Ryan Berg, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran deployed twice in Iraq. In 2004, he was an infantryman with 2/24 Echo Company, Weapons Platoon, in the Triangle of Death. In 2006, he served in various roles with 1/14 Task Force Military Police and deployed to Fallujah. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in rhetoric from UC Berkeley and a Master of Arts in leadership studies at Saint Mary’s College of California. He’s married to his wife, Nataly, and lives in the SF Bay Area.
Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. It was written for individuals addicted to cannabis interested in quitting. The author is not a licensed psychologist.
I used to sneak outside into the backyard, in the early morning hours before my wife awoke, to use marijuana. It numbed me, and that’s how I made it through the day. I couldn’t feel, and I hated myself. I was addicted and depressed.
You’ve landed on this page because your search for answers brought you here. Perhaps you feel desperate. Up to this point, you use marijuana compulsively. You’ve often felt guilty about the habit, tried to stop, but the substance continues to hang around in your life. You know that, technically, it’s not physically addictive, but in other ways — it’s entirely enslaving. Deep down, you really want to stop. You sense it holds you back. I should warn you, however, the answer you seek on this page is one you may not want to hear. Why? Because it will likely hit your defenses, and that defense is what composes the thread which binds the substance to your life. You use cannabis to avoid feeling emotional and psychological pain. From dealing with what actually needs attention inside of you. Read that again. Are you willing to go deep and solve the problem from its root? You’ll have to go deep, that’s the only way. Here’s what I’ve learned, myself being a daily, hourly, compulsive marijuana user, who’s completely left the habit behind, and moved on to grow in all sorts of exciting ways, which continues. I’ll say now, it’s more than worth the struggle. You’ll have to decide if you’re worth it. Is that part of you which you neglect each time you abuse, worth it? Are you worth it? My therapist used to tell me: “the reason you smoke marijuana, Ryan, is because you don’t feel whole, and you unconsciously reason that by putting something from the outside — inside — it will make you such.” This helped me to understand what I was doing, so after many more weeks and numerous relapses, I finally asked myself, “why don’t I do this the other way around, and give myself something that originates from inside to help me feel good and whole?” I then began the arduous journey of putting it down, and ever since my life has completely changed for the better. I’ve never possessed more focus, motivation, and spiritual drive.
First, reckon with and acknowledge the following: there will be no quick-fix to move beyond this behavior. I say this because you need to hear it. Cannabis use itself is a “quick-fix” — one that doesn’t always help. So it makes sense that in attempting to quit, you would seek a solution that’s similar in nature. What you’re facing is a serious adaptive challenge. This means it requires experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places within yourself. It’s an addiction. You must recognize that the underlying issues are emotional. What you’re battling is a fire-breathing dragon, and in order to slay it, you will need to practice. You will need to go inward, into the blackness of yourself, stay there for sustained periods of time, and stare into you — uninhibited by any substances. Of course, the behavior has a psychological dynamic too, but what you need to know right now is that you’ll likely have to bear intense feelings of anxiety, sadness and anger, among others — in order to let the habit go. You’ll want to seek to understand what you are avoiding when you use cannabis. You’ll have to get down and dirty. The good news, however, is that the difficult feelings will dissipate, I promise. I’ve been through this.
There is no getting around the fact that you will have to face discomfort. Are you willing to say “fuck it”, and let your inner strength scream primally? In letting this go, you sacrifice short-term discomfort for long-term and lasting positive change, happiness, and growth. This is not merely about kicking a habit, it is one part of a revolution of self. A reclaiming of agency. Of the you that you desperately want and need back in your life. It’s a revolt against that which stands in the way of you loving you. Are you willing to dig deeper than you’ve gone before? You’re going to have to summon that thing within you that allows you to win a street-fight you’ve consistently lost. Do you know that thing? What is that thing? Put your finger on it. Hold it. Cultivate it, and embrace this phase of growth with the most profound patience, determination, and focus you’ve ever attempted. The pain will be intense, but it will not kill you.
Let’s be real, you use marijuana to numb yourself. So, you’ll need to educate yourself about dissociation. Like 70% of Americans, myself included, you may have some trauma or painful events that occurred in your past, which have gone unacknowledged and untreated. My traumas began when I was a small child into my adolescence, and continued with my two deployments to Iraq. You can read more about my experiences on this blog. Here’s a brief snapshot of dissociation from the book, The Body Keeps the Score:
The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed.
Dissociation essentially means that we are severed from parts of ourselves, our experiences — painful yet important ones. It’s “checking out”, and in order to heal, you will need to get back in your body and start loving that part of you. That’s when things start to feel better. Instead of numb, love. This excerpt above about dissociation does us no good on its own. You must go back and actually process what happened to you on an emotional and psychological level. Otherwise, like it says, experiences will continue to replay themselves. Your numbing is a continuance of the “splitting off” you did during a past, overwhelming experience. You turn away from reality when it gets tough by consuming. Eventually, you’ll want to stop doing that, and face things head on. It will hurt, reality can be piercingly painful, yet you’ll be profoundly happier because of it. You’ll survive, you already have.
The power of talking is profound. Emotions don’t flow with nowhere to go, my therapist told me. You will likely also need to talk about the habit, specifically what gravitates you to it — preferably with a professional since friends are often unqualified. This is part of breaking the autopilot routine of using. Sparking flow into our emotional lives will help heal the wound you’re numbing with cannabis. As humans, our emotional lives were not meant to stagnate — we’re designed to live and breath and process. By maintaining our addictions, we delay the process of feeling, achieving health, and feeling joy again.
Remember, cannabis is a powerful drug that is often used for pain. If you rationalize using it by telling yourself you have pain or require it for sleep — be sincere with yourself. Are there other options available to you? Consuming marijuana when you don’t have a medical condition it warrants is not taking good care of yourself. Further, ask yourself, “is it actually helping my symptoms decrease, exacerbating them, or are they staying the same?” In either case, you have a grueling emotional journey ahead. I’m right here with you.