How do I forgive myself for being a pothead?
February 8, 2013 7:21 AM   Subscribe

I started smoking weed in my early twenties, when I moved away from my hometown to a larger city in a different country. It's enough to say that I wasn't adapted well to being on my own; that, combined with the stress of a new job, a language barrier, and a few health problems that chipped away at my self-esteem, led me to take comfort in marijuana, on and off, for ten years. How do I forgive myself for the feelings of shame I have?

I've always found myself attracted to abusive partners, and I have been prone to low-mood/depression since my mid-teens. Pot gave me the escape I needed from the dead-end relationships I've been in, but unfortunately I feel like I didn't fully engage in life. When I look back, I can see that I did many things in the last decade, such as learn two new instruments, tour a few countries in bands, learn to cook, build a freelance career, and build a huge circle of loving friends who I enjoy spending time with very much. I've been "clean" for three months now (had enough one day and stopped) but I can't stop feeling like I pissed away my twenties on something I didn't enjoy. There is a string of disappointed friends mixed in there as well, and I often hear about how much more alive I seem now that I'm not smoking pot. For some reason, that stabs at me.

When I look at my bank account I think about how much more I'd have saved if I hadn't been chronic. When I hear of friends accomplishments, or their disdain for pot, I feel like I wasted so many years. When I think of the goals I sacrificed for.... what? I feel a little bereft. Has anyone grappled such feelings and moved on?

I've been seeing a therapist for a year and we touch on this from time to time. My work with her has focused more on early abuse issues from my childhood; treat the disease, not the symptoms: that's the motto we've adopted. At some point though, my dependence on that drug became part of the larger problem, not just a symptom of it.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
When I look back, I can see that I did many things in the last decade, such as learn two new instruments, tour a few countries in bands, learn to cook, build a freelance career, and build a huge circle of loving friends who I enjoy spending time with very much.

I don't mean to discount the feelings you're feeling, but this seems like a great way to spend one's 20's.
posted by downing street memo at 7:24 AM on February 8, 2013 [57 favorites]

A lot of people in 12-step groups talk about getting rid of the shame and secrecy involved with addiction. Some also focus on service, which involves helping other people get out. That kind of thing helps you move on.

If groups are not your thing, I think it is really common to dwell at first on the consequences from what you've been doing, including the waste of time. After a while you'll shift to feeling grateful that you stopped as soon as you did and you'll think how great it is that you don't have to do that any more. But it's not bad to keep the negatives in mind even as you move forward. Keep this post written down somewhere for the times when you start thinking, "It wasn't really so bad; maybe i can do it moderately again."
posted by BibiRose at 7:29 AM on February 8, 2013

When I hear of friends accomplishments, or their disdain for pot, I feel like I wasted so many years.

Wasted them learning instruments, touring the country, and building a circle of friends? Dude, you weren't sitting on a couch in the basement hitting the bong and watching cartoons (I mean, at least not the whole while.) You were smoking weed and getting shit done. Could you have saved more money? Sure, why not. But then again we could've all saved some money in our twenties if we went out less, bought less useless crap, invested wisely. But most of us didn't, whether or not we were doing drugs. It's really easy to say "well if it wasn't for THIS ONE THING, I could've been a champion." But it's never that one thing. You smoked a bunch of weed, clearly had fun, and now you're clean and doing whatever it is you need to do and you feel better than you did when you were smoking. You really haven't named anything you should be feeling guilty about. Cut yourself a break, reflect on the pretty rad life you've been leading, and just keep going.

Also, don't hang out with people who have vocal "disdain for pot." Some people smoke, some people don't, some people did and don't anymore. Judging people for their habits (current or past) isn't something friends do.
posted by A god with hooves, a god with horns at 7:30 AM on February 8, 2013 [46 favorites]

Just came in here and agree with downing street memo's comment. You could have done a lot worse. Not to discredit your feelings of course but I did nothing close to that in my twenties and wish I did.
posted by WickedPissah at 7:32 AM on February 8, 2013

You're fine.
Really. Smoking too much dope can waste time, but I don't think you should view those as "lost" or "wasted" years, and chalk them up to "formative." I know a lot of very successful happy people who smoked a little too much dope in their youth, quit or cut back substantially, and still are living great and awesome lives (and I also know a few people who are irritating middle aged and older people who abstained and probably would be happier people if they occasionally took the edge off).

"I can't stop feeling like I pissed away my twenties on something I didn't enjoy" doesn't jive with " a huge circle of loving friends who I enjoy spending time with very much." People make mistakes and do the wrong thing, but maybe you're being a little hard on yourself because you want to have done more or you feel like you enjoyed some abandon, but I think it's healthier to appreciate the memories and lessons learned, focus on building a fantastic present, and, if it continues to trouble you in the future, know that historyisaweapon, for one, totally forgives you.
posted by history is a weapon at 7:32 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've not dealt with this myself, not in the same way, but can relate to feeling like you pissed away your 20s. I also spent too much time in relationships with troubled people (i.e. nearly 6 years with a drug addict). My take on things is - you can't change the past. You have only the present. It sounds like you have a great present and, I gotta agree with downing street - sounds like you had an awesome 20s rockin' out and being young. Don't beat yourself up. I know it's easier said than done, but try. What and who you are now is what counts. There's no point in worrying about things you can't change.

Be well.
posted by faraasha at 7:34 AM on February 8, 2013

The pot wasn't the problem. It might have been a symptom. It might have let you mask some symptoms of the real problem. In the statistical model that explains success and failure, marijuana is a confounding variable because a lot of sad people are drawn to it.

Imagine a four element matrix:
Pothead vs Not-Pothead on one axis.
Accomplished vs Unaccomplished on the other axis.

Lots and lots of people fall into that "accomplished pothead" box. Lots and lots of people fall into the "unaccomplished non-pothead box". There are probably more potheads in the unacomplished box because it's a nice way to feel better when things suck, but it's not a strong relationship.

There IS a strong relationship if you do a matrix that looks like:
Depressive vs. Non-Depressive on one axis.
Accomplished vs Unaccomplished on the other axis.

There are VERY few really depressed people who wind up super accomplished, because the one of the big symptoms of depression is feeling like a failure and sitting on your butt all day. Problem is you're depressed and that's not your fault. Fix the depression, you fix the problem. Leave that alone, no drug free lifestyle is going to make a lick of difference in your happiness.

You want to kick yourself, kick yourself for not getting treatment for depression sooner. But really, it's better not to kick yourself at all.
posted by pjaust at 7:34 AM on February 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

For some reason, that stabs at me.

You're used to feeling stabbed at, that's the shame-monster doing his thing. Feeling stabbed at is your normal. If nothing (nobody) else is stabbing at you, making you feel awful about yourself, you'll find a way to self-stab. Right now you're healthy and doing great and don't have anything going on that's stabbing at you, so you're cultivating that stabbed-at feeling by looking back regretfully. As soon as you get a handle on regret and stop looking backward, you might look anxiously forward at new jobs or relationships or whatever with trepidation because you'll still need a way to feed the shame-monster.

It might be time to adjust the motto from "treat the disease, not the symptoms" to "this disease is a stubborn chronic one, let's find new ways of coping with its symptoms."
posted by headnsouth at 7:37 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I feel the same way about the years I spent in graduate school. We all have time we wish we had spent differently.
posted by walla at 7:44 AM on February 8, 2013 [19 favorites]

You're conflating your marijuana use with your inactivity, which is very wrong.

but I can't stop feeling like I pissed away my twenties on something I didn't enjoy.

See, you even admit this here: you don't really have any guilt over the weed, itself; you feel guilty because smoking weed is an activity which you did not, and do not, enjoy.

You could have spent your twenties smoking weed everyday, while accomplishing a shit-load. In fact, you could have done this with no detriment to your mental health; you could have been completely happy and content.

You're blaming the drug when you should be blaming yourself for not treating your depression sooner.
posted by lobbyist at 7:46 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hate to tell you but you do a lot of wasteful stuff in your twenties. I wish I had all the money I spent on cocktails and sushi in the years 1983 to 1993. Seriously, I could have bought a house outright. If I could have the money back that I wasted on clothing that wasn't right for me, I could have a summer house too.

I think you're sort of mourning for what could have been if only. So many of us regret the decisions we made in our immaturity, and yet, we look back on those times with fondness and nostalgia as well.

I've always been of the opinion that no matter what goofy shit I did in the past, here I am right now and my life is AWESOME. So for whatever reason, the universe decided that I needed to have those experiences in order to be where I am today.

Cherish your friends, admire your acomplishments, and look towards the future, while enjoying today.

A friend of mine who was seriously into pot, enjoys going to AA meetings and gets a ton out of it. You can always stop by and check one out to see if it might help you.

Don't beat yourself up. We're all idiots when we're young, it's the natural way of things. Now you're maturing and growing. Revel in that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:53 AM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Headnsouth has it. Try to break the pattern of self-blame and guilt. You cannot change the past, you can only influence the present. You can try to stop feeling guilty and shameful in this moment, and try to feel good and do good things right now.

Do not blame yourself for smoking weed in the past.
Do not blame yourself for being depressed in the past.

These are not things you can change. The only thing you can influence is how you feel and what you do in this moment.

Please focus on that.
posted by sid at 7:54 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

How do I forgive myself for the feelings of shame I have?

I call my method the Time Machine. It usually comes up in the context of some idiot at work telling me what should have been done to avoid the problem, rather than helping solve the problem. I pause, I take a deep breath, and I say, "Stu, as soon as I get a time machine, that will be the third thing I do. Right after I kill Hitler and save Lincoln, the very next thing I do will be to go back in motherfucking time and follow your advice. However, I do not yet have a time machine, so let's work on something we can do right now."

And sometimes, "Stu" is me, because I'm berating myself over not having done the laundry or bought more milk or done something else that I cannot actually undo and solve the problem that I'm trying to deal with right now.

So just tell yourself every now and then, "After I kill Hitler and save Lincoln, I'll go tell 20-year-old me to put down the bong."

I often hear about how much more alive I seem now that I'm not smoking pot. For some reason, that stabs at me.

Tell people that. They think they're helping. They don't know they're not. Don't bite their heads off, but take them aside and say, "Stu, I know that you're being complimentary, but it feels to me -- and I know that I'm being irrational -- like you're judging me, and it hurts. Can you help out my recovery by maybe not talking about it?"

Not everyone I know is named Stu.
posted by Etrigan at 8:46 AM on February 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

Well, living in the past is a way to just be consumed with regret. You can't change the past. And in any event, it sounds like you were productive despite smoking pot.

I've never smoked pot before, so I can't pretend to understand how it affects motivation. However, from your post, you've indicated a number of positive things that you did while you smoked pot. Why not bet on those positive things that you have done?
posted by dfriedman at 9:23 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

You can't chart a course out of this by looking backward, and you need to start focusing on where you're going rather than where you've been. What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to do? Just because you didn't achieve certain goals in your 20s doesn't mean you can't achieve them EVER. So snap snap. Hop to it. Make a list. Start checking things off. If you dedicate yourself properly to where you're headed, you wont have enough time to worry about where you have been.
posted by jph at 9:41 AM on February 8, 2013

I hope I'm not projecting by saying it seems the question is how to accept oneself completely within a culture that puts pressure on people to either actively "make a contribution to society", or "be productive" by building knowledge, skills, education or executing them.

As you can see by some advice, people might encourage you to see the time you spent as productive enough--reaffirming the importance of that, though as much as living involves gathering knowledge about the world and oneself, I agree the time in question was productive for you. Is that good enough? From whence comes our desire to give a defense for time spent not doing what society would have you believe is valuable or more worthwhile than experiencing life?

I've seen it's common advice to tell people how to direct their thoughts -- to tell them to "stop thinking self-critical thoughts" and "think only positive thoughts" that will make you feel good. Seemingly, some people have success directing their own thoughts and so believe others can, too. I'm of the opinion such people are not so engrained in patterns of self-blame to know how deeply it shapes a person's self-image at its core. Other people give easy advice that substantiates their own belief that emotional/mental solutions must be easy -- because they don't give themselves sympathy for their own emotional challenges. They deny them.

It's likely you were raised to believe that your self-worth is determined by what you do and who you've demonstrated yourself to be to others. It's a common belief almost everyone seems to have - -yet some people don't think this way. Some people are able to accept themselves completely regardless of "failure" of any kind. Who are these special people and how did they get this way?

Some of these are the extremely rare, extraordinarily lucky people who grew up with parents who made them feel loved unconditionally--I don't mean parents who told their children "I love you no matter what" but didn't reflect this with their actions--I mean parents who actively made children feel accepted and important every day, who listened to their children's anger, sadness, interests, opinions, thoughts, fears, etc. In other words, parents who were not afraid to make their children the center of their lives so that he grows to know how to love himself completely as they did. Realistically (aside from the described perfection), they were parents who made mistakes, but to whom their child could come to and express how they have been hurt by what the parents did, and receive sympathy and apology.

The other of these people (after deciding they are worthy of the gesture) have learned how to think back to their past and the numerous experiences they had growing up in which they felt unheard, unimportant, ashamed, alone, unaccepted, pressured, angry, oppressed and rejected -- and ponder how these experiences made them feel. They have cried for the pain it has brought, which--they realize--had never left them. They have cried that it has shaped how they feel about themselves their whole lives. The have considered that, as any child does, they deserved to be treated with respect and importance, and finally consider that they know they will treat themselves differently. They have come to understand how to act with self-love and self-acceptance towards themselves, as if they are the parent looking at themselves as a child, and treating the child as if they are the center of their life.

This is the "recovery process" which turns an "inner-child" (someone who still has needs for love and acceptance -- almost all adults fall into this category) into an "inner-adult" (someone who meets all their own emotion needs and accepts themselves completely).

This "recovery process" takes time. It takes years of thinking back on pain and allowing the pain to come out through expression, thinking, writing, talking with others, drawing, dreaming, hitting pillows and crying.

The good news is that every gesture towards this recovery process makes a person stronger, immediately. After each gesture toward recovery, a person's self-confidence starts to change, their personal energy increases, their clarity of mind increases, their immune system becomes stronger, their ability to love and accept others increases, and their own sense of who they are grows.

That's something productive and valuable to do with your time. That's how people become energetic individuals full of love for others who make real contributions to people's lives and society. That's how people become "laudable" individuals that other people try to pressure/control their kids into becoming. And since almost no one comes close to that kind of self-actualized person, any step you take in the direction can be thought of as "doing better" than people around you.

And once you've made it there, you won't give a flip.

Good luck.
posted by alice_curiouse at 10:02 AM on February 8, 2013 [11 favorites]

I see others have beaten me to this, but I too was going to say that basically, it sounds like you had a great decade! You successfully managed to: "learn two new instruments, tour a few countries in bands, learn to cook, build a freelance career, and build a huge circle of loving friends who I enjoy spending time with very much." Sure, bad relationships, sure some friendship mistakes, sure not saving enough -- sounds like someone's typical 20's to me! It sounds like you lived one lifestyle to its fullest. Even if you don't feel like you fully experienced all of it, the mistakes we make are a big part of how we end up becoming who we are. And now you finally had enough of that, so you're on to something new now. That's good.
posted by salvia at 10:17 AM on February 8, 2013

So, basically, you didn't ruin your life over a substance, just wasted some cash and acted like a bit of an idiot? For a lot of people in their 20s, the same could be said for alcohol. There's nothing to be ashamed of.
posted by vanitas at 10:29 AM on February 8, 2013

I just want to clarify - it is not easy to stop thinking about the past and to focus on the present. It is exceedingly difficult. But it is possible to train yourself to do so and it's a process that will bear incredible rewards.
posted by sid at 10:40 AM on February 8, 2013

You've been clean for three months? How's that working out for you?

I don't believe you need to forgive yourself. Most people can do a retrospective analysis of their life and come up with a lot of time wasted--youth has the advantage of energy and regenerative powers, but usually it lacks perspective and context.

You have changed your mind. Maybe you feel the irony now that you didn't sense then. Wasted friendships--that's hypothetical, because of the butterfly effect--are vanishingly sad in retrospect. Sweet memories of times gone by sometimes cut with hidden edges, probably because they are times gone by, and nothing competes with the "firsts" you get to have when you are in your twenties.

Building your life now seems to be the issue. If you compare it to your life then, you can favor one over the other, but it's helpful to guage the difference in terms of your increasing sense of maturity and appreciation of scale. Smile indulgently, if sadly, at the follies your younger self committed--but give the kid a break. After all, he's just you, without the layers of experience you've managed to accumulate.

Keeping track of your follies is what lets you pause before running outside to yell at the kids on your lawn.
posted by mule98J at 10:52 AM on February 8, 2013

just want to chime in with the others that you certainly have a really good set of accomplishments. Looking backwards and contemplating what could have been or should have been is useless. Of course learn from mistakes, but don't beat yourself up. Your well travel, you have musical abilities, an amazing circle of friends. These are all wonderful accomplishment!

as far as others having disdain for cannabis, let it go. Different strokes for different folks. I myself have kind of the same situation when it comes to cigarettes. When I think of all the money I've wasted on a stupid pointless addiction it makes me a little sad. Yet I know I can make a change now and go a different path. For full disclosure I am a regular Medical cannabis user and while I hang out in groups that's certainly don't partake or perhaps have a disdain for it, it's not their life, it's mine. These are the choices I've decided to make. And no one can tell me otherwise as I've myself accomplish some great things while partaking. If you want to quit smoking quit smoking good for you, if you don't good for you. Otherwise just own it. It doesn't make you less of a successful person and you've honestly done things people have only dreamed of doing.

I do think you may just be conflating two issues. One being cannabis use and the other a disappointment as to where you are at in life. I never thought things would be the way they are now for me (thought I'd be in a better position in life by now) but things rarely work out the way we want in retrospect. Yet I (and you as well) can keep moving in the direction you wish to be in.
posted by handbanana at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2013

treat the disease, not the symptoms: that's the motto we've adopted

If you and your therapist are focused on spelunking in your remote past to the point that you're ignoring your suffering in the present, I would say it's time to treat the symptoms.

Shame and regret may well have their roots in childhood patterns, but they are also manifestations of a cognitive process that is happening now.

I suggest bringing your post in to your next therapist appointment, and asking for some help from a cognitive/behavioral perspective.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:03 AM on February 8, 2013

I'm with ottereroticist; it might be time to move these feelings up to the front in therapy for a while. Your childhood stuff isn't going to go anywhere in the mean time. And you will probably find that working through today's shame and unhappiness reveals something about the childhood issues.

FWIW, now that I'm in my 40s, I have very fond and romantic memories of my twenties. (Although, like Ruthless Bunny, when I think of what compound interest could have done to the buckets of cash I spent on fancy drinks and shoes, I ... well.) But I have sadness and shame about having wasted my 30s silently, stoically suffering through an 8 year black pit of depression and PTSD when I knew all along I should have been getting help. I'm working on all of it in therapy now, and, like I say above, I often find that when I'm feeling something today that I think is about X, my therapist will pull the string a little and suddenly the whole story unravels and I see that it's related to earlier stuff, too. It's all useful stuff.
posted by looli at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing "Sounds like you didn't waste your 20's even if you were dancin' with Mary Jane."

I spent most of 22 to 37 consuming pot several times a day.
I'm five weeks sans pot, though I quit to get a decent job with health insurance. (Yes, I miss it.)

Some of the things I learned while toking are responsible for the job I have now.

Don't be too hard on yourself. Work on your issues and speak up when friends try to make you feel better by telling you not-so-helpful things.
posted by Val_E_Yum at 1:22 PM on February 8, 2013

I've always found myself attracted to abusive partners, and I have been prone to low-mood/depression since my mid-teens.

Might I suggest that this might be more of a cause for concern than a fondness for pot?
posted by Decani at 1:28 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

If your marijuana habit was linked to problems of depression or generally low mood, it sounds to me as though you may've been using it to self-medicate. And why do people self-medicate? Because they hurt. And hurting isn't anything to be ashamed of.
posted by mr. digits at 4:04 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

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