Marijuana and My Fear of Death by Anonymous
The author is a second-year graduate student in 20th century U.S. history. Overcoming the terror of recognizing his mortality, the author confronts his panic attacks and makes peace with the transformations of existence.
I am a male graduate student, twenty-four years old, at a major public university in the Pacific Northwest. I am an alumnus of a small, highly regarded, academically demanding liberal arts college. I initially tried marijuana when I was a junior in high school, although, as is common, I didn’t experience much of an effect the first several times I smoked it. I did not begin smoking it regularly, and did not eat it at all, until after I began college, when I was seventeen. That same year, I was lucky enough to be able to join a group of people in a beautiful natural setting, where older, experienced folk gave us a supportive introduction to LSD. This essay has mostly to do with marijuana, but I will have occasion to mention the other psychedelic drugs again later.
Starting with my first true marijuana high, I began to experience a number of benefits. I find the herb to be uplifting – sometimes relaxing and sometimes invigorating. I usually smoke or eat it with groups of friends, and among us it is a boon to conviviality. I also enjoy doing it alone on occasion, though. In general, I prefer to avoid making unnecessary rules around its use, and play things most of the time by ear. I have asthma. While being around tobacco smoke can irritate my lungs, marijuana (even when I smoke it) can often provide me, during the period of its acute effects, with relief from bronchiospasm and the associated anxiety at least as great as that afforded by the prescription drugs I also take. This notwithstanding, I do not now conceive of marijuana’s role in my life as a patient does that of a medication. I do support the laws enacted by citizens of increasingly more states in order to permit the medical use of marijuana, whose unquestioned legality was so cruelly abrogated in 1937. I have worked on such a campaign myself.
Marijuana enhances the sensations of sex for me. While sex plays an important, positive part in my life, however, I rarely if ever use marijuana with the sole purpose of spicing up a sexual encounter. Marijuana also heightens my appreciation for the beauties of nature. I do not generally find my highs as soporific as some commentators make theirs out to be. I have been a hiker all my life, and I love to use marijuana in the wilderness and go for a nice long walk. I often take a stroll after getting high in the city, too. When I do so there, I seem to notice the non-human lifeforms all around (the plants, in particular) more than I do when I have not used marijuana.
Marijuana is great for museums, as well. On trips to Europe, especially, I have enjoyed ingesting it before going in to see works of art, as well as such things as anthropological dioramas. Music, too, is richer and more engrossing when I am high. This is so whether I am listening to a recording or at a concert. Marijuana does not typically induce agoraphobia in me. Rather, the crowd dynamics become even more a part of the show when I go out to see a band after having used it.
While marijuana does change my perception of external stimuli (usually for the better), it also has aesthetic aspects all its own. In part, I love to use marijuana for the same reason that I love to eat roast lamb or steamed broccoli or ripe mangos, or to drink heavily hopped beer or strong black coffee or fruit smoothies. These are some of my favorite biological products, and it feels purely glorious to merge myself with them. One of the many problems our culture has with marijuana is that both sides of the debate have invested it with such weighty moral significance that it’s hard to appreciate its purely material qualities anymore. The simple animal physical pleasures cannot be neglected, however.
We so impoverish ourselves when we draw overly distinct boundaries between human and other forms of life, or between our bodies and the rest of the universe. Sensually opening ourselves to food or drink or smoke, acknowledging our permeability, is a way out of the neuroses this false division engenders. Living (solipsistically) on the inside, it can feel like our bodies are semi-permanent objects that hold their shape and change only slowly. Marijuana reminds me that a vast river of molecules is constantly flowing through my body, with ingestion and excretion ensuring that little but the form persists. This deep feeling of connection has much to do with the most important change that the use of marijuana has helped to bring about in my life.
As my parents can attest, from a relatively young age I had a distinct awareness of mortality and a mounting horror of illness and death. It may have had its start with my hospitalization for an asthma attack when I was five. At any rate, this fear reached its peak during the summer after my freshman year of college, when I suffered a spasm of hypochondria and visited a succession of doctors, convinced I was dying of one imaginary disease after another. My world seemed to be spinning out of control, and try as my relatives and friends might, I refused to accept their assurances that everything was going to be fine.
My concrete concerns were laid to rest after a talk with my longtime family physician, who assured me that what I actually had was “medical students’ disease,” acquired by reading too many books on illness. Once the temporary relief this gave me had worn off, though, I came to realize that the underlying cause of my literally pathological obsession was my fear of death. I could not stand the strain of living with this recurrent panic, so I resolved to root it out. After nearly six years of talking with my loved ones about death, reading spiritually and scientifically oriented books about it, and taking plenty of solitary time to think it through, I experienced a series of epiphanies, which reached its peak earlier this year. My mortal terror has now melted away. The chief tangible catalysts in this process have been psychedelic drugs. I have now had valuable experiences with LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and tincture of peyote, but I have mainly used marijuana.
One day when I was fourteen or so, I was standing in the shower when the thought of my own death as the beginning of personal nonexistence hit me with overpowering force. Then and there, I had the first of what was to become a long series of panic attacks, which often left me shouting out loud in an attempt to prove I was still here. No fear I had ever felt was as awful as the terror that came to me when I contemplated how easily all my thoughts and memories would be destroyed. And psychedelics, in general such a beneficial presence in my life, seemed to multiply this terror tenfold.
Going for a long period without using these drugs did not end the recurrent panic attacks, whose onset had in any case antedated my drug experience by over three years. I eventually decided that I had to look within myself, to come to grips with my fear. I wrote down the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear, from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, on a piece of paper. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” I was copying from memory, so I got some of the words wrong, but I had the sense. I carried the paper around with me in my wallet, and waited.
As I have explained, it took a while for things to change. There was no single cathartic event that broke down the walls inside me. The key, however, seemed to lie in thinking through my own death and not letting the thought send me into a panic. Once I could do that straight, it was time to try it while high, when it all seemed so much more real, so much worse. Again and again, I was overwhelmed, and ran to my friends begging them to tell me that I was all right, that I wasn’t dying.
Eventually, though, with practice, I was able to relax. I didn’t ask for it to come to me, but when I got high and the fear of death showed up, I didn’t freak out quite as much. One day it was there and I said, “Okay, so what if I die? Right now?” And nothing happened. I had thought the unthinkable and I was still there. That wasn’t the end there and then; I had to come back to that point several times. But thanks to my friends’ and family’s patience with me, and my own slowly developing courage, death gradually stopped tapping me on the shoulder. On the infrequent occasions that I do have panic attacks anymore, I surrender to them, and remember to breathe, and when they find I am not willing to give them the excitement of a struggle, they melt back into my consciousness, and are gone.
Marijuana and the other psychedelics provided me with an opportunity to experience that most intimate activity, my thinking, differently, without losing touch with the values and facts I had learned from my life to date. What I gained thereby was the mental analogue of depth perception. I was able to step outside my ego, which left to its own devices had blindly clung to life as though life were not itself characterized by ceaseless flux. I experienced a profound sense of dissolved boundaries akin to the one I described earlier with regard to the body – only this time, the boundaries were those supposedly rigid ones between “life” and “death.” I now feel that the world is a living entity in its own right, of which no part – that is to say, none of us – is truly created or destroyed, only transformed one into another throughout time. I am constantly amazed by the multiplicity of benefits that marijuana, within a larger context of education, experience, and dialogue, has brought to my life. I don’t even have to use marijuana very often in order to realize these benefits. Though I will generally smoke it or eat it when it is set before me by a generous friend, the constraints of Prohibition (primarily the financial ones) keep my use slightly less frequent than it will probably be when the laws change.
The ramifications of these laws also, unfortunately, keep me from being willing to use my name in this account. Still, I want the world to know that I do use marijuana. I am not afraid to say that to the people I meet. I am not afraid to say that I am glad the cannabis plant shares the Earth with us. I am not afraid to tell all who read my words that I am committed to working ceaselessly for the reform of laws and attitudes that infantilize my fellow adult citizens of free countries. These laws do so much more harm than marijuana itself could ever be conceived to do. They do it in an attempt to keep others from choosing for themselves whether to join me in its use – an attempt that is ultimately futile.