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I’m a graduate student in her late 20s who smokes a lot of pot. I live with my boyfriend who’s also an academic, and we have a great life together. We both enjoy our work, we have lots of plant babies, and we each have a healthy enough social life.
We also like settling down after a long day, packing a bowl, and watching Netfix documentaries. My question is this: How do I know if I’m smoking for the “right” reasons? (What are the right reasons?) I worry sometimes that if I’m smoking to relax, it means I can’t relax on my own. I also worry that when I THINK I’m smoking to enjoy myself, I’m unconsciously smoking to avoid my feelings. How do I tell? (Is this a weird question?) I see a therapist, and while I do sometimes find it difficult to really get in touch with my own feelings, it’s something I’m working on.
I think I’m doing okay in the various realms of life. I eat pretty well, I mostly get enough sleep, and I make time to exercise (except when deadlines are really, really imminent). I am physically healthy and have no diagnosed mental illness. I talk to my parents on the phone an amount that I find satisfying. Is it bad that at the end of the day I get high instead of, like … baking fancy bread or playing the guitar or something? Would that be the “healthier” thing to do? I used to bake fancy bread on the weekends before I went back to school, but being a grad student places a big enough demand on my time and my physical and mental energy that having active, time-consuming, brain-expanding hobbies just sounds tiring and doesn’t appeal. Is smoking pot my hobby? That feels … dumb. But I think it’s probably true.
Sometimes I tell myself, “Hmm, let’s not smoke tonight,” but I’ll do it anyway. Sometimes I think, “Maybe I should just engage with the world more fully tonight and not smoke.” But it makes food taste better! It makes funny things funnier, and boring things more interesting! And, frankly, it’s an anxiety-relieving drug, and graduate school is an anxiety-inducing life, and I’m by nature moderately neurotic (can you tell?). I guess I just can’t really tell if I’m helping myself or hurting myself. Maybe both? Maybe neither?
Stoned and at Sea
Dear Stoned and at Sea,
Your question is very 2017. Because in the olden days, most neurotics didn’t smoke a ton of pot, at least not on the East Coast, because the schwaggy old Mexican weed available there was an enemy to the jittery. Old-fashioned weed was not perfectly calibrated by groovy pot scientists to maximize relaxation and minimize panic attacks. And it certainly wasn’t given adorable names like “Girl Scout Cookie” or “Bubble Gum.” Smoking old-fashioned weed was like brain roulette. Maybe you’d get happily stoned, or maybe you’d start talking too fast, break into a cold sweat, and vomit into the nearest trash can. Sure, sometimes someone’s boyfriend would go to UC-Boulder and return with “the kind bud” and everyone would pass the bong with a warning: “This is the shit! There’s no paranoia but don’t smoke too much!” But now the stoner world is so much sleeker and more subtle: Press a little button on your vape pen and that essential oil de Girl Scout Cookie turns to sweet mist and caresses your lungs with its glorious flavors of Funnier and Less Boring.
So I can see how pot has come to seem like a nice, harmless way to unwind. You just want to relax on the couch because your life is fucking stressful and your boyfriend is right there, relaxing in the same way every night, and it works. If I were there to talk you through this, I’d ask you what you’d say the negative effects of smoking every night are for you. Do you feel great the next day? Are you short-tempered a lot? Do you see the day as an unending slog that bores you and has little meaning but at least lands you back on the couch eventually, where the food tastes better and the entertainments feel more entertaining and the laughter bounces happily around the room?
I’m putting my own lens on this, obviously, because I know what doing pretty much anything every single night does to me: It gives me this sensation that life is a little dull overall and work is drudgery and rewards are necessary and I can only really relax and feel good and access my most charming, thoughtful self when I (fill in the blank with your addiction of choice). And I think it’s tough to be optimistic when you feel like you need an external drug to make you more optimistic. I include drinking here, because when I was younger, the difference between my drinking self and my sober self was vast. I had a lot of trouble getting up for anything social without a drink. I didn’t care enough about other people. That was a sickness that I don’t think I tackled for a long time, partially because I hid behind a few drinks instead. And even though I believed that drinking made me more charming and fun and connected, I would usually drink a little bit past the point of connection and land in the realm of broadcasting. I didn’t notice I did this for years. I saw myself as the life of the party. I have some friends who still maintain that I was in fact the life of the party. They miss Drunky. But I don’t.
I don’t want to dive into the various folds of mild and serious addiction here, though, because I think it’s both obvious that you are a little emotionally addicted (if not physically addicted) to pot, and it’s also obvious that it’s not something you want to cut out of your life 100 percent. I would simply advocate for taking some big breaks from smoking in order to understand exactly how it functions in your life, and in order to feel your way through a different kind of existence.
Okay, take my hand and stay with me now, though, because I want to examine more than just pot smoking here, and it requires a little backstory. When I was younger, I hated it when my friends would talk about physical cause and effect, like they’d say, “Beans make me gassy” or “Chocolate makes me break out” or “Tequila makes me ill.” I had a strong stomach, which is apparently a family trait (picture hearty Slavs eating raw onions and garlic by the pound). I could drink a lot without seeming drunk. But I also didn’t want to say no to anything. I didn’t want to monitor my physical self that closely. I probably thought that it was tougher and less pathetic to just drink too much and walk around all gassy and moody and broken out around the clock, without noticing. And maybe I didn’t really want to take care of myself. When someone would say something like “Love yourself” or “Treasure yourself,” it grossed me out. What kind of a sad little maggot would treasure itself? I’d wonder.
Meanwhile, I was a blustery, gassy, drunken, alternately tough and needy mess. I wanted to be able to “hang” with anything, to make macho behavior my compass, to roll with whatever, to drink way too much then scarf down a huge plate of cheesy eggs for breakfast and get high and watch The Simpsons and eat a million cookies and gummy bears and start drinking again at sundown. And it took me sooo long to stop that, and sooo long to draw a line from my beer and gummy-bear diet to my bad skin and my UTIs and my fucking depression, for fuck’s sake. I thought people who ate healthily were boring. I thought cheerful people were faking it. I was also an anxious person trying to be chill. I never would’ve thought I was anxious, though, because I thought anxious people had energy and I was more of a soggy “No thanks, I’ll just stay right here and watch another movie” type of person.
Now, plenty of people will say to you, “Oh, but too much beer and too much sugar is much worse for you than pot.” And that may be true. But anything that alters your perception will also alter your feelings and your relationships and your ability to learn the things you’re meant to learn about the world when you’re youngish. Personally, I didn’t realize that I was very afraid of everything and everyone. I didn’t realize that I was a broken-down machine that was trying to run on sugar and booze instead of fuel. And it took me years to understand just how completely transformed my emotional state could be, just from exercising a lot more and eating green stuff. Even after I stopped eating way too much sugar and booze, I saw healthy living as something I could do halfway or put off, not something that affected the shape of your experience every day. Now I do pay attention, and it almost sucks a little, because the truth is that eating too much sugar makes me feel ill and angry and depressed, and just cutting out the honey in my tea (I KNOW WHAT THE FUCK GIVE ME SOME HONEY AT LEAST) makes my writing time more focused and more productive. And if I have a few days of really good exercise and leafy greens in a row, it’s almost like I’m drunk with happiness and I’m also ambitious and friendly and up for anything. Okay, not anything. But I’m much more ready to face the world with an open mind.
I only started to care about these things once I started to care about myself. I really wish I had cared more a long time ago. In the old days, I just wanted to look good and seem good. I honestly didn’t care if I was a broken machine underneath the hot ass. How sad is that? And the truth is, I didn’t even seem good. I seemed broken, to myself and to everyone else.
So look, I know this is a big departure from the simple question of pot or no pot. But I think you have to do some digging and ask yourself if you care about how you really are inside. You have to cut out pot so you can figure out how your body and mind function without it. Are you actually more neurotic than you would be otherwise because you smoke pot every night and eat a ton of shit that’s not great for you? Do you feel up for anything beyond smoking pot and watching Netflix? Do you talk to your boyfriend about what’s up with you regularly, even when you aren’t high?
When someone asks, “Am I running from my feelings?” it’s kind of obvious what the answer is. In my opinion, most people can’t really feel their feelings enough. The more you do it, the better life is. For me, feeling a lot makes me happier. It feels almost physical. If I cry at some point, I’m also more likely to feel incredibly grateful or joyful or inspired after that. And I think it’s dangerous to say that baking bread and playing guitar are “healthy,” because then you’re falling prey to this false dichotomy and societal standard that has nothing to do with how it feels to live in your skin. Saying something is “healthy” can be a way of turning against it, as in “I know it would be healthier to exercise, but fuck it! I do what I like!” As someone who lived that way for decades and thought it was somehow “cooler” than following my own private path to whatever brought me joy, I say watch out.
There’s nothing dorky about taking care of yourself, or doing the things that you once loved (baking bread, playing guitar) until you can reconnect with what you love about them. Healthy or not, at some point you do have to ask yourself, WHAT AM I? Am I someone who follows my own path, who engages with my work, who can be present and not bored even when I’m not stoned, who can see the beauty or the humor in small things even when I’m sober? Because the really intense, chillingly good part of being sober and alert and, yes, a little high-strung, too, during the vast majority of your waking hours on earth is that you notice just how sensitive and perceptive you are. You learn to work with WHAT YOU ARE. You learn to talk yourself through bad, jittery moments and stressful moments by forgiving yourself for being a really high-functioning machine whose engine revs a little bit higher than most. When I hear that voice in my head being weird and neurotic and taking in everyone’s reaction to me and wondering if I’m doing it wrong and wondering if I don’t need something to make this moment better, more fun, less boring, more relaxing, I try to face that voice head-on. I forgive that voice, and I accept that it will always be there fucking with me, but I refocus on where I am.
Giving up your fixes — any of them! TV! Words With Friends! motherfucking Twitter! — is a little bit like giving up sugar for a few days. Sugary things suddenly taste like toxic waste, but fruit tastes like pure sunshine. Stepping back from anything that distracts or engages you without truly satisfying you can feel like turning the whole world into sunshine. That doesn’t mean that you won’t discover things you don’t like. It will be tempting to retreat back into your fix. And I wouldn’t necessarily say LIVE LIKE A MONK FOREVER! All I want to say is this: Decide that you give a fuck about how you feel inside, and how you are, and WHAT you are, and experiment with what makes you feel truly alive and fulfilled and good.
That means saying no to shit, and convincing your boyfriend to do the same. That means not falling into a rut simply because you’re ever so slightly depressed and avoidant and low-energy and you’re afraid to face how little passion you have for anything outside of your rut. That means checking in with yourself more, which will feel bad at first. That also means noticing when you actually enjoy some of the things you figured you hated simply because they’re healthy, like hard work, like exercise, like listening to people you assumed were boring. Getting in touch with what you really love takes time and patience. Noticing that you actually love things you were treating like burdens takes patience, too.
I love playing guitar so much, personally, but I never do it because I feel guilty about not doing it. How fucked is that? Guilt really messes up our compasses in such a lasting way. So don’t beat yourself up during this experimentation phase. It’s going to be really hard! Know that! But do stay grounded in your principles: This is you caring about how you feel. This is you wanting more for yourself. This is you saying good-bye to SEEMING good and actually BEING good for a change.
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