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Cannabis and PTSD: A Personal Testimonial

I started out life in a bad spot. I’m not whining about that, mind you, but I think I must make it clear how I got to where I am.

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We are, ultimately, the product of our environment to a certain degree. Almost everybody has one of those “when I was a kid” stories that explains why they don’t like clowns, or ice cream trucks, or the funhouse mirrors at the circus. Some of us have stories like that which explain why we can’t tolerate loud noises, or have trouble with confined spaces.

My parents were pretty violent people. Mostly my father, then later my step-father, but my mother also had her moments. Alcohol and physical violence were daily aspects of my childhood. At the time it didn’t seem “wrong” precisely, because it was the only environment I had ever known. At the same time a nagging sense, much like that expressed by the protagonist of Orwell’s 1984, there was a nagging sense that things were somehow bad. All the times I hid in a closet, or waited nervously for the rampaging, drunken monster that was my father to turn his rage in my direction, some basic essence of humanity told me that it was all entirely wrong. Years later, I know the effect it had on me, and I wish I had enjoyed more of a forum to express those early concerns.

I spent my childhood in fear until I was tossed out of my home at the age of 13. Bouncing around between family members and state care, I eventually found myself living the free and unregulated life of a teenager with no family. I lived in survival mode, doing what I had to in order to eat enough food and enjoy enough shelter to survive. I’m not proud of those years, but anyone who would bother to judge me simply hasn’t faced the choices I was left with in life. I challenge anyone to go through what I did and not break a few laws. During this period I was even arrested and incarcerated for a time. It was a trying period for me in every imaginable way; life was all about animal survival.

Eventually I found a job, got a place to live, and started to have something resembling a regular life. I had a girlfriend who was the envy of all my friends. I worked long hours, fixing swimming pools during the summer months and hottubs during the winter. Around the age of 20 I began to notice a change in myself. My formerly outgoing, even aggressive self, began to withdraw on a personal level. I started to find crowded rooms problematic. I couldn’t listen to loud noises and my startle reflex was decidedly exaggerated. Something was desperately wrong, and I needed to find out what.

It took time, several different psychiatric specialists, and a lot of my own research to finally conclude what was originally labelled as a mood disorder was in fact Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is most commonly diagnosed amongst soldiers returning from combat zones. Over the years it has been called Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue, Combat Stress and a number of other things. It is the conditioned response that human beings can develop under prolonged periods of stress, or even just during one intense stress event.

As most people would, I placed myself in the hands of what I assumed were capable physicians. This was in the late nineties, and while the subject of PTSD was enjoying more coverage in medical journals and by cutting-edge researchers it was not yet a commonly understood phenomenon for civilian mental health professionals. Various forms of treatment were prescribed and I went down a road now familiar to far too many people in the same position.

Anti-depressant medications actually made things worse. My stress responses got more intense. Severe migraines, insomnia that would persist for days and terrible bouts of anxiety resulted. Benzodiazepines and anti-psychotics were eventually prescribed, but in such doses that I was incapable of functioning. My personal life fell apart; I drifted away from friends and became completely withdrawn. While to some degree a “traditional” course of treatment was managing my symptoms, I certainly slept enough hours in a day, I wasn’t capable of doing things I normally did. I found that my creative drive was badly suppressed by the drugs; my energy and ambition were completely sapped. I found it hard to call that a victory.

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I eventually decided that the medication wasn’t working. There was one thing I had used on and off over the years that did seem to provide me relief from my woes without rendering me completely inert. The one thing that had helped me more than anything else was cannabis. So, taking my life into my own hands I quit taking the prescribed drugs and began to use cannabis.

Determining dosage wasn’t easy. Ultimately, there is no specific per-day dose of cannabis that is appropriate for the PTSD patient. Some days you don’t need much at all, just a maintenance dose to help control the stress and anxiety. Some days are bad and much heavier medication is required. This is part of the beauty of cannabis; you can’t actually consume a toxic dosage, so even “overmedication” is not dangerous in any sense. The only real threat is that you might run out of the fixings for a good plate of nachos after a day with a particularly high dose.

The effects of cannabis vs. traditional medications were immediately noticeable. When I would take anti-psychotics to sleep I would wake up groggy, slow and painfully fuzzy in the head. Thoughts would come slow, my co-ordination was compromised; even the simplest of tasks became a Herculean effort. With cannabis, even on the days when I have to smoke more than usual, at worst I wake up feeling a little too mellow. An extra cup of coffee as I start my day is more than enough to counteract the effect, and I end up feeling a nice level kind of mellow. It leaves me with enough energy to get through the day, but not so much that my hands tremble.

The pharmaceutical solutions all had an intense numbing effect on the symptoms, but didn’t seem to address the underlying causes. I still felt anxious and somewhat paranoid; I would just be to “slow” to respond in the usual ways. With cannabis I actually feel genuinely calm. It gives me a sense of distance from the stress that is difficult to explain. It’s like having an intermediary stage in your thinking between you and your fears. It allows you that moment of second-thought to recognize that you are being irrational about something. It helps me to say to myself “this fear is irrational”, and to act accordingly.

The management of the physical symptoms was even more incredible. Aside from anxiety, paranoia and a sense of “edginess” that never seems to relax, PTSD comes with a range of physical discomforts as well. The high tension state that the PTSD patient perpetually exists in takes a toll on the body. Muscle spasms, headaches, light sensitivity, hand tremors, night sweats, all of these are symptomatic of the high-adrenaline conditioning caused by periods of extended trauma. These all occur to different degrees depending on your exposure to the trauma which initiated your stress response in the first place, but to whatever degree you experience them they can be debilitating.

I found that with cannabis even a small quantity was sufficient to relax the physical state I now naturally exist in. My muscles relax, my headache subsides, and bright lights or loud noises no longer startle me so intensely. I still have a sense of hyper vigilance, there is very little I do not observe in my environment, but I have a grasp on it. It isn’t that I am scanning the room for threats, plotting escape routes from danger and sizing up people as potentially dangerous, I just have a keen eye. When I get to sleep with a sufficient dose of cannabis I sleep more soundly, almost never waking up bathed in sweat with my heart pounding. Needless to say, the relief of the physiological symptoms has made life a great deal more livable. It’s hard to get through the days when your hands won’t steady enough in a public space to write your own name.

I eventually went to my now former psychiatrist to explain what I had been doing. He was admittedly surprised at my apparently relaxed state; he had never seen me sit so still in a chair for so long. My demeanor was calm, relaxed, but still energetic and talkative. He admitted, completely “off the record” for reasons of his own professional concerns, that what I was doing was clearly effective. While PTSD was not then, and is still not approved for PTSD treatment under the medical marijuana program in Canada, he couldn’t deny efficacy and merely warned me not to get caught in possession of an illicit drug.

It was almost fifteen years ago now, that I turned from conventional drugs to cannabis for my PTSD. I have worked now as a professional musician, taking the stage in front of an audience that would have terrified me into complete paralysis in my previous state. I work full-time, I have a wife. I rescued a small kitten one day a couple of years ago when I found him wet and starved, alone in the streets. The burden of that responsibility would have once seemed overwhelming, but I now take pleasure in his daily feedings and the time he demands of me. With cannabis, unlike the traditional therapies for my condition, I can live a real life.

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The medical community is starting to come around to an understanding about cannabis and stress disorders. New research appears every year on the effects of cannabis derivatives for PTSD patients. The recent flood of returning veterans from conflicts abroad has made the subject of this disorder forefront in the public discourse and the value of cannabis for the people who find they can’t cope with life after whatever horror afflicted them is becoming more apparent. I learned a long time ago what many people are only discovering now, that cannabis is a far more effective medication for traumatic stress than any synthetic drug on the market today.

There is still, sadly, a huge mountain of propaganda and misinformation to work our way over. Years of the “War on Drugs” have prevented proper research being done into the biochemical mechanisms by which cannabis can assist stress victims. This is beginning to fall by the wayside in a major way now, with what appears to be an end to the old ways of dealing with drugs and substance abuse problems on the horizon. Cannabis does have potential for abuse, like any prescription drug also has. This is also true of alcohol, fast food and instant lottery tickets. We have not addressed these other social ails with prohibition; rather we have met them with regulation. It is precisely for this reason that we need a well-regulated market of medical cannabis where quality can be assured, and where revenues from that market can be used to do further research into the benefits of this wonder drug instead of into the hands of drug cartels and street gangs.

If you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD, or believes that you might be, knowledge is always the best tool to address the issue. Start by opening up your web browser and typing in “cannabis treatment PTSD” – you’ll find an ocean of information on the topic. There are many people just like you, or your loved one, who find relief and the hope of a normal life every day because of a plant that we have spent decades mislabelling “weed”. You may even live in one of a growing number of jurisdictions where doctors are legally allowed to prescribe and monitor a medical cannabis regimen.

It used to be that I couldn’t live a normal life. Physicians and psychiatrists and psychotherapists only had patchwork solutions available in their toolbox. There was only one thing I am aware of that could have given me my life back. We need to put prejudice aside and adopt a “best practices” approach to PTSD, and in my opinion that best practice is medical cannabis.

Originally written for by JJ McDubie

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