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“A lot of white kids, you got things accessible to you — like therapy,” Dave Chappelle once told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. “We [kids of color] don’t have that. We have liquor stores and weed.”

Marijuana smoke is, oftentimes, the sigh of an oppressed person.

I can’t remember the first time I smoked weed. I know I must’ve done it wrong, because it took years for me to learn how to inhale properly without coughing and feeling that burn shoot up my windpipe.

I’d only smoked a handful of times before I was about 29, and I’d get sick every time. That’s when I used to be a heavy drinker. I’d get offered a hit of something sticky once I was already working on my fifth or seventh drink, and as soon as I took a puff, the smell or taste or whatever it was would immediately make me queasy. I almost always puked after smoking weed — including once when I was trying to get with this weedhead girl I met at the bar — which caused me to steer clear of the stuff whenever I could.

I’ve been smoking a lot more in recent years. Now I know how to inhale, taking in a bit of fresh air and mixing it with the smoke in my mouth and lungs, holding it for as long as feels comfortable, till my brain begins to hum, before letting it all roll out smooth and easy. I smoke almost every day, usually after dinner or before bed — unless it’s a Saturday or Sunday, or some other work-free day, when all bets are decidedly off.

You might think less of me for smoking so regularly, and even admitting to it. Smoking weed is like drinking in that way: It’s alright if you do it, but polite society deems it uncouth to talk or even write about it, much less reveal how much you do it. But weed is unlike alcohol in that guys who drink — women, too, but specifically men — usually receive the “boys will be boys” treatment. (Perhaps that’s the reason women who talk about how much they drink are commonly described as feminists, à la Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer, to name only two who immediately come to mind.) For writers, drinking is considered part of the territory even by those who never hate themselves enough to pick up the habit — writing, that is. Just look at how people talk about Hemingway. They can’t imagine Papa as a teetotaler; they don’t even want to.

To reveal yourself as a pot smoker, however, opens you up to an almost universal condemnation. You’re considered lazy, weak-minded and, among prudes, a “bad” person. Even though, thanks to the 54 percent of Nevada voters who answered “Yes” on Question 2 in last November’s election, the recreational use of marijuana is now legal in my town, I still find myself concealing my habit from people whom I suspect either might disagree with its use for everybody, or might not know that I smoke as much as I do and would want me to slow down. This holds true even for the people I know living on the opposite end of the country.

Funny enough, I actually sympathize with such people. Weed is a drug, after all, despite being described as the least addictive and harmful drug available — on the street or over the counter — by people who either smoke weed themselves or at least support its decriminalization. As a principle, I’m against anything that dulls the senses, inhibits clear thinking, and offers an escape from reality, all of which, I feel, limits our capacity and willingness to do what one 19th-century Prussian philosopher called on us to do: to not “only [interpret] the world” but “to change it.”

So why do I smoke weed? Well, for the same reason many people smoke weed or take any other drug — for pain. I’m not talking about physical pain, though for years I’ve increasingly suffered from lower back pain due to long nights at my desk. My insomnia’s pretty bad too, which is what led to my former drinking problem. The insomnia, I came to realize, wasn’t caused by anything physical — a lack of exercise, say. No, what kept me up for hours after I’d slid into bed were the nightmares and fears which would swell up within me, clawing at the inside of my skull like the undead horrors that they are.

As with anyone who is either a person of color, from an immigrant family, from a single-parent home or merely from the besieged working class — and I, unfortunately, am all four — I suffer from what can only be described as post-traumatic stress disorder. I’d rather not delve here into the details of the traumatic stresses I’ve endured, and ultimately the details aren’t important. Anyone who knows what it is to be a person of color from a single-parent, immigrant, working-class background, or anyone who can even imagine what it must be like, knows well enough what I mean when I say I’ve survived my past, at least till now.

Oftentimes, on nights when I haven’t smoked — or drank, which I rarely do now, thanks to weed — or on nights when the effects of whichever strain I’ve smoked wears off too early, I find myself waking up from a sound sleep, around 2 or 3 in the morning, with a feeling of utter dread and deep despair. On the worst nights even the very darkness of the bedroom embodies the despair and dread I feel, becoming an actual presence in the room — haunting me, threatening me. Were I a credulous person, I might fall into the belief that some evil entity was actually stalking my house, but since I’m not (anymore), I know the only demons terrorizing me in the empty hours are those which dwell in the darkest corners of my mind.

It was on those nights that I used to make myself another drink and watch TV or surf the web, usually both — anything to drown my thoughts. Now, I take a hit or two from the bowl on the cheap plastic dresser I use as a nightstand and drift blissfully back to sleep.

Lest I be viewed as making light of the very real torment with which countless men and women in uniform return from distant battlefields, let it be clear that I’m doing no such thing. Though I’ve never enlisted myself nor been anywhere near an armed conflict — I’ve never seen a dead body; I’ve never even been to a funeral — my father, my mother and my younger brother are all veterans. My brother, a Marine, served a tour in Iraq, and all I care to say about it is that he came back different, quieter, “more of a man,” which is really just a euphemism for saying that the inner light which shone so brightly in his youth had been snuffed out, seemingly forever.

In the end, there is no end. I’m still the biracial Puerto Rican-Honduran son of a working-class immigrant mother, and a drug-addicted father who beat us before abandoning us. And although, thanks to my industrious partner in life and love, I know longer have to worry about where I’m going to sleep or what I’m going to eat, I survived a period of my life — and during my formative years, no less — when such worries were a constant presence. I still wake up occasionally with the memory of something awful I’d locked away a long time ago which comes bursting toward the front of my mind, forcing me to remember and, thus, experience it anew.

Nonetheless, I’ve decided on a path which, instead of leading me out of inner shadows, sees me treading ever deeper into the darkness. I do it willingly, most of the time, in an effort to better understand myself and, by better understanding myself, others. But in those hours when the darkness becomes too much, or if I feel I’ve been shrouded for too long, I can happily, luckily, blaze up.


Featured image: Ross White/Flickr

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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