Everyone who has experience with mental illness also has experience with self-
medication. They go hand in hand, whether we want them to or not. Sometimes we
intentionally self-medicate, and sometimes we don’t realize what we’re actually doing until
something gives us a wake-up call.
Self-medicating can be a wonderfully positive thing. I’d venture to say that most of the
exercise I’ve gotten in my life has been a form of self-medication. My anxiety can drive me to
be healthier, spend more time with friends, and dedicate myself even more to my work. But
some forms of self-care that start out totally benign don’t end that way, and it’s almost never
clear where the line really is.
My own form of self-medication mostly took the form of marijuana use (abuse?). I
started off smoking socially in college, getting stoned with my friends and gorging ourselves on junk food late at night, or listening to our favorite music. I never felt my marijuana use got in the way of anything, or really had any negative effects at all. Honestly, those are some of my best memories of undergrad. We smoked every night, and we had a blast. I was surrounded by friends, never lonely, never forced to deal with the real world.
In grad school, instead of living in a dorm with all my friends, I lived in an apartment
with one close friend. I continued smoking weed every day, usually at night, and usually by
The first time I thought that my relationship with weed was potentially unhealthy was
when I started dating someone who not only didn’t smoke, but didn’t want me to either. At
first, I thought it wouldn’t be an issue. I tried to stop smoking. But I found that I missed it
dearly, thought about it a lot, and had enormous difficulty sleeping if I wasn’t stoned. I began
smoking in secret, not telling her.
When the relationship ended, I started up my old smoking habits. But I had learned
something from not smoking: when I didn’t get stoned at night, I felt really lonely and anxious. Being alone with my sober brain was not fun. Smoking somehow made me forget about that – it made the inside of my own brain so entertaining that I was totally distracted from my bad feelings.
It became clear that marijuana was a form of self-medicating, but I continued to
rationalize it. There seemed to be no clear downsides, and what was the difference between
self-medicating with weed and taking actual medication? Nothing, I thought.
But over time, my relationship with weed started to change. Instead of making me less
anxious, it started to heighten my anxiety. I would become paranoid and withdrawn, somehow craving being high when I was sober, and craving being sober when I was high. It’s such a bizarre situation to find yourself in: a perpetual state of wishing you were stoned, but never actually enjoying it when you are. And somehow that lesson never gets learned. You start to feel dread along with the craving, and a knowledge somewhere inside that you have just a little less control over the situation than you had yesterday.
My anxiety reached a point where I finally had to stop smoking – it was all just too
much. I feel really fortunate that I came to that realization before it was much harder or even
impossible to stop. I began taking actual anxiety medication, which helped enormously. More
than a year passed without smoking, but then I began to experiment with it again. I wondered if it would still make me as anxious and paranoid as it had right before I stopped. It did, but less each time. I don’t know why; maybe I was getting less sensitive to the weed. Maybe it had started to lose the meaning it used to carry.
Over time, I began to smoke semi-regularly again. Mostly with friends, and, during the
pandemic, to pass the time. It’s amazing how quickly I began to revert to old habits. Pretty soon I was back to smoking almost every day, and wishing I were smoking on the days I wasn’t. Turns out those old habits hadn’t really died. But this time, I’m going to stay ahead of it. I’m stopping now, while I’m ahead.