Life After Pot

By McCarton Ackerman 12/13/11
Therapy, meetings, and a cross-country move couldn’t get this writer out of his marijuana haze. Then he had a rude awakening..
No longer stirring the pot Photo via

I tried to kill myself when I was 11.

My parents worked all the time so I was usually shuffled off to a relative, babysitter or after-school program. Partly due to social ineptitude, partly due to not being viewed as cool in the eyes of the playground set, I was slow to make friends growing up in the Westchester town of Bedford, New York, and thus didn’t really have any at that point. Late one afternoon, I downed a bottle of Tylenol and a beer, hoping to never wake up again. After coming to the next morning and violently puking green bile, I crawled into my parents’ bed and told them exactly what happened—but didn’t mention it was a suicide attempt.

“You really can’t take that many pills,” my mom said. “That’s very dangerous.” Within 10 minutes, they were both out the door to work. 

I distinctly remember holding $50 in my hand for almost an hour one day when my roommate was out of town, debating whether to spend the money on the electric bill or pot. Four days later, she came home to find a candlelight vigil in the apartment as I furiously puffed away on a blunt that would have put Willie Nelson to shame.

I was kicked out of one school for constantly getting into fights—someone would insult me and I would go right back at them (or vice-versa) until it eventually got physical. I should have been kicked out of another school for the same reason—if my parents hadn’t been friends with the principal and begged him to let me finish the year, I would have been. They sent me to a boarding school in Northern Connecticut in an attempt to straighten me out, but I quickly moved into breathe-wrong-and-you’re-out territory there as well by cutting class, talking back to teachers and having the second-lowest GPA in my entire grade. Once again, my parents went to bat on my behalf and I stayed.

Then, when I was 20, I smoked pot for the first time. I had been offered it a couple of times before but declined, and while I did drink, it rarely got out of hand. But pot was different: the first few times I smoked it, I passed out before the bowl was even tapped. But that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that we were largely silent afterwards, listening to Funkadelic or watching bad horror movies. Pot gave me access to friends and daily social interaction, something I had been craving my whole life. It washed away my anxiety and made me feel good about myself—something else I’d craved for years.

Throughout the rest of college and the start of my post-graduation move to NYC, I literally willed myself to become a functioning addict by smoking on at least a daily basis. I even dated a guy named Hayes (ironically, he didn’t smoke pot). Because I barely drank after college and it only took me a few hits to get high, I could easily justify the habit financially: nobody who dropped $60 a night when they barhopped was going to tell me my bag-or-two-a-month habit was a problem. Plus, I certainly wasn’t a danger to anybody else when high. I could barely get it together enough to order a pizza.

But my drug use slowly began to creep into my daily decisions. I distinctly remember holding $50 in my hand for almost an hour one day when my roommate was out of town, debating whether to spend the money on the electric bill or pot. Four days later, she came home to find a candlelight vigil in the apartment as I furiously puffed away on a blunt that would have put Willie Nelson to shame.

Then it crept into my work as a journalist. Initially, I never got high when I was working. Then it was only when transcribing interviews. Then it was when conducting interviews over the phone. Then writing articles. By the end of it, I had interviewed Brooklyn Mayor Marty Markowitz and various NYPD officers on multiple occasions in person, stoned out of my mind.

I went to see a therapist but felt immensely guilty because I was hypersensitive about the fact that I’d had it so good growing up. Sure, my parents were absent a lot and sent me away to a boarding school, but they sent me away to a boarding school. This woman dealt with patients who were coming down off of heroin or whose spouses committed suicide. Talking to a therapist because my boyfriend dumped me and I didn’t have friends growing up not only seemed trivial but also made me feel like a total asshole for wasting her time with my petty bullshit. 

So I took anti-depression meds that she prescribed but we never got to the root of the issue. And I continued to smoke pot. A lot. 

I attended a couple of Marijuana Anonymous meetings but the prayers at every session made me feel like religion was being forced down my throat. Hearing people talking about their struggles to stay clean made me want to run out and use. It was depressing to listen to, and even the meeting leader never seemed particularly happy or convinced that she was creating a better life for herself.

Plus, I caught on pretty fast to the fact that I was supposed to give up drinking as well. I completely understand the abstinence-only approach that many recovery organizations and recovering addicts implement. It just wasn’t—and still isn’t—for me. I had a couple of drinks with dinner once a week, if that. What was the point of giving up something that wasn’t a problem? Plus the idea of living in New York without any sort of vice seemed impossible.

Living in NYC is, essentially, engaging in an abusive relationship: the city kicks your ass and then comes back with flowers, promises to never do it again, and then does the same thing a month later. People are shitty to each other because they can be: the population is so huge that you’ll likely never see them again so there’s a total lack of accountability for your actions. It’s the last place in the world you should be living when you’re dealing with insecurity and addiction.

So I did what is known in recovery terms as “a geographic”: when the illegal cellar bedroom of my dilapidated Brooklyn apartment flooded three times over three consecutive weekends this past summer, I packed up two suitcases and moved out to Portland, Oregon—vowing to quit smoking pot and start over. 

“You’re moving to Portland?!” was the overwhelming response amongst most of my friends, the tone of voice usually reserved for someone who announced they’d booked a one-way flight to Pyongyang. The common belief amongst many New Yorkers is that if you leave the island, you’re somehow quitting or admitting you can’t hack it. 

In reality, I had been in NYC for almost four years and, in that final year, I did what I set out to do: make a living as a journalist. I didn’t need to win a Pulitzer. I needed to do what I went to school for: a rarity in today’s economy. Once that happened, it was no longer worth the personal struggle. As Willie himself would say, it was knowing when to hold and when to fold. 

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