This is dedicated to the sturdy tree-man in my life
Thank you for being my Rhonda
I’m standing in a dark room. It reminds me of my state of mind when I was off it. The constant chase was like a cold hand made of dark matter that wrapped itself around my heart. The constant want. The perception of need.
I’m in this room which I sense contains a lot space, but I can’t see a thing. Then the door opens and a tree with glowing leaves walks in – the room is illuminated with its light. It is a big tree, the tip of its leaves just almost brush the shade of a lamp that hangs from the ceiling. I start to think I’m hallucinating and I can feel my heart beating fast. I try to walk towards the door but the tree moves a little to the right to block my path with its outstretched branches. And then, from deep within, a rumbling.
I freeze in my tracks at the sound and blink rapidly, and rather stupidly, at the tree. I can feel my eyes widen and I inevitably gulp. The tree seems to sense my fear and says, “I will not harm you.”
I hesitate – who will believe that I met a talking tree? They’ll think I’m crazy. But there is something that tells me to stay. I look at the tree again and it continues, “I just want to talk to you.”
With its magnificently leafy branches, it gestures to a beautifully carved high-backed wooden chair positioned in the middle of the room. I hesitate again, but prompted by the tree’s waving branch, I sit. I feel immensely small against the high back of the chair but the red padded seat is comfortable. The tree is patiently studying me; I sense it without knowing where its eyes are. I am humbled suddenly by the tree’s beauty. It has a grace that I failed to notice before, which I now stop to admire. It gives me something that feels like courage and I smile at the tree. I thought then that maybe I could tell the truth, if I was asked. Because no one can hide from reality.
There is a hole in the middle of the tree’s thick trunk. Against the rings of age, there is a hole that now looks like it is curving upward into a smile.
“What made you turn to weed, little one?”
I blink rapidly again, my face hot. I didn’t expect this question so soon. But I promised to tell the truth.
“It started when I was 17. I liked it – I liked exploring different things in my mind and experiencing things in a different light. I didn’t know then that it would become such a big part of my life. Not the greatest part for sure, but I’ve certainly learned a lot. That’s the understatement of the year!” I laugh nervously but the tree is unresponsive. My laughter dies in my throat and I say more soberly:
“But I still haven’t answered your question. I guess I didn’t want to think about my problems, whatever was troubling me. I chose to push everything under the rug, until it started screaming so loud I couldn’t ignore it.”
“Don’t be a drama queen, nothing bad happened to you. You just abused the food of Gods. That’s why you have to be careful what you wish for,” the tree said nonchalantly, brushing its bark with its leafy branches.
“Why have you come here?” I ask the tree, trying to steer the conversation away from me.
“I came here to bring you some light. You looked like you needed it,” the tree rumbled. It wasn’t a scary sort of rumbling. It was quite comforting, like the sound of water crashing on rocks.
“Actually, I was watching you for the longest time,” the tree rolled out reluctantly. I must have looked puzzled, because the tree quickly said, “I was wondering what a smart girl like you was doing with a habit like this. I watched you sigh in front of your little square tin, alone in your room. Watched you panic when you realised you were running out and it was close to the weekend, and then you would frantically call one of your…what do they call it…dealers, right?”
I nod weakly, my eyes downcast.
“It was a little bit funny. You reminded me of a cartoon on fast forward. Also I couldn’t get over how you carried the tin around with you, like it was your baby,” the tree said matter-of-factly, and made a noise that sounded like a laugh.
I could feel my cheeks flare again as I laugh along nervously, not knowing what else to do. If you told me yesterday that I would be sitting in front of a smirking tree and having a conversation with it, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“Do you have a name?”
“Of course. My name is Rhonda.”
“So…you’re a female tree?”
“Huh.” An androgynous talking tree. Life is weird.
“So back to you, my child. Tell me how you felt doing it,” Rhonda says not unkindly.
“I longed so much for the feeling of being high for so long, more than a year of my life.” I could feel my lips and chin tremble but I carry on, determined to get it out. “I got what I wanted I suppose…but I neglected my father, my mother, my brother and many others. I didn’t want to do anything except that for the longest time.”
God I was a selfish prick.
“What happened to me? Why did I do that? Is it important to know?” I cry out, desperate now for an answer.
“Well, yes it is my dear,” Rhonda says calmly.
“But I know why, I know why,” I say, almost to myself. “I wanted to push my problems away and I chose the easy way out. But there are no shortcuts in life.”
The leafy top of Rhonda waves up and down in agreement, the hole curving into a now-familiar smile.
“I ran around like a fool, I really did, like a chicken with its head chopped off. Oh Lord, how I ran!! How I ran around, helter skelter…seeking out this plant. I still want to build hemp houses but that’s another story,” I tell Rhonda, and let out a sigh. I can feel Rhonda’s eyes on me.
“When did you realise that you were addicted?” she asks.
I took a deep breath and begin to tell my story.
The poster taunted me from the wall of the doctor’s waiting room, spelling out symptoms that were all-too familiar. The runny nose, locking yourself up indoors, refusing to see people. Looking at that poster, I was hit by memories of my selfish self, groaning out loud whenever I would get a phone call, because it interrupted my time with the tin. The silver tin that my boyfriend hated so much because ultimately it almost destroyed me. Ironically, the poster of addiction was next to a poster of a crying baby that seemed to taunt me as I read on.
Symptom #8: Irritable/mood swings. I was like a ticking time bomb; always ready to snap, always on edge because I would be waiting for when I could next smoke. If I wasn’t smoking it, I was thinking of the next time I could. The moment I couldn’t get any was the moment the anger giant came out. I was self-centred and mean. I became the person I never wanted to be. We are our own healers but we are also our own destructors. I would tell the people I love, “Later…I’m coming later…I’m busy now…I’m doing something important.” All I was doing was feeding my own selfish desires. Oh so very selfish!
Lord how I procrastinated on every damn thing. I procrastinated on Life too. Life for me had become a series of breaks. Every time I sat down to roll a joint, I told myself I was taking a break from life, a life that had defeated me. Ironically, the more I wanted to take control of my life, the more I felt less in control of my smoking. Life, in those short months, was a smoke.
My walls had crumbled so I decided to build up an altar – the Weed Wall. I genuflected to the joint, my Holy Witness. I even had a dedicated Tin.
I have been obsessed, compelled, wondering, muttering.
I have been a bad joke, the sour taste, a living lie.
I have been addicted.
ADDICTION: Key to this concept is the Hedonic Hypothesis, which states that individuals initiate use of the substance/behaviour for their pleasurable effects, but then take it compulsively to avoid withdrawal symptoms, resulting in dependence. Based on this hypothesis it is believed that individuals engaging in risky use of substances/behaviours may be over-responsive to negative stimuli which leads to addiction.
I learned about Dad’s cancer almost as soon as I stepped off the plane from Perth, Western Australia where I had been studying for three years. I was on the cusp of adulthood, in discussions with my then-boyfriend about buying a car and renting a house in a nice Perth suburb. I was all grown-up but this piece of news made me fall back down the abyss of childhood – complete with an outgrown penchant for putting things in my mouth.
At first it was just enough that it relaxed me; made me forget about my troubles. I didn’t want to think about Dad and his ugly cancer cells multiplying in his lymph nodes. I didn’t want to think about the fact that I had to leave behind the dream of starting a life in another country. A dream now crushed by the obligations of a daughter to her sick father. I felt disgusting thinking about it as an obligation. Of course I had to be here. I couldn’t leave while Dad was here, suffering from the inevitable chemotherapy. It was all too much to take. This was December 2010. Things became much worse after the New Year.
I started hating going back home because I felt so claustrophobic having to adjust to my parents’ conservative ways, so I reasoned that I could tolerate my family better by getting high before facing them for dinner. So I would sit in my room every day after work, roll a joint (I was very slow so it always took almost 45 minutes) and smoke it with the window partially open. I would sit across my mother with slightly red eyes and she would ask me if I’m tired. I always said yes.
In February 2011, I took on a job writing for a business magazine at a small publishing company that published eight other magazines. I was also tasked with helping out here and there with their lifestyle magazine; writing snippets that spouted wonders about designer handbags and accessories. My friends laughed when they heard that bit – everyone who knew me knew that fashion was the last thing on my mind but it was a job I guess, that paid for little pleasures in life. By that time, I was spending about RM50 a month on weed. This figure would increase over the year and peak at RM50 per week. It directly correlated with my impatience to face life and the growing dissatisfaction of staying in KL. Because staying in KL meant having to give up my independence – the independence to fully decide how I wanted to live my life.
I started to think that I couldn’t handle family occasions without first being a little stoned, so every time we had dinner with the extended family, I would be smiling to myself or staring at my glass, pondering the evils of capitalism in my intoxicated state. I remember the many phone calls I didn’t answer and the many texts I didn’t reply because I thought that weed was more important than people – the same people who tried to tell me that I was off the deep end. My reaction to them was always “Pfft, here, light a joint.” The many times I said “I’ll do it later” and then never did it because whatever it was that I was supposed to do had slipped my marijuana-addled brain. I must have been a painful train wreck to watch.
In March 2011, I was sent on a company trip to the Tioman Islands where I met a persuasive white man who was the editor of an expatriate magazine back in KL. He told me I could have the freedom to write whatever I wanted at his magazine when I told him I didn’t really enjoy writing about investments and the stock market. He convinced me to at least come in for an interview so that I could decide. The office was swanky and had a gorgeous view of the city and beyond. About two weeks later I tendered my resignation at the publication house. My editor was sad to see me go and tried to get me to stay but I couldn’t be swayed. I wanted to be able to write about things that I cared about and I thought there would be a better chance of doing that at the expat magazine.
I started my new job in April 2011 and soon found out that I could write anything I wanted – provided there was space. In a magazine that consisted of advertorials and an eager pool of freelance writers, this really didn’t mean much. I was there for eight months – they published stories that I pitched a grand total of two times. I was relegated to writing about mingles and wine dinners, attended by expats and people with way more money than 40% of the Malaysian population. I felt betrayed and took to rolling joints during lunchtime. I’d come back to the office slightly happier and go on Facebook for the rest of the afternoon until I came down from the high, only to realise the missed deadlines and my unhappy boss.
My purchase of the square green blocks became more frequent and I made sure to stock up on my supply every time I was running low so that there was almost never a time when I was without it. It was part of my daily routine, like brushing my teeth and wearing socks. Essential to my stress management and well-being. I sincerely believed that I couldn’t cope without at least one joint a day. Life was planned around the time when I could be alone, roll and smoke. Traffic jams suddenly became bearable because I would simply take out my little tin, where I kept my supply along with a pair of scissors, a bunch of rolling paper and name cards to make filters, and roll my heart out. I would arrive home, ready with a nicely-done joint that would make any smoker proud.
It didn’t help that my best friends at the time were all smoking too. Soon it became all we did, although we did a lot of other fun stuff too, like find good places to eat – all that weed made us hungry. But everything had to be enhanced, made extra special with the weed. We had various names for it, and we had a secret understanding about when and where we would smoke it. On the long trips we took to the coast, we’d hit up eight joints in a row and by the time we got to the place, we would be flying. Weekends were a constant marathon of smoke after smoke after smoke, interspersed with bitching about work and politics.
As angry as I was with my dad and his seemingly provincial ways, I was angrier at the world. Why did a good man like my dad get cancer? What is cancer? Why is it that we still haven’t found a cure? I started to look for answers online and I didn’t like what I found. It made me anxious and as a result I would smoke again to relax.
In June 2011, Dad’s scan results showed that the cancer had cleared. I was ecstatic. I got the news at work and I remember jumping up and down next to my cubicle and running to share the good news with my editor. Maybe finally, we could have a normal life, I thought to myself.
But how normal was my life when I was anchored to the weed?
My family was ecstatic too but the happiest was Dad. He was so happy that within months of getting better, he was back to his usual social self, going out to meet his friends and coming back late at night, often high after too many whiskeys. The period in which he had abstained from alcohol when he was receiving chemotherapy made his tolerance for alcohol substantially lower. He was giddy from the freedom of not being sick.
The ecstasy didn’t last long. In April 2012, Dad was diagnosed with cancer, again. This time, it had spread a little further. I was still a habitual pot-smoker and this incident, for me, justified my smoking; it spurred me on a cycle of victimising myself. I sucked on a joint and turned to the Universe to ask “Why me?”
My Mom blamed Dad’s overenthusiastic drinking habits for the return of the cancer but she never liked him drinking. Some of Dad’s religious friends said it was karma. I rolled my eyes at the world and rolled joints in my room to escape the mulling over that didn’t bring answers and to escape my mother’s constant fears.
Meanwhile, my work life wasn’t in very good shape either. By January, before we got the cancer news, it had become increasingly clear to my boss that I wasn’t enjoying my job. I was never one who was good at hiding emotions, so he probably noticed my unfettered sighs and crossed arms when he would talk about advertorials – the magazine’s bread and butter. We mutually decided that it would be best for me to leave. I was relieved but disappointed at the same time – angry with myself for not being able to hold on to a job for even a year. But hey, I reasoned with myself, I could sit in my room, smoke and think of new ideas about what I wanted to do in life.
All the questioning and reasoning I did made me realise that I had within me a few principles that I couldn’t ignore – and which maybe meant that I wouldn’t ever be happy in the corporate world. So I started to look for an organisation that upheld justice, equality and compassion. I know what you’re thinking – such a typical hippie. But maybe I always was one and the weed just brought it out in me.
I found an NGO and happily settled into work – the most productive I had been since I came back to KL. The new, satisfied me made me question my weed habit and I made an attempt to cut down but the stress at home and then eventually at the new workplace (NGO’s staff are famously overworked and underpaid) made me pick up my usual pace again.
I was never a punctual person to begin with so this habit certainly didn’t help my tardiness. My friends would call and I would promise that I was on the way, when it was more likely that I was just getting comfortable at my study where I sat with my tin, one leg up on the bed, arranging the dull brown tobacco and the dried cannabis leaves. A year later, I found out just how much my current boyfriend hated that little tin and because I was too damn high, failed to see him freeze at the mere sight of it. We had numerous fights over my tin, my habits and my incessant smoking. I never failed to tell him he could leave if he wanted to. I gave him a choice and he could have left, but he chose to stay with the stoner.
My identity slowly changed too, shifting subtly from the long-held ‘daughter’, ‘sister’, ‘writer’. The soul that had once held the marks of ‘friend’, ‘lover’, and ‘working-girl’ now moved to accommodate ‘stoner’ in it as well. Many a time, this new identity would overwrite and override all other identities so that ‘stoner’ came first before a post as long-cherished as ‘cousin’.
If there was any good that came out of this experience, it might be that I became a more aware human being. Whether it was the weed or whether it was the fact that I was looking for an answer in my discontentment, I learned that things aren’t as they always seem. While flying high, I set off on a journey into the unknown to try and answer some burning questions that pestered and scorched my soul – arising from my very being. Advocates of marijuana will tell you that the drug helps to unlock your subconscious. It might not be true for everyone, but it was true for me. One of the most common side effects of marijuana is paranoia and I’ve had all my stoner friends tell me that they’ve experienced this in some form or another. It can sometimes be the most debilitating effect, depending on one’s state of mind.
In August 2012, Dad was admitted to the hospital for a month for a bone marrow treatment that was supposedly going to knock out any remaining cancer cells. I was badly affected by this, although I didn’t realise it at the time. About two weeks after Dad was back at home, I went to the park where the gang usually met – the wooden tables would be crowded with liquor, one litre bottles of Coke, and tins galore; there would be at least two people busy rolling joints and passing them around like candy. I was high when I decided to drive home around 2.30 am; I had a particularly long day and was tired. Halfway back home, I started imagining things around me, getting fearful with every passing second I spent alone in the car. I drove the rest of the way whimpering and by the time I reached home, realised that I still couldn’t shake the paranoia that seemed to have taken hold of my body. I was breathing heavily and my hands shook. I had to call my boyfriend to calm me down and did so about five times in the span of an hour. He was angry and disappointed that I let my mind get the better of me. That I had let the weed affect me this way. He told me what I was having was a panic attack and that I needed to take deep breaths and calm down. His voice soothed me and eventually, I fell into a deep slumber.
The next day, for the first time in 20 months, I left the tin in my third drawer and vowed to stop my smoking habit. It took a panic attack to shake me out of my weed stupor but I guess it could have been much worse.
Rhonda had found her own chair and now leaned back, resting her sturdy frame against a back that was possibly made out of her ancestors.
“Yes. It could have been much worse. How old is your boyfriend, what is his name?”
“Ashley. He’s 22 this year.”
“A young chap with infinite wisdom. How refreshing,” she says, her branches moving up and down as if she was nodding her head.
“Yes, he certainly is,” I say smiling.
“Whom you didn’t listen to,” Rhonda adds sternly.
I lower my head. I didn’t want to listen to anyone; I was too immersed in a world that I thought only weed would understand. I made it my part-time lover that eventually became almost full-time. Around the clock, 24/7 it was on my mind – itching at my nerves, harassing my thoughts.
Maybe because Rhonda was gentle and kind, or maybe because she looks so majestic, I feel a sudden urge to prostrate myself in front of her. I resist the urge and instead say, “Forgive me for I have sinned, Rhonda. I went to him and asked for forgiveness too – with flowers. He really is a good guy for sticking with me throughout my habit.”
“That’s nice my child,” she says approvingly.
“Oh wise Rhonda, tell me what to do now,” I say, suddenly anxious to atone myself from 20 months of mischief.
“I can’t tell you what to do. You’ll figure it out, you’re almost there. It is only when we are brave enough to admit that there is a problem, that we can begin to change,” she continues.
I blink. I think I never thought of the weed as a problem until I had the panic attack.
“But I suppose its human nature to wait until things get really bad,” I say, staring at the walls of the room. So intently had we been talking that I didn’t even see the blown-up photographs that adorned the plain white walls. I admire the many angles of rows and rows of trees, some taken panoramically, and others close-up. Still more photos portrayed the ocean as its waves broke on endless white sand. The photos fill me with a sense of peace. I know I have to share my experience with other people. I turn to tell this to Rhonda.
“Rhonda?” But she is gone and suddenly I find myself back in my room, with the comforter over me.
It had felt too real to be a dream so I don’t really know what happened. But Rhonda came to me for a reason – so that I could release my story from within and be filled with hope, peace and love.
It’s been 55 days now since I stopped the habit.
It’s so easy to blame everything and everyone for what’s not going right in our lives. It’s so easy to say, “It’s not me, it’s you.” But that never works out for the best. Taking responsibility for your problems is the most powerful way to live. It took me addiction to realise that but maybe I’m one of the kinds that need the heaviest of shoves.
It’s also too easy to allow certain words to define and demarcate you, like how I allowed weed to become a part of my identity. For the longest time, my stoner identity appealed to me and I wore it around proudly, like a badge of honour. But this same identity was also like a rock that pinned me down, forcing me to be confined in my little weed world. Now that I no longer hold this identity, I realise that I can be anything I want to be. I don’t have to allow one word to define me and hold me back.
I feel better now, and I hope you will too.
Photo by Ozyman on Flickr.
Mary Jane is a pseudonym.