So two weeks ago at my brother’s bachelor weekend there was, as one might expect, quite a bit of drinking going on. Cans of beer everywhere, rounds of Fireball shots- we even had wine drinkers and at least one person making Bloody Mary’s. It became pretty stressful for me- I’ve touched on the issues I’ve had with alcoholism and anxiety in some other posts- but suffice to say there was a fear that I was being judged for not drinking, a sadness that I was missing out on certain social rites (toasting with a round of shots with your brother who’s getting married) and a worry that because of these other fears I was becoming uptight (this is the downward spiral of anxiety- it gets worse and worse because you’re afraid it’s getting worse and worse). I felt like an observer of the party rather than a participant. I took several steps in advance of the party to control what I could and try and make sure my anxiety was at least somewhat boxed in. I made sure I had plenty of alternatives to the alcohol- from club soda to coffee to root beer and plenty of water bottles. I brought some cigars. I had noise cancelling headphones for my iPad if I decided to just excuse myself from the party to my room. I even did a little meditation before the party to try and ground and center myself. But it was getting to a point where I was feeling very uncomfortable.
Then someone brought out a joint.
It’s been a few years since I’d smoked pot and I was never much of a regular smoker in high school or college- usually just in social situations. I’ve never had a bad experience with it (unless you count the times where it was a weak strain…) but I never really wanted to do it enough go through the risks and hassles of getting it for myself. But when that joint came out, I took a bit of a calculated risk, and hit it when it was passed my way.
It was great. I was in the circle- literally and figuratively- shoulder to shoulder with the other guys at the party sharing in the camaraderie of the weekend. As it came around a second and third time I could start to feel it work and it was like my anxieties just sort of lifted off of my shoulders and floated away with the smoke. I was more relaxed, I was joking and talking like I hadn’t been moments before. I was now a full member of the party and, importantly, still not drinking. Over the remainder of the weekend I indulged a little more- out on the golf course and again Saturday night when we returned to the house after dinner and hitting a bar.
I was curious though about my experience, because I know that marijuana can actually trigger anxiety or even panic in some people. Was I experiencing more of a placebo effect or did it actually help me with my anxiety? So I looked it up and found that the research is somewhat mixed (due in large part to the difficulties of conducting studies using marijuana). But there does seem to be some support for marijuana’s ability to treat anxiety. This study from Harvard found that the sedative effects of marijuana likely contribute to the feeling of relieving anxiety, though it notes that 20-30% of users report anxiety as a side effect of use. The same study also found that marijuana may have some impact as an anti-depressant (but overuse can actually increase depressive symptoms). A Mayo Clinic article explains that the disparity between the beneficial and harmful effects of marijuana on anxiety are dose dependent, and that one of the components in marijuana is cannabidiol, which has potential for anti-anxiety treatments. When I asked my therapist about it, she acknowledged that marijuana has anti-anxiety properties, and she emphasized that the much bigger deal about the weekend was not drinking. She did give me a warning that regular (daily) use could have negative consequences for my mental health, but otherwise occasional use is generally harmless. I told her that it’s not my intention to become a regular user, but having had a positive experience, I wouldn’t rule out using it again if I thought it might help.
I think what I took away from my own experience and then in the follow-up research is that this is an area that is woefully under explored in terms of the pharmacological benefits and drawbacks to marijuana use.
Now there’s probably another discussion to be had about the difference between sobriety and abstention. Can I say now that I’ve been sober for fifteen months? Do I need to add an asterisk? From my perspective, I don’t much care at this point how it’s labeled- what’s more important to me is that I’ve remained alcohol free. There’s a great article I came across on this topic and I sympathize with the people it profiles and agree that sobriety has to be individually defined, but if you disagree, weigh in below in the comments. I didn’t touch alcohol the entire weekend. And haven’t in the two weeks since. By my count that’s 480 days since my last drink. And I’m pretty damn proud of that.
Finally, I recognize that there may be differing views on this subject in the community that’s gathered around this blog, and that’s OK. Part of my journey is exploring these subjects and being open about my own recovery. If you’ve had experiences with using marijuana to treat anxiety (or another medical condition) and want to share, please use the comments section, or, if you want to share but remain anonymous, shoot me an email with your story and I’ll post it without personal identifying details.