Positive Living: From Mania to Mellow Stability

By : Greg Stemm
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GregStemmHeadshotIt perhaps comes as no surprise to those of you who know me that I’m a little bit crazy.

Now, I’m not talking about let’s-go-have-a-blow out-evening crazy, I’m talking about an actual clinical diagnosis of mental health issues. Gentle reader, we’ve shared some pretty intimate details of my life together so it is important for me to be forthright with you about these issues. It’s why I’m urging you from a very personal perspective to vote “yes” on Amendment 2 on November 8.

After several years of wondering, “What the heck is wrong with me?” I managed to get into some professional counseling through the Pinellas Care Clinic and then, most importantly, through AIDS Service Association Pinellas (ASAP). These dedicated mental health professionals identified two major clinical diagnoses: General Anxiety Disorder and a highly unusual form of bipolarism (actually some call it “unipolarism”) which is marked by extreme manic episodes without any corresponding depression. Most bipolar cases include wild swings between depression and mania, and in most cases, the depression is the most serious part of the disease. With me, I don’t “swing.” I move in only one direction: Wild uncontrolled mania that can have serious life consequences if left untreated.

Many of us have had some experience with insomnia. Usually it’s only one or two nights. In a manic episode, it just goes on and on and on. My record was an almost incomprehensible 170 continuous waking hours.

Let me spell out what happens with that length of sleep deprivation. At about 48 hours, you begin to lose track of day and night. Dusk and dawn are the worst. In fact, as the scenario unfolds, the only way if you can tell if its 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. is to go outside and see if the sun is in the east or the west. At 72 hours is when the hallucinations begin. In my case, it wasn’t just visuals, but auditory ones as well. At one point I would have tried to convince you there was an entire marching band outside my apartment at 4 am.

At about the 150-hour mark, I was clinically insane. I don’t remember much about that time, but I started making horrible decisions. I just wanted it to stop, and apparently my alcoholic brain decided that maybe a bottle of vodka would help. I have no recollection of buying the first bottle, but many more came after it. Finally I did drink enough to pass out, but it took me four months to stop drinking again. For a recovering alcoholic like me, that was disastrous and could have been fatal.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try and get help. I found myself in two different emergency rooms begging them to give me something to crash me. I was told those kinds of drugs were inappropriate for an emergency room to administer. The emergency room at Palms of Pasadena even offered the ridiculous advice that “you need to go home and go to bed.”

I learned later that my other diagnosis of generalized anxiety was a separate but compounding issue to the mania. I had a therapist once ask me to rank my anxiety level on a scale of 1 to 10 and without hesitation I said, “45.”

Once we identified what the issues really were, then I began a 10-year long saga of well meaning health care professionals trying to find some medication or combination of medications to help me. That was very frustrating and the results ranged from totally ineffective to more radical side effects, like putting me in a permanent state of panic or making me suicidal. Most of the medications used to treat bipolar conditions today are strongly indicated to fight depression. But giving me an antidepressant is like throwing wood on the fire: It makes both the mania and the anxiety much, much worse. Virtually all the medications they tried made it almost impossible for me to orgasm. For someone with anxiety issues let’s just say, “That’s not helping.”

It was after this decade long medicine merry-go-round that I discovered that marijuana, a drug I had tried over the years, really helped alleviate these mental health issues. A responsible use of cannabis lowered my anxiety levels from that 45 down to a more manageable 7 or 8, and the relief came at once after just one joint or a couple of pipe bowls.

In consultation with my HIV specialist/general practitioneer, we decided also to try a prescription for marinol. For those of you who don’t know, marinol is a legal form of synthetic THC that was approved in the earlier years of the AIDS epidemic as a treatment for wasting, a then-common side effect of the disease. To my amazement and delight, marinol turned out to be a wonder drug to stop manic episodes dead in their tracks. After six years of use I’m happy to say I’m stable and don’t suffer from these episodes any more.

Today I use both marinol, which is legal, and cannabis, which is not (which is absurd in itself). Legal medical marijuana would guarantee that the supply is safe, regulated and not supporting criminal elements. That’s why I’m asking you once again from a very personal perspective to please vote yes on Amendment 2 on November 8.

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