‘The sky seems fucking bright and wonderful,’ thought Tim, as he stepped from the public loo into the sunlight. He’d chopped his weed, loaded his bong and smoked six, seven, eight cones in the fluorescent-lit bathroom by the car park. Now, he stood by the road: 17-years-old, smiling and triumphant. ‘Everyone knows me. Everyone knows who I am. It’s like I’m God or Jesus or been on Big Brother.’
Tim had been smoking pot for a year, selling it for months and seeing signs for weeks. Music, movies and people kept hinting at an uncomfortable thought: he was gay. That night, he resolved to tell the family. Tim sat by his older brother, Julian – a friend, a playmate, a bong-buddy – to watch television in the basement. He sat silent, then broke into tears. “Are you alright?” Julian asked. Tim didn’t know. Time passed. Tim sobbed, and then spoke. “I think I’m gay, Jules,” he said. Julian was surprised, as were the boys’ parents. They’d wondered why he’d been withdrawn for weeks, and wondered still whether this was why. “Are you sure?” asked their father. Tim was sure. He wasn’t gay, but he was sure.
Studies have shown a clear link between marijuana and schizophrenia, psychosis and other psychotic illnesses. Dr Matthew Large of the University of New South Wales conducted a study in 2011 that found those who smoke the drug heavily, particularly before the age of 16, are five times more likely to develop the illnesses. “It is also true that cannabis smokers who do develop psychosis do so at an average of two to three years earlier,” Dr Large said. “The mechanism probably involves cannabis causing cognitive impairment, which predisposes (them) to psychosis.”
Tim’s time smoking marijuana started like that of many his age. There was no back alley trade, no sunken-faced dealer. For him, there was a couch, a brother and a curse. Initially, he couldn’t believe his brother’s offer of a joint. It was late and the boys were downstairs, playing games and – with a chop, roll, lick and light – smoking a small spliff in the street outside.
Most drug users aren’t given their first taste by professional pushers. Friends and family are, according to one American study, as much as 19-times more likely to be the source. It’s not a lonely habit, either: more than a third of all Australians admit to trying pot. They come in all sorts, almost as likely married and rich in the city, as divorced and poor in the country. It was harmless, Tim thought. “There were people doing it who I’d known for ages. I just didn’t know they smoked weed.”
Tim developed a habit. It took time, but he acquired a taste, a tolerance and an appetite for the drug. He told his friends. He smoked with his friends. He started making new friends and smoking with them, too. In time, Tim was ripping six or seven cones before school, two or three at recess and as many as ten at lunchtime. “I’d still be getting homework done and just getting by with schoolwork,” said Tim. “But in class I’d just be completely, like, paying no attention. I’d just be talking shit with people the whole time.”
Pot braced Tim for the daily grind. It was a social substance, easing angst and helping the flow of chatter. It made his music – a mix of the modern and the more mellow tunes of yesterday’s flower-children – vibrate with new power and eloquence. “It was bliss,” Tim said. “It would just be weed and music, weed and music, every single day.” Tim started selling. His brother knew someone who was willing to supply “on-tick.” His dealer would give a quarter-ounce or half-ounce and expect payment once it was sold. He never made much, but it was enough to keep him in drugs and video games.
Selling saw Tim meet stranger folk and take stranger drugs. Tim turned on autopilot at school. After a while though, he stopped selling. He started to shut off. And the messages started to seep in. “Getting pretty close to the psychosis, I just had this idea,” Tim said. “I was getting it from music. I was getting it from absolutely everything. I would just always get this message that everyone was trying to tell me that I was gay.”
Then came the confession, the rage and the doctor. The family was fine with a gay son, but Tim grew restless. “All night, he just paced up and down,” said Judy, Tim’s mother. “And then he suddenly got really angry.” Tim ran from the house and into a construction site across the road. He tried to jump a fence, but was caught and calmed by his father. “It was probably two weeks he was like that, restless and agitated,” Judy said. “He had this dead look in his eyes and he got a bit violent.”
The family took Tim to the local clinic and then called on the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (CATT). The CATT team ran Tim through tests. They made him draw a circle and number it, clock-like. It came out strange and sideways and they asked him why. “I have to,” Tim said. “I have to put the numbers that way.” “Do you think there are cameras around the house?” they asked. Tim thought so. They knew now that Tim was having a psychotic episode. He took Valium to calm his mind, but was given little else until a psychiatrist could assess him. It took him weeks feel the effects of the anti-psychotic medication.