Cannabis gave me derealisation

Stewart was 18 when he first started smoking skunk. He tells The Mix about his experience of derealisation and how it triggered his anxiety disorder.

True Stories

boy smoking

"It was like my soul had left my body."

The first time I experienced derealisation was the most frightened I have ever been in my life. It happened when I was 18 in my first year at university after smoking some very strong Marijuana (skunk). I was fine at first; I remember laughing and joking with my friends and then suddenly I became very panicked and confused and it felt as if my soul had drifted out of my body.

I knew I was still alive, but I no longer felt like I was sharing the same reality as everyone else. The way I felt didn’t match what I was seeing and I was sure that I had done irreversible damage to my brain. In the following days and months friends persuaded me that I would feel normal again, but three months passed and the symptoms were getting stronger and stranger and my relationships and work started to suffer.

Seeking help

It was Christmas and I was at home with my family. I was in the bath and the feeling of being detached from my own mental processes and body were so intense that I believed I might disappear altogether. My emotions felt mismatched with my rational observations. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t because, as I found out later, a common experience with my condition is the inhibition of ’emotional colouring’ and depth. That night I finally broke and told my parents what I was going through. They were shocked and angry at first, but supported me hugely over the coming years.

Over the next two years I tried desperately to find out what was happening to me. First I saw a counsellor, but he just seemed baffled by my problems. Next I asked my doctor (GP) to refer me to a specialist in brain damage and had a brain scan but the results came back as normal. Along the way I also tried deep tissue massage, mineral deficiency testing, hypnotherapy and cranial osteopathy, but all to no avail. I felt so helpless; I was certain that I would never feel right again.

Struggling to be understood

In my second year at university, life got even harder. I found it difficult to leave the house because my symptoms were made worse by busy or new situations. I would rarely go out to pubs or clubs as being in busy or noisy places was distressing. My close friends tried to understand what I was going through, but I had to turn down evenings out, holidays and time bonding with them. The loss of my sense of humour and mental agility made me feel like I was boring to be around and a burden to everyone.

When I went home to see my parents I spent a lot of time lying in my room in the dark. My parents found it really hard to see their son wasting his youth and engaging so little with life.


Recovery began in as extreme a way as my condition had started. The stress, confusion and misery finally culminated one evening in an almighty, spiralling panic attack. I rang for an emergency GP to visit my home and with his consent admitted myself into a psychiatric unit for monitoring. I arrived at the hospital at 2am, was checked in and given heavy doses of valium.

When I saw the head psychiatric doctor three days later, he explained to me that in his opinion I had precipitated an anxiety disorder with the use of a powerful form of marijuana. The strange feelings of disassociation and related symptoms were a result of anxiety levels reaching such high levels that my mind was unable to cope with all the adrenaline and cut itself off from reality, causing what is known as derealisation.

So finally I realised that I was neither going insane, nor was I brain damaged. He put me on a drug for the anxiety and over a period of about two months I gradually returned to my former self. My sense of humour and mental agility came back and I began to reconnect with my emotions.

Five years on and I continue to take the medication. I still experience derealisation and anxiety during periods of stress or change, but I’m learning to cope with the disorder much better. I find that keeping busy and spending time with people you know and trust is a great distraction. I believe that as long as you don’t indulge in deep thought about how you are feeling, anyone can make a full recovery.

Photo of boy smoking by Shutterstock

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015