On Cannabis and Anxiety and Hiking

When I first began smoking cannabis, I was looking only for an escape from the pressing anxiety and dissatisfaction I felt. I assumed this feeling was my responsibility, my fault, and if I only tried a little harder, worked a little more, coped a little better, it would go away.

Spoiler alert: it did not.

It took me a long time to come to terms with my clinical anxiety.

Now let me caveat by saying, I have not been diagnosed by a physician or psychologist. I do not have a slip of paper verifying that I do in fact have AnxietyTM.

But what I do have is a family history of anxiety; including a mother with anxiety and two sisters with anxiety. I was the lone wolf, the one woman who escaped unscathed.

I did not have panic attacks (minus those two times I did), I did not break down in the overwhelm of school and responsibilities (except for math), and I did not display outward signs of anxiety (except for ragged finger nails and compulsively torn cuticles).

What I did have was depression, and for that I saw a therapist. I cannot remember how helpful she was; much of that time in my life is gone to my subconscious to be dredged up in some future therapy sessions.

Still, I persisted in the thought that my depression was the sole provider of the problems in my life, but even that could be mastered with regular physical activity. Anxiety was not the cause; I didn’t have the symptoms.

What I did have was a loud mind. I’ve always had a loud mind, and it has shown itself in a loud mouth.

I was the kid who always had something to say. How could I not; my head was so filled with words and thoughts and stories and ideas that if I didn’t let the steam off I was sure to burst.

My family would describe me as a loud and talkative child; bossy if they’re feeling unkind and I’m out of earshot.

For many years in my life, this just seemed to be the way it was. My brain was loud and messy and crowded. I had too many thoughts, too many ideas, too much random and useless knowledge crammed in there and as a result I felt claustrophobic in my own head.

In retrospect, I spent too much time locked in my head. But it was all I knew, and it was the loudest and most constant thing around me. But it did not make me happy. In fact, it made me decidedly unhappy.

My thoughts were a five-car highway at rush hour, but without the traffic jam. Hundreds of cars whizzing and zooming past, and me standing in the middle trying not to get run over. Any sight or noise could send me on a thought tangent, any distraction liable to lure me into daydream mode and shut down my other senses. I would often return to reality with a jolt, only to find a college professor or boss had been speaking for several minutes while I took none of it in, so completely lost in my own thoughts.

I was a poor sleeper, laying in bed for hours on end, one thought leading to the next and leading to the next. Often I would try to exhaust my brain into sleep by telling myself a story, but more often than not this just led to thought tangents.

Cannabis was a way to quiet my loud mind. When I was high, I could sit in blissful peace, sometimes going a full 5 minutes without a cohesive thought in my head. From driving at rush hour to midnight.

I realized too, I could breathe a little easier when I was high. Some knot in my chest I spent most of my life unaware of had loosened. My shoulders and jaw stayed relaxed. I didn’t torture myself with endless lists of things I hadn’t done, things I needed to do, and things that were coming up. I didn’t sit in downward spirals, letting my self-loathing creep further and further into the forefront of my mind.

Being high gave me release from a weight I was so accustomed to; I didn’t even recognize I was carrying it. Cannabis unlocked the back door in my head and let my thoughts go. I could rest in the present moment, breathing and relishing in this peace.

My fiancé loves to hike and smoke, and it was with the promise of the latter that I went with him for the first time.

Prior to this, I had done some “hikes” on my own, but never long or hard ones. I was not one to push myself hard physically, disinclined to pain and breathlessness. My first successful foray into exercise had been at 17, in the walls of a circus studio where I found something hard that was worth failing at.

But high, I found I enjoyed hiking. I did not focus on the ache in my back, the heaviness in my legs or the breathlessness in my chest. I saw the blue sky and green leaves and felt something different unlock in my chest. I could breathe good, fresh air here, and it lifted something in me that I came to call a soul feeling.

It’s a feeling that first started for me hiking high, a sense of relief so strong that the base of my throat relaxes more than I thought possible. I saw this feeling again when I started doing yoga high, a combination of relaxation, movement, and breath that tie together something beautiful and strong within me.

It was only once I felt this feeling I started to accept the gravity of mental burden I shouldered on a daily basis. If this was how good I could feel, the stark drop in my daily mental state was becoming too obvious to ignore.

And yet I persisted in thinking I did not have anxiety, still comparing myself to the struggles I saw in the other women in my life who had it. It took months and months to realize that my anxiety manifested itself in the form of negative thought spirals, self-doubt and loathing and an utter inability to find a semblance of self-confidence.  I did not like myself because I did not believe in myself. I did not believe in myself because I did not see I had done anything worth celebrating or believing in.

This was what anxiety looked like for me. It was something I could carry and yet weighed me down more than I ever knew.

It wasn’t until early 2020 I began to admit to myself and out loud to my partner that I believed I was living with this.

It changed little in my life except for the way I thought about it. I continued to get high and hike and do yoga and even the occasional meditation. Again and again, the triple focus on movement, breath, and peace allowed me to access parts of my mind that were quieter, that had been buried beneath my anxiety and doubt.

It was the emphasis on mediation and yoga that seemed to change the foundation of my mind. I was introduced to concepts I had heard before, but now that I had unlocked my breath, I was able to hear them.

At some point in the Spring of 2020 that I was struck with a simple concept that resonated differently; I was not my thoughts.

I had many thoughts. They lived within me and came from my brain. But I was learning that I was not my brain and I was not my thoughts. These things lived within me as my emotions did. I owned them and yet they tried to control me, wresting energy and time away from all other aspects of my life in their quest to be front and center.

But what if I, personally, as a person and a conscious being, was not made of my thoughts? What if my thoughts simply came and went of their own accord, and it was merely my job to validate their existence?

Now as a writer I struggled with this; my ideas are the foundations of my work. My thoughts spur into life other people’s businesses, stories, lives. And these thoughts are good and necessary.

But they are not, I was accepting, inherently special. I had many thoughts. And some of them merely existed because they could, not because they were any proof of fact or validation. My brain is me and I am it, but it is also a tricky little bastard who works equally hard to keep me alive and keep me down. Why I cannot say. Genetic, ancestral trauma, the burden of being a woman- I do not know. But it is.

Acceptance of what is, I was learning, is key to releasing the burden of anxiety. But that’s another thought for another day.

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