Heartbreak

The Hard Lesson I Learned From Mixing Grief And Cannabis

Photo: Canna Obscura / Shutterstock
woman smoking in the woods

I tried my first edible in late 2016, around the time my daughter was dying. People had been dropping by my house with gifts of food, wine, and other comforts for a few weeks and a friend brought me a batch of weed-infused brownies.

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“We tested them first,” she’d said. “They work.” 

I didn’t touch them for a week or two, but after a particularly hard day trying to regulate my daughter’s pain while maintaining my own sanity, I ate half a brownie about an hour before bedtime.

By then, it was as hard as a hockey puck and smelled skunky, but I choked it down with a glass of milk and waited.

Ninety minutes later, I felt the hard knot of stress and anguish that I’d been living with for months begin to loosen. I was able to take a deep, calming breath for the first time in a very long time. With my husband on alert that night, I let my mind float away to the shadow place I would visit often in the coming months.

That’s how it started.

My daughter died on March 22, 2017, at the age of fifteen.

Nothing gave me comfort in those early days of grief — not the Xanax my sympathetic doctor had prescribed, the heaping glasses of wine I poured three or four nights a week, or the Benedryl I took to help me sleep.

Well, almost nothing. I still had my edibles.

After I’d finished the hockey-puck brownies, I’d planned to make a new batch myself. I purchased the raw ingredients and learned how to make cannabutter. That first olive green batch of butter never made its way into brownies.

I discovered that it was easy to consume (and dose) in butter form, so I got into the habit of smearing half a teaspoon on a slice of bread 2–3 times per week about two hours before bed.

Then, I’d wait for the grief to recede enough to allow me to fall asleep.

I used it in moderation — always right before bed (never during the day) and only a couple of times a week. After about a year, I gradually increased my usage until I was taking it three or four times a week. I marveled at how helpful it was. I was able to stop drinking wine completely. I didn’t renew my Xanax prescription. I ceased needing Benadryl for insomnia.

Weed before bed was my cure-all. I knew I was self-medicating, but I told myself I was treating the PTSD and trauma I’d experienced from losing Ana, from watching her die. I needed this. I deserved this. Plus, I wasn’t hurting anyone, right?

I don’t know when it became an every-night thing. If I had to guess, I’d say somewhere around May of 2018, just after the one-year mark of my daughter’s death.

I thought the butter was harmless. Weed was becoming more accepted among my Gen X friends and peers.

It seemed like everyone was doing it. Governor Andrew Cuomo legalized medical Marijuana in New York back in 2014 and I’d even gotten a prescription for Ana during the last few months of her life.

My 72-year-old mother had started using medical marijuana to treat her fibromyalgia and crippling migraines. Amazed, I wrote about how it transformed her life.

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I’d viewed cannabis as a miracle. It helped my mother reduce her prescription pain and sleep medications. It helped me stop drinking, sleep better, and (thus) function during the day. Many people I knew were using some form of it.

It seemed like only a matter of time before it would be legalized for recreational use in New York.

But there were things I didn’t know.

For example, the cannabis strains people use today are much stronger than the ones we used in the eighties and nineties.

I didn’t understand that, and so I kept taking my butter each and every night, thinking it was harmless — seeing it as medicine. I didn’t realize that I was building up a tolerance, that I needed more to get the same effects. I began going through the butter much more quickly.

I didn’t know how weed affects teenage brains, particularly the higher potency strains available today.

It can cause psychosis, addiction, and something called cannabis hyperemesis syndrome (loss of appetite and excessive vomiting). I didn’t recognize that my younger daughter, who was just 12 when her sister died, would eventually notice what I was doing as she got older, that she’d be curious, and that I was setting a terrible example for her about how to cope with grief, stress, and trauma.

I wasn’t getting high every single night before the pandemic hit New York in March 2020, but I was very close.

After lockdown, everyone seemed to need some help coping. I already had my answer. I had my butter and, by then, I thought nothing of using it to help me cope.

My weed usage came to a head at the end of July 2020 when I realized I needed to stop due to many reasons, but mostly because of issues with my daughter who was 16 at the time.

It became clear to me then, as I watched her struggle with her own desire to get high, that my cannabis use wasn’t helping me at all. It was an addiction that got in the way of processing grief (and just about everything else). I was horrified for letting it get that bad.

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I stopped using cannabis suddenly, removing it from my life without (much) of a backward glance. I barely slept the first week without it. My brain simply could not relax.

I also felt nauseous and had almost no appetite. I dropped 5 pounds that week. Anxiety and depression rolled in as if they had been waiting at the periphery of my consciousness the whole time I’d been stoned.

Something else happened after I stopped — my clarity began returning and with it, waves upon waves of grief.

Although I’d limited my cannabis use to the evenings and slept through most of its effects, its impact on my brain had persisted during the day. I’d been able to function — to work and write and do laundry — but I wasn’t fully present in my life. Plus, I was constantly distracted by the anticipation of getting high at the end of the day.

I’d become dependent on the feeling of medicated release that came each night, roughly 90 minutes after a dose of butter. I’d been overly enamored with that much-needed reprieve from stress and grief and pain.

I’d been numbing myself, diverting my mind from the important work of processing the trauma of losing my daughter. I’d been stuck, unable to move forward because I lacked focus and clarity. Clarity equaled pain, and I’d become exhausted with pain.

When I stopped using cannabis, I abruptly removed the buffer between myself and my sorrow. I’d had to confront what I’d been avoiding for nearly two years — a loss so big, it was consuming me.

It was a long, exhausting slog back to working on my grief with a clear mind. I’d been working on processing my grief with minimal use of cannabis before I got addicted, and that work halted when I turned from an occasional to a daily user.

I had to pick up the painful thread of grief and confront it without my crutch. I’m not going to lie. It was a huge setback. The feeling of wanting to die, of hoping for some terrible diagnosis that marked the beginning of the end of my pain, returned for a good long while.

It was something I struggled with for months after losing Ana and it rose up again, dominating my newly sober mind — the need for release from the heavy ache in my heart.

I worked through it with therapy, new rituals, lots of walks, and a determination to reclaim my ability to sleep. I took melatonin for a while and wrote in my journal before bed. And, miraculously, sleep (without weed) returned.

I still struggle with sleep and still occasionally take Benedryl on the worst nights, but the fact that I can sleep for 6, 7, or even 8 hours without cannabis is something that gives me hope. It proves that I don’t need numbness to get me through the days and nights.

I realize that this has been my experience with weed and mine alone. I made many mistakes, not the least of which was that I was self-medicating to the point of numbness. I didn’t understand the potency of today’s strains of marijuana or accept that some people can become dependent. I thought it was perfectly safe to use as much as I wanted or needed. I truly thought it was harmless.

For some people, like my mother, cannabis is a life-changing and effective treatment. She has a legal medical prescription and is under the supervision of a doctor. I wish I had gone that route before my habit got so severe.

The result was that I became dependent on cannabis to help me sleep and avoid my pain. After I quit, it took me months to relearn how to cope with my grief without the drug that was my crutch for so long.

This month, I’m two years sober from weed. I’ve also gone eight months without having a drop of alcohol. I stopped drinking wine — even a casual glass on a Friday night — this past December.

I’m proud of this.

I don’t miss being high even though it means I now sit much closer to the pain I’d been avoiding.

It just seems important to hold onto clarity even on the hard days. I welcome the opportunity to feel things fully — both pain and pleasure — because it allows me to honor Ana and my love for her in a healthy (and present) way.

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Jacqueline Dooley is an essayist, content writer, and bereaved parent. She is featured in Human Parts, GEN, Marker & OneZero.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.