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People like to get high. Say the word “marijuana” and their eyes glaze with the memory of their last toke, and dopey, distant smiles light their faces with the promise of their next smoke-filled euphoria. I am perplexed by the reaction. I am afraid of drugs. Terrified.

When I was fifteen, to please my best friend, I agreed to smoke marijuana. The first time I smoked it, nothing happened. The second time I smoked it, I tornado-ed into a full-fledged panic attack. I lost time. I lost space. I blacked out. I found myself standing at Point B. I didn’t remember getting up from Point A. Terror invaded every muscle and bone in my body. I was hallucinating.

Maybe I experienced my narcotics trip differently than others do, because I can’t comprehend anyone enjoying such a disjointed and altered state of consciousness. I found nothing to giggle about. I did not get the munchies. I did not assume that glazed look in my eyes, or a dopey, happy smile.

I prayed to God to save my life.

It may have been the first time I prayed.

The truth: Getting high was the trigger event that set off my lifelong battle with panic disorder. I read a research note in a book when I was in my thirties stating that narcotics experiences are not an uncommon trigger for people with panic disorder. We can’t handle the drugs. At various times since age fifteen my panic attacks have been so severe as to disable me and render me housebound into a state of all-encompassing agoraphobia.

More than thirty years later, on Tuesday, September 28th, 2010, I had a colonoscopy because of symptoms I’d experienced in August. My in-charge nurse, Barbara, was a kind and loving woman in her sixties, quiet-spoken and calm. She talked to me for twenty minutes about the procedure, the drugs, with great sensitivity to my fears. She sat next to my gurney and held my hand as the IV nurse at the hospital took my vital signs and tried to hook me up to an intravenous line for a hydration pouch.

No offense to the homeless, but this IV nurse (whose name I can’t recall) looked more like a bag lady than a medical professional. I could imagine her on the streets of Boston with a shopping cart and a green garbage bag collecting cans and sleeping in a subway. Her hair was shoulder length, brown and gray, scattered as if she’d forgotten to brush it. Her eyes gleamed. Her wild smiling expression seemed just shy of a mental breakdown – the laughing hyena kind of breakdown of someone eternally mesmerized in the mirror. Hi there, the crazy person says, pointing and talking at the mirror, thrilled to have made a new friend. That kind of crazy. This is the woman who was trying to set me up with an IV and who was about to shove drugs into my body.

I was terrified.

As she attempted to hook up my left arm for the preliminary hydration, she said, “Consider this just the first engine, the freight cars will come booming in soon when the drugs arrive!”

Oh the smile of glee on her face!

My feet started to shake at the end of the bed.

“That’s part of the problem,” I said. I don’t think she heard as she continued with her freight car metaphor and how those drugs would send me somewhere to an unknown world down the tracks.

“You won’t even know what’s happening!”

I repeated, “That’s the problem.”

I know a lot of people would be thinking, “Bring it on!” when it comes to the drugs you get when having such a procedure at the hospital. My brother had a colonoscopy last week (never mind his joke about requesting a family discount) and he asked his nurse: Can I take the rest of those drugs home with me? Apparently, they hadn’t used the entire bag and he loved the altered state. He figured he’d paid for the entire bag of drugs, well, his insurance had, so….

I digress.

It turns out that Nurse Mental-Case-Waiting-to-Happen couldn’t get the IV to thread in my veins, despite repeated stabs at it. She left me with bruises on my left arm where it bends and dread as I imagined freight cars of drugs soon to be injected into my body booming toward my brain to mottle my consciousness. Just like when I was fifteen.

As Nurse MC failed to get the intravenous line in correctly, Nurse Barbara looked up at her and down at me. She could see my fear rising, as my legs began to shake along with my feet. Barbara rescued me.

“I’ll have Roberta do the IV. Roberta’s been an IV nurse for twenty-five years.”

“Well, she must have tensed up on me,” said Nurse MC, “so I couldn’t get the line to thread.” Of course, her incompetence must be my fault.

Just wheel me away from her, my eyes pleaded with Barbara.

Barbara wheeled me to the exam room and Roberta had the IV in my arm and threaded correctly in two seconds. Barbara and I gave one another a knowing look, like, what was with that other chick? Not one bruise on the arm Roberta used, and although Roberta said nothing of freight cars, I still knew they were coming. Thank you Nurse MC.

The drugs in the intravenous consisted of Versed, a benzodiazepine that I tolerate well. It’s the same medicine used for Xanax or Klonopin, which I take for panic disorder, just quicker acting and used intravenously for sedation. Mixed with that was Fentanyl, a narcotic (most feared), and Benadryl, the same stuff we use for allergies.  Barbara said the Benadryl would help the other two medications work better. Barbara told me she would slowly release the drug mixture into my body, going more heavy on the Versed to help me with the Fentanyl reaction (panic.)  As expected, I experienced absolute panic as the drugs began entering my being. I was consciously aware of my changing consciousness. Such a state is one of my deepest fears.  I am phobic about altered states of consciousness. I fear it more than pain.

I recall body spasms as I clutched to the gurney railing with both hands. I thought my body was rising and falling with spasms of fear every few seconds. I tried to control the spasms so the doctor could do the procedure, but I could not control them — small drugged out fits of panic. But I didn’t hear anyone say, “Stop moving around so we can do this procedure.” So did I really spasm every few seconds? I don’t know.

I felt the doctor’s scope. Sometimes I felt pain. I heard voices. Barbara took my glasses which I had taken off my face. She said, “Let me take those for you.”  I said, “Barbara, are you there?” and I heard nothing. I was surprised she did not answer back. It seemed everyone had left the room: doctor, nurse, technician.

Pain seared my body as the doctor continued the exam and (I would learn) removed something unwanted from my colon. I felt myself ball up and away from the pain. I swore I moved two feet. But there was nowhere to move. Again I didn’t hear anyone say, “You need to keep still so I can do this procedure.” So did I ball up?

Where did everyone go? I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t keep them open. When I tried to open them, the world around me was not accessible. How do I put it? I could see and had awareness that I was in the room having a colonoscopy, but I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing in the murky haze or where I was. These contradictory states of consciousness co-existed, like a divorced couple still co-habiting. I was dizzy and I wasn’t dizzy. I was unable to open my eyes and stare at the altered reality. I opened my eyes several times, but the lids kept dropping. I tried to open them, for control, but I could not keep them open, and I could not bear to see what I was seeing – and not really seeing. I heard nothing. Where had everyone gone?

JABS OF PAIN! I screamed, “OOOWWWWWWW!!!!!” I thought loudly. I thought I jumped. But now I don’t know if I said anything because I heard no reaction. I don’t know if I moved because there I was, still lying on my side.

(And the memory of the pain does not bother me, it would not stop me form having this procedure again. For those of you afraid of the pain of this procedure, please keep in mind that most people fall completely asleep and don’t even know they are having a colonoscopy. Barbara had explained to me earlier that because I am on benzodiazopene drugs daily, I would probably not be completely asleep, as I have a certain tolerance level most others don’t have. So, have a colonoscopy and don’t worry about pain.)

I thought I heard Barbara say, “You’re doing great,” but then I heard nothing. I opened my eyes to look at her, but they closed again. I could not locate her.  I began to spasm again. I thought I had spasms again. My hands continued to clutch the gurney railing. I think I made myself breathe deeply a few times to relax my muscles. Yet my body and memory fought with all its strength to reject the narcotic in my body.

My body and brain remembered more than thirty years ago when pot smoking in the woods changed my life forever. So Tuesday I fought against the drugs. I fought and I fought. I put up the good fight. But in the end, I lost it, I gave in, I closed my eyes. I let go, I let “God,” as some like to say. I may have fallen asleep. I don’t remember.

“You’re almost done,” Barbara said. Moments later, “You’re done. The procedure is over.”

It seemed as though only five minutes had passed, but I know the procedure takes longer than that.

“Can I have my glasses?” I said, not fully back to reality but halfway there. The IV was still in my arm but the drugs were no longer pumping in, just the hydration.

“Your glasses are right next to you,” Barbara said. I reached and there they were. Hadn’t she take them away from me, across the room? When did she put them back? Did she ever take them away?

Barbara wheeled me to Recovery, in a room of post-colonoscopy patients. I could take you through my steps back to consciousness in Recovery, perhaps the most humorous moment was my waving to Nurse Barbara as she wheeled in a drugged out old man who waved back to me. By now you get the picture, in terms of my struggle with mind altering drugs. I came out of them in Recovery, phase by phase, both aware and unaware as I began to find reality again. When I sat upright and ate cookies and drank cranberry juice, I was so happy. It would be twenty four hours before I had my full conscious awareness, but I had survived the colonoscopy, and for me, more important, I’d survived the drug experience.

A friend asked: Were you out or were you awake during the procedure?

My answer: I have no idea.

So it’s onto October and the euphoric high of being alive.


  1. OMG. Cindy I suffered from panic and anxiety for YEARS! I had the same experience with pot in high school. But with the drugs for the colonoscopy, well, I passed out but with memory of talking throughout, yet no pain as you experienced.

    I no longer suffer from the debilitating attacks I had as a teen and young adult and I attribute that to years of yoga and meditation and simple breathing exercises. The disorder is so common, I don’t even think of it as a disorder but just the human condition!

    Great blog post!


  2. “Maybe I experienced my narcotics trip differently than others do”

    Yes, you do. Not everyone reacts the same, as everyone processes drugs differently (prescription ones too) but *most* people generally enjoy the experience (of narcotics, not colonoscopies 🙂

    You may actually have a biological or mental condition that causes/precipitates panic attacks and the initial pot “experience” showed you the way towards recognizing it (or you associated it with drugs that have obvious effects on the body, so you relive the experience whenever you take something similar) . It’s entirely possible that this would have come to light without smoking pot as people develop ( and grow out of) issues like this when they hit puberty as body chemistry changes.

    Anyway, just trying to lend some outside perspective in case you have to go through something like this again. As long as you’re in a supervised medical setting there’s a lot less to be afraid of (try your best not to fight the experience, just go with it. It will wear off) as they have all the things they need should a drug interaction cause actual physical problems.


    • Hey there, thank you so much for reading. I think your perspective makes a lot of sense. I agree with most everything you say. You are correct that I have a biological predisposition for panic attacks and if the pot had not set it off something else would have. I hope you’ll keep reading my blog and commenting. Thanks again.


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  5. Hey Cindy-

    I’m scared shitless of drugs too, and am also medicated for panic. Well, sort of. Long story. Key thing here is that drugs are effing scary.

    I asked my doc last summer about it. I’d been prescribed Lorazepam (Atavan) because I was having crippling panic attacks. Hospitalizing panic attacks. But I hated it. After just a couple weeks, I decided I’d rather have the panic attacks than have the sedatives. And when I chatted with my doc, I asked why the fuck people would ‘recreationally’ take something like Atavan (which a lot of college kids do, apparently to focus). She told me that drugs affect your body based on what your body needs them to do. That’s why you can take painkillers for a headache, help the headache, but not feel numb everywhere else. Drugs target certain parts of you. So with me, all Atavan was doing was knocking me out. My body’s fail safe when I took anti-panic meds was to figure a nap would solve a lot of problems. But with somebody that isn’t half-starved and sleep deprived, curled up in the fetal position and shaking, that shit’s got nothing to do, so it courses through your bloodstream trying to find work. She explained the same thing with painkillers: they wouldn’t work ‘recreationally’ on me because I’m almost always in some sort of pain. They’d just target whatever little crack in my existence needed some sort of patching, and get to work. No fun involved. I quit taking Vicodin on the spot about 24 hours after oral surgery. My grandma’s house was on fire and all I could think about was the lightening flashing through the clouds, and how I could feel my heart beating in my cheeks. I need my brain. I need my awareness. Taking away my own consciousness is putting myself in danger. Putting others in danger. I can think through pain. I can’t think through drugs.

    Sounds like it might be the same or similar with you: any trip is a boring or bad trip, and the effects are worse than the problems you’re trying to solve.

    Thanks for sharing. We weed-isn’t-fun kids gotta stick together.



    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you for telling your own story. I had no idea that you suffered from panic attacks or had drug fears similar to my own. Klonopin and Xanax have helped me to live a decent life relatively panic-free, but I never tried Atavan; I don’t know if it’s in the same family as the other two drugs. For me, it’s mainly any narcotic that freaks me out. Crippling panic attacks are a horrible way to live. I admire that you’ve done so much and do so much with your life regardless. I’m also amazed that you and I have so many things in common. But hell, you never know where you might meet a kindred spirit. I, agree,we must stick together. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! 🙂


      • The layman’s way of explaining my issue is that my brain doesn’t know how to shut down on its own. Which for years meant nightmares every night because I was so on edge all the freaking time. I still have highly intense weird ass dreams, but at least they don’t scare the shit out of me any more. I kept telling myself it was because I’m high strung, that if I could just calm the fuck down I’d be able to fall asleep like a normal person. Told myself basically that it was all in my head and if I could focus, I wouldn’t be such a failure at something as normal as sleep. And yeah, some people? It’s all in their heads. Or it’s a lot in their heads. If you practice meditation, you can gain a lot of control over your mind and body. In my case? Genetics. It’s not some repressed daddy issue causing me to wake up screaming, it’s a chemical issue causing my brain to go into overdrive. The brain equivalent of diabetes: to much stimulus, not enough ability to process it. It took a half dozen MDs and shrinks to figure out what was causing my issues. A little experimentation with drug treatments (Celexa made me throw up), and a couple therapy sessions to educate me on what was happening (pretty sure my shrink is part elf… she’s little, with long white hair), and man, I want to bow down and worship the guy that invented Zoloft. I described being on meds versus being off, to a friend, as the difference between standing naked outside in a thunderstorm in the dark, in the autumn, freezing and feeling sleet and wet leaves and tiny twigs and wind whipping across your skin as the sky lights up and casts silhouettes and headlights race past and you can’t hear a damned thing between the thunder and the wind and the pelting rain. Versus watching it all from indoors.

        Sometimes I still lay in bed and tell my mind to shut the fuck up as I’m laying there with this constant stream of mental babble and I just effing want to fall asleep. I have coping strategies for those nights. But mostly I snuggle into bed… and I fall asleep. And I wake up hungry (instead of sick, or in the middle of a panic attack), and I make myself breakfast. I eat and don’t throw up. I go about my day. And it’s freaking awesome.

        I also haven’t had a full blown panic attack in a year. There’s so much stigma in our society when it comes to mental health. People find out I take antidepressants and immediately they ask if I’m in therapy. Because if you’re taking drugs without addressing the underlying causes of your mental problem (har har har), then you’re cheating and you’ll never be off of them! In cases like mine, it’s the equivalent of telling a diabetic that if he just focuses hard enough on how he feels about his pancreas, he won’t need to shoot insulin.

        The odd social separation between mental and physical (have we forgotten that our brains are organs?) means I typically keep the nature of my nightly medication routine to myself. Oh, Laura, what do you take? Anti allergy pill, anti baby pill, and anti hail storm pill. With a hot pink multivitamin thrown in for fun.


  6. Hi Laura,

    Your story is fascinating and similar in ways to my own, Laura. Your condition most definitely has physiological roots and no, not everyone understands this. In Massachusetts, several years ago, health insurance companies were required to allow for an unlimited number of visits to see a psycho therapist for a number of physiologically based mental conditions, including panic disorder. The governing body (whatever it’s called) recognized that many “mental” conditions are no different than having a physical condition such as diabetes as you point out. People who do not have such problems think it’s “all in the head,” and they are only right to the degree that it’s in the messed up neurotransmitters making your synapses fly without a pilot. I’ve written an essay in my creative thesis about some of these issues. When I have revised it some, I’ll let you know. You can let me know if you want to read it. Stay well, Laura.


  7. The first and only time I ever prayed for my life was the day I did Marijuana. A first timer, I was 17 and I just KNEW I was going to die. Heart racing, beating out of my chest, body cold, People talking but all I heard was an echo. I cant even think about the stuff again. Since then I, at least once a week if not more, Have experienced Paralysis when I lay down. I cant move, or breathe, I scream, in my head, but nothing comes out. I hear strange noises, or think I do. One doctor told me I was having Panic attacks when I was 26 and put me on Effexor. Worst time of my life. I went off it and actually had withdrawl symptoms, I went off it because it didnt help with my problem. Since then I just deal with it, Its just at night, and I am in no way comparing my situation with yours, just sharing that which most people just don’t “get”. Or they tell me I’m dreaming..look at me like I’m nuts. I’m not dreaming, and I may be a little nutty, but not completely. :-). Thanks for sharing


  8. Hi Deanna,

    Really, your experience sounds terrifying. I totally understand where you are coming from. I’m sorry you haven’t been able to shake those night terrors. I have my panic under control for the most part, but there are still moments when it can overtake me, like in this DRUGGED piece I’ve written. I hope that overall, you don’t feel so much terror and panic. You’re such a great person. You know what your mission in life is. To make us smile, which you do.

    Thanks for reading more!


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