After 30 Years of Marijuana Use, the Smoke Clears

When Paul* traces the history of his troubled relationship with marijuana, he points to a moment from early childhood. “It was 1976 and we were at a lake we went to every weekend, and I remember someone was smoking pot on a different boat and the smell wafted across and I said, ‘What is that?’ My stepdad said, ‘Oh, someone is smoking marijuana.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t wait until I’m old enough to do that.’” He didn’t wait long. By age 15, Paul was smoking daily. Unlike his peers, he wasn’t a big fan of alcohol. “I just didn’t feel like I had any control when I drank, but when I smoked I was fine. So instead of going out drinking with everyone, I would smoke. And I just kept doing it.” For three decades, in fact, he smoked every day. And by his early 40s, after trying again and again to stop, he checked himself in to addiction treatment. “There were so many days I would plan that I wasn’t going to smoke and before I knew what had even happened, I’d already smoked. I don’t think it’s just a habit. It’s an addiction. It’s something that takes over your thought process, and it takes over your life.” In fact, even though marijuana is increasingly seen in society as a relatively benign substance, research shows that about 9% of those who use it will become addicted. That number jumps to 17% if the person begins using while still a teen. Pot had seemed so glamorous that day out on the lake at age 7, Paul said. “Turned out it wasn’t as cool as I thought.”

Building a Better Life

Now 47 and a self-employed businessman, Paul is sharing the story of his marijuana addiction recovery in the hope of reaching others who may be experiencing the same struggles. “When you’re going through something like this, you feel like you’re the only person out there. You don’t think anyone else feels what you do. I think it’s important to let people know that’s not the case. There are other people who have been there and who have quit, and life not only goes on, it’s better.” He admits he found that concept hard to believe at first. “You think when you quit, well, OK, life’s over. I’m never going to have any fun anymore. Everything’s just going to suck. But you’re giving way too much weight to how much the drug means. The reality is you’ll probably have more fun. For one thing, you’ll find you had friends who left because you were always f—– up, and you didn’t even realize it.” And Paul has discovered another plus: “I have so much more time now than I ever had before! I know that sounds weird but my day used to be split up between when I was smoking and when I wasn’t, and now I find I have all this time.” Gone are the days when marijuana was the centerpiece of his life. “Almost everything I did, I did high,” he said. “I never ever got high before work or before I had things I had to do, but man, the minute that was over, that was out the window.”

A Different Pot, a Growing Problem

In his youth, he said, his pot use felt less like an addiction than just something he did, he said. “But you do anything long enough and it becomes an issue. You pick at a scab long enough, eventually you’re gonna have a big problem.” It hasn’t helped, he said, that marijuana has become increasingly potent, which can increase its addictive potential. “Pot is not the same thing it was 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s like night and day. It’s gotten so strong.” In fact, an analysis of marijuana seized by the DEA over the last 20 years confirms that the earlier samples had about 4% THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and more recent samples had about 12%. Although he’s tried “just about everything else in the world,” Paul said, “I just never had a problem with any other drugs.” Even today, well into his addiction recovery, he’ll occasionally have a glass of beer or wine and think no more about it until next time, he said. Marijuana, however, was different. “It just kind of worked. It hit some spot the others didn’t.” As his use added up, though, “I felt like my memory and my intelligence were starting to suffer from it.” His wife wearied of not being able to have an intelligent conversation with him when he was high, he said, and he started to feel cut off from friends. “When I was 20, smoking pot was what everybody was doing so it was real easy to go out and have a great time. But as you get older, that’s not what everyone else is doing so you finally do it by yourself more and more and more until one day you look up and you’re like, wow. You haven’t isolated yourself necessarily, but you’re definitely doing it by yourself.” In short, it just wasn’t fun anymore, but his attempts to quit never lasted. It was disturbing, he said, because he’d easily given up a 24-year cigarette habit by using a philosophy he’d come across in his reading, one that said everything we do is divided into either gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. “And typically when you try to stop smoking cigarettes, you are doing something painful. You are denying yourself, and it’s a really hard thing to do. But actually your thinking is screwed up; it should be the other way around. Being a cigarette smoker is painful. Not smoking would be pleasurable. If you can ever make that shift in your brain, then change happens in an instant.” He tried the same mental technique with marijuana, but he couldn’t push through somehow. “I’d feel irritable, anxious, like something was missing.”

The Road to Recovery

Finally, he was able to get into a rehab facility he’d found, but only after showing them a note from a psychologist verifying his dependence on marijuana, he said. “They didn’t believe I had a problem.” No one else at the facility was being treated for marijuana use, he said, and the staff seemed poorly prepared to help him. “So I didn’t really get anything out of it.” Two years went by and his situation worsened. “I realized if I wanted to do it, I needed to go someplace that really had a good history of helping people and might take it seriously,” Paul said. “So I found Promises Malibu.” At the inpatient rehab facility, he was given the tools he needed to finally get back to calling the shots in his life. “The number one thing I learned was, hey, if I can just make it to bed tonight without doing it, tomorrow’s another day. We’ll worry about it then.” Just as important as cultivating that “in the moment” focus, he said, was being able to look at the big picture of his marijuana use. “It’s kind of like the gambler. It sure is fun to sit down at the table and go through the whole process, but you have to say, OK, well how much fun is it going to be tomorrow when I can’t pay my bills?” Today, he isn’t without cravings, but he feels confident in his ability to keep saying no when temptations arise, and he hopes others trying to shake off their marijuana use will follow his lead and seek help before they find that their own decades have passed them by. “It’s definitely a problem, and it will definitely mess up your life over time. But if you want to quit, you can. And the sooner you do it, the better.” *Name changed to protect privacy. By Kendal Patterson Follow Kendal on Twitter @kendalpatterson

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