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We are often unaware of our habits. Getting up three minutes before the alarm goes off, leaving tiny bits of food on our plate at every meal, saying "this is based off of that" instead of "this is based on that," taking in a heady eyeful when someone of the attracted sex walks past...these are habits. We would probably never say they are addictions.
We would only start to think that when they begin to negatively affect our lives. A friend of mine recently voiced concern about his marijuana intake. He has put together a "kit" of paraphernalia that he carries with him always, containing an herb vaporizer, grinder, cleaning tools, and other ephemera. As he got ready to imbibe his morning libation, he said to me, "You know, I really like having this little kit, but sometimes it makes me think I might be addicted."
He was worried that his habit had become an addiction. As someone who has suffered from addiction in the past, I almost felt privileged to be able to offer my thoughts on the matter. This is a friend of mine who is in a signed rock band, who works a job as a waiter at an upscale restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey, which is practically the restaurant capital of the east coast. He does his work and he does it well, and he never gets high on workdays.
Rather than soft-pedal him and his concerns, I broke it down the way I see it. If you haven't lost your dreams and aspirations to drugs, if you haven't let the most precious things in your life fall by the wayside, if you haven't become a disappointment to yourself but have instead continued to develop and move forward, then you're probably not addicted.
He replied, saying that yes, he does pursue his dreams and aspirations, hobbies and interests, social and professional relationships, et cetera, but he still wasn't sure. I couldn't help but clarify even further my original premise.
Every day of an addict's life consists of choosing between drugs and what's truly important to him or her. Drugs or family? Drugs or school? Drugs or a career? Drugs or a hobby? Drugs or exercise? Drugs or friendships? It starts with just a few instances in which drugs are chosen over the more important thing. It usually doesn't take too long in the grand scheme of things; eventually, drugs are always the chosen one.
Each day of the addict's life becomes an almost out-of-body experience, watching themselves choose drugs over what they really care about in life. Their moral awareness has not simply gone away; they know they are making the wrong choice. They are choosing something that is hurting them and possibly those around them.
But their habit, which has become an addiction, has, to a large extent, taken away their freedom of choice. What gives them any sense of pleasure in life is no longer the pursuit and fulfillment of what matters to them, but the pursuit and fulfillment of a drug.
So, day by day, they watch everything that matters to them slowly self-destruct; their goals, aspirations, dreams, desires, and relationships slide into the past, all replaced by the drug, the pursuit of which is so simple, easy, and replicable, while each one of those dreams might have required a lifetime to fulfill, and perhaps even failure. Each meaningful relationship might have been trying, or, heaven forbid, might have ended. So why not embrace failure? Why not embrace self-absorbed solitude, and forego any and all complications, uncertainties, or loss?
That is part of the insidious nature of drug use; it is easy to get high. It is hard to do what matters to you most in life. So the one replaces the other, and the other slides further and further into a state of obsolescence. And seeing all of the things that once were valuable to you in this state of disuse becomes yet another feeling of failure, a crushing blow to an almost nonexistent ego, and the drugs become yet another answer to that too.
My friend listened as I relayed these insights to him, stone-faced and stolid. "So," I concluded, "if you don't feel you're leaving your dreams behind, or missing deadlines, or hurting friends and colleagues, then you're probably fine."
Taking a long pull from the vaporizer, he leaned his head back to think for a moment before replying. "I think I'm probably fine," he said.
"I think so, too," I replied.
"But I wonder," he continued, "whether I would be pursuing them more without it."
"The question is, if you weren't getting high, do you think you would spend that time pursuing your goals even more?"
"I feel like it actually helps me pursue them."
"Well, then there you go," I concluded. "If that ever changes, you'll know there might be a problem."
Nicely buzzed and with a clean conscience, he nodded and left to visit the thrift store. I hope I helped him clarify his relationship to marijuana in that moment. Perhaps he knows he might be better off without it but would rather not be at this point in his life. But for now, it is just one part of his life; it is not his entire life.
But if the moment ever comes when the things he is working toward in his life suddenly seem to erode in importance, half-finished and all but forgotten, and this or that relationship suddenly becomes too much to handle, and the fear of failure looms so large over every endeavor—whether it's changing the world or changing the sheets on his bed—that it sends him reaching for that sweet smoky relief, maybe he will be in a better position to realize it and change course before the habits take hold.