If I get sick because I don’t take my medicine, which happens to be cannabis, can that sickness be equated to withdrawal symptoms? Does that make me an addict? And what if it does? Is that a bad thing? If it is, what’s the problem? A lack of understanding of cannabis? Or the word “addict”? And if so, can we, daily users of cannabis, reclaim it?
Though no one knows how to talk about it openly, this is a question that dogs the cannabis community and is a lingering source of stigma. Despite all the positive progress, few people, outside Snoop, Joe Rogan, Seth Rogen and a handful of brave industry folk (shout out to Max Simon, Greg Welch and Dustin Hoxworth), are in a position to proudly tout their regular use of weed.
Which leaves space for people who know nothing about using cannabis to talk like they do. Right now, the general public knows little to nothing about cannabis, and is being guided by an industry that doesn’t see any value in the experience of seasoned users. Why would it when it views them as little more than addicts? When the users view themselves as addicts.
Why Use Cannabis?
When I took my 30-day break from cannabis, the biggest effect I experienced was the return of my IBS symptoms. That’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and it’s literally a pain in the ass, as anyone who has it knows well. The symptoms vary from stomachache, fatigue, belly bloat, constipation and diarrhea. I experienced most of these about eight days after I stopped using cannabis.
For years, my routine is simple: client work during the day, a joint after dinner and an evening of writing. This is my happy place, joint in the ashtray and me tapping away on my keyboard. I write for hours. The world disappears. My nervous system switches to parasympathetic mode (rest and relax), the food I’ve eaten digests, and I avoid any IBS symptoms.
Without cannabis, my evenings are very different. My appetite shifts, making it difficult for me to eat large meals or dense food. My IBS is linked to my stress levels, so if I have a stressful day, I tend to eat less, picking during the day until hunger forces me to make something more substantial. My symptoms kick in around six or seven in the evening (usually, the hour I have my first joint of the day).
Which may cause a stomachache, followed by fatigue. Then I spend an hour clutching my stomach and regretting eating. With little energy for anything else, I’ll spend the rest of the evening on the couch, half-watching TV, distracted by the discomfort in my gut. Like this, I rarely write.
Without cannabis, I can’t work on anything that demands hours of concentration, such as a piece of fiction or an essay. Forget it. My brain won’t make the connections. My fingers are stiff. My mind flits about like a drunken mosquito. I’m restless and have to move. Like this, I bake, clean house, do my accounts, or maybe for fun, redesign a website. My focus is on the future.
With cannabis, it’s a very different story. I can sit still. I can create the space that’s necessary for sentences to form. I can hold a critical dialogue with myself that enables me to form, select and edit words. I get lost in the process. To use the term popularized by the Hungarian American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I’m in “flow.”
However, when I resumed consuming cannabis, for the first three to four weeks, I felt deeply uncomfortable. I missed the charge of life without cannabis. I felt as if I’d somehow let myself down. As if I wasn’t trying hard enough to rein myself in. In other words, I was racked with guilt.
Define Withdrawal Symptoms
It was the discomfort of the challenge that got me through those 30 days without cannabis. I lift weights and am accustomed to discomfort, see it as a marker of how much I can achieve physically in the gym. But that level of discomfort should be confined to sets in the gym. It can’t be your whole day. That’s not flow. And that’s not all.
Between food restrictions and being so restless during my cannabis break, I lost six kilos that month. I couldn’t go to the gym because I couldn’t eat enough to fuel my workouts, meaning my usual stress-buster was unavailable to me. I couldn’t write in the evenings, my other stress-buster also out the window. Just me, left to confront me, straight – “Oh, the horror.”
Isn’t this the quintessential idea of what it means to go through withdrawal? Restlessness, longing, craving, uneasy in your skin, worried what the next bump in the road will be, if you’ll make it through, if you’re strong enough, worried, worried, worried. Is this withdrawal, or just life? How many people do you know are a sea of calm, content, unburdened?
A 2021 New Frontier Data report on consumer behaviour showed the number one reason people use cannabis across all demographics is “to relax.” Considering that rates of anxiety are spiking across the globe right now, this is no surprise. But what do they mean by “relax”? Do they mean they’re tying daisies in their hair and hugging the postman? No! They stop worrying. The stress dissipates. They can take a breath, take a moment to reflect and reconnect.
Much work needs to be done to fully understand the role of the endocannabinoid system, but we do know it maintains homeostasis throughout the body and is likely a modulator of the nervous and endocrine systems – the systems that control everything from muscle growth, fat storage, blood pressure, bone density, sugar, energy and stress levels to hunger signals, pain signals, inflammation, memory and mood.
I had this idea that when I stopped consuming cannabis all the wrongs in my life would be put to right, I’d be full of energy and look amazing. None of this happened. I did sort out some money issues but I didn’t enjoy the work, had zero energy and looked awful, tired, pasty, stressed. My eyes were more bloodshot than usual. As soon as I started smoking again, my energy bounced back, as did my skin and eyes.
It took a few weeks for me to make peace with the guilt, digging deep to understand its source. I realized it was tied to my ambition. But that wasn’t all. I seemed to take a perverse pride in the suffering, in being able to wake every morning and say, yes, I did it, another day without cannabis, using the old AA model of abstinence – one day at a time. Matias De Stefano, the consciousness educator, talks about how hard it is for modern people to experience pleasure.
I’m much more conscious of my use now, which was one of the reasons for taking a break. I wait till as a late in the day as possible to smoke. Unless I’m working on something that demands it, and then I spark up before I start. However, I also notice I’m not turning to cannabis simply because I have a quiet moment in the day, which is something I would have done in the past. Now, I’m waiting to make sure my use has a function. Again, this is stigma at play.
I want to justify my use as constructive. Like you, I operate under the notion that the “addict” is a marginalized person hell-bent on self-destruction. Are all addicts the same? Well, yes. In fact, this is how the dopamine system works. Once it finds a rewarding activity, it wants more of it. We all have the same system, it’s just some of us point it towards constructive activities, and some destructive.
In his book In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts, the addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate, explains how childhood trauma hi-jacks the dopamine system, resulting in unhealthy behaviours. He writes that rather than being a threat, addicts are amongst the most vulnerable people in society, and need to be treated accordingly, with compassion. When I allowed myself a touch of compassion, the guilt faded.
I realized I was so used to seeing my cannabis use as a negative I had no way to quantify it as positive. Even three weeks into better health after resuming cannabis, I was still beating myself up for doing “something bad.” But towards the end of week 4, as evidence of my improved health mounted, I accepted the reality my body simply functions better with THC in it.