The Symbiosis of Grief and Smoking Marijuana

By Gabriella M. Geisinger 01/02/18

The thick smoke, cotton mouth, simmering laughter, and grief have become wrapped up in each other. Being high was the reflex with which I confronted my life.

Gabriella Geisinger
Photo of Gabriella Geisinger by Adam Campos

It was spring of 2009 and we were a gaggle of 19-year-old girls, trying to con our way into a dormitory none of us lived in for the sole purpose of using their kitchen. We had already tried using a George Foreman grill and a sauce pan to melt the weed we’d bought into butter so we could make brownies. We hadn’t really planned it well enough, but in the end we made them successfully and all watched The Doors film high off our faces. It was one of the best nights of my sophomore year of college.

Most people have funny weed smoking stories. I tried to dive head first into a box of Cheerio’s once while watching Fight Club for the first time. I had to watch it again to fully understand what was going on which kind of ruined the big reveal, as my hazy memory conjured up the spoiler at the last possible moment. This happened subsequently with Memento as well.

I spent a lot of that academic year, 2008-2009, high. I don’t know how because I don’t recall ever paying for weed. It was just around. I suppose this was par for the course on a small liberal arts college campus, and the fact that I was very good friends with one of the major dealers probably helped. He probably took pity on me. Up until that point I hadn’t been a weed smoker, or a smoker at all. I had tried marijuana and cigarettes but they didn’t stick, and I didn’t feel the need to damage my lungs and my liver for the same effect. My Italian-American family style meals meant that wine was always abundant, and the whole ‘forbidden fruit’ thing didn’t happen. By the time I started college, drinking was, for me, exactly what it is now. A fun social activity that I did with my friends, not a means to an end.

My father died the summer before my sophomore year. He didn’t pass away in some sterile hospital room, or soundly in his bed. He fell, wedged between the toilet bowl and the tub, while trying to fix a soap dish. I know because I found him. He must have been there some time while I sat, unaware, in the living room. I know because when I gave him CPR, as the 911 operator instructed me to do, he was cold.

We moved from our East River-facing apartment to a house on Staten Island. I didn’t have a bed frame yet, just a mattress on the floor; the room was painted Pepto-Bismol pink. I couldn’t wait to get back to school, to a picturesque place. A safe place.

I don’t remember how I became friends with Bill but I do remember him rolling us a joint to share. I don’t remember if I told him that my dad had died, but I remember the tightness in my lungs, the cotton in my mouth, the heaviness in my tongue and the looseness of my limbs; my joints going slack and laughter bubbling out of my chest from the place it was trapped. Maybe that was the night I tried to dive into the box of Cheerio’s. I don’t remember.

My grandmother died a few days before Thanksgiving that year, and that Christmas holiday was almost unbearable. Family tension seethed; there wasn’t a pair of us that seemed to be getting along.

I returned to campus, and the first thing I did was go to Bill’s room. It was Martin Luther King Jr. day – or night, rather. Obama was to be inaugurated the next day. We drank cheap Prosecco and got high and drank some more. I ran full tilt from South Campus to North Campus, slipping at the last moment outside the dining hall. As I skidded along the icy ground, my jacket wrenched up, taking my shirt with it. A football shaped chunk of skin tore off my hip. I stood up, clutching blood, laughter oozing out of me.

Someone gave me a Band-Aid. Cleaned me up. I don’t know what I did the rest of the night. The next day I only made it out of bed to go to the student union to watch the inauguration. I went straight back to bed afterwards. A few months later, I was sitting on the grassy hill outside that same dining hall, my hip now scarred, smoking weed out of a hookah pipe, my head on a friend’s stomach, a friend’s head on mine, as circles of laughter and smoke dissipated into the spring breeze.

I don’t know when getting high became more than just a fun, social activity; when the end became more important than the means. At the end of the year festival I got so high I tried to rub off my lips – no boy would want to kiss these lips. These lips had kissed death.

I nearly failed out of music theory and had to take an incomplete; I barely passed French, a class I had excelled in for nearly ten years. That summer I stayed on campus, unable and unwilling to go home. Bill went home for the summer, and I started dating a guy who didn’t really like smoking, of any variety. And so, the circumstances of my life converged so that weed simply wasn’t around anymore.

In the next few years I smoked occasionally; once, totally unironically, while watching Thank You For Smoking. Once in California, in a trailer, the summer of 2011. I lay on my air mattress thinking I could feel the floor beneath me, thinking I could hear everyone in the next room talking about me. My paranoia began to overwhelm me. It was my first night there, and I wasn’t sure what they were thinking, what they were saying. The words were muffled but I knew they were talking about me, I just knew it.

In this small town at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, grass was as plentiful as, well, grass. Some members of the family I was staying with smoked nearly every day. I tried again. I didn’t only get cotton mouth but cotton body. Every inch of me felt wrapped in wool, the sweltering heat became unbearable. I wanted to shower and shower and shower until every inch of me was slick and smooth but water is a precious commodity in California. I waited for it to wear off, knowing it would. I vowed never to smoke again.

It’s been five years, and I have kept my word.

I still don’t talk much about the death of my father, though I write about it plenty. My life is far more stable than it was at any of the junctions in my life when I smoked weed. I live in London, I have a job and a partner and friends; friends who want to go on a holiday to Amsterdam.

“You’ll smoke if you go to Amsterdam though, right?” my friend asked.

I don’t think I would.

The entirety of my sophomore year of college, smoking had become a key that opened the doors to a kind of happiness I seemed incapable of mustering day to day. But sometimes it opened the wrong door. Perhaps it wasn’t a key at all, but a battering ram.

Memory and repetition have linked all of these things together. The thick smoke, cotton mouth, simmering laughter, and grief have become wrapped up in each other. Being high was the reflex with which I confronted my life. Be sad, smoke a joint. Be sad, smoke a joint. Be sad, smoke a joint. My Pavlovian response is too hard wired now: smoke a joint, be sad.

Sadness comes in many forms. When I’m high, it’s paranoia, the desire to shower (which in London is far less of a worry than a drought-ridden California) and rub my skin raw, and anxiety. The latter already makes itself known daily, and I needn’t give it any excuse to run rampant. That battering ram is better left alone. Now, I manage my sadness, my anxiety, in healthier ways (therapy, a good natter with friends) and some not so healthy ways (Kit Kats).

So, I don’t think I would smoke weed. Even in Amsterdam. Though the surroundings may change--apartment buildings, houses, college campuses, California trailers--the end is still the same. And, besides, I don’t need that key anymore. I like to think that it’s not because the key wore out the lock, but because I chose to loosen the bolt.

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Gabriella M. Geisinger is a London-based freelance writer, born and raised in New York City. She has her MA in Creative Writing, Narrative Nonfiction. She writes most often about the intersection of arts and culture with social issues. You can follow her on twitter @gmgeisinger and read more of her writing at