As I was writing this story, Leah texted me from her husband’s bedside at Cedars-Sinai Hospital: “LA Times, front page article, ‘Cannabis Hedge Funds Rush to Join Green Rush.’” We both wanted to vomit. Our two sons are casualties of this “green rush” movement, a movement to profit from making today’s highly potent strains of marijuana — at the expense of our youth….and their families. We will never address America’s mental health crisis until we accept that marijuana is the trigger that starts too many young lives unraveling.
Leah’s husband, Lee, suffered a major medical crisis, as if losing their 20-year-old son 32 months ago to suicide wasn’t enough for the family. Ed and I met Lee and Leah in the grief series; the four of us share a special bond. We do 5K walks annually in memory of our sons. On Mother’s Day, we took our families to Ojai together.
The Tragedy of Brandon
Leah said to our group back in 2012, “My son died of mental illness.” I didn’t say much, initially, but as the story unfolded and there was no history of psychosis in either family line, I thought marijuana had somehow played a role. I followed a hunch and began asking more questions. She looked at Brandon’s journals and saw his entries. “Am I having drug withdrawals?” he asked, trying to explain his racing thoughts. When he had to be hospitalized, he was convinced his lungs weren’t working.
Brandon died of suicide after being released from a three-day psych hold while experiencing psychotic symptoms tinged with mania (Guess what drug he had stopped using two weeks before entering the hospital…that’s right– cannabis). Despite telling numerous people in the hospital that he had just stopped marijuana use, none of the hospital staff raised a red flag that he was experiencing drug withdrawal symptoms. After Brandon left the hospital, he was convinced he needed a lung transplant despite doctors telling him there was nothing wrong with his lungs. He felt his breathing wasn’t right and was convinced he had caused it because he hadn’t stopped smoking cigarettes.
Brandon had become manic about four months earlier while smoking pot. When his mom expressed concern that he was becoming addicted, he just laughed because pot was a natural herb, not part of big drug companies making big $. Unfortunately Leah wasn’t aware that it’s best to come off pot gradually, under supervision. Unless psychiatrists are also certified for addiction treatment, they often don’t recognize marijuana withdrawal. Brandon had taken it upon himself to get a “medical marijuana” card, because he was having “anxiety.” Leah didn’t mind at the time, despite Brandon’s youth and undeveloped brain. As long as a doctor authorized it, she reasoned that it must be safe and legitimate. Before that time, he was using synthetic marijuana, which had alarmed her.
How Marijuana Becomes the Problem
Sorry, but I want to share what I truly believe is happening in every town across America, not just to my son, to Lee/ Leah’s son. If Leah and I hadn’t met, she would have accepted “Brandon died of a mental illness.” Rather than telling our children they should avoid having children and blaming it all on faulty genes, as some medical practitioners would advise, consider the environmental effects like marijuana. I think you should advise any child, teen or young adult to practice optimal brain health and avoid all substances that strongly alter the brain. The medical evidence is the marijuana manipulates the brain more than any other drug.
Before my son had his first psychotic episode in 2009, he suffered a terrible knee injury in a boating accident that same year. It required knee surgery and 9 months of physical rehab. It’s likely that Ryan started using a lot more marijuana to treat “pain” just as the medical marijuana advocates suggest — without giving any regards to proper dosing, strength and time intervals that a pharmacy is required to give. He was living with his fiancée at the time, so we were not aware of this choice, or that he had already been using marijuana for about three years. The accident, surgery and pain were the perfect excuse for him to use a lot more marijuana–plus he wouldn’t take the pain meds because they gave him nausea. Pot was apparently the treatment he chose, but we didn’t know it.
So the pattern emerges–using marijuana for a few years, increase the usage for “medical” reasons (in this case an accident followed by surgery and pain), and, then at some point — psychosis.
Close to Home: Amanda Bynes
Another example of the marijuana – psychosis pattern is former child star Amanda Bynes. She went to the same high school as my son; they were born in the same year, but one year apart in school.
Last year she was in treatment at the same psychiatric hospital in Pasadena where Ryan had been at one time. I don’t know her or her parents, but I heard she had some excellent treatment there (wish my son had been treated as well). Afterwards, her parents had a one-year conservatorship for her. Her mother asserted that the effects of marijuana were her main psychiatric problem, not bipolar or schizophrenia, as had been a rumored.
Amanda Bynes did well and looked amazing during most of 2014, until her parents’ conservatorship ended. Then in late summer, when the hold had ended, Amanda had some episodes and accused her father of terrible things. How could that young woman, who had heard that THC alters brain chemistry while in rehabilitation, return to using pot again? The relapse speaks volumes as to how addictive marijuana really is, and how marijuana use alters brain chemistry.
Like Amanda Bynes, Ryan seemed completely healthy to us after his “first episode” of psychosis. Both Amanda Bynes and Ryan went back to the same drug that damaged their young minds. No one knows which brains will unravel with marijuana. Is the risk worth it for anyone? In this country, I’ve found a few psychiatrists, Dr. Stuart Gitlow of Rhode Island, Dr. Christian Thurstone in Denver, Dr. Thomas Carter in Seattle, and some psychologists, who understand the link between marijuana use and mental health problems. Mental health treatment and addiction treatment need to be aligned more closely. A Postscript describes when and how to stop these problems.
Chris’s Story –Audio Recording
Listen to this compelling 11 minute testimony from a bright teenager whose marijuana use led him to indulge in stronger drugs.
How can drug proponents say marijuana is not a gateway drug when in almost every case of heroin use we find a history where marijuana led to heroin?
Recording by ExactingEditor.com
Everyone young and old gravitated to my son….always. For a young man who was such a happy-go-lucky personality, so charismatic, death came shockingly, seven months after the second psychiatric hospital in Pasadena had dumped him. After 34 months, just recently I finished making Ryan’s marker so his ashes can be placed in the urn soon. I just couldn’t do it before now.
Despite coming out of a second “episode” of psychosis, some of Ryan’s friends pulled away. He lost his job as a Certified Residential Electrician and his wife didn’t return. Thankfully Ryan never showed violence towards any of us. It’s not to say there weren’t scary times during his two “episodes” that lasted about 10 weeks .
With the blessings from two psychologists working with our family, Ryan moved to our family cabin, near Yosemite, after staying with us for three months. The place that had been special to him from childhood. He begged us to let him move there “to start anew,” after all the adversity had hit him. Ryan brought his beloved dog and had access to our ski boat which he loved. He learned to kayak there:-)
The Cabin in Yosemite
We stipulated that he must join AA, have healthy habits and stay in touch with the psychologist. My husband drove up 5 hours each way almost every weekend, so Ryan wouldn’t be alone. We were with Ryan on New Year’s weekend, 2011, as I did not want him to be alone on his first New Years without his wife and all their friends. We played 2 1/2 hours of Ford Monopoly by flashlight in our cabin when the electricity went out. It was like old times, when the boys were little and we played board games each summer at our cabin. When the lights went on just after midnight, New Year’s (2012) my husband took a picture of me and Ryan playing this game. His cute smile had returned! We left on New Year’s Day with Ryan waving to us. I told my husband what a great year, 2012, was going to be. Our son was back, and we were so blessed.
Ed was not able to drive to the cabin that first weekend in January. I asked Ryan to drive home that weekend since I didn’t want him alone for so many days. He said “no.” Since we had just seen him, I wasn’t overly concerned. Ryan had been living there since August. But on Friday, January 13, 2012, I had the most horrific feeling about 10:00 a.m. — a feeling I’ve never had in my life before. Ryan had known his father was coming for a visit that night. I tried calling him, but no response. I texted and called again, still no response. Ryan would always return my calls or text me, “I am here in AA- will call when my meeting is over.”
I left work and told my husband I’d drive up ahead, but he joined me on route. It was a long 5 hours to get there, but every hour our son did not call I knew. Ryan left a note to “DAD”on the outside of the cabin. The lights were off as we entered the cabin. Ed was reading the “good-bye note” when I ran downstairs to find my boy. Nothing in life can prepare a parent for finding their own child’s body. The consequences of suicide are not just that one person is dead; it’s a tragedy of epic proportions for the people left behind.
Our family prides itself having long lifespans. My parents are thriving in their late 80s; Ed’s parents lived into their 80s, but my father-in-law was facing a terminal health condition in 1999 and tragically took his life. We have such longevity in the family, so Ryan’s youthful suicide just doesn’t make sense. I will always believe marijuana started his life unraveling. His first episode was in Oct ’09 and his second episode was May ’11. There was a total of 27 months from start until his unfathomable death at age 25 years old.
The toxicology report was negative (-) for THC upon his death. He had stayed away from marijuana for seven months, as he told us. Ryan never touched any substance again, and stayed in AA, as he told us. There were NO signs of psychosis again. I’ve read that the highest point of suicide risk for cannabis cessation is 6 months from cessation. Ryan was 7 months from cessation when he died.
The Role of Pot in Replacing Anandamide
Brain anatomy is altered by marijuana use and cessation of use. No way my son would have taken his life without the chemical alteration to his brain.
Marijuana and any drug usage skews brain chemistry and messes with the neurotransmitters (substances that allow various functions between the brain and body turned on and off). Anandamide is the endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter. Over time with marijuana use, THC displaces anandamide, and the body may not start producing it again for weeks to many months after quitting marijuana. Irritability, anxiety, depression, nervousness, restlessness, insomnia and and suicide are symptoms of marijuana withdrawal.
Other neurotransmitters could be involved, too, and I hope experts in time come to explain why young people who use marijuana are so much likely to commit suicide. The chemical imbalance Ryan had acquired was compounded by losing his job, his wife and friends. Had he not stayed isolated and supported himself with exercise and massage therapy, as he did before moving to the cabin, would he have gotten past whatever feelings he wrestled with at the end?
Were we wrong to not want him on an anti-depressant, after the anti-psychotics has such horrible effects? Ryan was too phobic of taking any medication again after the massive drugging he received twice during each hospitalization.
I absolutely believe knowing what I know now but didn’t then, I could have saved my son. For every person informed of the knowledge that marijuana can cause psychosis, I will consider Ryan’s life not taken in vain. Ryan’s good-bye note indicates he realized the consequences of using pot.
Sadly, anyone in the throes of a severe emotional crisis, like psychosis, is considered mentally ill, versus someone in the throes of a heroin crisis who is physiologically ill and needs addiction drug rehab. Psych hospitals and psychiatrists need to acknowledge to patients and families that psychosis is often temporary, while addiction programs need to warn/educate about psychosis that comes with substance abuse.
I hold today’s “skunk” cannabis responsible for what it did to Ryan’s mind, but I hold the mental health industry responsible for their ignorance and callous lack of regard for human beings who come into their system.
I’m moving to make peace that Ryan (Shane) lived life to his fullest for the short time he was with us (minus the two episodes). That’s how I’m trying to direct my thinking while trying to spare other families this kind of epic tragedy. (In Part 5, and in the Postscript, the author explains how she has armed others with the knowledge to prevent more cannabis casualties.)
(Part 2 of 4, an anonymous testimony submitted by a reader. Part 1) For a person who had never shown the slightest mental instability and then goes into an altered reality—literally overnight–disregarding a drug classified as “hallucinogenic” as a trigger is outrageous. Mental health treatments fail when the root cause(s) are ignored. The culprit was the mind-altering chemical in marijuana, THC, which today’s pot has been genetically modified to produce in outrageously high amounts.
Psychiatry has morphed over the last 30 years, placing medical management (prescribing pharmaceutical drugs), ahead of getting to the bottom of things. The best way to minimize an encounter with the psychiatric system is to never use mind-altering substances including marijuana, and all its derivatives, as well as brain stimulants like Adderall, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.
When I kept questioning the rush to diagnosis my son and the failure to recognize the THC connection, even my work colleagues (pharmacists, physicians, and nurses) would say: “This is about the right age when they break.” Or “Just accept what your son has — a mental illness.”
The out-patient psychiatrist was even worse. He charged $250/session and took no insurance. At the only family session after Ryan was released, I questioned why would they diagnose him with bipolar depression since it has a high familial link? This doctor refused to answer me but eventually mumbled in response, “environmental,” which may mean he knew that THC can alter young brains. (Bipolar 1 is the term used today, distinguished from Bipolar 2, if the mania is longer or more severe and/or the person has a manic episode before having depression.)
Nothing made any sense to me, and the nightmare continued. My daughter-in-law’s family was immersed in the belief of mental illness. “My whole family has bipolar problems,” her mother stated. No big deal, his wife said, though Ryan came back to normal after 10 weeks. My husband and I went to several psychiatric doctors trying to find a more reasonable physician who would look at the whole picture, but all followed the same philosophy. I even challenged them with the American Psychiatric Association’s classification system which qualified a bipolar I diagnosis as inaccurate when illicit substances are in evidence. (At the time, the DSM IV manual was the classification guide for psychiatry.) Mothers like me read everything and know when a diagnosis doesn’t hold. Denial was going on, but I don’t think the “experts” understood who was in denial.
No one ever suggested Ryan had addiction or dependence on pot or any drugs. I asked several times, as my thinking was that anyone who had basically had a brain break should go for rehab/counseling. These ‘experts’ reassured us,” Ryan is just a recreational user.” I kept researching and showed my son and his wife the volumes of research about the marijuana-psychosis link. I told them, “If Ryan ever goes near any mind-altering substance again, it could trigger schizophrenia.” At the time, I was unfamiliar with the “skunk” strains of pot, and didn’t know most of their friends were using it.
In mental health programs, if there is presence of THC or other drugs in the toxicology report, please give the patient the education to help them understand addiction and how the brain works. The attending physician should be certified for Addictions Treatment. I’ve read there should be at least a six-month wait to fully evaluate a person’s mental health function after stopping the substance, but it didn’t happen for Ryan.
Back to Normal? How Long?
My son’s wife dutifully gave Ryan his medicine — not that I believe any of them helped him come out of psychosis faster). Ryan gained 55 lbs. in 5 months, leaving stretch marks all over his statuesque physique. Our son had gained so much weight, complained of “brain fog” and once out of psychosis weaned himself off the meds. In total, he spent five months on the anti-psychotics.
I never believed my own kid would ever go near another mind-altering substance again. Neither my husband nor I had ever touched an illicit substance in our lives. Sadly, parents who think they raised their kids sensibly, spent quality time with them and modeled a healthy lifestyle, can be woefully unaware of “today’s culture.” The drug is everywhere; one in six teens who use marijuana become addicted to it.
We found out later that some close friends were using pot so Ryan was persuaded to start using “recreationally” at age 19. About that time, he began dating the girl he married, also a user, but not someone I’d expect to be into pot.
Sad for me, when I met individually with Ryan’s five close friends, each called him “best friend,” because he gave everything of himself to his friends. Some “fessed up” to using marijuana with Ryan. One said, “But he never did the really bad drugs like I’ve done.”
Ryan’s dog had seizures about a month before our son’s second “episode” of psychosis. Long story short–I helped my daughter-in-law get their dog to the family vet. She told the veterinarian their dog had eaten snail bait, but he disagreed. I had no knowledge my son had returned to pot, and his wife didn’t share that fact. Indeed, now I realize that their dog had found their bag of pot. The vet told us it was not epilepsy, as I thought. He was unsure if he would be able to save this dog. Following an expensive intravenous (IV) hydration, the dog survived.
After Ryan experienced his next breakdown, he confessed, “Jodie had eaten pot before his seizures began.” Later, the vet assured me “Pot doesn’t cause seizure, but makes dogs lethargic, sleepy.” Several months ago, a Colorado veterinarian wrote an article in the LA Times about the escalating number of dogs having seizures from contact with pot edibles. I marched the article to our vet, grabbed his arm and implored him to educate himself and spread this information to his colleagues.
If our family vet had recognized the symptoms of today’s pot which causes seizures, and if I had been sharp enough to have asked the vet to do a drug screen, we could have made a difference. But, we didn’t realize that Ryan had gone back to using pot, thinking he had beaten the addiction. (Parts 3 and Parts 4 will follow. Part 5, to be published in December, will explain how the author has helped others with her knowledge.)