By Randle White
Last Halloween, I celebrated my 29th birthday in an RV park in Denver. I took advantage of the state’s progressive cannabis laws by filling my trick-or-treat bag with a different kind of candy—edible marijuana.
At a shop in the Mile High City, I slid my ID under a pane of safety glass to a twenty-something woman in horn-rimmed glasses.
“Your birthday is Halloween? So fun!” she said. As a kid, I’d celebrated with trick-or-treat costume parties, where I bartered with friends for Reese’s peanut butter cups.
The receptionist let me into a room that was hipster-brunch-chic: white walls, bronze accent lighting, ferns, exposed wood wainscoting, and a neon cactus.
When the bud-tender asked for my order, I blinked and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Do you want to feel up and excited or down and relaxed?” he asked.
“Definitely down and relaxed,” I said.
I wasn’t a pothead, just an anxious millennial. Colorado was one stop on a four-month RV trip with my husband Ted, and I spent nights pacing the camper, agonizing over my decision to abandon my remote job and our life on wheels to accept an office job in New York City.
I’d filled my hours of insomnia watching HBO’s comedy High Maintenance, about a lovable pot dealer cycling to Brooklyn deliveries. For most of the characters, using is just a side effect of urban life, as problematic as checking your phone too often. For the cancer patient Ellen (played by Birgit Huppuch) who’s lost her appetite, it’s a mild medicinal that makes her hungry. I thought partaking could be a fix for my anxiety.
Unlike the blasé Brooklynites in High Maintenance, however, I was not a professional at the cannabis thing. I couldn’t use “blunt” or “spliff” in a sentence. I was the type who had no trouble stopping after one gin and tonic. I’d never had a blackout or even woken up and wondered where I was. Not because I had self-control, but because I was a chronically-anxious overthinker who couldn’t experience one moment without hyperanalyzing.
Like other RV renovators before me, I was a white, upper-middle-class feminist on a vegan diet. Still, I envisioned telling my story to Oprah. My stepdad (who adopted me when I was seven and I called “dad”) struggled with alcohol and drug addiction that landed me in therapy and my school’s free lunch line. When he was incarcerated, I found my birth father on the Internet and met him when I was 15. Today, I have five parents: my mom, her husband, my adoptive dad, his wife, and my birth dad (he was divorced or it would be six). It’s no surprise that a lifelong need to be in control kept me from using—but I also wasn’t “cool,” in the high school sense of the word.
I had a history of debilitating anxiety. In elementary school, I learned about the invisible bacteria populating everything from the Coke machine to the science lab doorknob—I washed my hands so often my mom covered them in ointment and cocooned them in plastic wrap at night to heal the raw scabs. Stress-induced heart palpitations plagued me since a pediatrician mistakenly diagnosed a murmur that turned out to be white coat syndrome. In my twenties, if I didn’t exercise, I’d need to do yoga breathing in the bathroom at work.
I walked out of the dispensary with $32 worth of loot: a scary-looking joint the size of a mini cigar, a tiny bottle of infused cooking oil, and a dark chocolate bar (100% vegan) in safety packaging. My new doctor’s bag.
The RV park in Denver was close quarters, no smoking allowed, so I stored the reefer under the bed for later. It stank up the camper through its shrinkwrap, and after a few days I tossed it. The (totally legal) contraband oil burst in the jar of coffee beans I’d stashed it in. The foil-wrapped chocolate slipped my mind—until my anxiety sent me searching for it.
A few weeks later, I was scheduled to sing in a bar with my birth father (who I also called “dad”) at his jazz gig, like we’d done when I was a teenager. Yet I was developing a terror of humiliating myself in front of an audience. The plan was dinner with Ted and my friend Stephanie, drinks, then swing by the club and sing through the last set without puking.
An hour before we left, I ate a square the size of a dime off of the chocolate bar and felt nothing. I didn’t think about it again until halfway through dinner. Mid-sentence, I came to a halt. I couldn’t remember what I was saying. Not the way I did at a cocktail party when I’d had social anxiety—it was like I had lost the ability to form sentences.
Dumbfounded, I gazed at Stephanie. “Wait. I’m sorry. I think I’m feeling the chocolate?”
They say you have to go through hell to get to heaven? I knew what that meant. Heaven was normal brain function, and hell was my present. I was fighting to stay conscious.
“How long has it been since I talked to you last?” I asked Stephanie.
“Uh, 15 seconds.”
“Is that a joke?” I felt like I’d been thinking quietly for hours.
At that dinner, I experienced every neurosis that had ever plagued me. I was convinced I was going to the bathroom on myself. I begged Stephanie to take me to the restroom, so I wouldn’t forget what I was doing halfway there. Next, I decided my heart would stop. In fact it was stopping right then. I was seeing black. I was going to faint! I worried there might be a vortex just behind my chair. I didn’t see it, but I could feel it. In the car on the way to the venue I was certain Stephanie was documenting my breakdown on Instagram. I turned to Ted and said, “I can’t trust anyone but you.”
He looked back at me and said, “Honey, Stephanie is right here and she can hear you.”
In a way, the ganja kept me from experiencing stage fright because I couldn’t make it onstage. In the bar, when it was my turn to sing, I still couldn’t complete sentences, or even imagine them. I was in an un-analyzable high of my own making. The next day when I explained my cagey refusal to perform, my dad (#2) laughed and inquired about the rest of the chocolate bar.
High Maintenance, MTV’s Mary + Jane, Showtime’s Weeds all make lighting up seem normal, passé even, yet it doesn’t go well for everyone. My bad trip didn’t convince me that marijuana is dangerous—just that it’s not so simple. I thought I’d find my mellow in a spiked chocolate bar, but it turns out there’s not one easy cure for my anxiety. I’ve found other ways to calm my nerves: daily yoga and green tea help, and when panic attacks hit, I can stop them by playing guitar for 10 minutes. If I’m not near a stringed instrument, there are the beta blockers my therapist gave me for emergencies. This Halloween, I’m not calling the weed guy—I’m sticking to peanut butter cups.