This is not a weed-glorification post, but rather, a post about how unconventional experiences can sometimes be the catalyst for real, meaningful change. So, if the title puts you off, I encourage you to keep reading anyway. I’m going somewhere with this.
I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. Of course, I didn’t get an official diagnosis until I was in my mid-30s, so I spent a lot of my formative years not really understanding what was wrong with me. I didn’t have vocabulary for things like intrusive thoughts, catastrophic thinking, and anxiety-induced obsessive compulsions.
Naturally, I just thought I was weird. And maybe a little unhinged. But for the most part, I was able to push through the negative effects of my anxiety and function like a typically-brained person. I masked the anxiety pretty well, turning my generalized social anxiety into a running joke about my quirky “socially awkward behavior.” Intrusive thoughts? Nah, that’s just me being prepared, thinking through every possible outcome. Catastrophic thinking? No way, I’m just being cautious, and what could be wrong with that?
I became, in every way, a high-functioning-but-not-at-all-thriving vessel of well-masked anxiety.
In my late 30s, when life started to implode around me, I decided to give therapy a try. I was making a lot of progress in those therapy sessions, unpacking old traumas, reprocessing pains I had suppressed long ago, reprogramming faulty thought patterns. But with all that good progress, nothing seemed to be able to touch my anxiety.
My husband kept suggesting I try an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, also known as an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication). I was very much against it. And, if I’m being honest, it’s mostly because of my upbringing. I grew up watching my mom suffer through the side effects, the dosage adjustments, the secondary medications she took to counteract the side effects, and the side effects of those secondary medications. I’d rather suffer through my anxiety than subscribe to that dog and pony show for possibly the rest of my life.
But one day, when I had hit what most people would call objectively rock bottom, my best friend since college paid me a visit.
I was sipping wine, she was smoking a joint. For years, this had been our routine. She was always partial to cannabis, but I just couldn’t get into it. I tried it a couple of times with her and hated it, so I gave up. She liked a strain of cannabis called indica, which typically has relaxing effects. But when I tried it, the only real effect it had was to make my mouth dry and to put me immediately to sleep. It was never a fun time for me, so eventually I just asked her to stop offering.
On this particular visit, however, she brought a different strain. She said it was called sativa. Because she knew about my anxiety, she had never given me this strain of cannabis before. Sativa is known for its stimulating effects — some people call it a “brain high.” She would rather not give me something that might accidentally kick my anxiety into overdrive. But this time, when she pulled out this new sativa strain, she said, “We’re just going to give this a try. I’ve heard that sativa sometimes has a calming effect on people with anxiety, so I want to see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, at least it won’t put you to sleep like the indica does.”
Reluctantly, I gave it a try.
Within a few minutes, everything changed. I was suddenly calm, relaxed, the way I often felt after a nice glass of Cabernet. The difference was, I didn’t feel tipsy or buzzed. I was shockingly clear-headed, as if for the first time my brain was just still. The constant swarm of loud and obnoxious thoughts clanging around in my restless brain just … stopped.
You know those videos of deaf children being given a cochlear implant and being able to hear their mother’s voice for the first time? The awe and wonder you see on their faces as they discover a sensation they have never experienced before? That was this moment for me. I was happy, calm, at peace. I felt present with my friend and, perhaps for the first time in my life, was able to listen to her with my full attention. There was no battle between the sound of her voice and the intrusion of my very loud thoughts in my own brain. I wasn’t listening to her while also pondering whether my co-worker was mad at me, if I remembered to pay my phone bill, if I had permanently ruined my relationship with my son when I yelled at him the other day.
I was just there. With her. Blissfully in the moment.
With a sigh of disbelief, I asked, “is this what people who don’t have anxiety feel like? Is this how my brain is supposed to feel?”
Wisely, she smiled and nodded.
The next morning, I told my husband and my therapist that I wanted to try an SSRI. I knew I would rather not use cannabis as a long-term solution to my anxiety, although I now know many people who do. So, I figured if an SSRI could give me even a fraction of the peace and calm of cannabis, it would be well worth it. Now that I had experienced freedom from the death-grip anxiety held on me, I never wanted to lose that feeling.
I was told the SSRI could take up to six months to show any noticeable effect, but I began to see results in about two weeks. Slowly, I was beginning to feel more focused, less scattered. I noticed I wasn’t thinking the worst in every situation. Was this feeling … hopefulness? Was this what it felt like to believe that the best possible outcome could happen instead of the worst?
I started showing up more authentically in my relationships, feeling finally free to be who I am without the social anxiety telling me I am unlikable and annoying. Therapy seemed more productive because my thoughts were sharp and focused. I was able to share my feelings, needs, and concerns. I could actually hear and receive the feedback from my therapist.
My marriage began to heal. I stopped yelling at my kids. I mended some friendships that had gone sideways. I made some hard decisions I had been putting off, and finally started moving personally and professionally toward goals that had seemed unreachable just a few short months ago.
In every way, I was becoming the person I was always meant to be. The person who was constantly made invisible behind the opaque smoke screen of my anxiety.
It’s been over a year of taking an SSRI, and so far, I’ve had none of the negative experiences I watched my mom have. It turns out that brain science has come a long way since then, and so have the medications we take. Health care providers are more accurate with their dosing these days. I’m on just the right dosage that gives me the therapeutic effect without producing side effects. My SSRI journey has been easy and light.
I don’t smoke cannabis — it was never meant for me. I do, occasionally, enjoy a sativa gummy with my husband on nights when we want to have a heady evening. But the story was never about cannabis.
The story is about how even unconventional things can teach us something about our mental health. How, if we keep our minds open, the world can usually find a way to push us toward the path we’re supposed to be on — even if the approach seems strange or absurd. The story, at its core, is about my hope for you to experience something just as magical and life changing. It’s about my wish for you to open your mind to what the world might be trying to tell you about your mental health and what you need to be doing about it.
And that, then, you’ll go do it.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.