High Anxiety: An Opinion

When I was a teenager I was involved in high level sports. The deal I made with my parents was that I had to do well in school and they would foot the bill.

It was a great time. I was flexing my competitive muscles and excelling at school, I felt like I could do no wrong.

But I wasn’t totally an angel. I had experimented a couple times with cannabis, but the most important things in my life continued to be school and sport. So it really wasn’t on my mind that I could spiral out of control one day. As many young people believe, I thought I was invincible and that my actions would not have serious consequences for my future.

Eventually, I reached a point where I decided I couldn’t do sports anymore if I wanted to focus on school and get into the University of my choosing. So I retired.

To the people around me this seemed like a snap decision, but I always knew I wanted to go to school and one day land a good job. It wasn’t like I was going to be paid for my competitive endeavours, so I walked away.

Leaving something special behind

But on the inside I was in turmoil. I felt like I had left a significant piece of my identity behind me and I had no idea what the hell I would do to fill that void.

Fast forward to my first year in University. Great times all around. I was meeting new people, growing closer with the friends who came with me, and learning new and interesting ideas.

Around mid-year first year, I experienced my first real heart break and it sucked. I had never experienced something that felt as all consuming as that feeling, but looking back those were kiddie problems. I now have big boy problems.

I remember I was really sad, and a friend was trying to comfort me so he offered me some weed to sooth my feelings. Low and behold it worked. I learned that I didn’t have to be sad if I was high.

What was then an occasional thing, became a daily habit. But I was busy dodging my feelings so I persisted for months on this trajectory.

When I came home for summer, I discovered that all my friends were doing the same thing. Everyone seemed to discover cannabis all at the same time independently of each other so the habit grew larger.

Before long I was smoking a gram a day, but didn’t yet think this was a problem. I mean, I was struggling in school, but that is usually the case for new University students, and my relationships had yet to suffer so nothing seemed out of order.

It wasn’t until a year later, that I decided I needed to quit. My cannabis use was making me unhappy.

Discovering withdrawal

This is the first time I experienced marijuana withdrawal symptoms, and because generally the message about cannabis is that it is harmless I was really caught off guard.

For two days straight I couldn’t sleep (followed by vivid nightmares). I had no appetite and was pretty nauseous. To top it off, my mood was swinging wildly from elated to suicidal, throw some irrational rage in there for good measure and I felt like a mess. I had really let myself down by getting myself into this situation.

The one dominant feeling was shame. I was constantly thinking about what ‘past’ me would think of present me and concluded that I wouldn’t be very impressed.

After the initial withdrawal symptoms passed, which takes about a week, I just had to have will power not to get high and things should be fine. But the universe wasn’t letting me get on with things.

It seemed that every time I looked at a clock it said 420 and the shampoo bottle in the shower just happened to be 420 ml’s. Usually both would be an excuse to get high but being sober had me feeling left out since none of my friends seemed to have problems with weed and were continuing on as per usual.

Anyway I lasted a month before getting high again. I told myself it was a one off.

But here is the problem. When you abstain from cannabis for a period of time, like a month, your tolerance goes way down and the experience becomes as awesome as it was the first time you ever got high.

So one time became another, became another, until I was back to using a gram everyday.

This is when I knew I was in big trouble. I realized that why I used cannabis was not only to dodge my feelings but to avoid sobriety totally. Sobriety was uncomfortable.

Chasing the dragon

Chasing the high from your past is something that all people with substance abuse problems do and now I was one of them. DISCLAIMER : I’m not saying being addicted to cannabis is anything like being addicted to harder narcotics.

An ugly pattern set in for the next couple years. My cannabis use would peak, I would hit what felt like a new low, and I would try to get sober, lasting about a month, before returning to dope.

The worst thing that can happen when you actually need cannabis to get ‘normal’ is your drug dealer becomes unavailable. When you depend on them to run your life and they just happen to go out of town unexpectedly, you are fucked. It’s withdrawal time.

Through those years I got used to what would happen if I did not smoke weed. First, lack of sleep, then no appetite, then mood swings, then elation, and then very angry, then the big wave of shame that follows.

When you are in that situation, you have to keep getting high to avoid all of that. After a few years of going through this routine of getting high, quitting, and coming back, I quit quitting.

What I realized is that whether I liked it or not, this new thing was the thing that was filling the void that was opened when I quit sports. It was part of my identity now, and I embraced it. I was someone with a bad habit that made their daily activities just that much harder to do.

This went on until my last year of University when I planned a trip to Mexico for my reading week.

Underneath Mexican Sun

I didn’t want to fuck with Mexican drug dealers (for obvious reasons), and I figured there would be plenty of drinking happening so I decided it would be like a little vacation from weed. But I was not going to quit.

I set some weed aside for when I came back so I did not have to worry about it, and I headed off to Cancun.

Because my brain chemistry was so dependent on cannabis at this point, the withdrawal symptoms that would come during this week in Mexico were more ferocious than anything I had ever experienced.

The result was that my emotions were so unstable that I ended up making a really bad impression with a lot of people.

But the worst thing that happened, and I didn’t know what it was when it was happening, was that I had my first ever panic attack.

Not knowing what this was I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t wait to get home and ‘right’ myself with the weed. The week was essentially a wash out and I had a shit time when I should have been having a great time in the sun and on the beach.

Compounding all of that was that there was a surplus of alcohol in my system. When I felt edgy, I drank. When I felt nervous, I drank more. The whole thing was a gigantic mess.

When I finally got home and got a hold of my stash it wasn’t the same. The anxiety persisted and if anything the weed made it worse.

I decided I needed a break. And like all the other times when I tried to quit, I lasted a month, then I went back to my ways. This time however, I was only using tiny amounts so I could dance the razors edge between relaxation and paranoia.

During my final exams I really mailed it in because I was having such a rough time. Panic attacks were becoming a daily occurrence and I still didn’t know what was happening.

Not to mention that I had no plan after I finished school. I just went home and laid face down in bed intertwined with periods of getting high and feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. The anxiety was here and it wasn’t going anywhere.

Getting help

One day my mother spoke to me and told me that she recognized I wasn’t doing well and that I should go see a doctor. So I did.

The resulting diagnosis was that I, like many people in my family, unbeknownst to me, have generalized anxiety disorder. I was prescribed some anti-anxiety medication and it worked.

The medication I take is generally considered very slight as far as all the anti-anxiety meds are concerned, but it works for me. Things improved gradually for about a month, until the meds had saturated my blood stream, and I considered myself healed.

With the medication I was not having panic attacks, but I was however getting deeper and deeper into cannabis dependency. I really had quit quitting, and so my daily use skyrocketed to about two grams a day.

I tried to get my shit together. I started taking writing classes to occupy my time, and I decided I would go to college the following year for some job specific training in something creative.

Because I was so high during this period, I probably put out 2/3 the effort to actually learn anything in this program. With moderate success I tried to cut back and focus on school.

Then I made the biggest mistake that anyone with an anxiety disorder can make. I stopped taking my medication.

The beginning of the end

I did this because at the time I thought anxiety was behind me, and that I only had to juggle my cannabis habit with school more delicately to make it work.

It was not a problem at first because the drug was lingering in my system, but it wasn’t long before I started experiencing what are known as ‘brain zaps’.

The only way I can describe what this was like is like this. You know those toys that give a slight shock as a joke, well it would feel like that except emanating from your head.

Coinciding with the submission of many final projects and assignments I started having panic attacks again. But these weren’t like the ones I had had in the past, these were turbo attacks.

I was told that when you go off these types of medications (SSRI) it’s rough at first but it gets better, so I persisted.

I somehow managed to make my way out of college unscathed. I passed all my classes and attended a portfolio night where professionals from the industry come to check out your work.

When school was over I dove into weed big time. It was the only thing stopping me from careening out of control, or so I thought. Doing the dance on the razors edge between feeling relaxed and feeling paranoid and anxious was a daily affair.

I managed to go back in time to that period when I got home from University where I just lay in bed face down trying to calm my nerves and periodically getting high. It was a major set-back.

Then one day a friend reached out and said his company would be needing an intern and he asked if I wanted to do it. For some reason I said yes.

Discovering what an anxious barf feels like

My nerves were frazzled beyond belief and the anxiety was dominating. I would wake up real early so I could try to calm myself before work. I would take a shower, barf from nervousness and be out the door.

It was one day I was at my desk and I nearly fainted. I knew then that it wasn’t going to get better and I needed to see a doctor. So I made an appointment.

When I went to see the doctor, they explained the reaction to your body and brain when you stop taking meds cold turkey like I had, and how that wasn’t a smart thing to do. As a result, I would have to take a larger dose now by 50 percent for it to work.

I started taking my new dose and it gradually got better. I stopped barfing in the morning, and I never came close to fainting ever again.

Then things returned to ‘normal’. I was having no panic attacks but I was still getting high and having to dodge the symptoms of withdrawal.

Then one day I just said, fuck this, fuck all this. I was tired of running around meeting drug dealers, spending my money, and wasting my time on drugs.

The reason I started using cannabis in the first place was to avoid my feelings, and I was tired of being comfortably numb.

It’s not like weed and me didn’t have some good times. Like for instance, that time I watched all the classic Planet of the Apes and laughed all the way through. Or like when me and my friends would hang out in the ravine and goof around. But I had determined that for real this time, the party must come to an end.


I just don’t care about it

This is my stance on cannabis today, now that it is legal in Canada. I’ve been clean for four years now and I couldn’t ever see myself going back.

I am neither anti-drug or pro-drug, I just don’t care that it exists at all. It’s just that for some people, it’s not something they can handle in moderation. I am one of those people.

I don’t tell people I am a recovering addict because I feel that that term is better reserved for people with more serious addictions. But I certainly am a person who has had a long and storied past with substance abuse. Now That I got that in check there are many things I do differently.

Oh happy day!

First, is I engage with my emotions. I love feeling feelings in my brain. It’s the universe’s way of guiding you through your life. Sending you on a path only you can go down. Sure sometimes emotions get us in trouble, but if you are a person who likes to learn, you can probably better yourself from such situations.

Second, is I REALLY enjoy the little things in life now. Like spotting a red cardinal on the branch of a big oak tree…that’s some nice stuff right there. I don’t need to always be enhancing every experience with drugs in order to appreciate life.

I know there are a lot of people who will disagree with what I’ve said here but I haven’t lied or distorted the truth in anyway.

What I do know – anxiety and cannabis are like the chicken and the egg. We’ll never know which came first. Did I start having panic attacks because I abused weed, or did my weed abuse help my anxiety?

Some people are of the opinion that cannabis can do no wrong. To this I have to say, anything when mismanaged can have negative impact on a person… even too much water can kill you (a doctor once told me this).

For me cannabis is like that ex that really dragged you down, didn’t want you to better yourself or experience the fullness of life, but the sex was great so you kept coming back.

When the spell finally broke, I was like boy am I glad that is over. Not having a debilitating drug habit is so much easier. I can do things, enjoy life, feel my feelings and express those feelings to the people I care about.

I must admit I’m not totally drug free. Because I have to take anti-anxiety meds probably for the rest of my life, and this bothers me. But it’s okay because I got myself into this situation anyhow and I must own up to my mistakes.

Another bone head thing I did was that at one point I started mixing my cannabis with tobacco for an increased sensation. NEVER DO THIS. Because tobacco is way more addictive than cannabis, I now smoke cigarettes. I DO NOT CONDONE THIS BEHAVIOUR.

I’d like to quit smoking too, and it’s definitely down the road. But mostly I’m glad to be comfortable in my own skin. I haven’t had a panic attack in years and I haven’t smoked cannabis in an equally as long of a time.

It took me so long to get to where I’m at today, but I’m still really glad I took this journey. Life is about learning real, impactful, meaningful lessons. I think I got a big dose of that early in my life.

If you smoke cannabis, feel free to smoke up, I don’t care. If you want to be sober that’s cool too. But mostly, if you want to live your life to the fullest capacity that you can, I think that’s the raddest shit there ever was.

1 thought on “High Anxiety: An Opinion

  1. Dean, this may come off as cliché, but that’s really brave to share such personal information, especially of that nature. However, sharing it can be both cathartic (on a personal level) and helpful (on a societal level).

    Back in the day, I always thought you were a talented athlete (certainly your results backed that up). However, I am fully aware that, in ski racing, most athletes drop out at age 16 – with numerous reasons, the top being focussing on Uni and earning money with a part-time job. I was impressed when you opted out of the “gap year” that Chris and Shane took to BC, with you deciding to go straight to Uni. I thought you had your shit together, focussing on your future, and like just about everyone, had no idea you were struggling.

    I remember seeing you and Paul out skiing at Christmas break for a few years, then it became just your dad. I would typically see him in the lift lines, which afforded me no real time to have a lengthy talk with him – basically just seeing him in passing. Then, I didn’t see him very often and think it’s been a few years since I saw him last. Yes, I’m still coaching at Jozo Weider (26 years now, and 29 at Blue), but am starting to think of maybe giving that up and just skiing.

    I, too, experience panic attacks, which are health-related, but fortunately not too often. Back when I had that artery rupture (I was still coaching the team you were on), it was Diane Matheson who told me I would experience them. After that incident, I became hyper-focussed on what happens with my body. Because of the way I presented (atypical in all my doctors’ opinions), I was told that any time I feel “unwell”, I should get myself to a hospital. After a few false alarms (because I was way too focussed), I’ve learned to identify what a panic attack is and what is actually just some ordinary occurrence (like body temperature changes that are mostly normal). However, I empathize with others who have them, and know only too well the havoc they can wreak on someone.

    It is indeed GREAT to hear that you have gotten ahead of all this, although it was quite the journey and struggle. Glad to hear things are well with you.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close