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I’m addicted to marijuana. Saying that publically scares the hell out of me. Not because I’m ashamed of myself. More because admitting I have an addiction insinuates I’m going to stop.

I will. Just not yet.

You see addiction isn’t new to me. I was addicted to cigarettes for close to a decade. I gave up last year. I wasn’t a heavy smoker but I had one or two on weekdays and more on weekends. It didn’t matter that smoking was lethal. For me it was a symbol of living. The stories we tell ourselves right?

In the early days cigarettes were the things we passed around the pool in our teens. Smoking was something to do when we weren’t sipping beers. It made us feel one. Then it became the thing we did to touch base. I’d hold up a lighter to a friend, or they’d gesture a rolling action, and next thing we were alone outside diving into deep and meaningful. It was an excuse to truly connect.

At first smoking was social and innocent. It became an addiction when I started smoking on my own. This is when lighting up turned from a symbol of community to a symbol of artistry. It became a tool I used to be a better writer, a better musician. I convinced myself that I could overcome any creative obstacle with a cigarette break.

And it worked. It cured writer’s block. I solved problems from fresh a perspective. I felt new sparks of energy. Smoking became my secret sauce to creativity and intellectual thinking. It was an excuse to stop and think. It didn’t matter if it was the physical change of scene, having to go outside to smoke, that helped. Or if I was more invigorated because smoking encouraged me to take more breaks. I didn’t question it. It made me do better work and that was it.

Over time I attached many meanings to cigarettes. They came to mean I’ve just knocked off work, or I’m stressed, or it’s a celebration, or after dinner cigarettes are the best cigarettes.

Add to this the social perks and I had a hundred reasons to smoke. I could wiggle my out of any dull conversation by saying I needed a dart. Plus smokers always had the best conversations. The act of splintering yourselves off from the larger group drew you closer together. You were a tribe within a tribe in a smokers circle. It made it so easy to be comfortable and to drop your guard. You could express your fears or talk about your loves and everyone was together. You felt like you needed to be.

The hardest thing about quitting smoking wasn’t the nicotine withdrawals, excruciating as they were, it was overriding those stories. Stories like, if I stop smoking I’ll no longer be as close to my friends because we won’t have an excuse to touch base. Or, if I stop smoking I’ll be less creative because I won’t have those magical moments to inspire me. The funny thing is I had every right to be scared because those things did change.

What helped me quit cigarettes was having marijuana. That was the trade off. I quit cigarettes promising myself I still had pot. I was already smoking pot daily. That’s what two years in Montreal does to an addictive personality. It meant I wasn’t making a big sacrifice. It was more like, I once had two addictions, now I have one.

I know, tobacco is lethal and marijuana is medicinal, but for me at least the addiction was the same. I used both as tools to escape because I couldn’t bare to be myself. Looking back I now see the problem wasn’t the marijuana or the cigarettes. The problem is me. I’m an addict.

You see all I have is praise for the medicinal effects of marijuana. It has helped me avoid burnout many times by putting a stop to my continual flow of monkey thoughts. It has reconnected me with beauty, taught me to be present, and showed me how to keep an open mind. It’s a glorious drug.

The problem isn’t the drug. The problem is me. I abused it. Not deliberately but through lack of impulse control. I am an addict. The same way you can be a food addict or an instagram addict. With addiction the problem isn’t the thing. It’s the person. I’m an addict because I’ve got an error in my monkey circuitry that makes me yearn for things compulsively. Basically, I don’t know how to say no.

You see it starts beautifully. I light the first joint to ignite a new mind. I become exceptionally re-energised and inclined to create things. I usually do some writing and fall into a surreal state of flow. After a few hours the wave begins to subside so I light another joint to get back to that glorious place. Only that place has changed. I still feel creative and inspired but I also feel numb and disconnected. I’m a little less motivated and a little less empathetic. I have also lost rational perspective. I believe by having another joint I can get back my bearings. By this point I’ve essentially signed up for a solo journey. I enjoy the high, but in hindsight I regret how disconnected I became.

This is not what I want. I want to connect with others. I think it’s vital that we have healthy relationships. Now I see addiction doesn’t allow me to do that. It tells me to surrender. Hence where addiction gets it name, from the Latin word addictiō, which means a giving over or surrender. Funny right? I’m on a journey to be free and I’m surrendering to addiction daily.

Well, I’ve decided to put a stop to this in 6 weeks. I have a 10 day vipassana meditation retreat coming up. The retreat essentially involves meditating for 10 days straight. There is to be no talking or communicating with others, not even a nod or a smile. Writing, music and phones are banned. Plus they half starve you. It means 240 hours hungry and alone in my head. That’s when I’ll eat addiction once and for all. But that’s six weeks away.

Before then I want to put forward a case on how to get rid of addiction. Not marijuana addiction. Addiction to anything. The thing that tells me to surrender at the drop of the hat. I want to dig into why I have an addictive personality. I don’t see the point in just giving up marijuana. I want to solve my addictive personality altogether. I fear that if I don’t tackle the larger issue I’ll be prone to the addiction of one thing or the other all my life. To put it simply I want to do my research on addiction before it’s just me and my brain in vipassana.

So, I started digging around. There is a lot of stuff on combating addiction but the one that resonated with me most was a remedy for ocd and substance abuse put forward by Dr Jeff Schwartz from UCLA. He outlines a four step process for freeing yourself from compulsive addiction. I have used the basis of this formula to write a letter to myself. My thinking is that when I hit a wall I can read this letter for strength.

Hi Michael,

Marijuana doesn’t free you from worry. It imprisons you to worry. To combat fear you must not run from people. You must connect with people. That’s why you did this thing in the first place. It was a way for a bunch of 16 year old boys to bond over a kilo of chicken nuggets and a Pink Floyd album. It connected you.

Today, it isolates you. It disconnects you. Do things that connect you. That’s what a free person would say right? They would free themselves from all urges, all impulses. They would take Buddha’s words seriously when he said the ultimate suffering is attachment.

Remember your brain and your mind are not the same thing. You are the mind. Your brain is hardware. Atomically it will be a new brain next year. Like a computer it is a learned machine. Your mind teaches your brain habits and it instructs the rest of the body. The problem is the brain often learns bad habits because you unintentionally teach it bad habits. For instance when you feel anxious you get high. Over time you have impressed upon your hardware a learned response to stress.

You will never get rid of this message but you can stop using the neural pathway by refusing to give in to the urge. Eventually the pathway will weaken and you can get on with your life. But know, the reason they say an addict is always an addict is because the neural pathway is never completely closed. You will always need to fight.

Start by recognising that addiction is a medical condition. It is an impairment in the brain. It is a learned, often hereditary, glitch in the orbitofrontal cortex. Most likely, one of your ancestors got hooked on something chronic and passed on the learned behaviour.

You might not understand this yet but that addictive glitch is the same thing triggering your worry. The addiction makes you feel worried because that’s how it has learned to get its fix. This has become a nuisance. Don’t you hate that you can’t concentrate unless you get high? Don’t you hate that you don’t feel fulfilled without lighting up? Don’t you hate the frustration you feel when you can’t get a fix?

To combat the cravings you must shift your focus to other things and impress upon your hardware new habits. When you feel a craving, play guitar. You could do anything but something physical works best as this involves more of the brain. It means your brain learns the new habit quicker. I suggest playing a musical instrument because nothing activates your brain more than playing an instrument. Do this for 15 minutes when you get a craving. By doing this you will activate and hold in place new brain circuitry that will eventually override the old response to stress.

Never forget that your addiction is doing the opposite thing to what you think it is doing. It isn’t freeing you from worry. It is imprisoning you to worry. Set yourself free.

Good luck.