It is 3 AM and I am wide awake again. My brain feels scattered as I consider my activities of the past day, my intended activities for the next, and everything else in between.
Did I perform the proper quality assurance checks on my financial models? Will the Eagles win the Super Bowl again? Am I reporting accurate figures or did I make a mistake in one of my formulas or assumptions? When am I going to get see my niece and nephew? When is this zit going away? How will I present my findings tomorrow? How are my mother and father? Who will be in the meeting? Will Trump ruin this country? Did my date go well last night? What can I do to deliver results at a level above and beyond the set expectations? Did I remember to make my car payment? What else can I be doing?
Now it is 5 AM and I am no closer to falling asleep, but that much closer to the setting on my alarm clock. Eventually, I get up and out of bed to start the new day.
For years, this was my life. Either I was passing out from exhaustion and waking up in a panic in the middle of the night, or I simply was not sleeping at all. In 2012, after an ever-increasing number of sleepless nights, I finally went to my doctor for a solution. I had a consultation with my clinical psychologist and explained that I had issues not only with falling asleep, but also with staying asleep. As a result, my doctor prescribed me Klonopin. Considering my body weight and symptoms, he decided to put me on 2mg daily, and an option for a third milligram if I was suffering from extreme symptoms.
Klonopin (Clonazepam) is a benzodiazepine and anxiolytic (in the same family as Xanax) and is meant to be used as a tranquilizing agent to treat anxiety. From 2012 to 2016, I became dependent on this drug to calm my frantic brain and get a healthy amount of sleep. Other than the positive, anti-anxiety effects, the drug did not seem to have much negative effect on me. I never woke up groggy or “hungover.” I never experienced any side effects at all really, until I decided to stop.
In 2016, I lost one of my best friends to a heroin overdose after years of battling opioid addiction. We had played lacrosse together in high school and remained close friends through college and beyond. While we were both recruited to play D1 lacrosse, his career was plagued with bad knee injuries, including four ACL tears. The first time he got hurt, we were in high school and I was devastated to hear that our star longstick defenseman and my best friend suffered an ACL tear playing basketball. I was scared for my friend. He would not be able to compete during his last year of high school lacrosse. His acceptance to a prestigious university, along with his intention to play for their lacrosse team, was in jeopardy. Was this one horrendous injury going to wipe out all of the years of hard work he put into his athletic craft? Would this decline in his athletic ability preclude his chances of attending this prestigious university?
I watched as my friend worked himself to the bone to recover and return to his elite status of athleticism. Just when he had appeared to turn the corner from his injury and move forward with his career, tragedy struck once again in the form of another catastrophic knee injury. But when I spoke to my friend, he was far more optimistic than I had expected. Here he was, after over a year of intensive rehab and like Sisyphus, the giant boulder of his recovery had rolled right over him and back down the hill, waiting for him to restart his ascent. I wasn’t sure he was strong enough to make that climb all over again. I was having doubts regarding my own likely reaction to such a devastating blow. Yet to my surprise, he was full of hope and ready to push that boulder back up the torturous incline. In turn, he pushed me to work harder in my own training as I watched him once again able to make a full and healthy recovery. I told myself that if he can push through both these injuries, I can run another mile, take 100 more shots on the practice net, or do one more rep of bench presses. He was a hero who showed me the indomitable strength of the human mind, body, and spirit. But alas, the structural integrity of his knee was short-lived, and my Sisyphus was cast down with his boulder a second and third time.
Now, my friend and I had engaged in some recreational opioid drug use in the past—ercocet, to be specific. But after his third surgery, there was a noticeable downtick in his optimism, accompanied by an uptick in the recreational use of his prescribed painkillers,mainly Oxycontin. While I noticed he was slightly abusing his medicine, I also saw that he was once again attempting a recovery and told myself that as long as he was working to get healthy again, the opioid use was just a way to make it through the process. The drug was foreign and scary to me, with the moniker of “synthetic heroin,” and I was never comfortable with using it recreationally. As a substitute for the harder drug, my friend offered me some Suboxone, a methadone product used to help addicts kick their Oxy habit. Using this drug constituted an absolute low point in my life. I found myself using, going out drinking, blacking out, and waking up to the sometimes strange, but always negative, consequences of my highly inappropriate behavior the night before.
In one particularly horrible example after graduation, I was in New York City for one of my classmates’ birthday party, and I decided to eat just a small piece of Suboxone. Combined with alcohol, I sent myself into a spiral of bad decisions and lost consciousness. I recall being at the party but in very little detail. I recall being back at my friend’s apartment and getting into some kind of altercation, resulting in my expulsion from the premises. The next thing I remember is waking up with a bruised face and pounding headache at Penn Station, waiting for my train back to Philadelphia. After speaking with other friends at the party, whom I apparently had not completely pushed away with my behavior, I came to learn of my actions. According to various consistent accounts, my poor behavior gradually intensified as the Suboxone and alcohol hijacked my mind and body.
Allegedly, I entered the party loud, fun, and very engaging. I am naturally an exuberant person, so my friends were not initially surprised or upset. Soon after, they claim to have seen a look in my eye which indicated I wasn’t “all there.” My demeanor turned colder,more biting,and female friends, especially, were disgusted to see that I was walking around the party sporting a full erection and paying it no mind. My final treacherous act was truly the icing on the birthday cake I had spit upon. I was seen by nearly everyone at the party on a highly visible couch aggressively making out with the mother of the birthday girl. To make matters worse, a photo of her mother and myself was posted on social media a few days after the party (while we weren’t making out in the photo, we are getting very cozy on the couch in question). Finally, in getting back to my friends apartment, I was presumably highly offensive in both manner and conversation. I was told later of the cruel, hurtful, and truly unnecessary rant I went on and could not believe the words that had left my mouth, which resulted in a punch to the mouth (that I deserved in full measure) accompanied by a request to leave the premises. In all honesty, I do not believe I ever fully recovered from this event. Mentally, I knew that I had gone too far and that I would never use Suboxone recreationally again. Socially, I had lit fires to bridges with some of my closest friends. To this day, I am not privy to all of the ugly things I did and said that night. I lost many friends and the respect of many more, but I may never know completely why.
For my friend, on the other hand, tearing his ACL a fourth time proved to be his death blow– a wound from which he would never recover. It was utterly unimaginable. This was one of the best athletes I ever had the privilege of competing with, both on the lacrosse field and the basketball court. 6’ 2” and 190 lbs, he was also an exceptional football player. One game, before any of his injuries, I watched him catch five contested balls for touchdowns, including the winning touchdown. I mean, can you imagine being a star athlete and feeling the rush of outperforming your competition at every level in every sport, only to have it repeatedly stripped away from you as a result of human mechanical failure? He was going through tremendous physical and mental stress, and he just wanted to escape. I could see now that he was using Oxycontin in an abusive way, and I was tip-toeing the line of understanding and intervention. But I found myself watching my friend use a lemon zester to grind down the pills to snort. Since the pills would make him tired, he would accompany each line with an additional line of cocaine. I was uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as I would be when I confronted him. He did not want to hear what I had to say and he instead began to push me away so that he could continue using without my knowledge or judgment.
I thought what I had witnessed was the worst of his habits, but I was wrong. His closest childhood friend, who also happened to be a very close friend of mine, informed me that our mutual friend had been going to North Philly and purchasing “Blue Magic,” or street heroin. Our mutual friend gave my Sisyphus an ultimatum: Kick the drugs or get out of his life. Needless to say, he chose the drugs. I was scared and confused. These friends were older than me, and I looked up to them. I looked to them for guidance and direction. I felt like my world was crumbling as I watched my friend tumble into fatal addiction. I felt utterly powerless as I saw him throw away his future in a futile attempt to escape the broken shell of a talented athlete who couldn’t reach his full potential. In the end, his parents found him unresponsive on the couch from a heroin overdose, and I was left with grief and regret.
It was at this time that my anxiety and subsequent insomnia reached an all-time high. My nightly routine of daily doubts was overwhelmed by the shadow of my lost friend.
Is he really gone? What was the last thing we spoke about? Why couldn’t I help him? What was the last thing I said to him? Was it painful? Was there something I could have said or done? Was he happier now? Why didn’t I try harder to intervene? Was it so fucking inconvenient? Did my actions contribute to his behavior? Why am I still taking this poison? Why didn’t I drop everything and show some God-damned conviction? How long did his corpse wait alone on that couch? Am I headed down the same road? Is he really fucking gone and never coming back?
I was at a crossroads. I hated the Klonopin and the pharma system which had sowed the seeds of my friend’s death. At the same time, with my heightened anxiety and grief, I was more dependent on the drug than ever. I decided to kick pharmaceuticals out of my life and to find a better solution for my anxiety and insomnia. I tried to stop the Klonopin “cold turkey,” without consulting my doctor, which proved to be a big mistake. I found myself getting extremely irritable and prone to outbursts of anger. I could feel my skin constricting to sweat but being unable to provide perspiration. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and writhed in my bed for hours on end. I was lucky to get three or four hours of consistent sleep. It even started to affect my work. My colleagues were convinced I had suffered some sort of assault because my eyes were so black and blue. My productivity dropped drastically, and I couldn’t perform my daily tasks. I consulted with a new doctor, and they put me on a program to slowly wean myself off the drug. They explained that Klonopin has a long half-life, and since I had been taking it for so long, I had developed a chemical dependency. They also explained that I had been taking the equivalent of roughly 80 mg of Valium every day for roughly four years. I needed to recalibrate my system and remove this poison.
My new doctor ran some tests and found that I have an extremely overactive brain. In fact, they found that my brain had far more activity in a “resting state” than when I was concentrating on completing a given task. What could help me calm my racing brain and allow me to get some sleep? After moving to California for a new job, medical marijuana became an option. I needed a product that would first help with the withdrawal symptoms from weaning off the Klonopin and ultimately help relax my acrobatic brain.
In the past, I smoked marijuana regularly and recreationally. Beginning in high school, I would even occasionally smoke for the sole purpose of shutting down my brain and going to sleep. At the time though, I was living in Philadelphia where even medical marijuana was illegal. I would drive to a friend’s house and wait for him to get a delivery of 1 lb of marijuana in a vacuum seal. This source was relatively reliable, and I could usually stock up in a matter of hours, if not a day or two. On some unfortunate occasions, my connect would go on vacation or have a hard week at work and wouldn’t be able to help me out for at least another week. Then came the anxiety-ridden loop-jumping exercise of texting or calling every person I’ve ever associated with marijuana. Most would not respond, some would say they could not help and ask me never to ask again, some would see what they could do. Eventually, I’d connect with a friend of a friend with a supply. Of course, by then, I would be at the mercy of the new supplier and risked getting mids or beasters. But I did what I had to do even when I was often met with scorn from the majority of my community (especially in business).
My own family passed some severe judgment when my mother found me smoking out of my bathroom window and shamed me for needing to use what in her mind was an illicit substance, but in mine, a medicine. I took extreme precautions to hide the fact that I was high. I brought mints, Rhoto eye drops, and CVS hand sanitizer everywhere I went. I stashed Febreeze in key locations. When I smoked, I would blow through a homemade “spoof,” a toilet paper roll stuffed with a dryer sheet and another dryer sheet attached to one end by a rubber band, to disguise the smell. I have never been ashamed or embarrassed of using marijuana, but rather than having to explain myself, I hid it.
By the time I moved to California, medical marijuana was legal and carefully regulated. I went online to find a doctor, created a profile, explained my symptoms, and paid $35. Within 20 minutes, I received an e-mail from the doctor with recommendations. The next day, I registered at my local dispensary and consulted the staff on what strain of marijuana flower would be most effective. I tried multiple recommendations but found that smoking flower caused my brain to race even faster. Next, I moved on to edibles, which were very effective in treating my symptoms, but left me feeling groggy the next day. I could tell I was getting close, but I needed a solution that would be effective without any undesired side effects. Finally, I moved on to a vaporizer pen with live resin THC. A few puffs in and I was fast asleep.
It took nearly a year of trial and error, but today I am glad to say that I am no longer dependent on Klonopin in any way. I have a very specific regimen of medical marijuana that I use to treat my anxiety and insomnia and have been sleeping like a baby ever since. Only on certain occasions, such as before a big presentation or decision, when my anxiety levels are especially high, I find it necessary to take 15 to 30 mg THC of edibles in order to get to bed.
I am eternally grateful for medical marijuana and the positive effects it has on my life. I tell my story in the hopes that more people cut their ties from harmful pharmaceuticals and give medical marijuana a chance. Always consult your doctor before discontinuing any of your current medication or you may find yourself suffering from similar, or worse, withdrawal symptoms than what I experienced. As in my case, it may take weeks or months to find the correct dosage and method for your specific symptoms, but in the end, you will have found an escape from your pharmaceutical prison in the form of the all-natural relief of medical marijuana.
Originally submitted for Issue 8 of Undo Magazine.
Writer: Harrison Avart