I Don't Do Drugs at Raves For My Mental Health
Mental illness runs rampant in my family, so I try to stay sober to protect myself.
September 27, 2023 at 2:41 PM PT
Written by Volunteer Guest Writer Tracy Chabala
If you've ever seen a tall gal at an underground techno rave in LA wearing bright red heart sunglasses, a black, spaghetti strap sundress, and dancing maniacally by herself – that’s me. I might look a bit stupid, waving my arms in the air and jumping up and down like a hyperactive child, but who cares. Isn’t getting lost in the music and abandoning your inhibitions the whole point of raving? I think so, and that’s why I love it. I get so intoxicated in the music people often assume I’m high, or that I’m selling something that can help them get high. Maybe it’s the sunglasses. Or maybe it’s my wacky dancing to that rolling kick and bass, which is literally crack to my brain.
I am addicted to techno. It does something to me. I don’t know the neurobiological mechanism, but it rockets my mind and body into the 5th dimension. I get completely high off the music.
So I don’t need drugs to lose myself at an event. But even if I did, I wouldn’t take them. Because my family is full of mental illness, and drugs and mental illness don’t pair well.
Schizophrenia runs in my family. So does bipolar disorder. And ADHD. And autism. And depression, anxiety, and probably a whole other host of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric conditions that I don’t know about since many mental health conditions are related genetically. The latest research shows that all the aforementioned conditions share the same genetic risk factors. So no, autism isn’t caused by vaccines.
I personally was blessed with bipolar disorder, ADHD, and am likely somewhere on the autism spectrum (I am currently getting evaluated for it). My older sister has schizophrenia and had all the ASD symptoms as a kid, but we came up in the ‘80s before autism was on the radar of teachers and pediatricians. And even if it was, they would have likely ignored my sister anyway: Researchers developed the diagnostic criteria for the autism spectrum (including what was once known as aspergers) solely on the study of white, mostly affluent, boys. Girls, women, and people of color manifest traits in entirely different, less stereotypical ways due to a multitude of reasons I won’t get into here.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The people in my family, including my sister, popped out with giftedness in math and science, specifically aerospace engineering (my great uncle worked on the Apollo rocket that got us to the moon!) Unfortunately or fortunately, I didn’t get those math genes – I’m more of a creative type, drawn to every art that exists, including music and dance, although as a budding techno producer I do have an obsession with polyrhythms, along with the mathematical equations behind tuning systems (if you haven’t taken a deep dive down this fascinating rabbit hole, here’s a great video for the uninitiated).
My sister didn’t catch schizophrenia out of nowhere – our grandfather had it. And it didn’t emerge out of nowhere, either. Her symptoms appeared right after she began smoking weed during her freshman year of college.
She wound up at UC Berkeley. It was 1995, and weed was back in style, so she spent a lot of time wandering the infamous Telegraph Road, scoring weed and smoking it non-stop in her dorm room – all day sometimes. She missed classes constantly, and, as a result, received terrible grades. When she returned home from that first semester, she had permanently changed.
“One day I was just smoking tons of weed, and my brain just blew away,” is how she tells it. “I’ve been asleep ever since.”
Remember that movie “A Beautiful Mind”? My sister’s schizophrenia story was very similar. In her mind, people were conspiring against her, out to do her serious harm, so she had to protect herself. Back at home in LA during winter break, she started hanging black sheets up over the windows of her room, convinced that the CIA was spying on her from helicopters. It all came to a terrible head when she called 911 in the wee hours of morning, telling the operator that mother had a shotgun in the house and was going to use it. The LAPD showed up, entered our house in the middle of the night with guns drawn, and when I exited my room after hearing all the commotion an officer pointed a gun in my face. Thankfully, he didn’t shoot. But they did put my sobbing mother in handcuffs without even looking for a gun. Before they shoved her into the police car I told the cops – in an apathetic, attitude-riden ‘90s teenager tone – that “My sister’s crazy. There is no shotgun. Look for yourself.”
For some reason, they listened to me, uncuffed my mom, and after that, my sister wound up on a 14-day hold in a psych ward, which kicked off her long and painful diagnostic journey.
A lot of people don’t even know what schizophrenia is. It doesn't involve multiple personalities; it presents as paranoia, delusions, audio and visual hallucinations, as well as catatonia, low affect (flat emotions), anhedonia (having no pleasure in activities that once brought you joy), and disorganized thinking.
And a lot of people don’t think marijuana can possibly cause psychosis or schizophrenia. They insist such a narrative is just a bunch of fear mongering from the anti-legalization camp.
“That weed must have been laced with something,” so many say. “There’s no way plain weed could have done that to her.”
Countless studies, including multiple meta-analyses, have concluded that plain old marijuana can indeed trigger psychosis and schizophrenia in those who are predisposed. This is probably a very small fraction of the population, though. So those who don’t have schizophrenia or psychosis or bipolar in their family are likely not at any heightened risk. Ultimately, there’s a huge swath of people who can partake with immunity, and a small percentage of people who can’t. If you do have those genetic risks, any researcher or clinician worth their salt will tell you to stay away from pot because you will be playing with fire. And schizophrenia is a life-long extremely debilitating and absolutely devastating condition. I could write 10,000 words on how difficult it is to see your loved one suffer from this disease, but that’s for a different essay.
I wasn’t always as cautious as I am today, though. If you can believe it, despite what happened to my sister, I was dumb enough to smoke weed in college. This happened in 2001 with a few puffs off my best friend’s hookah as we listened to Radiohead’s “Kid A” on repeat. That was all good (and so is that album), but a few months later, I smoked a whole bowl very fast on Halloween while dressed up as Alice in Wonderland in a hilarious costume from Trashy Lingerie, an iconic LA fixture at La Cienega and Melrose.
About 30 minutes later, the weed kicked in hard, and I became convinced that my friends were going to tie me up, torture me, and then kill me. This delusion came about as we pranced down Santa Monica in the infamous West Hollywood halloween parade. I wound up bolting from my friends, running upstream against the massive crowds, screaming and crying that “they’re after me”. It was absolutely terrifying. Lucky for me, I snapped out of the psychosis within a few hours, but not after seriously straining relations with those friends.
So that’s why I don’t smoke weed.
What about psychedelics? Or ecstacy? Unfortunately, you want to stay away from those as well if you have psychotic disorders in your family. I’d love to be a psychonaut. I’ve really wanted to experiment with ketamine and shrooms and ayahuasca and DMT, but after that pot experience and after contacting several psychopharmacologists at esteemed universities, they’ve all said that I should absolutely steer clear given my risk profile, no matter how mild the substances might seem.
It sucks. I mean it really really sucks. I think I could benefit from psychedelics mentally and emotionally. Regardless, I won’t take the risk.
So this is why you won’t see me partaking at raves. It’s not because I’m a square. It’s not because I’m judgmental. It’s not because I think less of those who do these substances. It’s because I will greatly jeopardize my mental health if I do. And today I’m not willing to do that. The good news is I’ve never had anyone in the underground LA techno scene give me any problems whatsoever when I tell them this. This hasn’t been the case in other environments I’ve spent dime in.
I don’t avoid people who do drugs, either. Two of my ex-boyfriends, including one who I cohabited with, are daily pot smokers and psychonauts. I once watched one of them inhale 300 mg of THC in a rice krispy treat in ten minutes. Literally nothing happened to him. That’s how weed affected him. He just kept playing his video game in the same mental state. I don’t even want to think of what would happen to me if I ate that thing. And my current boyfriend, who is Dutch, spent his entire teens getting legally high in those notorious “coffee shops” scattered throughout the Netherlands. He never caught a mental illness - in fact, he’s one of the most stable, sanest guys I know. Although he did have a friend who came down with schizophrenia as a teen, someone who smoked a lot of weed. My boyfriend’s dad was a psychopharmacologist at Utrecht University at the time, so he asked his dad about it. Even back then in the ‘90s, his dad said, “If you aren’t at risk, it’s not a problem. But if you’re predisposed to schizophrenia, marijuana can trigger it.”
The great part about staying sober at techno events is I get to look out for others – I carry narcan on me and can watch for signs of dehydration and overdoses, and I’m glad this is something that I can contribute to the community.
Techno is my drug. Dancing is my drug. Community is my drug. I feel incredibly at home in the electronic dance community, especially the underground techno scene in LA. Here I don’t experience snobbery or elitism as I might in different parts of the city. No one is sizing me up according to my looks or age or vocation or monetary worth or whether I appear cool enough or important enough to talk to. This is hugely powerful for me: As a neurodivergent and sometimes awkward person, I’ve felt like one big oddball my entire life, rarely feeling like I belong or fit in.
But I instantly felt love and acceptance among the techno heads, and everyone I meet in the rave community. At first, I was really surprised at how warm and inviting the scene was given how dark and hard the music can be. But darkness isn’t a bad thing, and dancing offers a great catharsis for pent up emotions. We come together and express all of ourselves through music and dance, our light and dark, our yin and yang, connecting genuinely to one another’s humanity in the process.
If drugs enhance your experience at these events, if they allow you to feel more in tune with the music and more connected to everything and everyone, I’ve got nothing against that. All the more power to you. My only hope is that you stay safe. I’m a firm believer that this is possible, especially when people look out for one another. And that’s the whole point of our community in the first place.
Tracy Chabala is a freelance journalist and personal essayist from Los Angeles covering music, culture, food, and mental health. She is also a techno producer and DJ obsessed with polyrhythms, K-Hand, Robert Hood, and the Hungarian minor scale. As a writer and storyteller, she loves manipulating her voice to incorporate processed vocals as drum hits, stabs, textures, and spoken word into her productions. She is also a fusion belly dancer and darbuka player.