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Teens, Marijuana, and Depersonalization

The search for self in the time of cannabis parlors.

elena bezzubova
Source: elena bezzubova

A teen smokes weed and ends up with a disturbing experience of an alarmingly strange shift of existence. They lose reality and the old familiar self, and find themselves in a changed, removed world of frightening unreality.

No, it is not just another exciting turn of an altered state of consciousness. It is a mental disorder called depersonalization and derealization. Visit a teen social network, open a marijuana users’ chat or go to a depersonalization forum—this story will come up again and again.

Depersonalization can occur after the first joint or months of using marijuana. A mild beginning feels like “weird vertigo that just needs to be slept through.” Acute onset with the “annihilation of self” and a “dark abyss” can lead to the emergency room. Sometimes, depersonalization resolves itself in a few days or weeks. But, unfortunately, it often turns into months or years of torment.

The relationship between depersonalization and marijuana is not clear. The specific cause of depersonalization is unknown. Marijuana does not directly cause depersonalization. The majority of people who use marijuana never experience depersonalization. However, many people with depersonalization develop it for the first time after using marijuana. This happens most frequently during adolescence and young adulthood, between 12 and 28 years of age.

This ambiguous kinship between adolescent age, marijuana use, and the development of depersonalization links to the process of personalization: Awakening of awareness of "I" and searching for identity. Adolescence includes a youth identity crisis with questioning, “Who am ‘I’?” and overwhelming self-analysis. This intense development makes adolescence’s personalization unstable and susceptible to de-personalization. Some scholars distinguish a youth transient depersonalization–fleeting elements of mini-depersonalization that is normal for adolescence.

Marijuana is traditionally seen as a medium to explore personalization by gaining access to hidden parts of the self or world. Many marijuana-induced experiences balance on the edge of depersonalization. Cannabis might provoke the dissociation of “I” into "I"–acting, and "I"–observing these actions “as if from outside.” Marijuana blurs the boundaries between "I" and the world, and unpredictably toys with the senses, including depersonalization-related senses of reality, time, and space. Marijuana also powerfully affects anxiety, sometimes increasing anxiety to a psychotic level.

Depersonalization is the negative form of personalization: Unreality of self in a removed and foggy world intensifies self-analysis that, in turn, increases the frightening experiences of detachment. When teens with fragile personalization use marijuana that targets this personalization, depersonalization might emerge.

The exact motivation that drives teens to cannabis remains a rhetorical question. Interpersonal conflicts, yearning to be accepted by peers, loneliness, anxiety, academic problems, concerns about appearance, depression, failure to find a meaning of life, shame, envy, guilt, or just boredom and craving for some excitement.

And here comes marijuana–an easy and promising refuge from the adolescent trap between the shame to be “nobody as everyone” and the shame to “be different.” Marijuana seems like a ticket to a club where, if dreams don't come true, then at least pain flies away. However, for some teens, this ticket might turn into a ticket to marijuana-induced depersonalization.

Frightening and stressed by depersonalization, many teens blame themselves for “sin” or the “transgression” of taking marijuana. Suffering from depersonalization is aggravated by humiliating self-accusation, shame, and guilt. Sometimes family and friends contribute their bitter measure of reproaching.

The teens who are in this difficult situation need understanding, trust, and help to re-build self-respect. Self-respect–a healthy opposite to shame–forms a foundation of solid, stable, and authentic personalization. Self-respect creates powerful responsibility, not destructive guilt. Self-respect gives power to accept true responsibility for one’s own actions, based not on fear of punishment but on care for oneself and others. Self-respect gives freedom to understand one’s own actions and their consequences. This helps teens make free choices and take full responsibility for the results.

The motivation to use cannabis is framed by the social-cultural context. Illegal marijuana had the appeal of “forbidden fruit,” so attuned to adolescence’s zeal of opposition. The current legalization of marijuana with the growing business of cannabis parlors attracts young adults by convenience and safety, but also turns them into consumers influenced by advertisements.

Teens’ interest in marijuana is easy to understand. This is a puzzling substance with a puzzling effect on the human psyche. There have been many attempts to solve this puzzle. In the middle of the 19th century, the eminent French psychiatrist Moreau de Tours founded the notorious Paris Club of Hashish-Eaters. De Tours believed that studies of Hashish-induced experiences would help to reveal the mystery of mental pathology. The greatest names of French culture frequented the Club. They described their experiences, including hashish-induced depersonalization, in their works. T. Gautier’s The Hashish-Eaters Club and C. Baudelaire’s The Poem of Hashish depicted “disconnection with reality,” “foreign body,” “fog in the head,” and other depersonalization signs. Both poets felt disappointed, concluding that hashish-induced experiences led to a loss of self rather than to self-actualization.

More than a century later, during the golden hippie era, American psychiatrists researched the potentials of marijuana, strongly supporting its medical benefits. On the West Coast, an iconic name was Oscar Janiger, who was especially interested in depersonalization. On the East Coast–the eminent Lester Grinspoon. His “marijuana sessions” were frequented by the legendary poet Alan Ginsberg and the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan. The investigations of De Tours, Janiger, Grinspoon, and many other researchers did not find answers but raised new questions about the marijuana enigma.

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