I began smoking a lot of weed in college. Daily, multiple times a day, high-in-class kind of regularity.
I experienced periodic paranoia; I also mostly enjoyed it.
Around the second semester of my junior year, something started to change.
A door in my deep-thinking mind cracked open. The voice that we all identify as "I" - our ego, our conscience - was altered.
After a couple of puffs, my mind whispered to me a new, convincing perspective on reality: what I was seeing as my life was a simulation; I had no control over my life or my decisions; that I was a marionette in the physics and chemistry of the universe; that consciousness is an ever-repeating, unending cycle from which I could not escape; that I would attempt to deny this epiphany with all the logic I could muster, but in an attempt to escape these truths, all roads would lead me to suicide. I understood these truths in a deeper way than I had understood anything in my life. Those voices became a staple of my psychological experience, always there, always all-knowing, always returning the life narrative to its disclosures.
My heart would be racing, my body cold, and I didn't have the courage or the clarity of language to articulate what I had experienced.
Weed was at the center of my social life at the time, and I would repeatedly return to it. Once that door to madness had been cracked open, once high, I again and again returned to those existential conclusions: my lack of control, my unending entrapment, my resistance to these truths, my acceptance leading to suicide. It's hard to explain how real and persuasive these revelations were - I had always sought the answers to life's big questions, and here they were. The answers felt as true as my most basic understandings of my life.
I had been an A student, an over-achiever, a striver. I drifted downwards. I walked around in a haze, I stopped checking my grades, I isolated myself, I moved halfway around the world, I stopped caring about my appearance. My relationship with the voices in my head became the dominant relationship in my life. The conclusions my mind had reached were always there, sometimes faint, but ever-present, even when sober: "You can try avoidance, you can lie about reality, but your path in life is to kill yourself - and even when you do, you'll wake back up, doomed to perpetually repeat existence."
Experiences like these take something out of you. It took years of my life to return to a semblance of normalcy. I swore off weed. Unbeknownst to me, I learned to that marijuana can trigger latent schizophrenia in those who are genetically predisposed; in my early 30's, I learned that a paternal great uncle who I had been told experienced a "nervous breakdown" decades before I was born had actually been sent to an asylum because he was schizophrenic.
Years went by before I felt normal. That shift was slow and nearly imperceptible.
I know that there must be many people who have had their lives upended by similar experiences. I had been educated to believe that marijuana is fully benign, which is why it took so long for me to link that drug with my unraveling.
I'll write more about how these experiences changed me, what I've learned from my battles. For now, I'll say that my experiences have given me compassion for the mentally ill. It's difficult now to recall the horror of having my mind break and turn on me, how one's mind can become one's gravest enemy, of how alone and despairing madness can make you.
The truth of this experience, I think, is shared by many. And perhaps others with such predispositions can more quickly understand it, or avoid anguish entirely.
I was lucky: I had access to medical resources and had access to a psychiatrist. That relationship led me to mindfulness training and an interest in Buddhism, which led me to reorient my life priorities around my mental health.
I also had one outlet: my mom, who I knew loved and cared about me. I told her that I was schizophrenic, and despite her confusion and concern, she became a lifeline.
Like religion, some of the claims my mind had made were unfalsifiable, which had led to the check-mate of despair: could I prove that I wasn't living in a simulation, or that I lacked any free will, or that unending reincarnation is the nature of human existence? No. But that didn't mean that there weren't reasonable counter-arguments, or that I might be able to slowly improve my life and my mind. The "I" that had so persuasively revealed these truths - as any schizophrenic knows - is as real as real gets, but that "I" is malleable, and everything one thinks should not be trusted.