It almost ruined my life.
Wait, before you think, oh it’s just Cannabis, it’s not that harmful, it’s not that addictive, read this.
I treat addiction for a living and what I have learned is that addiction is universal, no matter the substance.
Cannabis almost ruined my life, derailed my dreams and destroyed my family. Under the influence I risked immense physical harm.
Today I’m sober, it’s a daily struggle, but life has gotten exponentially better since I quit, here is why…
I started smoking Cannabis when I was deployed to Afghanistan with the 25th Infantry Brigade out of Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. I went from surfing and feeling free like a young man should to Afghanistan where I felt trapped, in a constant sense of heightened alertness and marching endless hours on dessert sands with 100s of lbs of gear on my body. My mind was in a constant low level fight or flight mode heightened by the occasional rocket attack, road side bomb or potential for ambush. I found solace in smoking cigarettes, playing Halo and watching bootleg war movies.
It was about half way through my deployment in a remote base when a bomb went off close to our base. After everything was deemed safe we were responsible for evacuating the injured locals. I enjoyed being able to nurture the injured and was inspired to pursue medicine later. It was also during this time that I discovered home grown local Afghani Kush. The cannabis was so strong there that the first time I smoked it I thought I went blind. I continued to smoke it until eventually the plant outside the base was completely stripped. I may have stopped after that but unknown to me then, the seed for addiction was planted.
What happened in my brain at that time was this. Our brain and body is constantly trying to achieve a happy equilibrium. In biology this is called “homeostasis”. For example, when you experience cold, your brain is slightly stressed by this discomfort, it then signals for you to make a fire or put on a sweater. When you are hungry your brain signals for you to get some food. Done. Stress resolved. Back to normal.
here is the difference. When your brain experiences psychological stress, like your parents fighting, being bullied at school or in my case, being in a war zone, the brain doesn’t instinctively know how to resolve this stress.
Now what if the brain discovers a substance that can instantly help to escape this stress. When the brain discovers a novel drug that changes it’s perception of stress, it instantly remembers this drug as a potential solution. This is to ensure that it can reach a homeostatic equilibrium faster in the future. That is the mechanism of how addiction is formed.
I eventually went to college and found myself struggling with stress again. I experienced a break up, death of a loved one and looming final exams. It was during this re-exposure to stress that I found Cannabis again. This time however, it was an overnight change. I went from not using it the day before to using it every day since then. I quickly escalated my use to first thing in the morning and all day. Initially I enjoyed it, I thought it made me more social, I could be the life of the party, I was more creative when playing music and writing, I would exercise daily. I thought I needed Cannabis to be somebody. I felt as if it made me whole again. I thought by myself, “where has this feeling been my whole life.” It was intoxicating. I loved it.
Then it started biting me and eventually consumed me.
I was obsessed, I started giving up social relationships in order to continue smoking. I pulled away from friends and family. I neglected to pay my bills on time. I spent lavishly on my credit cards. I crashed my car. I put myself in harms way often. My grades were suffering. My work ethic was displaced by smoking and running, smoking and playing guitar, smoking and isolating in my one world of perceived wonder. I showed up late to my job and left early to go smoke. All the while I thought life was great (as long as I was high). Until.
I finally realized what was happening. For some reason it became clear that my life was unraveling. I made the connection between my troubles and my habit.
I knew I had to escape my self made prison. I was a slave to a substance. One that offered me instant pleasure and escape in exchange for a long lasting painful reward. I had to do something. I had to let it out.
I scraped together all my will power and I told my closest friend. My wife. It was not pretty. What followed were days, weeks and months of explanations, justifications, disappointment and anger. The addiction was so strong that it constantly tried to explain itself in order to allow itself to continue. It was as if the little devil and angel on my shoulders were at each others throats. From the outside I looked like a fit, tan, healthy young man, meanwhile I had a battle raging within my own brain. The addiction continued to win the battle over and over. I relapsed countless times. I continued to hurt myself and my relationship.
This is how much a hold it had one me. There was one day when I told my wife I had relapsed yet another time. She was so mad that she threw our laptop at my head. I took it like a weak, failed excuse for a man. I slept on the couch yet again and the next morning I was greeted with suitcases filled with clothes and my wife ready to leave. My response was not that of shock or trying to convince her to stay. My first thought was “finally I can smoke at home all day in peace” and I offered her my credit card and said “use this for your trip.” That is how sick my mind was with the disease of addiction.
I became even more withdrawn. I struggled. I contemplated the ultimate escape which quickly dissipated when I saw my young baby girl’s beautiful, perfect, innocent eyes. I felt so much sorrow towards her. I had disappointed her even before she knew me. I feared a life apart from her. I continued to battle myself, my own brain, my own willpower.
I read about people having psychotic breakdowns. I remember getting extreme paranoia, to the point where I would stare out the window and suspect every car driving by was a police cruiser looking for me. I could hear a voice in my head and had full conversations with it. I would argue with the voice about using and not using.
Every time I relapsed I would do so in secret, but not for long. Addition ALWAYS reveals itself. Circumstance always revealed my true nature. Despite all this trouble I had one desire, not to give up the addiction but to be able to control it. I locked up my stash to find myself just breaking the lock. I hid my stash out in the woods and found an excuse to go running in the woods every day. I finally realized I had no control over what I allowed to control me. The only way was to rid myself of myself completely. With Cannabis around I could not continue.
I told my dealers about my problem and asked them to never sell to me anymore. I erased their numbers. The Nazarene said, if your eye causes you to sin, cut it out. I cut out all avenues of relapse. Even then, it somehow magically found it’s way back to me. I would relapse, feel immediate guilt and flush my stash. Repeat.
I started reading books about life and addiction recovery. See my list here: A Power Greater than Oneself, books for me. I followed the AA philosophy. I revealed my addiction to the rest of my family. I started asking for help. I met others in recovery. I continued to read the books and work at my addiction.
Not for the rest of my life, but for the day. Every day is a small victory for me now.
To this day I still have that desire, thoughts of getting high just one more time.
I took my greatest vice and turned it into virtue. I decided to become an Addiction Doctor. I am lucky to have found this third act in my life. The one after you crash and burn and pick yourself up, return to home and devote yourself to help prevent others from falling in the same trap. A life of lending a helping hand to pull others from their pit of despair. This path has opened countless new doors. By sacrificing my old life of addiction I have found a new life of purpose. Every day I get to help those struggling with my problem. Every day brings more healing to my own mind and hopefully my patients as well.
I have three girls now who will never know the pain of an absent father. My wife is happy to have me home, the husband and father I was meant to be. I have a clear conscience. I can talk about my addiction without fear.
I hope and pray that every addict out there can find their new life, their true self, liberty from their enslavement. I hope to help them along one at a time.
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Your friendly neighborhood addiction doctor, Dr Z.