“I don’t know anything about marijuana,” the young man announced to no one in particular as he approached the glass counter displaying baggies and little medicine jars of the cannabis we sold at the pot shop. The media had started referring to people with jobs like mine as “budtenders,” a title I found appropriate given the personal struggles our customers confided in us like many did with those serving alcohol.
Based on age alone, I might have pegged the man as an undergrad at one of the local universities, either upperclassman or even early graduate studies, but his face lacked the animation possessed by those hopefully investing in their futures. Plus, he was alone. College students usually arrived in clumps. In the weeks since MJ’s had opened in a small industrial pocket of a college town in eastern Washington, I’d grown adept at spotting veterans. They sported a specific brand of world weariness: one born of depth, not breadth. His were the haunted eyes of a former soldier who doesn’t sleep well, a depletion that no camouflage can hide, one that had me pondering the association between the words “fatigues” and “fatigued.”
My coworker Holly was nearest to him. She explained the differences between indicas and sativas, how one is relaxing and the other uplifting. In response, he confirmed what I suspected: tours in Afghanistan, seen and unseen wounds, a rainbow of meds that left him feeling shittier than before. He said he’d read online how pot can ease pain and elevate the mood. Those were two things his doctors were trying to accomplish with their many prescriptions, but they hadn’t succeeded.
“The happy one,” he said in the unhappiest way imaginable. His expression did not brighten once in the face of Holly’s most cheerful customer service.
We conferred and presented him with a single gram to try. The next day, he came back for more. He said he’d laughed for the first time in years. Super Lemon Haze did that for him.
So many of our customers were desperate to get off pharmaceuticals drugs.
The shop was designated recreational, but clearly a majority of shoppers wanted cannabis to self-medicate in some way. They were hoping to alleviate discomfort from a spectrum of sources that started at the unmistakably physical (missing limbs, fused vertebrae) and journeyed to the amorphous (heartbreak, bad memories).
I had sought out this job as a break from my lonely life as a writer, a way to socialize and earn some cash before my first book was released. I may have had one foot planted in middle age, but when it came to the sea change of legal marijuana, I was all youthful exuberance despite having quit my habit for good a few years earlier. What I hadn’t anticipated was the amount of other people’s suffering (strangers, though many of them familiar from around town) to which I would be exposed.
Often, it was an ailment that I was aware existed, like seizures; every once in a while, I was introduced to something entirely new. Did you know that besides the most obvious sphincter, the body has others that if missing or not functioning properly may require a person to sleep upright so that gravity helps keep food down, which can be both difficult and painful? I did not.
They came in looking to treat everything from aching knees to cancer. They wanted uninterrupted sleep. They wanted to get through the night and, then, wake up and get through the day.
I had not realized the pervasiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder, how many survivors of sexual assault and war called my ordinary community home.
Too many were miserable from daily fistfuls of oxycodone and Vicodin and Percocet. If prescription drugs had once offered relief or fun or escapism, the ever-higher dosages were taking their toll. Old sufferings were no longer alleviated, and new ones had been added. They didn’t have to tell me so. I could see it in their waxy complexions and pupils like pinpricks. They were digging their own graves.
If our customers wanted to rip off fentanyl patches like chains that kept them enslaved, we encouraged them.
“F-ck Big Pharma!” became our rallying cry, perhaps no one shouting more enthusiastically than I. It felt good to realize that this job wasn’t just about helping people get high for fun. We were on the front lines of the cultural movement to wrest control over our bodies from the billion-dollar pain-management industry.
The other budtenders and I would swap our best success stories, the customers we had guided to relief, especially the ones who had cut back on prescription drugs or stopped altogether. We’d fire each other up with smack-talk about corporate drug lords, the mind-blowing hypocrisy, the price gouging and disgusting greed.
It didn’t take long in this environment for me to re-think my own dependence on the prescription SSRIs I’d been taking for depression and anxiety since my twenties. The first week on them, I could feel the chemicals seeping into my head. It was unpleasant, like my synapses were receiving extra jolts of electricity, like their frayed endings were hooked up to tiny jumper cables. Eventually, I settled on the make and milligrams that seemed to offer the most benefit with the least amount of drawback, and in the decade that followed, I didn’t budge. In fact, those pills and my mutt, Abbey, were two constants as almost every other aspect of my life transformed: marriage, a move across the country to a small town that necessitated quitting my good city job, the awkward fumbling toward a new line of work.
By the time I was working at the pot shop, it had been so long since I had started the SSRIs that I could barely recall what had landed me on them. In my memory, how I felt back then didn’t seem atypical. Of course I had been unhappy: I was fresh out of college, struggling, and lonely in a new city. If I wept nightly as I crossed the threshold into my studio apartment, letting down the brave face I needed in place to make my way as a young woman in a competitive work world, wouldn’t that have been a sign of perfect emotional health?
I got angry thinking about it — not just about my dependence but on behalf of our customers too. Here we are, suffering the normal slings and arrows of being human, and big companies hoping to earn a buck lead us to believe they have a solution to make the experience of being alive, of having fallible bodies, less painful. They prey on the vulnerability to which none of us is immune and, more likely than not, what they offer contributes to our suffering and, at worst, ends it for good by cutting our lives short.
And we’re sick?
I was pissed at myself for having gone so long accepting this bogus arrangement. I was encouraging others to throw off the yoke of capitalism by synthetic chemical while as I spoke the means of that same oppression were dissolving in my belly and making their way through the chambers of my heart. Even if the meds I was taking would most likely not lead to my early demise, I was paying into the system; I was helping empower it. I had always hoped to get off of them someday but I had avoided trying. And for what? Habit? Fear?
I began to wean myself off the pills. Instead of two, I took only one for a few weeks. Then I broke the singles in half for a while. Just as I remember feeling zaps of voltage when I started taking them, I felt those again but this time I imagined whatever serotonin they had delivered was moving in reverse. I wasn’t sure if the melancholy I associated with it leaving rather than arriving was real or imagined. If the start had been like Michael Jackson spinning under floodlights during his Thriller days, this was him moonwalking off the stage. It was still electrifying, but the show was over.
At first I was almost happy about the sadness. I had forgotten. It felt like being reunited with a loved one whose face I couldn’t quite recall but whose presence was familiar. I wanted to crawl into her arms and have her hold me. I was older now, more stable. I had learned the value of boundaries and self-preservation. I thought we could make this relationship work.
It didn’t take long to understand the reason this bitch had been locked up.
On the pills, I had experienced frequent dips but I had always been able to imagine a future where I might reside more contently, where the track might even out and even go up. Now I wasn’t so sure — which made no sense. I had never in my life had more to look forward to. My first book was set to be released. My stomach once did flip flops of anticipation when I thought of it. Now I could hardly muster a shrug.
“I’m worried,” my husband Phil said one night sitting on the edge of the bed next to me. I had crawled beneath the comforter hours earlier because I could think of nothing better to do. He held my hand and looked at me with a startling level of compassion. “I feel like I’m losing you.” It was so cheesy. I tried to smile to show I was fine but even that felt like too much effort.
I made an appointment the next day. Since my last visit, my old primary-care physician had retired. I met with a new doctor. I told him everything: how I had tried to stick it to Big Pharma and, instead, ended up impaled. I admitted that I was terrified to go back on my meds since now I would have to accept that it would likely be for the rest of my life. But I admitted that I was even more frightened of what might happen if I didn’t start taking them again. He wrote out my old prescription and faxed it immediately to the pharmacy. He said I should start right away.
Within a few days, my outlook was rosier but weeks passed before I felt normal again. Every afternoon when I got home, I would go straight to my bedroom and lay down for several hours. My synapses were learning to absorb serotonin again.
One afternoon when I was still crawling my way back to health, an older gentleman entered the shop. He appeared to be in the midst of some sort of psychotic break. We’d seen him wandering the train tracks near our building, talking animatedly to himself. But he wasn’t all that disheveled. His haircut was fresh, his clothes were nice. If I had to guess, I’d say he’d recently gone off whatever meds kept him stable.
Other people were available to wait on him, but he came directly to me. He didn’t glance at the products in our cases. It was as if he had entered the shop for the sole purpose of finding me.
Could he sense that we had something in common?
I had ditched my pharmaceuticals to prove a point. Instead, one had been proven to me: when it comes to easing the suffering each of us will endure, no black and white solutions exist. If we are lucky, we find something that helps without harming us too much. Does anything else matter?
“May I give you a message?” he asked. I nodded, though I was apprehensive of what he might say. I was still raw from my experiment.
His eyes were intense, but not scarily so. “Don’t be afraid,” he insisted.
I wanted to weep at the simplicity of his words, for the wisdom that comes to all who visit the other side. “Thank you,” I told him for it seemed like the soundest advice.