Stoned and Panicked on the Interstate

by Bill Brenner on July 31, 2012

The memory was buried until yesterday, and frankly I’d have been happy had it stayed buried. Funny thing about suppressed memories — they spill out during the damndest moments, like a drive down I-95 in Maine.

We were returning from a family camping trip near Old Orchard Beach yesterday, and as I drove the camper south, my stare caught the north-bound lanes.

Sometime in the summer of 1991, Sean Marley, a couple others and I sped north into Maine around midnight. We were in my beat-up 1981 Mercury Marque, and Sean was driving. I was in the back, about to have a panic attack thanks to my decision to read a newspaper after smoking weed.

Mood music:


I can’t remember if Sean was high, but I do remember him being in the midst of some fucked-up sleeping experiments. One phase of the experiment involved him sleeping in a different room of his house each night, the goal being to break himself of the comfort you get from going to the same familiar bed at the end of each day. Another part of the experiment involved not sleeping at all for multiple days.

He was pretty gone at that point and kept chanting “Jesuses penises” over and over. The more he did it, the more unhinged I became. My uneasiness was based on four things:

  • I was paranoid from the weed.
  • It was dark, lonely and scary on that highway — probably because I was stoned and paranoid.
  • Sean was driving my car like an asshole, which had already suffered a smash in the rear from a hit-and-run driver a month before.
  • There was a newspaper in the back seat.

News about scary world events used to trigger my anxiety back then, and this was just after the first Gulf War. A headline in the paper said something about Saddam Hussein having come closer to getting a nuclear bomb than anyone has previously thought. I spent the next week worrying that my corner of the world would go up in a mushroom cloud, courtesy of an evil dictator pissed off over all the bombs we dropped on his country a few months before.

It’s kind of amusing that the headline set me off, given that we would learn 12 years later there were no weapons of mass destruction.

But at that moment in the middle of the night, it seemed like an imminent threat. In reality, the more imminent threat was of the car sliding off the road and into a tree.

Three years later, the sleep and drug experiments caught up with Sean, and he had a breakdown. Two years after that, he died by his own hand, another victim of depression.

I would be done with marijuana within two years of that night, but I’d spend the following decade and a half living with a more muted but persistent depression and continuing bouts of anxiety and panic. I would occasionally lean on pills (prescribed for back pain) and alcohol to numb the fear. More often than not, I would simply shove a massive amount of food down my throat.

But I survived and eventually got well. Now I can travel at all hours and not freak out over it. I might get tired and annoyed, but I don’t get scared. In a way, you could say I’ve come full circle, traveling that same stretch of road clean and sober, hauling a camper with a Chevy Tahoe full of family.

But that old memory still bothers me a little, because it shows how unhinged two close friends were slowly becoming.

Bill and Sean

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Heather Stockwell July 1, 2013 at 7:53 am

If it’s any consolation I had a horrific experience on the Maine Turnpike as a child and I still think of it when I drive up there. Adding drugs and Bush Era news to that is pretty much a guarantee of fucked-upedness. Glad to hear you’ve worked past it.

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