Old nicotine dripped from the ceiling of the Super 8 bathroom I had spent the last two days in. The shower was running full blast and piping hot water turned it into a steam room. The tar-stained ceiling collected into heavy, yellow droplets, and the paint started to flake away. The rhythmic water was the only thing that could cut the pain. Where? I couldn’t exactly place it—somewhere dead center. I hadn’t eaten in some days. Food won’t go down when you have that kind of pain. And even when I had nothing left in me, I was still kneeling before the toilet trying to make something—anything—come up for a few seconds of relief. But the only thing that really worked was hot water. I could only stay out of the shower for brief moments so I could smoke another bowl, not knowing that is what was causing it.
This is the point where all the stoners quit reading. Getting sick from weed? It sounds like a cautionary tale straight out of a 1950’s era propaganda piece. But it happened. It sounds like something dreamed up on a very special episode of Diffrn’t Strokes’ with Nancy Reagan telling young Arnold that if he picks up that bong he’s going to end up in a mental ward, covered in his own shit, with his fingers down his raw throat. But that happened too.
The medical jargon is Cannabinoid Hypermesis Syndrome (CHS), but some just refer to it as “marijuana sickness”. It’s a not fully understood phenomenon where the same THC that reduces nausea, causes a rare few to undergo unending bouts of vomiting. Receptors in the brain that first send out anti-nausea signals shut down leaving the user with a nauseous feeling that won’t stop along with abdominal pain. In recent years as more and more states began to legalize and THC content grew, reports began to surface. The drug that many felt could do no harm, was starting to make some people sick. It happened to me.
I came into weed later than most, way past the college and high school years were someone takes a hit off their first joint. I was raised in a small religious group where even smoking a cigarette was enough to get you cast out. I only ever saw weed once, politely declining the bowl rotation as I visited an old friend in my early-twenties. “That’s why we never offered you any in high school,” he joked, before taking a rip off the glass piece. But, as I was approaching my 30’s and separating away from the religion, I wanted to go out and try out everything I had missed. I grew a beard. I went to bars. I bummed Camel Crushes. I was trying to check off every vice box and “smoke marijuana” was still hanging out there. Dating a bartender wasn’t on my list, but maybe it should have been.
Bartenders are the center of the party with all the inherent connections. They can get you cocaine or a lawyer who could get you out of a cocaine charge. Sometimes it was the same guy. A whole new world opened up when she came home with a baggie full of chocolates, a “special tip” from a regular. “Do you want to try it?” she asked, handing me one. “They’re edibles.”
Edibles? That was something new. I quickly devoured the piney-chocolate wafer and moments later started feeling good. My skin tingled. The music sounded fuller. Food tasted better. Our conversations funnier. I was having interesting, new thoughts. We quickly moved to smoking flower, sometimes it would come with names of the strand, sometimes it would just come homegrown from the middle of a cornfield. Before long, I was smoking all-day, every-day, as if making up for lost time.
When the sickness first came, I thought it was just a bad stomach flu. But it lingered, getting progressively worse. Some mornings, I would wake up fine only to have breakfast send me straight to the bathroom. I took a shower and like magic the pain vanished. I drained an entire propane tank at my girlfriend’s house in the country filling and refilling the boiling tub. When my father found out, he booked me a room at a motel. It turned out that the only room they had available was handicapped accessible. It worked out perfect because the shower had a seat and a detachable nozzle. I could relax and let the limitless hot water pour over me. The pain eventually went away and I returned home only to have it start up again.
This time my sister took me to the ER. Because of the symptoms, I hadn’t been sleeping. I’m must have come across as a junkie withdrawing and fiending for Vicodin as I tried to describe this nebulous pain and urgency to vomit. The attending doctor told me to take Tylenol and set me home. I smoked another bowl of a heavy Indica (“in da’ couch”, we joked) and managed to get some sleep. The next day my friend Crash came to visit and took me to lunch. I felt well enough but halfway through my burrito. the symptoms came back stronger than ever. “I’m going to take you somewhere,” he said. I agreed hoping he had access to a free clinic that might be able to offer me some help. Instead he took me to a hospital with a psychiatric wing.
I can’t say I blame him. The lack of sleep and the constant torment had pushed me near psychosis. I yelled at daytime talk show host Wendy Williams on the TV in the hospital waiting room. “You’re just here to humiliate your guests! You are sick,” I screamed at her toothy smile. The nurses checked me into the psych floor where I was let to use the bathroom. I knelt down and shoved my fingers down my throat, looking for relief. In that penitent position I wondered, “how did you end of here?” Before answering my own question, “you’re a writer, where else would you be?” Then I started to laugh, but it came out funny because I had my fingers down my throat. The choking, gurgling noises caused the nurse to bust in. The sight of me toilet-site confirmed a diagnosis of “crazy”. “He’s making himself throw up,” she smugly noted to another community-college graduate. They speculated that my entire sickness was a grandiose theatre production.
They moved me to a bedroom and I quickly found the shower. It didn’t have any of the comforts of the Super 8. It was a simple operation: push a button and the nozzle dribbled lukewarm water on you for 45 seconds. Rinse. Repeat. This only served to put me into more of a panic. I had become a hot-water junkie. So I thought nothing of it when I asked to use a real shower and had to do it under the watchful eye of the male nurse. Anything for a good shower!
“Do you smoke ganja?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I answered, wondering if he was secretly offering me.
He had seen this before and explained to me about Cannabinoid Hypermesis Syndrome while he fed me a Seroquel. The drug soon knocked me out and I got my first real sleep in weeks. I woke up 24 hours later covered in my own shit. After I got cleaned up I felt absolutely fine. My girlfriend picked me up and we drove home listening to the Black Keys. As the Weight of Love played, I felt like a weight had been lifted off me. I survived and never touched weed again—psyche!
This isn’t that episode of Family Matters. I figured what’s a few days of hell for the bliss of a marijuana cloud? Sometimes I smoked a little, sometimes a lot. I got the sickness rarely … an afternoon here, a day there, but nothing like before. Then eventually never. It left my life just as it had come—mysteriously. Looking back I wonder about the whole ordeal. Maybe it was the stress of life at the time. Maybe I just needed a good purge. Sometimes, I got really smoked up and dream up a conspiracy that I got a batch of cornfield weed that had been contaminated with RoundUp. But to this day I don’t know. The only thing I know is that weed can make you sick.