by Manoela Saldanha
I was the perfectly positioned overachiever: excelling at Trinity, one of NYC’s most rigorous private schools — well on my way of reaching my goal of getting into Columbia University. I thought I was thriving until the day I received my early acceptance letter. Burnout caught up to me accompanied by the darkest of thoughts. That’s when my search for inner peace began. This is my recovery story and where cannabis plays a role today.
When the college process came around, I was ready. I had great grades, played sports, did community service, and was the head of all the diversity clubs — a perfectly curated application. To achieve this facade of perfection, I was sleeping an average of three hours a night, eating between 500-1000 calories a day, all while working out twice a day.
When I received my acceptance letter and should have been feeling the high of all highs, I instead fell into a suicidal episode. I was confronted with the realization that working so hard to fit society’s definition of perfection had only empowered the mental illness that was consuming my life. I had put so much emphasis on material success and prestige, that I was stuck in an endless cycle of feeling ‘not enough,’ constantly wanting more.
Soon after, my mom walked in on me carving the words “fat” and “dumb” into my inner thighs. That’s when my parents sent me to the best therapist money could buy. I began taking 30mg of Lexapro and a Klonopin every day as a 120 lb, 5’1 girl who was barely 17.
On the recommendation of the school counselor, I took a gap year after a tumultuous end to high school. I spent 3 months in Myanmar, a month backpacking in Peru, another month in the Amazon, and I completed a yoga teacher training. All of this shifted my perception of my place in the world and my notion of success. Being in Asia forced me to recognize the reality that many of the most basic amenities in my life, such as beds and toilets, could not be taken for granted. In Peru, I discovered a deep interest in the mystical Incan culture, which I learned about on my four day trek to Machu Picchu. I continued to delve into indigenous culture in the Amazon, where I also reconnected with my love for nature and learned about its connection to spirituality. Yoga codified this spirituality, connecting the body with the mind.
I entered college feeling rejuvenated with a better sense of my interest and tools for handling stress.
It didn’t take long to fall into old habits again. While I was undoubtedly much better emotionally and had managed to wean off my medications, I was disappointed that the calm and appreciative mindset I had taken on during my gap year had given way to the stress and demands of college. Before sophomore year, I once again sought solace, attending a 7-day retreat in Costa Rica, consisting of yoga classes, group therapy, classes, and 4 ayahuasca ceremonies, each from a different tradition. There had been talk about the tea curing addictions such as crack and healing mental illness. While I was skeptical about its supposed magic powers, my curiosity was stronger. I was open to anything that might provide a sense of inner peace.
The first ceremony consisted of 4 hours of pure paranoia. The second night, I felt nothing. The third night/ceremony changed my life. I was overcome with the deepest sense of gratitude I have ever experienced. I realized that I was one of the most privileged people in the entire world and I was overwhelmed by an immense amount of self love. I cried out of pure joy for several hours. I let go of the negative paranoia heightened on my first ayahuasca trip, which manifests itself while sober in my constant self degradation. For once, I saw myself as beautiful. It all sounds like serious hippy bullshit, but even my traditional Brazilian parents will vouch that ayahuasca cured the haunting mental illness that had taken residence within me. Like the gap year, this experience shifted my perspective; not of the external world, but this time, of myself, which had a more powerful and longer lasting effect.
Since the retreat, I’ve learned to use plant medicine as a means of consolidating my seemingly contradictory personality of hardworking perfectionist in a hyper competitive environment with my inner hippy searching for happiness and a higher purpose. In the Amazon, this maintenance tool is called Santa Maria, which we know as Cannabis.
Cannabis has always been taboo in my family, so when I first began experimenting with friends as a teenager, it was a fun form of rebellion. After the retreat, I began to use it differently; at the end of a long, stressful day I would light up a joint to decompress. I’d often do it on my own—it is my “me” time. Cannabis became a form of self care. When I smoke, my guard comes down and I become more silly and open, unconcerned about presenting myself as perfect all the time. My creative side is heightened as I shift away from my overly rational and analytical thinking patterns. I also found that smoking highlights my intellectual curiosity and I allow myself to get lost in elusive concepts such as happiness, human nature, and social issues, which my day obligations distance me from. Looking back on my day, I begin to see the most stressful moments as less severe, allowing me to take myself less seriously and giving me perspective on what’s important. It prompts me to prioritize my own happiness and well-being, even if it’s only for a couple hours.
Unlike traditional medication, I feel the benefits immediately and can control my dosage. Having control over my wellness has been empowering and improved my self perception. Instead of seeing myself as helpless, I finally feel capable of being happy without the psychological crutch of obscene amounts of chemical medication. I do not think that cannabis is a cure for mental illness and I am not trying to belittle psychiatric medication. However, for me, cannabis has been the most effective daily supplement for relaxation and joy. My use is not medicinal, nor is it as trivial as the word “recreational” implies.
When it comes to legalization, these nuances are often overlooked due to the intense politicalization of cannabis in our country. The name “marijuana” carries the legacy of the plant’s racialization as a means of polarizing its use. With increased atrocities and unhappiness in our society, cannabis and other plant medicine could help change the beliefs and perceptions that have led to the current concerning direction the world has “progressed” in. Perhaps, if we open our minds to the social acceptance of cannabis use, it could even do the world some good. At least it’s worth a shot.
I dedicate this newsletter to my fellow overachievers focused on the college applications right now. The moral of my story? The achievements are moot without mental health.
I thought I was thriving, I was really breaking.
Stoner Epiphanies, Manoela
🙏 Illustration compliments of Julien Posture julienposture.cargo.site @julien_posture