Photo courtesy of Flickr user Berge Gazen
Earlier this year, I visited one of the world’s failed states, which forced me to take an extended break from daily smoking for the first time in more than nine years. I calculated how long it had been right before the trip, and it freaked me out a little. I’ve always championed weed for its lack of addictive qualities and yet had never demonstrated this in almost a decade. The only way to know my dependency on weed was to go to a place where I would find absolutely none of it.
The night before my trip, I stayed at home and smoked about an eighth to myself while packing. Every time I lit a new joint, the impending ordeal seemed all the more arduous. I unconsciously amplified the problem for myself right up to the minute we all got in a cab and headed to the airport. When we arrived at the airport, I smoked three cigarettes before finally going through security. I still felt anxious and had no idea how it would be.
We flew for 24 hours. I had officially detoxed of weed for one day, and already felt a little sharper than normal. My newfound alertness kicked in at just the right time: We arrived in the middle of a war-torn country. Every point of transit became a treacherous ordeal with a very real possibility that someone might co-opt our gear or haul us away for some unexplained reason. After we got through the airport melee, a UN-marked van scooped us up and took us to a hotel that would be our home for the next few days.
The hotel was nicer than what I had expected from a country plagued by violence and political turmoil. All of our amenities almost worked: The air conditioner spit out cool air half the time; we had warm running water that would sometimes turn into brown sludge; the pool looked clean but gave one of our guys a severe case of hives. We rolled with the punches, because we were leaving in a few days. At this point, we had no idea that we’d end up stuck there for a lot longer than we expected.
While we waited to be transported to our next stop, we didn’t leave the premises of the hotel. We had heard numerous stories about aid workers and other foreigners being kidnapped, beaten and pelted with rocks out in the streets. The risk of jeopardising our safety outweighed any adventurous possibilities. After three days at the hotel without being stoned, I felt pretty good. Sure, I had a couple of mood swings, but I was also more relaxed than I had been in years. Weed was my end-of-the-day treat, and without it, I was far more focused on my responsibilities. As each day went by, I was more eager to get out to the camps and get our story.
By the fourth day, we were told we could head to our next destination. The fifth day became the sixth, and then the seventh. Each morning, we’d pack up our stuff, head down to the lobby—only to hear that we’d have to wait one more day. We’d then spend the day tooling around at the hotel, trying to find a Wi-Fi signal, and not smoking any weed whatsoever. At night, we got word that we were leaving the next morning, and in the morning, some unforeseen snag would leave us trapped at the hotel yet again. What was supposed to be three days at the hotel became 12 days, and by the end of it we were all losing our minds. At many points, I thought to myself, Man, I really want to smoke right now, but it was more out of boredom than necessity. I felt no cravings, headaches or any other withdrawal symptoms.
Not smoking definitely made me read a lot more. In those 12 days, I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s sci-fi classic The Dispossessed from cover to cover, a feat I always thought was beyond my capabilities. The same asinine TV shows I typically zone out to when I’m stoned quickly bored me. I thought that not smoking would significantly reduce my creativity, but instead it practically drove my energy and efforts. I prioritised what used to seem like mundane tasks, like reorganising all the audio samples on my computer and creating a spreadsheet to tally how many joints I’ve rolled in my entire life.
Quitting smoking positively affected me, while cabin fever made me go insane. We developed a routine of eating the same sub-par food, napping in the room, monotonously waiting to hear our fate. On the 13th day, it seemed that our fortune was about to prevail. We reported to the lobby at dawn, packed and ready to go as we had been so many times before, but this time we actually made it onto a tiny, two-propeller plane and hopped around for hours, landing at various airstrips in the middle of the desert for a few minutes before taking off again. When we were finally one stop away from our destination, we got a call that our permits were still incomplete and that we had to return to the hotel. If we disembarked, we would be arrested. Our frustration was at its peak. Rather than piss off the authorities, we retreated back to our hotel as instructed.
The moment we walked back into the lobby, the image of a lit joint burned in my memory. I wanted to smoke, but not because I felt like I needed it. I just couldn’t fathom keeping myself occupied for another day without a little help from weed. Keeping in good spirits, the team laughed off our ordeal and agreed that we’d try our luck again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until we finally got what we came for. The next morning, we arrived in the lobby fully expecting to be sent straight back to our rooms, but instead we were jammed onto an express flight and in less than two hours, we reached our final destination to finish our assignment. We spent two days there before hopping back to the capital before returning to New York. We had an extra two days before our return flight, and those were the most excruciating. Strangely, that weekend I barely thought about weed at all. For the first time in years, I was on a normal sleep cycle. I didn’t have anything to look forward to at the end of the day, and I didn’t feel like I needed it. Life at the hotel was mind-numbingly boring, but it gave me the opportunity to reflect. It was like a minimum-security prison that seems like a slap on the wrist until you find yourself reflecting on your life as you stare out your cell window.
The weekend finally came to a close and we embarked on another 24-hour journey home to New York. When I walked into my apartment, my housemate was smoking a joint. Knowing that I had been away from by beloved weed for so long, he quickly handed it to me before I could even put my bag down. To my own surprise, I hesitated before hitting it. Don’t get me wrong—I still hit it. After that, I proceeded to roll three joints in a row and I smoked each one with great zeal. But it didn’t feel like getting a fix after weeks of abstinence. It was the same simple, pleasurable high I get from indulging in all the things I love, whether it’s good food, good music or a particularly nice nug.
The experience affirmed my belief that weed is the kind of habit you can pick up and put down at the drop of a hat. I’m sure there are people who feel a deeper dependence and can’t stop smoking abruptly without some seriously unpleasant feelings, but I think every pothead owes it to himself to try. After years of smoking constantly, not being high is like a brand new high in itself.
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