By Hanna Burgess
My experience with marijuana can be summed up in two concepts: shame and missed opportunity.
I have been an anxious, nerdy type since before I can remember. When I was 14 I started dating a boy who was a typical stoner. I took my first bong hit and I really thought I had stumbled onto the cure. It helped me chill; it helped me focus my racing thoughts. Beyond that it gave me a social group and a social activity. (“You wanna come over and burn one?”) In my sophomore year, I was expelled from high school for going out to lunch to get high. My mother enrolled me in private school and I lost any friends that I had made. The first missed opportunity.
In an act of rebellion, I leaned more heavily on the boyfriend who ended up becoming a low level weed and coke dealer by senior year. I’ve always been smart so I did finish high school with a 3.7 GPA and had a two-year scholarship to Jackson Community College but saw no need to go to college. The next missed opportunity.
By now I had a pretty good coke habit but even then, my drug of choice was marijuana. If I didn’t have weed I would invite people over to do coke because I knew they had a blunt. Eventually the boyfriend went to prison and I actually quit coke pretty easily. But I couldn’t quit weed. In fact, my habit increased substantially because it was better than hard drugs, right? Now I was smoking about an eighth a day.
I got pregnant but didn’t slow down on smoking. I lost that baby at 5 months gestation. I have no proof, but I always blamed myself for not at least slowing down. This missed opportunity was my first-born child. Now I started to become ashamed of my habit. Very shortly after that I got pregnant again. Because of the self-blame I was able to quit for the pregnancy. Still, my daughter was born 8 weeks early. It was stressful for a 20-year-old single mother and I immediately resumed my eighth-a-day habit. When she was a baby I was offered a job at a good trucking company but couldn’t pass the drop, resulting in another missed opportunity. I ended up working at a pizza joint and remained there for many years. We were poor and lived in a crappy apartment. I probably could have afforded better but about 30% of my income was going toward weed. Now the missed opportunities weren’t just my own but my child’s too.
I smoked in front of my child all day, every day. In my defense, I was young but still I knew it was wrong. As a toddler, she handed me an empty roach paper that she found on the floor and said, “mama smoke?” I felt terrible. I knew it could get me in trouble. This started a cycle of my wanting to quit, trying to quit, failing to quit and smoking more to numb the shame.
I didn’t want to be poor forever so I started going to college. I did really well. I got into the nursing program. I knew there was a drop but always felt like I had enough time, until I didn’t. So, I figured I would take in my daughter’s pee. It would be clean. It wasn’t. I smoked around her in our tiny apartment so much that my 4-year-old had trace amounts of weed in her urine. Of course, I never admitted it was her urine but the shame was consuming. I felt like a failure as a parent. I was no longer eligible for the nursing program ever again. Two years of time and effort into prerequisites pissed away. Another huge missed opportunity for me and my child. Repeat the cycle: feel terrible about myself, try to quit, fail at quitting, smoke more to numb the shame. I stopped smoking in front of my kid now but my shame and missed opportunities further increased my habit and our financial problems. Now instead of smoking in front of her I was constantly shooing her away out of the room so I could smoke. I missed out on so much time with my baby and she felt ignored behind a closed door. This time was a missed opportunity that I can never get back.
I had another child and couldn’t quit for this pregnancy. I wanted to. I tried to but her father was abusive and the stress made it difficult to quit. She was born with weed in her system. The shame was consuming. CPS (Child Protective Services) was called. I was able to clean up for a few months but once they were off my back the stress and cravings were too much. So I picked my addiction back up right where I had left off. I didn’t smoke around my kids anymore but that meant I continued to shut my kids out of the room and out of a big portion of my life. Sometimes I’d have friends over and we would sit and kick it in that room for hours, ignoring the kids, making them play outside or watch a movie. Now it was a missed opportunity for all 3 of us.
I was still making pizzas and living in the crappy apartment. We were poor but I never did better for them. No, I wasn’t selling all my stuff or prostituting myself for weed but I never aspired to more because I wasn’t able to give up my addiction. My friends were in the same boat and they reassured me that weed wasn’t a big deal. But deep down I knew it was. I was still ashamed of the life I wasn’t providing to my kids and all of the opportunities they were missing. Repeat the cycle…feel shameful, try to quit, fail to quit, smoke more to numb the shame.
I decided try an outpatient program. They had child care on-site. I did OK. I got some clean time but the girls in my groups were struggling with crack and opiates and I felt stupid being in there for weed. They made me feel stupid for it too. So I quit going but I was clean for a year and things were looking up. But now I was almost 30 years old. I got a good job in a doctor’s office at the front desk. I even got an FHA loan to buy a house. I moved my daughter’s father into my house with me even though I knew it wasn’t a good idea. He was still abusive and moreover he grew weed. I thought I was strong enough now to turn it down and thought we could use the extra income. I wasn’t strong enough. I relapsed but again was assured by him and my friends it was no big deal. The stress of our relationship and the free weed being grown in the basement furthered my habit. Now I smoked a quarter a day. Eventually I ended up smoking more than we could grow, and the electric bill was huge. So I bought it to supplement until the next crop came in. A year and a half after I bought my house I was on the brink of foreclosure. Losing my house would have been a massive missed opportunity. Restart the cycle: feel terrible, try to quit, fail to quit, smoke more.
Finally I had enough. I had enough of him beating me, I had enough of shutting my kids out, I had enough of chasing the dope man, I had enough of not living up to my potential. I wanted more for us. I tried to reach out for support. I tried one AA meeting and the old timers told me I was not welcome. I was not an alcoholic and marijuana isn’t as serious of a substance as alcohol. I tried NA. They mocked me for struggling with a drug that “wasn’t a big deal.” Repeat the cycle: feel terrible, try to quit, fail to quit, smoke more. I failed so many times quitting felt impossible. I think it was impossible without the right support.
Then I found SMART Recovery. They welcomed me with open arms. Before I knew it I had two weeks, then 30 days, then 6 months. I started to lead SMART meetings. Sometimes people still didn’t take me seriously in the recovery community but by now I knew that for them it might not have been a big deal but for me it came with a lifetime of missed opportunity. It has been 6 years now. I’ve slipped twice in that 6 years but was always able to rally back quickly with the support of the people I met through SMART Recovery. I wish I could say I never miss it. When I am stressed, when the weather is nice, when I have to step away because others are out back burning one, I still crave it. But I know what comes with it. A lifetime of shame and missed opportunity for my whole family.
Some opportunities I could never get back but redemption goes a long way. I was able to save my house. I was able to spend more time with my children in the last half of their childhood. I got out of the pizza business and got a job as a teacher’s aide. I am currently two months away from my bachelor’s degree in social work. But I am also 40 years old now. So for anyone who says it isn’t addictive, or it isn’t a big deal, all I can do is tell them to look back over my 20 years of missed opportunities and look at what I have rebuilt in this short 6 years. For some people it may not be a big deal but for me it was an addiction and coming to that conclusion gives me strength to walk away and say no thank you. And this time I can walk a little straighter because I am no longer weighted down by shame. †