I haven’t smoked weed in eight years. That’s eight April 20ths, countless walks in the park or the woods, fifty or so new movies and TV shows, a few dozen parties, some rock concerts, a good many romantic encounters, and nearly infinite moments of just hanging out. And I’m still a recovering marijuana addict. I can never smoke weed again.

Why does it have to be this way? I’m not asking you why, because 99% of my friends (nearly all of whom smoke) will tell me, “well, maybe it doesn’t. You’re a lot older now, more in control. Maybe you could do it and it wouldn’t affect you as much.” The problem is, if it affected me 1/100th as much as it did before, that would already be too much. I’m going to tell you why.

The first time I bought weed, when I was a junior in high school, I got arrested. I was on school grounds, hugging my girlfriend near a bus stop, when two huge guys in blue cop sweatshirts grabbed me by the arms and lead me into the school building, shouting “DO NOT RESIST SIR” into my ears. Although the legal outcome was favorable, my relationship with my parents (who later divorced) was strained, and my girlfriend and I broke up not too long afterward. She was the first love of my life.

I hadn’t even been high yet, and I’d lost something because of drugs. The first time I actually got high, I was fucked up for a straight five-day period. I had to hide it from my family for what seemed like FOREVER. And then, after that, whenever I was in a darkened room, high or not, I felt a little baked. This continued more or less indefinitely; it still happens once in a while to me now, though it is no longer jarring. Weed permanently changed my brain; I’d never be normal again, so it seemed.

Right before leaving for Marlboro College, my best friend died at age 18 of a heart attack brought on by an unforeseen congenital heart defect. Needless to say, being isolated in a remote Vermont college where weed was plentiful was the absolute last thing I should have been doing while I was in mourning. Though I had many wonderful and formative experiences at Marlboro (some actually academic, imagine that), my addiction took hold completely. I was asked to leave to avoid being permanently expelled within three semesters. I felt like Lord Jim; it was only six years later that I forgave myself for what seemed like such a disproportionally colossal failure in such a short life.

While at home, my addiction reached its height: an eighth of weed every day, generally all by myself. I bought it with money I obtained through lifting my parents’ debit card in the middle of the night and walking to the ATM. I would do this one night, and then the next day would mark the beginning of another “bender.” I had innumerable benders. Entire days worth of time, gone. Never leaving the house or seeing a sibling or parent. Eating insane amounts of food (my best example: three bowls of cereal—one Corn Flakes, one Wheaties, and one Special K—at the same time, in three separate bowls with three separate spoons and one huge glass of milk on the side), inducing terrible asthmatic symptoms, being up until 6 or 7 in the morning each night before passing out on my bed, not in it, smoking between 20 and 30 times per day.

I described it to a friend years later who had had his own struggles with weed addiction, and he said, “it sounds rough.” I had never even realized how rough it was at the time. In general, I was completely unaware of its roughness. It was just what I did. I had no control over the objective of smoking; that was always a given. At first, though, I could at least control the conditions surrounding it. By that, I mean I could control the scene in which I did drugs to optimize the drug experience. Let me describe it a little bit for you.

A large bedroom with pictures and posters on the wall of things like Syd Barrett, Vincent van Gogh, and my own abstract art. Bookshelves filled with books, like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Wilde, deQuincie, Cocteau, and Joris-Karl Huysman. A tripped-out Persian rug, decorated with swirling flowers and leaves. Gentle incandescent light, coupled with Christmas lights and red lightbulbs here and there for warm, inspiring ambience. A desk with notebooks and a typewriter, inkwell, and mathematical instruments. A beanbag chair, small cushions, and a little table on the floor, for guests with similar interests to really settle in and absorb an opium den-like drug experience, provided in one of my many handmade intake devices, with names like The Rumbler, or The Teapot Dome Scandal. And of course music: Pink Floyd (“Piper” through “Wish,” no “Wall”), King Crimson, Miles Davis, Velvet Underground, druggy classics. It was great.

There was a time when I could sit in my little drug den—on the floor, on the rug—and imbibe my poison with the air of sublimity, the hope of inspiration, the cure of avoidance, the safety of oblivion, and produce little gems of creativity whose value was in their own existence. That was the reason behind smoking. But even this level of control, this semblance of reason, went away.

My room grew disastrous, overtaken with stacks of books and unfinished projects. Ultimately, my setting was inconsequential. After getting caught smoking by my father a few times, the only thing that mattered was *not* getting caught, while being able to smoke as much as possible with impunity, in order to maintain that “whatever, it’s all good” feeling. I would hold my hits in for as long as I could, producing virtually no leftover smoke at all. Very economical; doing so gets you really fucked up. The less oxygen to the brain, the better. Through open windows, under blankets, in the bathroom with the shower and fan running, outside during the day. And then, late at night, it was safe to smoke freely in my room, because everyone was asleep. You see, I lived on the first floor, and everyone else in the house slept upstairs. I was isolated.

The “guests” I referenced earlier were eventually rendered fictitious. Nearly all friendships based on drug use degrade over time, on top of the general spreading-out of your old buddies when everyone but you is (still) in college. So I was alone. I’d never been averse to smoking alone; I’m an alone type of guy. Every decision is your own, no one can limit your fancy.

But that’s actually what drugs do. They limit your decision-making; they take away your ambition and inspiration. That’s what happened to me; after only three or so years of smoking, I was completely lost to it.

When there was weed in the house (and rarely did a week pass before I got some more), there was no decision. No matter what other things I’d gotten into in that brief weed-free meantime—novel-writing, community college, seeing my mother, playing music, recovering from asthma—weed was always the end result. It was always coming back into my life, no matter how crumbled and disheveled my life was when it left. And whatever I’d been involved in took a backseat, or left the metaphorical vehicle entirely. When I had weed, I planned to smoke it at the first chance I could get. And then, when that chance came, I smoked up whether I actually wanted to or not.

Days, lost. Hours and hours. Soon, I don’t think I was even producing any little gems of creativity anymore. All I was doing was trying to disappear from this earth, hoping that I’d smoke up, put on my headphones with a long, drugged-out song on, close my eyes, and open them to another reality where I didn’t have to be aware of my own slow death. Unlike this one. I realized at one point or another that, were I to succeed, I’d be insane: a useless, deranged shell of my former self back on earth, a burden to my family, dead in every practical sense, but not in the ground. That would be irresponsible and unfair, and would hurt them all.

I decided that I needed to cut back or quit. I would purchase some weed with the explicit plan to only smoke “some” of it. Laughable, a non-strategy. Or, I would just “stop buying,” and then suddenly, miraculously, my friends would appear with their own weed, to repay me for the countless times I smoked them up (which I always did just to fend off being alone yet again. I hated when they would leave). And then, being “off the wagon” yet again, I would just buy some of my own, to prolong the illusion after they left, the illusion that I was not alone, that I enjoyed this particular activity, that I was not sad and will-less. I wrote and signed abstinence contracts to myself—with wording like, “I, Mark Ludas, will not smoke for one week,” and other such “decisions”—that were all violated. Nothing worked. Abstract reasoning—the feeling that “I need to cut back or quit because I just do”—was not holding up. I needed something concrete.

There was one thing in my life that I knew I cared about other than weed, and that was writing. I was in the midst of writing a novel, which I never worked on while high. Each bender took a week away from me. Soon, I noticed it became harder and harder to get back into the flow of the narrative. Part of the trick of writing a novel is remembering all of the dynamics that you have in place, the processes you have going, the meanings of this and that symbol or action. If you lose those threads, which happens easily if you stay away too long, the writing can become obsolete; you’ve become a different person in the meantime, even if it’s only a week, or a month.

I realized I was being faced with a choice: life, or weed. Life meant writing; weed meant slow and terrible destruction and the loss of everything I loved, wanted, cared about in life. Essentially, I was choosing between life and death.

I decided I would not smoke again until the novel was finished. I was about 300 pages into it. There were over 600 when I was done. When I wrote the words “The End” onto that final sheet of paper, it was unlike any high I’d ever experienced. I fell to my knees in my backyard where I’d been writing, and looked all about me, at the sky, the sun, the grass, the trees. I listened to the engines of cars driving past my suburban house. It felt absolutely amazing, an otherworldly sense of joyous and teary-eyed incredulity, as though I couldn’t believe I’d done it. Would it be the next “Great Gatsby”? Who cares? I’d finished it. Who else did I know who had finished a 600-page semi-autobiographical novel of literary fiction? No one.

I never smoked again after that. Nor did I ever finish another novel. Lots of stories, essays, and other short works, but nothing of the same magnitude, the same ambition. Suffice it to say, when my father died a few years later, I was again deprived of all clarity, direction, aim, but the drug was not weed; it was loss. And that’s the drug I’m still struggling with now. Imagine if I’d been smoking throughout this time. There would be no self-awareness. Only denial and oblivion. No hope, only darkness, fear, escape. I’d probably be dead.

To be honest, I’m often mired in these things—darkness, fear, etc—in my weed-free life. I’m often hesitant, fearful, insecure; it feels like I have no direction. This is simply a condition of life, I suppose. What is the hopeful, inspirational message to be derived from my story? Be one with your own destruction; create it, make it, and aim it through your own reticle. Ruin your life and alienate your family with your decisions, not your indecision; with your principles, not your self-indulgences. That’s far superior. Take responsibility; know that your failings matter, your faults exist, your fears hold you back from reaching your true potential. Don’t pretend they don’t. But at least it is a fear holding you back; not a drug, making you feel like fear is superfluous because “everything is cool” and nothing really matters. Unfortunately, in this life, fear and insecurity are necessary. Fear is the only instinct that tells what you need to overcome.

That’s all drugs do, ultimately; they allow you to feel like nothing matters. They make a chaos of your life, to imitate your inner state. At least when you’re sober, you’re free, whether to succeed or fail. It’s better than being a slave to a false reality. Get out of your privileged little world and face the truth: this world sucks, and only you can change it. Only you can fight the injustices that create such a boring, shitty world that compels people to do drugs and commit crimes; you can improve it, whether for everyone or at least just for yourself. Drug addiction and alcoholism exist for a reason: to disengage the passionate, and to blunt the ambitions of unconventional thinkers. They provide a way for humans to self-dehumanize, and prolong our implied consent for a bullshit society.

Imagine a world in which life is fair, in which ambitions are unnecessary, in which everything is taken care of, everything just works out for the best and people get what’s coming to them, and people are content with that. That’s what the world should be. Instead, it is a drug-induced fantasy. More specifically, it is the fantasy of consumerism in general. Every company that produces anything wants you to believe that buying their product will bring your world into better alignment with this fantasy. You have to be “the best you possible,” and only buying more crap can accomplish it. Nothing is ever enough. When it comes to drug abuse, only buying more drugs will prolong the fantasy that “everything is cool.” That kind of contentment is a sad refuge of the underachiever. If it was up to me, there would be no drugs, and everything would be cool and just in real life.

I’m aware this is an extreme viewpoint. I intend it more as a line of thinking worth investigating. Maybe some drug use is not that big a deal, and I certainly don’t endorse the illegality of drugs. Drug users need prevention and treatment, not imprisonment and having their lives ruined even further. Additionally, if I was hard-line against weed—if I discriminated against it—I’d probably gravitate back towards it or other drugs just because it was forbidden. Deny yourself something because of a practical purpose—such as, “I’ve lost control and it’s ruining my life”—and you’ll be fine. But apply that practical purpose to a universal truth, and be prepared for a harder time. Just ask a Catholic priest.

Nowadays, I use humor to sublimate and express my former relationship with weed. Not all the time; just sometimes. It would get old really quick if, when my roommates and I are getting ready to go somewhere, I was *always* saying things like, “No one wants to smoke a bowl before we go?” for the easy chuckle. But it helps me to joke about it.

I can also say that, contrary to the “gateway drug” theory, my experiences with weed actually kept me from ever trying certain hard drugs. Though I had multiple opportunities to try cocaine and heroin, I never did. I knew that if I could develop a life-threatening addiction to weed—a physical addiction in nearly every sense—I could easily do the same with the harder stuff. And any level of decision-making I still possessed would be even more eroded, my identity even more detached. It just was never worth it.

My years as a druggie were not well-spent, but I don’t really regret them. They helped make me the person that I am today. Being rootless and lost is not a result of doing drugs; it’s the response of my generally easygoing temperament to losing a best friend and a father. And, to that father’s domineering personality. I felt oppressed and hurt as a young person, and weed was a relief, an escape, a validation of my own thoughts to their most extreme and maximum expression. I think it serves that purpose for a lot of people, and I wish there was a way I could say to them, as adults, “you’ve made it, you’re free,” and have it be true. But to too many of them, it isn’t. Too many of them believe they simply aren’t meant to strive, to envision great things for themselves or from themselves, to overcome adversity, to feel safe and stable. Weed continues to take away their desire for these things, and that’s what they use it for.

If only all things that have this effect—of taking away our own choice, whether to replace it with someone else’s or nothing at all—could be overcome and purged from this earth, not by authoritarians who would banish it on our behalf, but by becoming obsolete and forgotten amidst the bustling future of our own making, the promise of faith in ourselves.