, when I look back it seems sad that my son was put in the position of trying to educate these medical professionals about marijuana-induced psychosis. If the doctors had reassured him that pot could have triggered his symptoms, and that a first-episode marijuana-induced psychosis such as his would probably pass in a few days or weeks, Brant might have felt hope. Instead, some of them acted like he was wrong to believe that marijuana had damaged him, and I feel sure that this increased his confusion and distress. Unfortunately, even today some doctors would still blindly deny the connection between marijuana and psychosis.
Also, many pro-marijuana advocates push the idea of a “self-medicating” hypothesis—meaning that those with a vulnerability to mental illness are using marijuana to make themselves feel better. I do not believe that my son was “self-medicating”. His terrible symptoms were a first for him, they came on suddenly and intensely, and he never wanted to touch pot again after they began. Brant quickly became convinced that marijuana had harmed him, and that the side effects that he experienced from it were not “medicine”—but paranoia, delusions and psychosis. While it may be true that a family history of mental illness makes an individual more vulnerable to marijuana risk, it is difficult to track and impossible to summarize exactly who has this risk. While there is no history of mental illness on my side of the family, Brant’s father and grandfather both developed either a form of dementia or perhaps mental illness around the age of 65. Neither family had a history of suicide. Until a biological or genetic test is developed to identify which individuals have a predisposition to a severe reaction from using pot, young people especially should be warned against using it.
Finally, statistics on how marijuana use affects emergency situations are unknown. A national tracking system is needed to gather information regarding the correlation between adverse effects from marijuana use and ER visits—including visits for accidents, sudden mental illness, violence and suicide. Because I live in Colorado where recreational marijuana is now legal and thought by many to be harmless, this issue is very important to me.
Since Brant’s death, I have read thousands of articles—both pro and con—about marijuana. The usual arguments against marijuana are that it is a “gateway” drug, can be addictive, can cause physiological damage and can lead to a lack of motivation. Please also consider my son’s story, and the information that there is a potential for marijuana to bring on psychotic illness. Most people know that LSD, cocaine, meth and heroin can be very dangerous drugs, but very few people realize that marijuana can be just as harmful as these drugs to the mental health of some individuals. I believe that my beautiful son Brant would still be alive today if he had never used marijuana. His psychosis was the direct result of his marijuana use, and his suicide was the direct result of his psychosis. While his experience with marijuana is not typical, it is also not unique. When Brant had a psychotic break and died by suicide three weeks later, I began telling his story immediately—even at his funeral. I continue telling his story today nearly nine years later, in hopes that another family may be spared a similar tragedy.
Brant Remington Clark
by Ann Clark
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Brant’s Story is now a book.
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