At 4:26 am my eyes were wide open. My heart was the thumping bassline of a suspense movie I never wanted to star in. I thought about all the things that could go wrong. I began to pray that the package would land with no interference. You’d never be able to relate unless you’ve had five figures at the mercy of USPS’s two-day shipping. The thing was, what was in that shipping box was more than just fresh bud. It contained my dreams, my freedom, and my chance to ascend. That box represented empowerment. So I just kept silently repeating a hustler’s prayer.
It was a wintry morning in 2017, and I was over a year into my stint as a weed dealer. Unbeknownst to the people who worked there, the shipping center had become my own little dispensary.
I ignored Biggie’s warning about never getting high off your own supply and sparked up. It was the only thing that kept me calm—the only way to cope. I inhaled and reflected on how and why I started selling to begin with, and how I had gotten to this point. I was constantly anxious, unable to sleep, eat well, or enjoy myself. I wondered if it was just because of the new “career path” I’d chosen, or if something had always been lurking just beneath the surface for me.
“By nature of the type of work it is, [drug dealing] is going to induce stress,” says Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist and mental health disparities researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Trauma and the Community. She also points out that the anxious feelings that plagued me could very well have been a heightened version of something that already existed, before I started selling. "That stuff is now heightened because you have this new stimulus," she says. While Breland-Noble didn’t diagnose me personally, I got a little insight from her—without any judgement—on what was happening psychologically when I was in the game.
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The new “stimulus” Breland points out was pretty out of character for me. As a child I was never into money, let alone “street” money. As I got older, life got real and bills had to be paid. Some people who have a certain level of privilege, or just better time-management skills, might be able to afford to be a full-time college student with two simultaneous unpaid internships. I couldn’t. These gigs left me with no time whatsoever for a “real” job, not even a part-time one. But job experience is crucial, especially when your aspiration is to have a career in the media. So I chased that dream and still had to figure out how to pay for food and rent.
When I first started, I was the world’s worst hustler. I failed. I didn’t even hit profit; I barely broke even. I wasn't successful because selling product requires a lot of networking skills, not to mention a good amount of confidence. So I found myself sitting on product because I was inexperienced. I found myself undervaluing the product so it could move easily. In return, I was cut throatin' the competition but this tactic was leaving me with a very little profit margin.
A few months passed, and out of necessity I was obligated to try again. That first failure was important because it taught me the importance of margins and it taught me how to negotiate. I learned to truly understand my product's value. This time I realized I had the skill set to watch my money double.
I remember the first time I went to buy a substantial amount. I dressed as yuppie as possible, in skinny-fit slacks with a pink polo, the buttons done all the way to the top. I wore Clarks and a messenger bag. The idea was to make it seem like I was a school kid with books in my backpack, while in reality, that shit was filled with cannabis. The trap house was in an affluent part of the city where bougie white people brunch.
I soon started having people working for me. It was like what Jay-Z described in ‘96 on Reasonable Doubt—minimize the profit margin but allow for faster re-ups and a more structured cash flow. But this chapter in my life was also when I learned that friends can quickly turn to foes. Or maybe they were just foes disguised as friends. At this point I’ll never really know.
I discovered that friends of ten-plus years and cousins who I watched grow up would rather dodge me and dead our relationship than pay me what they owed. And these experiences made everything start to turn dark in my mind. Several of my relationships became tainted with anger and hate. I don’t even give a fuck about the bag—money comes and goes—but the feeling of deception weighs heavy when it comes from the ones you once cared about.
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It was at this point in my life that I noticed a change in who I was as a person. My mind was overrun by fear of things that likely would never happen. I was often enraged and always short-fused. People around me said I had changed. Paranoia was my constant companion. When you’re a drug dealer you start to think everything is a setup.
Going to pick up my “mail” at the shipping center was especially nerve-racking. I was extremely suspicious of the employees and management. I would circle the block before going in to see if I noticed anything out of the ordinary. And once the mail was in my hands, I developed paranoia about the people on my block. Would they be the ones to set me up and rob me?
When I once lost a package, shit got real. I remember going to bed stressing over where it ended up and waking up in cold sweats in the middle of the night. Would the police kick in my door? Was I already on their radar?
(I had no idea what happened to that package, and I still don't know. I tried to inquire about it but was very hesitant because you can’t exactly just call USPS and say, "Hey, did you find my weed?" I attempted a few times from non-traceable numbers and then just let it go.)
That’s around the time, though, when I started to get high, to help keep those thoughts at bay.
“It’s a matter of degree to which you, as an individual, succumb to this type of anxiety, in which case you might slide into a mental illness like an anxiety disorder,” Breland-Noble says. I could feel myself sliding, and not gently. “It’s the dance between what’s in that environment that serves as a trigger for you, and what kind of coping skills you have for that anxiety that will really either divert it or force it to the surface, the latter of which is not great unless we have those strong coping skills in place.”
Breland-Noble adds that who ends up with an anxiety disorder and who doesn't isn't always easy to predict. “Almost every mental illness is comprised of hereditary and environmental factors,” she says. “So while a person may have a family history of genetic predisposition to developing an anxiety disorder, if they do the things that help prevent the onset of the disorder—like exercise, practicing mindfulness, eating healthy foods and getting enough sleep—they may help prevent the onset of a full blown disorder.”
For me, aside from the daily triggers—someone looking at me for too long, or a late package—there was the weight of morality. The government criminalized my ilk, painting an image of me and those like me as violent and ruthless. I was neither. But I questioned my own integrity every time I moved a pack. How could I explain to my moms or pops what I was doing when I was just another enemy in the eyes of the law?
But these things were the extras. The real problem I faced every single day was this: Fear had turned me into someone I didn’t recognize anymore. I had become addicted to the rush of counting more money, but also swallowed up by my anxiety. I had to stop selling.
“My guess is that some of that [anxiety] was there before the marijuana sales,” Breland-Noble says. Those feelings may have already been a part of who I was before I started dealing.
She might be right. Anxiety does run in my family. But at that point, I was too deep in to reflect on a pre-trap version of myself. I learned that there’s pride in saying you’re in compliance with the law; there’s pride in saying that I don’t sell anymore.
Somewhere in the midst of the chaos, I realized what worked for me best was a model with minimal financial and legal risks. When I was selling, I became so money-hungry that I lost sight of what used to be important to me. I traded my peace of mind and restful sleep for fleeting stacks of money.
I'm now in a better place mentally. I recognize myself again. I rejiggered my priorities to resemble what has served me well for most of my life. The streets romanticize being the plug—and I definitely saw and still see the glamour in it—but that doesn’t mean shit if you don’t have your sanity.
*We have used a pseudonym to protect the author's anonymity.
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