Cannabis and psychosis: A father’s story

06/06/2022

Terry provides a graphic insight into the impact cannabis and psychosis had on his family.

It was six o’clock on a warm summer’s evening when my teenage son asked me a question that was to change my life, and the life of my family forever. I was watching the BBC News; a woman in black was bent over her dead son; she was wailing pitifully. It was all too depressing, so I reached for the remote.

As I did so, my 19-year-old son, Steve, who had been studying the floor, slowly raised his head and said, “Why did you ring the BBC?” “BBC, Steve, what are you talking about?” “You know!” he snapped back, “Don’t deny it, you rung the BBC; they have been talking about me on the television all day.” My heart missed a beat; I went cold, I felt sick. All those weeks earlier when I was thinking he might be getting a little depressed because his girlfriend had packed him in and the problems he was having at college, I was wrong. I knew then I had a very, very sick boy. That day I went to work a dad, and went to bed a carer.

Several excruciating weeks later, Steve was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and hospitalised. My wife, Chris, and I later discovered that for the previous six months, he had been binging on cannabis, something we had missed. Neither of us had ever smoked or come across cannabis; in fact, I thought he might be suffering with a bit of depression.

The psychosis quickly took hold of Steve’s mind and we were witnessing the destruction of it. It was as if he was trapped in a bottle and drowning in madness. He mumbled in some strange incomprehensible language, walked about the house shouting at the walls, locking himself in his room refusing to come out, and covering his head with the sheets when I walked in.

He was a boy gripped by absolute fear and terror. Chris and I helplessly watched on. It was more than I could bear at times; it was like watching your son being tortured before your eyes, and there was nothing you could do to stop it. I felt totally powerless. I hoped beyond hope that Steve would wake up and it would all be over, that his mind was clear, and that the cannabis haze had drifted away. Sadly, that was not to be.

The Low Point

It was four weeks later during the night of Wednesday 11 August, 1999, when I experienced the worst night of my life. The following day I had an early start, so I went to bed early, I read a few pages of my book, set the alarm and hit the pillow. Three hours later I was awoken by a terrible crash followed by shouting - it was Steve.

I rushed into his bedroom to find him standing in the corner of the room, fear radiating from every pore of his face - his whole body was trembling. “Steve, are you alright, what’s the matter?” I asked. Steve just stood transfixed, he seemed paralysed with fear. “Are you my dad?” A quivering voice replied. “Of course I am Steve”, I responded. “You’re not an alien, are you?” said Steve. “Of course not Steve, it’s me, your dad”. As I approached him to put my arm around him, he flinched, and backed off. “It’s me Steve, it’s your dad”, trying to reassure him.

  • I rushed into his bedroom to find him standing in the corner of the room, fear radiating from every pore of his face - his whole body was trembling.

He turned his face away from me and stared out of the window. He started rambling to himself incoherently. He told me to go away. I asked him to get back into bed which to my surprise he did. As I left the room, I could see the door frame was badly split where it had been violently slammed.

Chris was standing in the hallway, her hands clasping her cheeks, I told her that it was perhaps best to leave him and let him go back to sleep. We both got back into bed and lay discussing the situation. Chris was urging me to get Steve into hospital. We had seen his GP four weeks earlier, who had referred Steve to the local Community Mental Health Team. A psychiatrist had visited Steve and had confirmed that he was suffering from psychosis - possibly schizophrenia. We were both in a state of shock. The psychiatrist suggested that we wait to see how things develop, and that they would try and treat his psychosis at home rather than in hospital.

As we lay discussing what to do, there was a sudden almighty crash and the sound of breaking glass - Steve was swearing at the top of his voice. I jumped out of bed and ran to his bedroom, to find Steve silhouetted against the window. He turned and lurched towards me, his six-foot frame stood over me - a beam of light from the hallway draped his face revealing eyes that were full of fear and menace. I was frightened. “It’s me Steve, it’s your dad”. He looked bewildered. He continued to study my face for what seemed ages then suddenly turned away and got back into bed and in a calm voice said, “Go back to bed dad, it’s nothing”.

  • He turned and lurched towards me, his six-foot frame stood over me - a beam of light from the hallway draped his face revealing eyes that were full of fear and menace.

I went to pick up the pieces of the shattered ashtray, but he angrily told me to get out. I dearly wanted to talk to him; I wanted to find out what I could do to help him, but the truth was I was fearful and uncertain what to do. I returned to our bedroom; Chris was crying. “We have to do something,” she sobbed. “He needs to go to hospital now. I want my son back. I want my son back”.

Steve started shouting again. Chris went to go to him. I told her not to and that we should just wait a while to see if he quietens down, she looked at me and said, “You’re frightened, aren’t you?” Yes, Chris was right - I was frightened. I sat on the edge of the bed feeling defeated. All that so-called experience working in mental health meant nothing. For the first time in my life, I simply did know what to do or say – should I cry? But I don’t cry, I have never cried.

The sound of Steve continued to dominate the house. I stayed sitting on the edge of the bed, Chris’s words still echoing in my head. If I go into his bedroom, would Steve be able to hold himself back this time? Could I defend myself against an attack? He is bigger and far stronger than me; what if he tries to kill me? With a great deal of fear and foreboding, I decided to go to Steve’s room - he was in bed. I decided that the worst was over and quietly closed the door, relieved that I had not been put to the test. We eventually got Steve into hospital four weeks later - those four weeks were hell!

Several years later, I asked Chris about that night and whether she was angry and thought I had been a coward. I was somewhat surprised and relieved when she said that she had not been angry with me at all, her anger was with the mental health services for prolonging the dreadful situation we were in, and for allowing Steve to suffer for so long. She did not blame any individual professional; indeed, she thought the psychiatrist had done what he thought was right. She was angry at the mental health system.

A Beacon of Hope

It was two years into his illness when we were at one of our regular review meetings at the hospital between the psychiatrist, Steve, my wife and me. The psychiatrist asked Steve about his voices and where he thought they came from. Steve said he thought aliens were trying to communicate with him. The doctor then asked him how certain he was of that. Steve thought for a moment and then replied, “90% certain”. Then the psychiatrist asked what I thought was a brilliant question. “So, Steve, what’s the 10%?” Steve pondered for a moment and replied, “Good question; I suppose they could be in my head”. The psychiatrist gave a reassuring smile and nodded. Chris looked at me, a tear rolling down her face, and we both smiled; Steve’s 10% uncertainty was our beacon of hope.

Slowly as the months went by, that 10% grew. Some years later, after a period of talking therapy, the same psychiatrist asked Steve if he still heard voices. “Yes, of course I do”, Steve responded. The doctor then asked that crucial question: “Where do you think they come from Steve”. Steve thought for a moment and replied, “In my head”. Brilliant, I thought, fantastic!

But then the psychiatrist went on and asked him the same follow up question as he did before: “How certain are you, Steve, that your voices are coming from your head?” Steve pondered for a moment and said, “88% certain”. “So, what’s the 12% doubt then, Steve?” the psychiatrist replied. Steve thought for a moment and said, “Well, it’s the things my voices say. I don’t think I could be that clever.” My eyes welled up as I realised then just how low Steve’s self-esteem was. It dawned on us that we still had a way to go, but we were all definitely going in the right direction, and we also knew what we needed to focus on, as did Steve. Above all, we realised that there is life after psychosis, and life can get better - and it did.

The importance of early intervention

  • The message is clear, early intervention is crucial; people need to be rescued as quick as possible to reduce the long-term damage to young minds and to give individuals a fighting chance to manage their lives and bring hope to the whole family.

As a society, we wouldn’t dream of leaving someone with a broken leg, or a broken heart valve months for treatment, so why do we think it is ok to leave someone with a broken mind. What frustrated Steve and the rest of the family is it took several years to get to the point where we could all sense genuine hope. For years Steve lived in an often chaotic and terrifying world of thought disorder. The message is clear, early intervention is crucial; people need to be rescued as quick as possible to reduce the long-term damage to young minds and to give individuals a fighting chance to manage their lives and bring hope to the whole family. We may not have found a cure yet for psychosis, but there are fantastic models of treatment, treatment that can bring back the joy of living to every one’s life.

Terry is a Rethink Mental Illness member and mental health campaigner. He has also written a book: Gone to Pot – Cannabis: What Every Parent Needs to Know

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