I used to be convinced that I had a natural deficiency that required marijuana to medicate away my boredom, restlessness and anxiety. I was sure that weed was the solution – not the problem – until my experiment in smoking all day every day led me down a rabbit hole from which I couldn't escape. Timmen Cermak, M.D., is the author of several books on marijuana, including Marijuana On My Mind: The Science and Mystique of Cannabis, and a leading expert on how our natural endocannabinoid system (ECS) is affected by heavy marijuana use.
Remember the old "This is your brain on drugs" ad? While an exaggeration, there's a sliver of truth in the egg-in-the-frying pan analogy.
5 Signs of Using Cannabis Too Frequently
"What goes up must come down," and "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" are two laws of physics pronounced by Isaac Newton. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dramatized how these laws also hold sway in the world of psychopharmacology.
In this episode, I weave Dr. Cermak's observations about the psychology and physiology of cannabis addiction with my own subjective experience both during my addiction and after I quit smoking. Find out how long it takes for your neurotransmitters and receptors to settle back to normal after you quit smoking, and regain the natural healthy functioning of your ECS, that will allow you to experience novelty and spiritual awe again, even when you're not high.
Dr. Cermak grew up in northeastern Ohio, received a BA in philosophy from Ohio Wesleyan University and graduated from Case Western Reserve Medical School in 1972. After two years as a general practitioner in the Indian Health Service, he completed a psychiatry residence at Stanford University Medical Center. He then served three years as medical director of the inpatient drug and alcohol unit at the San Francisco Veterans Hospital before entering private practice of addiction psychiatry in San Francisco and Marin County, California for the next four decades. He recently retired from clinical practice in order to devote more time to writing.
Dr. Cermak founded and chaired the Marijuana Task Force for the California Society of Addiction Medicine in 1996. His first book on cannabis Marijuana: What’s a Parent to Believe?, is currently being updated to a second edition and will be released under the title What Parents Need to Know About Marijuana later in 2022. He chaired the Youth Work Group for then Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, which contributed to the framework for California’s Prop 64 legalizing the nonmedical use of cannabis by adults in 2016. He has served on the state’s Cannabis Advisory Committee since its inception.
From Bud to Brain: A Psychiatrist’s View of Marijuana (Cambridge University Press, 2020) summarized the science of cannabis for health professionals and educators with extensive references to provide the research evidence needed to answer patients’ questions with the latest objective, relevant information.
He is now excited to bring the science of cannabis to the general public in, Marijuana on My Mind: The Science and Mystique of Cannabis. This new book strikes a balance between the scientific facts about cannabis’s interaction with the brain and the subjective experience of cannabis users, including the important personal meanings, often spiritual, attributed to cannabis. By listening with genuine curiosity and respect to peoples’ personal experience, Dr. Cermak bridges the gulf existing between the scientific perspective and what he describes as the Cannabis Culture’s perspective.
Charlie Deist: My name is Charlie and I'm a marijuana addict.
One of the hardest things about quitting marijuana for me was that deep down. I really just wasn't sure that I had a problem or at least if I suspected that I might've had a problem, it wasn't marijuana that was the problem. No, no. , marijuana, I thought had to be part of the solution. The problem was some sort of a natural deficiency in my brain chemistry that marijuana helped me with. And I thought this way for a long time and it wasn't until I could accept on an intellectual level that my using had become more of a problem than a solution that I was able to move on to the next stage of recovery.
In this episode, I'm going to weave together some pieces of my own recovery journey with a conversation with Dr. Timmen Cermak, one of the leading experts on cannabis addiction, and the author of a new book called Marijuana On My Mind: The Science and Mystique of Cannabis.
First, I just want to read from a little notebook that I kept during the time of my using. The very first page of this book is a bird's eye view of a schematic of a sailboat that I wanted to buy on the East Coast, and I had all these ideas for turning it into this sort of Airbnb complete with an apothecary and Turkish towels, Dr. Bronner's themed bathroom hygiene kit, and then on the front inside cover, I wrote my name as Captain Charlie, another aspiration and one that I wouldn't actually achieve for another five years or so.
Then the second page contains this reassurance, "Yes, people want to buy your product." Although it's not really clear what my product is. There's this whole list of potential sources of income, from concerts and plays although there is no mention of who the actors or musicians would be, dinner club memberships. There were all of these dreams and then there were, uh, the realities.
A couple of pages later I scribbled down the words. Let's see. Yep. Here we go. "Cashflow has been an issue." Those words appear right below this picture of a sailboat that I had drawn to look like some sort of a covered wagon. It's got these little hoops over it for some sort of a greenhouse underneath. A very utopian, very Californian sort of idea, of living carefree with all your needs being met right there on a boat.
I packed more pipe dreams into this little 48 page notebook than I could possibly achieve in a lifetime, and yet I think that there was something good about these desires and about these dreams, and my memory of this period, even though it's a little bit faded, is all around pretty positive.
What's most apparent to me looking back was that I had all of these conflicting ambitions between wanting to stay where I was living in Brooklyn, New York, or coming back to California between one, to sort of hustle like a New Yorker and wanting to slow down and take the time to smell the roses, or the cannabis as it were. And even though for most of 2015, which was the year of my heaviest using, I was feeling pretty good, I just had this sort of nagging feeling that all these good vibes and relaxation sort of had to come with a price.
My experiment, which started at the beginning of 2015 was, "Can I smoke all day every day and still maintain this sense of ease?" That was the year before California started its own experiment with legalized marijuana, and by the time that the law actually went into effect, my own experiment would already be over.
In less than a year, the results of my experiment were pretty conclusive and it turns out trying to stay high all the time didn't work out as I'd hoped. I wasn't in a good place.
Ever since college in the years leading up to my little experiment, I'd expected that maybe marijuana was just a perfect fit for my brain. Whereas I tended to be anxious, smoking weed helped me relax. When I had been prone to rigid thinking or felt bored with the world, marijuana awakened these new sensibilities; these feelings of creativity. And above all it made the world kind of come alive with possibilities.
Was it possible that I just had some sort of a natural chronic endocannabinoid deficiency?
No pun intended. That was my operating assumption. When I first let the flood gates loose. I got a medical cannabis card and took myself medication to the next level.
Timmen Cermak is a medical doctor based in Mill Valley, California, who I had actually encountered through his writings back all the way in 2010. He specializes in addiction and specifically cannabis. His patients are marijuana addicts who come to him wondering how it is that they became addicted to something that people told them wasn't supposed to be addictive, and his writings that I had read kind of made sense and represented a little bit of a fly in the ointment with respect to my preferred narrative about being able to stay high all the time. They were an inconvenient truth about the nature of marijuana as it relates to our natural physiology.
Timmen Cermak: These days, most people know that they have natural cannabinoids in their brain, and most people know that there are receptors - you have a natural cannabinoid-like chemistry in your brain. What the THC does is that it hits those receptors, and it hits them much stronger - activates them a great deal more, and for much, much longer than your natural cannabinoids can.
Charlie Deist: So that's Dr. Cermak, and he says you can think about these natural endogenous cannabinoids, sort of like the body and brain's own internal supply of marijuana. It's like endorphins, which are our body's natural opioids, except that these ancient receptors and neurotransmitters, like our endocannabinoids, our endorphins, they predate the marijuana and opium plant. But maybe just maybe I had hoped this plant had come along at just the right time as an aid to nature - no, an improvement to nature! - to supercharge our endocannabinoid system.
My question for Dr. Cermak was this, why can't we stay high all the time?
Timmen Cermak: Well, you end up with a chronic deficiency at that point. Once you've got that chronic deficiency of receptor sites, you don't have to stop using completely in order to fall into some of the symptoms of a cannabinoid deficiency.
Just reducing your use enough, like maybe sleeping for eight or nine hours is enough that when you get up, you're already then in a state in which there are an insufficient number of receptors, for the natural cannabinoids to be able to be stimulating, and you need the excessive stimulation of the THC to sort of come back up to normal.
So you can wake up with feelings of irritability, and restlessness, and the kind of boredom that are signs of using too frequently. And so you haven't really stopped using, it's just that you had a long enough break that some of the signs start re-emerging.
Charlie Deist: If I'm being honest, this sounds pretty familiar. I rode this rollercoaster for long enough to know the pattern all too well: wake up, get high, start coming down, get high again. With each cycle, it would take just a little bit more outside stimulus to get back to the same high, until eventually I'd have to smoke a certain amount just to get back to my normal functioning baseline that characterizes the natural pulsing of a healthy endocannabinoid system.
Coffee drinkers might be familiar with the same rollercoaster. It's basically just the idea of tolerance, and it applies to just about any mind-altering substance, whether caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, opium, or yes, weed. Use them long enough in sufficient quantities, and eventually you'll start to invert the effects.
I learned from Dr. Cermak, however, that cannabis is somewhat unique among all of these drugs.
The Uniqueness of Cannabinoid Receptors
Timmen Cermak: It is different from all the other neurotransmitters because the receptors are in a different place.
Usually we think of communication - this chemical transmission that occurs with neurotransmitters and receptors - as going sort of downstream from one nerve cell to the next, and then from that second nerve cell to the next, and it all sort of goes in one direction, but the endocannabinoid system goes in the opposite direction. It becomes the master regulator of all the other neurotransmitter systems. Let's take serotonin, everyone's pretty much heard of that. When serotonin nerves start firing rapidly, the endocannabinoid system gives feedback to them, saying to the neurons that are firing rapidly, "Okay, you can keep firing just as rapidly, but each time you fire, you're going to give less of the serotonin with each firing."
Then if that serotonin nerve starts slowing down in its firing, there'll be less of that negative feedback coming in through the endocannabinoid system, so that with each firing there'll be more of the serotonin that gets released. So what it does is it regulates all the other neurotransmitter systems to keep them within certain parameters, so there's always some serotonin, but not too much. It does that with dopamine and GABA and all the other neurotransmitters. So , when we introduce THC into the brain we're giving that kind of negative feedback on all the other neurotransmitters, and the result is what we call getting high.
Charlie Deist: To someone who's never been high before, it's hard to explain what these chemical reactions actually feel like. There's a certain ineffable quality in that state of altered consciousness, and we all respond differently because of this way that our endocannabinoid system doesn't just work in isolation, but actually interacts and modulates all of the other neurotransmitters. But what does this natural endocannabinoid system actually do?
Timmen Cermak: Well, many, many different things, but one of the functions is the function that I call novelty. Novelty is something that our brain does when a new signal comes in. The signal doesn't know it's novel. It's our brain that's been sort of paying attention to what all the signals are, and then a new one comes in and it adds this "Zing!" to give that signal that comes in that draws our attention. Now, that entire mechanism is under cannabinoid control, so that when we raise the activity of our cannabinoid system, that "zing!" Is added to more and more things.
Charlie Deist: In our everyday reality, we have a tendency to get used to things, even things that are pretty extraordinary. Maybe evolutionary forces determined at some point that there were limits to the advantages of walking around in a state of perpetual awe, and so we started to settle down into an equilibrium where we still respond to genuinely new things, but other stuff, even amazing stuff, starts to seem sort of passé.
Timmen Cermak: In a sense, we begin dishabituating. You know that rainbow that you can see on every single bubble in the soap suds in exactly the same place? Well, kids love to play with that and then they get used to it and then you just stop seeing it - you just do the dishes, or whatever you're doing. Then you get stoned one day and the bar for seeing something as novel, as having that "Zing!b" is lowered, so things that you stopped noticing as novel, you notice again and it can make a trip down the hallway to the bathroom an adventure because everything draws your interest , and that's a very enjoyable state of mind.
Charlie Deist: So again, if you like the novelty. Why not stay high all the time?
Losing the “Zing!”
Timmen Cermak: the problem is that when you use cannabis - it's predominantly the THC in the cannabis - enough, what happens is those receptors are reduced in number between 20% and 60%, depending on what part of the brain you're looking at.
But in this area called the amygdala , where the sense of novelty is added to any kind of stimulus, it's reduced by about 20%. So what happens then is, if you stop smoking or when the THC wears off, you're now in a cannabinoid deficiency state, so that the activity of your endocannabinoid system is below normal rather than above normal, when you've had something to smoke.
When that activity is below normal, then that "Zing!" of attention,of novelty, is added to fewer and fewer things. You could be going to a class at school and be presented with an idea which really is new and you've never heard before, but there's no "Zing!" that gets added to it because the bar for experiencing novelty has been elevated so high that it's just all freaking boring.
Charlie Deist: If you're anything like me, I know what you're thinking here. The way our school system works you don't need to have a desensitized endocannabinoid system to think that certain classes are just freaking boring. It's worth acknowledging that many of us suffer from a chronic deficiency of novelty and wonder because of the way that our modern institutions, our modern way of life is set up.
Sadly, this doesn't take away the fly in the ointment that if you're going to try to medicate away your boredom with weed, you'll end up even more bored long-term. If you're the type who's constantly seeking out novel experience, you may rate high on what psychologists call extravagance. It's defined by a strong appetite for the reward provided by novelty closely related to impulsivity, and it's undoubtedly correlated with the kind of person who repeats the action of getting high to the point that the effects eventually start to wear off. This is the dilemma of the marijuana addict. Chase the rewards and they get smaller and smaller
Timmen Cermak: If you get to the point where stopping is going to give you a period of time of feeling worse than continuing, then you have drug problem.
One of the reasons why you get into that situation is a very small part of our brain, which we call the reward center, is physically altered. Xanax, alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis, all of those cause an excessive release of dopamine in the reward center that actually changes some of the architecture of the reward center.
When I say excessive release of dopamine, what I mean is that there aren't any natural activities that would release that level of dopamine - you know, a good meal, good sex - they all release some dopamine, but not as much as the drugs themselves are capable of doing. And when you begin changing the architecture of that reward center, you are priming it - maybe for the rest of your life to be leading to compulsive use of whatever reactivates it again.
Short term vs. Long-term Effects
Charlie Deist: By October of 2015, not only was the shift from summer to fall starting to get me down, but based on my little notebooks, I seem to be getting more analytical about the downsides of my smoking habit.
Halfway through one of the notebooks, there's another diagram with arrows pointing in opposite directions, downward arrows are labeled short term while the opposing upward arrows say long-term. The short-term effects of moderate cannabis usage, I imply with my notes, put me in this "safe zone", where the intensity of my psychic focus was actually increased.
This is what I call the recall and remind phase of the biphasic dose response function. Memories and perception are loosened from the grip of mundane, everyday reality, and they're seen with a different perspective. We might remember a pivotal traumatic moment from our childhood, and we're able to kind of hold it at an arm's length and forgive someone for something they did or said so many years ago.
Or maybe we see a persistent problem or pattern of behavior, that's no longer serving us. However, the more often we hit the pipe, pressing that "get high" button over and over again, the less reliable these insights, because now we're out of the recall and remind phase and into the forget and regret phase. In this phase, our psychic focus is sapped. Our ambition and creativity, gone. We just kind of melt into the couch. I list some of the side effects of marijuana with a crudely drawn pot leaf and the slogan partnership for a drug-free me - riffing off of the Partnership for a Drug-free America, which was a Johnson & Johnson funded initiative that made the famous, "This is Your Brain on Drugs Ad."
Charlie Deist: While it's not the most nuanced analogy, the fried brain stereotype has a bit of truth in it. My own list of side effects included drowsiness, excessive appetite stimulation, forgetting routine tasks, short-term memory loss, and last but not least... I forgot.
Timmen Cermak: When you raise the cannabinoid activity, the endocannabinoid activity, in the hippocampus, you reduce short-term memory, and so the more active it is with the more marijuana you've just used, the harder it is to remember... by the end of a sentence... what the... subject at the beginning of the sentence really was.
And that's funny - you laughed there and it is part of the social grease that gets to be silly and part of what I call cannabis culture - the experience that people who use cannabis tend to have in common. So we know that memory is affected because the areas of the brain that are involved with memory are areas that are very densely packed with cannabinoid receptors.
Charlie Deist: But while we're all different in our response to cannabis, almost everyone who's tried. Marijuana can relate to a few things like the munchies, it turns out this symptom is generated in the hypothalamus. The munchies, aren't just run of the mill hunger for sustenance. They're specifically directed at comfort foods including breast milk for animals.
Dr. Cermak relates one study that identified the effects of the endocannabinoid system on appetite by actually blocking cannabinoids from binding using a drug called Rimonabant (Accomplia). Rimonabant is essentially the anti-marijuana. Rather than increasing the uptake of cannabinoids by our receptors, it blocks them from binding.
Efficacy and safety of the weight-loss drug rimonabant: a meta-analysis of randomised trials
This review concluded that, although rimonabant produced greater weight loss after 1 year than placebo, it increased the risk of psychiatric adverse events (mood disorders and anxiety). These conclusions are likely to be reliable, and the authors' recommendations for further research into the safety of rimonabant and careful monitoring of patients appear appropriate.
Timmen Cermak: They gave this to a newborn rat pups. Obviously mammals have to suckle pretty quickly after they're born, and by completely reducing the activity of the endocannabinoid system, they failed to suckle and they died. Our cannabinoid system is remarkably important for mammals to be able to survive because it is part of a normal hunger mechanism.
[00:20:12] Charlie Deist: They considered Rimonabant as a potential weight loss drug because of these potent effects on appetite but found that in humans, the result of blocking our endogenous cannabinoids from doing their job resulted in severe depression for one and eight subjects. Bummer.
So it's clear that this balance in our endocannabinoid system is important. We have to be careful not to upset it too much in either direction. If we trust in the process of evolution and natural selection, then we should also be wary of disturbing this carefully-honed equilibrium that we've been given over millions of years. This doesn't mean that marijuana can never provide any benefits for anyone. But when we start to use habitually, like I did, it's probably going to turn on most of us in the long run. That's been missing from so much of the conversation around marijuana. Some people who use cannabis can moderate, they're using to a healthy level, while others get tired of the effects and just quit altogether.
But for the handful of compulsive novelty seekers who end up getting addicted, it's a hard road getting out of the hole of chronic cannabinoid deficiency that results from long-term use. It's not the cause. It's the effect. Not only do people, suffering from a chronic deficiency have to learn to appreciate novelty again from more natural and reliable sources, they have to do it without their drug of choice. The good news is our bodies and brains are incredibly resilient when it comes to restoring the endocannabinoid system's natural, healthy functioning.
Rehabituating or Recalibrating our Cannabinoid Receptors
Timmen Cermak: Our cannabinoid receptors will naturally rebuild and most of the time it seems as though they rebuild back to normal levels. A lot of the rebuilding happens within the first week, but there's a tail that stretches out so that many people have insomnia for as long as six weeks after they stop using.
It takes some time for that rebuilding to happen, but for most people it really does happen. The primary ones where you have to worry about some really lasting difficulty is in those people who began using in their early teens and used heavily after that, they may have some permanent impact.
Charlie Deist: So there's good news. One week after you stop using, you're mostly back to normal. Six weeks and natural functioning is basically restored. So you can overcome whatever chronic deficiency you've caused yourself by bombarding your neurons with these exogenous cannabinoids relatively quickly.
But what about the deeper problem that we feel? What about the spiritual malaise that leaves so many of us feeling dry and lacking in awe and wonder about the world around us.
Stick around for part two of this episode, where I talk with Dr. Surmac about another ineffable quality of marijuana using the access to the higher realms, where spirituality comes easy or so it seems.
"What causes the come down? Do we grow tired of wonder? The toxic sludge drains for a moment to show you what a toxic haze you live in. You see a clear path but return to the haze, and gradually lose sight anew."
By the time I read these words, I'm nowhere near the creative peak I'd experienced in my early days of using, but this metaphor of not being able to see clearly after briefly feeling like I could see everything so clearly... this is a common thread in my notes. Short-term versus long-term, creativity versus productivity... it seemed like the bigger, the dreams became the less motivated I was to take the first steps, and the more I wanted to get back to the pleasant world of Visions.
Were these visions fantasy or a potential reality, not yet achieved, but awaiting fulfillment?
Was it possible to get the benefits of seeing without the downside of blurred vision afterwards?
For many of us who began a recovery journey from marijuana, those first six weeks of abstinence were just the prelude to the real work and the real rewards of living sober.
In my case, it took a full six months before I had "recalibrated" to the real world. Until then, I really struggled just to talk and relate to other people, to focus on my goals, or even know what those goals were.
I struggled to regulate my caffeine intake and even a single cup of coffee without the balancing "downer" effects of marijuana could put me in a state of anxious paralysis with these crippling headaches that led me to lash out at my remaining friends and family.
Timmen Cermak: When you were artificially activating the endocannabinoid system, so that there's this negative feedback that's experienced in the dopamine system, the serotonin system, the GABA, the glutamate - all those other neurotransmitter systems - they get used to being suppressed by all that negative feedback. So once all the receptor sites are rebuilt, that doesn't mean that all the other neurotransmitters have regained their natural balance and their balance with each other. So that can be the recalibration as all the rest of the neurotransmitter systems are settling back into their normal balance with each other.
That can be a little bit of a tumultuous time when emotions and thoughts are not as well regulated, until all of that recalibration occurs.
The Finger and the Moon
Charlie Deist: But eventually, the recalibration did occur, thanks in no small part to the help of a higher power.
This little parable, courtesy of Alan Watts, shows up a number of times in Dr. Cermak's book, From Bud to Brain: A Psychiatrist's View of Marijuana. I highly recommend the book for anyone struggling with marijuana addiction or anyone who has a loved one who struggles to find a balance. In working with hundreds of patients, especially younger patients, Dr. Cermak has always sought to first understand what was driving them to use marijuana, and then demonstrate his understanding of those motivations, to use them as a foundation for being able to compassionately break the bad news: the fly in the ointment so to speak. The bad news being the long-term effects of marijuana.
Speaking about the ineffable quality that so many of his patients love about marijuana, Cermak has this to say:
Timmen Cermak: I try to point out that there's an objective way of looking at cannabis, which is science and the subjective, which is the experience and the appreciation of this ineffability that people experience.
Michael Pollan says that cannabis changes the texture of our experience, which is a very interesting way to put it because usually we don't even know or recognize that there is any texture to our experience. So when something changes it, we actually can get some perspective on the fact that, "Oh. I'm looking at the world through a framework normally, and I'm not even aware of that framework, and this just kicked me out of it in a way that tells me there are other ways of looking at things and they can be enjoyable if not even valuable.
In the surveys I've read, probably three quarters of people who use cannabis appreciate that ineffable quality and maybe about a quarter of them, that's the primary reason why they use. None of us can define what normal spirituality is, but one of the problems is that achieving that sense of awe - , connectedness to things more than you normally feel, connectedness to other people, to the universe, to the earth - if you only can experience those when you're high you're missing out on the full richness of life, because it's possible to find ways to experience those on a more continuous basis without using cannabis.
Marijuana’s Negative Effects on Learning
Charlie Deist: Another inconvenient truth I learned first from Cermak's writings back in 2010, and then from my little "experiment," a few years later on was the way the marijuana affected my ability to learn and internalize information based on my mistakes. Here, we encounter another paradoxical dualism embedded in the marijuana plant. As a healing balm it offers the possibility of a blissful forgetting. Worries melt away, and interestingly, negative memories in particular are liable to fade away in the smoky haze. This has been verified in studies showing the drug's promise as a potential treatment for PTSD. The flip side of this is that we also tend to underappreciate and forget about certain vital feedback from our environments, that may be trying to tell us something important. You know, the school of hard knocks. Marijuana takes us out of that place of learning into a world where nothing really hurts as bad, including difficult life lessons. For me, one of the most painful acts of "recalibrating" to sober reality was beginning to feel the full brunt of the errors that I'd been previously just sweeping under the rug. For all the little things like parking tickets, social faux pas, and minor rejections - the things that we all endure on a semi-regular basis, these things had become a little more frequent due to the fact that they felt like no big deal. After all, worst case, I could always just go home and get high and feel fine again.
Timmen Cermak: This idea of forgetting negative experiences, it is a powerful part of cannabis. It's a powerful part of the chill and it's not the same with all other drugs the way it is with cannabis. There's something unique about cannabis here. Let me go ahead and tell you briefly the experiment that really brought this out so that we discovered what this was.
They had a group of rats that were in cages where half of the floor was electrified. There would be a bell that would ring and a few seconds after that the shock would go through the floor. Now, the animal could learn that if it jumped to the other side of the cage, it wouldn't get shocked. That was a classical conditioning, and whenever the bell rang it would jump. Then they stopped electrifying the floor. There were no shocks anymore, just the bell. And they watched to see how long does it take for the animal to learn that it doesn't have to jump in order to avoid the shock?
That's called the amount of time for the extinction of that conditioning. Well, those who were given cannabis versus those who weren't, they extinguished this negative learning much more quickly. Now, what's interesting here is if you do exactly the same experiment, but instead of giving a shock, you ring the bell, and if the animal jumps over, it gets a pellet - it gets a reward. That's a positive conditioning, not the negative conditioning of the shock. And then you stop giving the reward. How long does it take to extinguish that learning? Well, if you give cannabis, it doesn't matter. It takes just as long to extinguish the positive learning as it does the animal that's not given the cannabis. So the cannabis was only useful at extinguishing negative experiences, more rapidly. When you translate that into us big rats as humans, you find that we forget negative things faster.
That's one reason why I remember the concert so very vividly and wonderfully, but forget waiting in line outside and getting paranoid about whether or not my tickets were really the right tickets. That kind of paranoia and anxiety left me faster, because I was standing in the `line stoned.
So there are ways that we can chill and forget the negative experiences and not learn from them. That curtails the amount of learning we do.
Charlie Deist: Beyond simply re sensitizing my endocannabinoid system, there was a whole process that needed to take place of re sensitizing my conscience without being too hard on myself. This was where the rubber really met the road in terms of needing to find a practical spirituality. My concept of a higher power relied heavily on the idea of mercy. As GK Chesterton remarked, when asked why he became a Christian, I turned to God "to have my sins forgiven," and not just my previous sins, but all the inevitable mistakes and missteps that I would incur on this long road of recovery ahead. As a surrogate spirituality, cannabis may have some value in awakening our senses to the possible.
It opens our eyes to new realms, and reminds us that we really do live in a world of miracles and wonder, so why not stay there longterm?
Timmen Cermak: Now we can argue legitimately about which way is better, but I prefer having access to both ways, rather than having access only through using cannabis. So, I fall back over and over on Alan Watts' phrase, that wI modify slightly. He was talking about religion, but I think it's also true about cannabis.
Both religion and cannabis can point the way, that is a useful path to follow, but too many people end up sucking on the finger rather than actually following the path. So once cannabis gives us the sense that, "Wow, there are ways of responding to the world in which I'm more emotionally connected to things", and I find that to be of value, that can be pursued in more ways than just using cannabis. I encourage people to find what ways work for them to be able to bring that into your life on a more continuous basis.
Charlie Deist: This suggests that true spirituality isn't as easy as pushing a button, hitting a bong. It takes risk, and following a path, an idea - often on faith in a particular direction. It involves an encounter with other people, a reality test, and even long periods when you might not feel more emotionally connected to anything. Those periods of dryness represent the biggest risk, in my opinion, for relapse - the feeling that the sacrifices you're making in the short term, aren't having any effect, so why bother? You start on a path, you make a mistake or you take a wrong turn and it feels like you're getting nowhere. What's missing in this analysis is that you're finally learning. Even if that learning is mostly subconscious, it's changing you at a fundamental level. Dr. Cermak likens the journey to a trip to a foreign country.
Timmen Cermak: The overarching perspective that I'm talking about is probably best summed up by the word recovery, which is an acknowledgement that, "Okay, I have been living my life in a particular way, which I've gotten very accustomed to, and now I've shifted cultures. I'm living in a different world. Now, it's not radically different, but it's different enough that it can trip me up and there's a lot to learn here."
Acknowledging to yourself that there's a lot to learn about living without the use of any drug is a way of acknowledging that you're new at this. You're a beginner at this. There's nothing wrong with being a beginner, and it's inconvenient. It's not something I would want to be, but I've made the commitment that being a beginner at this is a better place to be than back where I was, back in the familiar, where I was using whatever drug on a regular basis.
But I need to cut myself slack because it's a little bit like going to a different culture, where it's going to take me some time to learn, how to navigate as easily in this different culture as what I was doing before.
Recovering the Spark
Charlie Deist: Coming out of my addiction, I still found myself in the same place physically. I still have the notebooks and some memory of the extravagant goals that they contained. But what was gone was the spark - the motivation and energy that had once accompanied them. I felt like I'd been kind of hollowed out. My identity was gone. Now I just had this generalized sense of emptiness and anxiety - an inverted grandiosity, which made even incremental steps towards those dreams seem daunting. And in this foreign country, I had no idea how to navigate social situations. No idea how to manage the little money and energy that I did have, or how to prioritize my growing to do list. I could still see the finger pointing in a certain direction, but now it was too far away to suckle. I had to start walking.
Taking walks outside was one of the few things I could do that felt natural and good. Walking took me out of my head and put me into my body. By the spring of 2016, when I finally stopped using for good, I was lucky that the weather was nice and the fruit trees in Berkeley were in full bloom. Going for walks was my way of recapturing that sense of wonder - a sense of substance and identity - something that I could take with me into social situations and feel more prepared to actually meet people in a genuine encounter.
Coming up in future episodes I want to talk about my journey and also hear from you. I want to know what your dreams are and which of those dreams ended up on the ash heap?
If you're going through tough phases of early addiction, I'm sure you've heard it all before about "one day at a time." Let me just suggest go outside, and take a walk. Pay attention to the trees, the birds, the skies - whatever it is that used to capture your sense of wonder when you used to still smoke marijuana. See if you can get back into that state of childlike wonder. Let me know how that goes. Drop a comment.
My name is Charlie and I'm a marijuana addict. Stay tuned for more episodes of Dreams and Ashes, and be sure to subscribe.
So long for now. See you on the road.