Smoke Screen

Imagine the nerve: My dealer had gone out of town without informing me beforehand. So I was all out. Every last roach incinerated, I was reduced to coaxing “hobo-highs” from thick black resin extracted from deep within my paraphernalia. This could have been a good opportunity to clear my head a bit, go a week or two without smoking. But that was wishful thinking.

smoking girl JC

“Weed made the things I already liked – movies, rap, heavy metal, crime fiction – sparkle.”

Pacing around my apartment, I thought through my options. I had made a rookie mistake, becoming so dependent on this guy Seth, not bothering to develop back up connects. People bought drugs on the street, from strangers who didn’t pretend to be your friend, all the time. Why couldn’t I? But where exactly did such things happen?

Looking through the newspaper, I came across a short article buried deep in the metro section. A young man had been shot to death the previous night on a west side street “known for drug activity.” Brilliant! I piloted my parent’s hand-me-down Volkswagen there tout-suite.

The neighborhood was residential, streets of red-brick bungalows connected by a main thoroughfare with liquor and convenience stores, and many empty lots. Nowhere did I see any bustling open-market drug activity, so I approached a group of white-tee clad males. “Any of you guys know where I can buy some smoke?” I asked. “You want coke?” one of them replied. I told him I did not, which seemed to end the conversation. Twenty minutes went by as I awkwardly loitered in the area until a car pulled up. The man riding shotgun addressed me. “You the guy looking to buy some ‘dro?” Indeed, I was. We did our exchange in the entryway of a fast-food joint with bulletproof glass between the patrons and employees.

I viewed this expedition as little more than an inconvenience. A week later, my dealer came back from California and we continued our civilized appointments in the comfort of my apartment or his car. That winter, he got pulled over with a quarter-pound, but was kind enough to refer me to his friend and occasional co-rapper, Epik. Epik was unemployed and all too eager to drop by on short notice.

I tricked myself into thinking that the way I smoked, while maybe not normal, was at least acceptable. A little something in the morning to make the prospect of schlepping off to work tolerable. Nothing on my lunch break though; that was only for the truly desperate. Not that I didn’t consider it. I could wait another few hours until after work. That second smoke of the day was nearly as good as the first. Depending on the evening, a couple, three more sessions before I retired for the night.

With real, solid motivation, I could quit for a month or two, long enough to pass a drug test when applying for work. But once I got a job, it was off to the races. Being stoned seemed to make everything better. I tried not to show up to certain places – like my grandmother’s house, important meetings – too stoned. But even at events I looked forward to, it wouldn’t be too long before I’d be checking my watch, wondering when I could slip away to blaze. Weed made the things I already liked–movies, rap, heavy metal, crime fiction–sparkle. I wouldn’t immerse myself in these things, I’d be submerged. Exhilarating, transcendent. Issues, whether personal, artistic or philosophical, could be examined at a distance, and occasionally seen in a new light. And smoking took some of the sting off of life’s travails. As Napoleon said about champagne, in victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it.

In college, I had a proper stoner crew. Friends who liked to smoke at acceptable, party times, as well as less designated times, like between classes and as a study break. But a couple of years out of school, I stopped making those types of friends. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had no one around to goad me to smoke more, or front me bowls when I was all out. My friends knew I smoked, but not how much or how often.

As time went on, when stoned, I spent more and more time thinking about how I needed to quit smoking. That and brainstorming a great heist screenplay. After a month of writing every day, I re-read the script. It made no sense. All my adult life, I’d viewed pot as part of my creative process, my creative identity. When high, every idea seemed priceless, every phrase that popped into my head utter poetry. Rereading that script, a thought dawned on me: maybe getting my stoned thoughts on paper wasn’t just a challenge, it wasn’t worth it.

For almost a decade, I had been trying a variety of strategies to keep my smoking in check. I’d give my stash to a roommate for him to hold, only to ransack his room to find it. I divided my bag into a dozen smaller portions, and hid those behind furniture and under mattresses, thinking that having all my pot together in a central location was tripping me up. This approach would inevitably lead to a demented Easter egg hunt for all my mini-stashes, and the crazed belief that one more was out there in some nook I had forgotten. Later I started buying individual grams instead of eighths or quarter ounces, again figuring that having less around would limit my consumption. Every night, I would promise myself that tomorrow would be the beginning of something new, a couple days off, a week or two, or quitting altogether. But to do so, I’d need to start with a clean slate, have no pot around, so I might as well smoke the rest of what I had. Then tomorrow would come around, and after some pangs of guilt and shame, I’d go ahead and buy some more, glad that I had voiced my promise to no one else.

When stoned, the prospect of quitting seemed like the only way forward. When sober, it seemed impossible. The pot was making me miserable. My girlfriend, who avoids pot because it gives her panic attacks, grew tired of being around me when I was high and asked me not to smoke around her. I chose to interpret this very literally, and would race home, get high, wait an hour, then go over to her house, hoping I wasn’t too visibly stoned. I’d always relied on my ability to come off as mostly straight when baked. At some point, this morphed into an ethical sanction: if people couldn’t tell I was high, it wasn’t an issue. The stank of a joint gave me away, though, and my girlfriend smelled it on my sweater. I could apologize all I wanted, but the writing was on the wall. It was her, or the pot.

The next day, I looked up Marijuana Anonymous on the internet. A week later, I worked up the courage to check out a meeting. Eight or nine friendly and burnt out looking people were sitting in folding chairs, giving each other strength and reminding each other that weed wasn’t as harmless as many insist. I started going to meetings regularly, and for the first time in years, put long weedless stretches together. I even got a sponsor for a while, an intense carpenter named Rich with ten years sobriety. He’d yell at me when I told him I was doing okay. “I guess you’re just a special snowflake, then, the most well-adjusted guy to ever go into recovery.” I wasn’t in touch with my feelings and, dripping sarcasm aside, he probably had a point.

Over time I discovered that part of what drew me into smoking was the way it made all varieties of uncomfortable feelings – anger, disappointment, boredom, sadness – seem remote, if not disappear completely. What had started out as a badge of rebellion and self-styled outlaw identity had morphed into something more nefarious: a shield against experiences, emotions, even the people I loved. When I stopped smoking, I was inundated with thoughts and moods I had effectively avoided for years. It felt like eternity, marinating in these emotions for hours or days when I had grown so used to being able to flick my lighter and change the channel. After three months, I stopped calling Rich, and eventually stopped going to meetings; the obsessive thoughts came less often, and were less intense. At a friend’s wedding recently, I even smoked a bit, and had fun, but it didn’t feel as good as I remembered. A year and a half after I stepped into that first MA meeting, what I really miss are those reclusive times when smoking turned books, movies and music up to a chemically enhanced 11. There’s the trade off: I’ve lost that escape hatch, but the veil protecting me from life, glorious, messy, complicated, brilliant life, has been lifted. I’m trying to fully embrace this new life, but part of me feels left behind. Even as life seems more vibrant than ever, part of me wants to retreat from the slings and arrows, retreat back behind the smoke screen.

Timothy Parfitt grew up outside Chicago and in Hannover, Germany. His film and music reviews have appeared in TimeOut Chicago, Wassup and on his blog, This is his first published essay.
Photograph by Jen Clar