John_Henry_Fuseli_-_The_Nightmare

Celia Kramer is a writer living with debilitating anxiety. In her weekly column, Celia will write about the horrible and hilarious world of fear, dread, paranoia, phobias, panic attacks, and trying to function as a halfway normal person. Some names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in her life.

In college, I lived with a guy named Aaron who was so crippled by his social anxiety that he barely left the house. Smoking made him feel normal, and opened him up to deal with his anxiety in a productive and therapeutic way. It also alleviated a lot of the physical symptoms of anxiety like nausea, headaches, and insomnia, which, unmanaged, further aggravated his anxiety, since we all know anxiety is a self perpetuating cycle. Smoking made all of that manageable, and it made him functional. And while it may not work for everyone, for Aaron and countless other people in my life, using marijuana as a treatment for anxiety has been unbelievably effective. It’s pretty much beyond question that it can help certain people manage their anxiety, and I am all for anything that helps with anxiety reduction. Regardless of where you stand on the legalization of marijuana for recreational or medical uses, I have seen firsthand how effective marijuana is at managing anxiety–for some people, it’s significantly more effective than any anti-anxiety medication and has fewer side effects. Except me. Smoking makes everything way, way worse.

I think of marijuana as a fun recreational drug and also an effective medical treatment, but for me, it is neither recreational nor curative. Smoking has the absolute opposite of the intended effect on me. Instead of producing a happy calm, it creates an internal panic attack run through a blender. I kept trying for years because I thought that maybe one day I’d have a breakthrough and then achieve normalcy.

I received drug education as a middle schooler from my mother, who had been somewhat of a drug connoisseur in the 70s and 80s. Now happily a square, she has a knack for convincing me that anything out of the ordinary could very well kill me. She told me:

“You can try any drug you want—I mean, I tried them all. You can do whatever grass* you wanna do. I used to smoke a ton of grass in college and grad school so I won’t tell you what to do. Of course, I wouldn’t touch the stuff nowadays. Nowadays it’s laced with God knows what, probably rat poison, for all I know. And you just hallucinate and it’s absolutely terrifying. Once I went to a Pink Floyd concert and I hallucinated that my boyfriend had a horse’s head instead of his head, although of course we had done some harder stuff than just grass. But you know, nowadays, grass is just mixed in with all that awful stuff so you just have no idea what you’re going to get. And you might, well, you probably will get really panicky and scared, I mean, I don’t know, I’m not saying you definitely will, but you probably will. But by all means, experiment, if that’s what you want to do. I certainly won’t discourage you.”

*I love that she says “grass.” Willie Nelson doesn’t even call it grass anymore.

For me, anxiety is nothing if not a self fulfilling prophecy, and I am very, very impressionable. If you tell me that something will make me anxious, 100% of the time, it will make me exceptionally anxious. But I am also a fool and determined to find things that could counteract my anxiety, so I figured that if I could somehow avoid the paranoia that I was guaranteed to feel, I could get something out of smoking. And I have friends who use medicinal marijuana instead of the Xanax that I worry I’m becoming to dependent on, and it’s helped their lives in such tangible, quantifiable ways. I wanted to do this.

I decided to try anyways, and I tried really, really hard with a 100% failure rate. I was a late adopter to smoking (especially being from Southern California), but once I decided to try, I dove in with dedication. It would always start out great–suddenly I felt the tension start to dissolve and everything would slow down to a manageable level. For about ten minutes, I would have all of the positive effects and think “it’s working. I’m so normal.” At that point there would be some small switch—for instance, one time my roommates and I were watching Little Miss Sunshine and for some reason I began to over identify with the brother (who had taken a vow of silence) and became convinced that I, too, did not have the ability to talk. Also, there were police everywhere.

If you were to look at me, I probably looked relatively normal, sitting in a heap on the couch, eyes shifty. But inside my head was an entire chaotic superstorm, like a panic attack with nowhere to go so all of the thoughts just bounced around my skull until I imploded. Convinced I’d never be able to speak again, I sat there, paralyzed, trying to stop the panic from drowning me. I looked at my boyfriend pleadingly, but he couldn’t read my mind. I thought about what my mother had said. I awaited the horse’s head.

I wanted to lie down but I felt like Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare might in fact be very accurate, and a monster would appear on my chest, with a demonic horse with glowing eyes as its grotesque sidekick. In fact, one time I just stared at the image of The Nightmare in one of my art history textbooks for like an hour, thinking that it was my life now. I’m the monster, I’m the monster. I really wish I had never learned of that painting’s existence, or been an art history major, or knew anything about how scary the world could be, even just inside your own head.

This is pretty indicative of my experience with smoking. I didn’t want to give up so I kept trying through countless paranoid episodes in some frantic pursuit of something that would allow me to live normally. I’m so envious of my friends who can smoke to relieve their symptoms and go on about their days, unclouded by obsessive thoughts and the constant bickering of the voices shouting you down, but it doesn’t work for me. It just doesn’t, and so I will have to keep working to find alternative options. This is hardly the only treatment, and it’s not even the only natural one. This doesn’t shut every door.

Maybe I was born with a specific chemical composition that made me react poorly to smoking, or maybe my brand of anxiety simply doesn’t mix well with the feeling of being high. Or maybe my dumb mom got in my head when I was young, and I’m never going to stop freaking out and waiting for my boyfriend’s head to materialize into a horse.

Photo: Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare