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Addicted to Weed? in The Fix on July 19, 2017
There was so much misinformation about marijuana that I was willing to doubt anything negative, even if it was backed by hard science. Then I got a brain scan.
I’d always been told that marijuana addiction was impossible, that it was a harmless herb with only medicinal properties.
I have about a month of sobriety under my belt. I still wake up most days after dreams where I spark a bowl or drop some acid thinking that sobriety is too much, that it isn’t doable, not for me. I’m used to the pattern of having been a fatalist, a person who doesn’t want to change, who thinks they can’t and revels in the depressive cycle of halfhearted living. I think about wine and beer sometimes at night even though alcohol has never been my drug of choice, and I think about the ways that I can dull the eight years of feelings that I had repressed while I was using. I think about how embarrassing it might be if I write this essay and then relapse, and I try to turn my mind so that it thinks about that repetitive aphorism: taking sobriety one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time, or one minute. I go to MA and AA meetings. I stay for the whole duration, I speak, I hug people whose names I can remember after having met them five, six, ten times. I can remember lots of things now, which too is new.
Somehow I got through four years at an Ivy League university stoned, somehow I got jobs and worked my way up so that I could do what I’ve always wanted and write for a living. I try not to wonder how much farther I would be if I hadn’t been using for my whole young adulthood; I know it’s not a useful line of thinking and it keeps me from recognizing the progress that I have made in the past few weeks. I ended up with a job in an industry I thought I loved and needed, one that was defined by what my every waking moment seemingly required, and ended up writing for a weed lifestyle magazine. On the days that I could work, though seldom and far between, I would somehow pump out journalism and writing that I was proud of. I was getting somewhere, albeit at a snail’s pace.
Multiple Drugs but Marijuana was My Best Companion
I got a weed leaf tattooed prison-style above my right knee. I had socks, jewelry, clothes—all patterned with leaves. I had a podcast that focused on using; my millennial social media “brand” was all about marijuana. My friends knew me as that person who smoked weed and it took over any of my other personal or professional identities—the anxious, dysphoric, trauma-laden human being could be neatly concealed when I was high—along with the creative, ambitious, and inquisitive side that I had once displayed. I drank. I took drugs offered to me at bars without thinking twice about what these powders and pills were. I’d do whatever was put in front of me short of opioids and amphetamines, two classes of drugs that had somehow solidly stayed behind the barrier in my brain that compartmentalized away “bad things I will never do”—always only for the time being. I had always promised myself as a kid that I would never do drugs at all, and yet one by one almost all of them had slipped to the other side of this arbitrary divider and become a part of my life.
Mostly my use of other drugs was sporadic but there was always my one true love around, my favorite “medicine,” my best companion: marijuana. I’d always been told that marijuana addiction was impossible, that it was a harmless herb with only medicinal properties. I’d learned that it was a necessary part of my being a chill and funny person, that it was the cool thing to do and that I had no other way of dealing with my debilitating anxiety and mood disorder. I easily got a medical card upon moving to Los Angeles: I’d simply had to e-mail a company giving out the cards with details about my mental illness and then three or four days later received in the mail what I needed to go and, for the first time ever, get legal weed. I was elated. It was so easy: I could pop by the dispensary on my way from the bar, tipsy, and pick out whatever strain I wanted. I could get anything I could dream of—concentrates, flowers, THC drinks—delivered straight to my door. I learned about the different strains, researched every cannabinoid I could get information on, smoked from the time I woke up until I went to bed.
Falling for the Hype Before the Brain Scan
During the day I would work hard to promote the agenda of people who stood to make millions of dollars off of the addictions of chronic users like me. For some reason nothing about this clicked in the way that had happened when I learned about the tobacco and alcohol lobbies; for some reason I still clung to the idea that these were mom-and-pop growers and dispensaries when in reality they were places that often had millions of dollars of capital—the amount necessary to register and establish these stores and legal grow-ops. I ignored the warning signs of the industry pushing for higher levels of THC and lower levels of CBD (two of marijuana’s main cannabinoids, the latter of which is not psychoactive, mitigates the effects of THC, and is being explored as having health benefits outside of THC’s narrow medical applications) as just more reefer madness when in reality THC is a possibly neurotoxic chemical that upended my already troubled dopamine system and disorganized, malfunctioning prefrontal cortex. I got a brain scan and after eight years of chronic use the vasoconstrictive properties of the substance had made my organ’s surface go from smooth and uniform to pockmarked and lumpy. I was told that I was lucky that it hadn’t turned out worse.
There had been so much misinformation spread during the decades in which research on marijuana was hyper-restricted—like the theory that marijuana caused schizophrenia (when in reality it “only” triggered the illness in those with one specific sort of genetic predisposition for it)—that I was willing to doubt basically anything put out as fact if it was at all negative, even if it was backed by hard science. It always seemed to me like there was an ulterior motive underlying these studies, that they didn’t want to let me get high when all I wanted was a way to tranquilize myself from the intense feelings I would otherwise be having.
Working in the Industry Makes me Recognize the Problem
Even though I’d been dependent and then addicted for years I only started to even consider it a problem late last year after I moved to Los Angeles and began working in a field that hyper-focused on promoting the plant. I thought I was doing the people’s work, helping to counter mass misinformation and to provide individuals with some literature to hand to their friends and families that said, “See? This is good for me.”
But it wasn’t good, not for me, not anymore, and I began to get the nagging feeling that I was not doing something that I wanted to be doing any longer. I tried to cut down, to buy less (since I couldn’t afford my regular weekly ounce anyway), to not wake n’ bake, to set a quit date, but I couldn’t do it. When weed was around I couldn’t help myself, and when it wasn’t I would slip into a panic that would make me go out and buy more as soon as I could that day. The anxiety of being dankrupt horrified me and so I’d keep around waxes and vape pens and various other concentrates (even though they were too strong for my taste) just because I knew they’d be there when the flower inevitably ran out. I tried to get midis, strains with lower levels of THC, from the dispensary but they looked at me funny from behind the counter when I said I didn’t want to get too high.
One night my friend mentioned that she had some acid that her brother had left her and so I popped a tab of unknown strength and spent the rest of the night awake, alone in my studio apartment and horrified with myself. I couldn’t sleep and I had a hard time calming down and all I wanted was to be free of how I was feeling. I popped a benzodiazepine and woke up from fitful sleep knowing that this was not a way I wanted to be living my life.
That episode wasn’t enough for me to quit, even though I badly wanted to at that point and had been giving it what I considered was my best shot. I was ready to give up entirely. I was despondent.
Confronting the Truth
I came home drunk early one Sunday morning and sat down to watch the Saturday Night Live videos that had just gone up on Youtube, since watching television was the majority of what I spent doing with my life at that point. I watched a few sketches and then the Weekend Update “news” segment came on. Pete Davidson, a 23-year-old cast member on the show, came out and began to talk. I was familiar with him mainly from his outspokenness about the benefits of medical marijuana, which he’d been using to treat his Crohn’s Disease for years. He’d been a darling of the sorts of magazines I worked for, making the rounds in interviews with High Times and other places. He talked about weed on SNL too, and I had always felt a sort of kinship with him since I justified my use by saying and believing that it was also medical.
But this appearance was different, and he began to talk about how he’d gone to rehab and was now sober. I was drunk but was still hit with some sort of sudden clarity, what I’ve since heard referred to in 12-step programs as a “miracle moment.” This kid was four years my junior but he’d done it, he’d gotten sober, and though I didn’t want to do it through rehab I knew I would never be able to white knuckle alone successfully.
I went to my first Marijuana Anonymous meeting the following morning. I went high, naturally, and the group was a small women’s-only gathering in a park a few metro stops from my home. I momentarily resented having to misgender myself by attending a women’s group (I’m non-binary) but the frustration was fleeting and I told myself that what I was doing by surrendering myself to the meeting mattered more in the long term.
Attendance was scant—three people including the leader and me—but I stayed and talked through my fears and concerns. I talked about the reasons why I wanted to quit, and then on Wednesday I went to another meeting, which was slightly larger, and then another on Thursday, which was overwhelmingly full of potheads like me. I decided that I was going to run out my stash and then that would be the last of it. I packed up my bowls and my papers, my lighters and rolling machine, my grinders and concentrates, and when the pot ran dry on Sunday I, for the first time ever, didn’t go to buy more. And when I got my newcomer chip at the next meeting I attended, I really felt like I had actually earned it. I put it on my keychain to keep by my side and remind me of what I have gained instead of what I’ve lost, and I expect to get other chips to link together the way that I’ve been stringing together days of sobriety: by keeping clean one day at a time.
Good luck, Charlie
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