“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
4/20 was last week, so I thought it was the perfect time to talk about this girl, MaryJane who goes by many other different names.
If you know me personally and/or if you have been following this blog you already know that for the past three years have been getting weekly injections in a clinic – they are called nerve blocks – to ease my back pain and as painful as they are, they do help and provide some relief. A little over two years ago, when Dr. L. suggested that I tried medical marijuana for the pain, as the option was available at the clinic, I got excited! I know what some of you are thinking: “Sistah just wanted to get high!” That’s a fair assumption but not an accurate one in my case. I got excited because it was an alternative to the pharmaceutical treatments I was ingesting at the time to the tune of 12 to 15 pills a day on average. Add to that equation the 15 weekly injections I mentioned earlier and you get a less-than-nice picture. My thought was: what if it actually worked and I could trade it all for some herb? I am very careful when it comes to placing expectations on anything and anyone, besides myself, because this is the surest way to be disappointed, but, for a few moments, I allowed myself to dream a little. I am not a smoker but I have been around people who do smoke and I don’t mind it at all. I would take the smell of weed over that of a regular cigarette any day of the week and twice on Sunday, I can tell you that. When I was a student, at one point, two weekends a month, I worked at events called Sound System, serving drinks and smiles for tips at the bar, and every time I had to go into the main area, where people danced and smoked weed, to retrieve empty bottles and cups, I would disappear into a thick cloud of scented smoke and when I stayed too long I would come out a little dazed and red-eyed. Other than that, my contacts with the green substance have never been more than friendly, like an acquaintance. The idea of consuming it on a regular basis for the purpose of treatments had intrigued me for a while because I had heard others talk about the benefits they were getting from it, whether it was recreational or medicinal marijuana. Some of my friends found that it helped them sleep better, others smoked to calm their nerves… At the clinic, I talked to patients who called it “miraculous” because it would literally allow them to get up and do things again. When you live with chronic pain, getting up and doing things is huge and can never be taken for granted.
Not only was I a walking pharmacy at the time but I also tend to be more sensitive to the side effects of medications than to their actual benefits. Until that point, I didn’t even know it was possible. It never failed: if the side effects included weight gain, it would happen to me, if they included heart palpitations it would happen to me, and so on. It is already so difficult to find the right medication(s) for a specific condition but when you have to take into consideration other conditions and the patient’s sensibility to these medications, it is a nightmare for conscientious doctors and for patients who have to suffer through the necessary trials and errors. So, you might understand now why I would have been more than happy to trade my pain pills for weed.
When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it. During my first consultation with Dr. R., he assessed whether I was a good candidate, and I was. He explained the different types of marijuana strains and what he recommended in my case in terms of dosage. He wrote me a prescription, I bought an electronic vaporizer, got a registration number and an account.
Before I left the clinic that day, the assistant who handed me the vaporizer and my receipts, told me not to worry and that the goods would be delivered in an unmarked parcel. She winked and smiled at me. I did not immediately get it and my face must have betrayed me because she proceeded to tell me that the unmarked packages were for privacy purposes. That’s when it finally hit me that there was still a stigma attached to weed consumption and that receiving a parcel with those leaves or with words associated with that plant might get me branded a stoner or something of the sort by my neighbors. As one of the few dark faces in my building and neighborhood, I also knew that something as trivial as this might get the cops called on me. A thought that immediately took my blood pressure to levels it had no business going and it was enough to make me feel beyond grateful to whoever came up with the idea of the unmarked parcels.
Once my registration had been recorded and my file activated, my access to the online weed store was granted. Open Sesame at the stroke of a key. Here I was browsing and trying to decide between the various strains with enticing names while keeping in mind to focus on those that had the highest level of Cannabidiol (CBD) versus the level of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). For those of you who are not familiar with cannabis, not that I am a specialist myself, to sum things up very roughly, if you want to get high, go with a strain with high levels of THC and if you are looking for relief, go for more CBD. it is not that cut and dry, of course, but that gives you an idea of the difference between recreational and therapeutic uses. So, I shopped for strains rich in CBD and the selection was wider and more varied than I had anticipated. It was my first time and I found myself a little nervous when the time came to pull the plug and confirm the transaction. I eventually hit the “SEND” button, received my confirmation via email and said out loud: “Sis, you just ordered weed from the comfort of your living room. What a time!” 48 hours later, the unmarked package arrived.
As patients we are told to use marijuana at our convenience as long as we don’t plan on driving, operating any type of machinery that requires our full attention and focus. I decided to give it a try at bedtime, hoping that it would not only ease the pain but also help defeat the champ aka my insomnia. I opened the container. Broke the seal and admired my very first weed stash. It looked and smelled the way I remembered it from back in my Sound System days. I filled up the vaporizer’s tank with the buds, let it warm up, put it in my mouth and inhaled. A quick note about my vaporizer: it was small, sleek, stylish and very easy to use and maintain., which was perfect for a beginner like me. Back to the vape. I inhaled, kept it in for a while and finally exhaled. Repeated two or three times before it started happening. What was “it”, you ask? The relief, maybe? I wish. Instead, “it” was a severe case of sneezing. I am not talking about a nice and cute little sneeze that makes everybody go “aaawwww” and tilt their head. I am talking about loud and uncontrollable. Competition level brand of sneezing. I sneezed close to 20 times in a row. Strange, I thought. I inhaled again. More sneezing. I don’t give up easily and I really wanted it to work, so I inhaled and exhaled yet again. You guessed it, another sneeze attack hit me. You all know how sneezing works and feels in the body, right? Imagine what it does to a back that already hurts like hell. Needless to say, it was not good at all. As much as it pained me to admit defeat, even temporary, I had to stop that little experiment.
I gave it another try a few days later and got the same result. The pain and discomfort caused by the sneezing totally overshadowed any relief the weed may have provided. I say “may” because I don’t recall feeling any relief but I cannot say for sure that none occurred. At the following appointment with Dr. R., a month later, I described my two dates with MaryJane and their unfortunate conclusion. He let out a slight chuckle – I don’t blame him – and he told me how unexpected that reaction was. Like me, he is not one to throw the towel easily, especially if there is still hope, and he suggested that instead of using the vaporizer I either consumed the herb cooked or baked in my food, or brewed with my favorite tea leaves. The serial tea drinker that I am was beyond excited at the prospect of combining my love of tea with a potential pain and sleep helper. The only instruction was to increase the dosage in order to get more benefits. Off I went. For weeks, I sipped on weed sprinkled with my favorite tea mixes at different times of the day and evening, and although my concoctions smelled and tasted delicious, they provided no pain relief in my case. When consumed at night, they did not help put me to sleep either. I kept at it for six months, while still taking pills and getting injections, but it was clear that it was not the miracle to me that it had been to others and it would not free me from the pills and the shots. I had tempered my expectations beforehand and so I was not crushed but that does not mean that I was not a little disappointed, however. Of course, I wanted it to work and, on a few occasions, I had allowed my mind to wander and take me to a place and time where all I had to do to feel better physically was ingest the green stuff. Six months was the length of my official trial but I have had a few more dates with MaryJane since just to see if we had a future together but we seem to be destined to remain friendly acquaintances.
I am not letting you in on my failed romance with the lady in green to deter you or anyone else from giving it a go. If anything, it would be the opposite. Taking recreational marijuana out of the equation for a second, there is an argument to be made for the use of medical marijuana for a variety of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV), epilepsy, concussions, certain mental illnesses, and addictions. There are solid and compelling scientific studies and research behind it and you probably know someone who has had a positive experience with it and whose quality of life has improved by having access to medical marijuana. It would be easy for me to tell you all that it doesn’t work, based solely on my own experience, but it would not only be false but also wrong and misguided. It did not help me but it helps a lot of people every single day. People who otherwise would have lost all hope of ever getting any relief, be it in their body, in their mind or both. Every week, I sit in that same waiting room at the clinic, see the same faces, look into the same eyes, and I see a lot of pain, misery, and despair. However, I have also seen some of those faces light up when they leave Dr. R.’s office after having been approved or renewed to the marijuana program and I have seen some of those eyes fill up with tears of joy when they described to me the relief they got and all they were able to do thanks to those dried buds. For many, these feelings have been years in the making and they often thought such a day would never come. Hope had gone away from their lives as pain took over every facet of their existence. Hope is back now, along with countless other positive and joyful emotions they had forgotten about for way too long. I once knew what hopelessness felt like. Deep, prolonged, endless hopelessness. It doesn’t hurt. It lives inside of you, like a breathing being and it kills every part of you at a slow and steady pace.
I am at a place now where I no longer have to take 15 to 20 pills a day to manage my various pains. I worked hard to get there and it took time but everyone’s journey is different and I know how fortunate I am to be at this stage of my recovery process and I know that for too many patients this stage sounds like utopia, an unattainable destination. Medical marijuana could take many of them to this place, if they had access to it, for others it would take something else. The bottom line is that denying access to a potentially life-saving treatment to millions, whether for political, financial or other reasons, is akin to denying them hope. It is unfair, it is dangerous and it is criminal.