I May Have Gotten Baked, But I’m Still Sober

By Tracy Chabala 04/12/17

Labeling it a “slip” or a “lapse” or a “relapse,” judging it as an aberrant or maladaptive occurrence, analyzing it too much—this can all lead to needless suffering.

A woman holding marijuana leaves over her eyes.
It's no big deal.

It’s the contention to end all contentions in Alcoholics Anonymous—can you smoke weed and still be considered sober? Anyone who’s spent a considerable amount of time in AA knows that most by-the-book members and sponsors would utter a quick “hell no” to the marijuana maintenance question. But given that marijuana poses a lower risk for dependence compared to alcohol and is less addictive than most drugs—including prescription opioids—the perils of smoking weed are simply not as great as the 12-step community might have us believe.

I left AA a year-and-a-half ago, and after deprogramming for 18 months and buddying up to folks who remained sober outside of 12-step programs, I learned that many of these non-steppers choose to use marijuana recreationally—provided it was never a problem drug in the first place. As the 12-step dogma slowly drained from my mind, I warmed to the argument that smoking a bit of weed here and there wouldn’t necessarily prove deadly or disastrous.

I’m not a huge fan of the stuff to begin with. When I smoked it every now and then prior to getting sober, I’d sometimes suffer fits of paranoia, which could likely be attributed to whatever strain I smoked along with the neurosis and anxiety I endure on the regular thanks to my bipolar II diagnosis. I’ve also experienced full-blown psychosis after smoking too much weed, once becoming convinced that my party friends were out to tie me up, rape me, and stab me to death. Schizophrenia runs in my family, so my paranoia and psychotic symptoms are probably somewhat linked to an underlying genetic predisposition.

Still, every now and then, when I took just a few hits of some really mild weed, I experienced a nice relaxation—not intoxication—one that I thought might be worth reliving a few months back.

On November 8 of last year, the day Trump somehow snagged a slot in the Oval Office, California passed Proposition 64, which legalized the possession of up to an ounce of weed for recreational purposes for anyone over 21. Though Trump’s win plummeted me into despondence, I was encouraged by the hard-fought progress made in my home state toward legalization. So a few days later, when my best friend Astrid and I hit a low-key retro bar for some house music in Silverlake, it seemed like a fun idea to take maybe one small hit of pot, just for kicks.

Some may argue that my desire to take a few drags off a joint reveals a need to escape, if not some grave “character defect.” But I’d argue that my plan to relax via a touch of bud is no more pathological than a “normie” sipping a glass of wine or beer, because that’s the physiological and psychological effect I was looking for.

After dancing at AkBar for just an hour, Astrid ran into an old friend from her party days. The moment he shook my hand, I blurted out that I was on the hunt for some weed. I won’t deny that I was overcome with craving, that sort of juvenile state of frenzy we enter before scoring a fix, but I will say I experience the same frenzy when I’m about to hit Menchie's Frozen Yogurt or Nordstrom Rack for a sale. I’d argue that this excitement is a result of the human survival instinct kicking in, rather than a “disease” acting up.

Immediately, Rick handed me a slim and streamlined metallic blue vape pen. For a moment, I was confused.

“Have you ever smoked off one of these?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“The weed is really concentrated,” he said. “So just take one small hit.” He demoed how to press the button and release the vapor, advising me to push it down for just half a second. I was grateful for the tutorial, given I had no desire to get intoxicated.

Like an idiot, I walked outside of the club and onto the street to take a hit, not realizing that I could have done so inside because the vapor doesn't let off a smell. I tucked myself into an alley off Sunset Boulevard and crouched down, as though I was up to something really dangerous, pressed the button and quickly lifted my finger. A little blue light went off on the top of the pen as I inhaled very hard and very long, letting the vapor hang in my lungs for a good 20 seconds before I exhaled.

Apparently, this was not the right thing to do, at least it wasn’t the right thing to do for me. Immediately I became incredibly dizzy with a head rush so intense I feared I’d pass out. Then my stomach started cramping up, and I hacked and dry heaved at the same time. I felt like I’d been poisoned, a chemical aftertaste lingering in my mouth.

Shit, was all I could think. What a mistake.

I had to wait at least three minutes while hunched over for the nausea and involuntary hacking to pass, then I straightened up and walked toward the club. That’s when the concrete gave way beneath me, my feet stepping onto what seemed to be a massive water bed or sprawl of Jell-O. I tried to steady myself as I entered the club by grabbing onto the door jam. Thankfully, the moment I entered, I saw Astrid and Rick waving me over to the bar to join them. It took me 30 minutes to walk to the bar, I swear.

“I’m so high,” I told Astrid, moaning.

In all my years of drinking and intermittent weed smoking, I’d never felt as completely mind-blown as I did in that moment. Later I would learn that I smoked a very concentrated sativa oil, which packed at least 10 times the punch of the stuff I used to smoke. And since I hadn’t touched it in nearly 10 years, I obviously had no tolerance. My muscles cramped up into spasms, everyone around me suddenly had four eyes, and no matter how many times I told my limbs to move, they would not—I entered a sort of temporary paralysis.

Unlike the psychotic episode and previous episodes of weed-induced paranoia, I didn’t think people were out to harm me, but I was plagued with the worry that I’d never snap out of that excruciating high. I let my head rest on the bar, my fingertips pressed into my temples and forehead, and started groaning.

“This is a total nightmare,” I told Astrid.

For the first time since I got sober in October 2009, I was totally fucked up, and I hated every second of it. I would learn later that though Astrid and Rick were concerned for me, they were also quite amused, especially when I kept repeating “Am I going to come back?” in a desperate voice. Sadly, my schizophrenic sister told of a story about how she “blew her mind away” after smoking too much weed, how that’s when her mental illness kicked in. Of course, she smoked and smoked and smoked every day during her freshman year at UC Berkeley—meanwhile I’d only taken one stupid baby hit! But that one hit set my face on fire and made the room spin and turned each minute into an hour.

“Astrid, promise me that I’m going to come back.”

"I promise," she said. She rubbed my back in an effort to assuage my fear.

“You’ll be fine,” Rick said. “Trust me. The weed wasn’t laced with anything. It’s good, pure stuff.”

I asked Astrid to call my ex-boyfriend for me. We’re very good friends, and he’s a casual weed smoker who I thought could calm my nerves. 

“I smoked some weed, and I don’t know what it was, but it was really strong and I’m totally stoned and can’t move,” I told him over the phone.

It was one in the morning and he still let out a chuckle. Thankfully, he drove out to AkBar and took me home, sitting with me until five in the morning when I finally snapped out of it. As we waited for the high to pass, my body kept convulsing (or so it seemed), and I threw up twice.

“This doesn’t usually happen when you smoke,” he told me. “You’re having a very severe reaction.”

You’d think I’d stay away from weed given the plethora of terrible experiences I’ve had. Apparently, I am incapable of experiencing a smooth mellowed-out state like most weed smokers.

I completely snapped out of it by around 8am and—to my delight—experienced no kind of hangover, which was always the worst part about getting wasted when I relapsed during my first two-and-a-half years in AA. Other than feeling a bit under-slept, I felt normal the rest of the day.

There’s still a strong residue of 12-step dogma floating around in both my subconscious and conscious mind, so instinctually I wanted to feel guilty for getting so fucked up. I bucked up against this instinct hard, because beating myself up seemed positively ludicrous. First of all, I didn’t set out to get fucked up. It was a very special kind of accident, one I’ll never forget and one from which I’ve gleaned a powerful lesson—I will never go near a vape pen again.

But more importantly, attaching a story to the incident or any kind of regret, labeling it a “slip” or a “lapse” or a “relapse,” judging it as an aberrant or maladaptive occurrence, analyzing the shit out of it—this can all lead to needless suffering. The deepest part of my being knew that chewing on the incident and making it a big deal would only increase my neurosis, and pathologize and dramatize an experience that didn’t need to be pathologized.

So I brushed the whole thing off, and I moved forward. If I ever decide to go back to AA for whatever reason, I will not “change my date.” I have been stone-cold sober from my problem substance—alcohol—for over seven years. Since the vape pen incident, I’ve had no desire to smoke weed.

I’m glad I took this approach. In fact, if I had fretted on the matter it probably could have set me up to take a drink, something I’m definitely not interested in doing.

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