Think pot is just for tree-hugging hippies and deadbeat stoners? Think again.
Even before the tests came back, I knew it was lupus. I’d been meeting the textbook and Internet criteria for months. In sunlight, my exposed skin broke out into pink and painful sores. Nausea and stomach cramps made even the thought of food unbearable, and the swishing sensation around my lungs when I took a deep breath made taking a walk to the mailbox feel like an Olympic event.
These symptoms can sometimes be present during a rheumatoid arthritis flare (I was diagnosed with RA at 27), so I thought maybe I was just having a bad spell. But when I began finding large clumps of hair in the shower, I knew.
My doctor started immunosuppressant therapy with 10 milligrams of Prednisone, a cheap corticosteroid that stops inflammation and tells the immune system to take it down a notch. Prednisone made it possible to eat full meals and take my daily walks. At the low dose of 10 mgs (many lupus and RA patients take as much as 60mgs), he assured me I could use steroids forever if I needed to, but warned that some patients develop a fast resistance and suggested a pain management program.
“I already manage my pain,” I said, reminding him of my strict raw juice and vitamin regimen. “Combine all that with the Predisone, and it’s like I’m a new person.”
He explained that to keep up my tolerance I would have to lower my dose from 10mgs to 5mgs at regular intervals. “You have to be prepared for how you’re going to feel when that happens,” he said. “I want you to have some narcotic options.”
I left that visit with a yeah whatever attitude. I was on the Predisone, eating right, and walking every day. “Narcotic options” sounded like something for people in serious pain. Cancer, back injuries, stuff that had nothing to do with me. I’d been handling chronic pain for almost 16 years. When the time came, I could handle a little more.
Then two days after cutting back the Predisone dose, I woke up drenched in sweat, barely able to move my neck and arms. I remember trying to sit up and feeling as if my spine was filled with sand. I remember crying. I remember saying, “Holy fuck.”
“That narcotic option,” I told my doctor during an emergency visit. “I want to take everything you can legally give me.”
Tramadol was the first choice. A barely-there opiate mixed with the analgesic Tylenol. Like most opiate pain relievers, Tramadol isn’t designed to stop the pain so much as it is to help your mind deal with what your body is going through. The drug didn’t seem to work as well as taking insanely large and dangerous amounts of ibuprofen. Plus, there were lots of strange side effects. An hour after ingesting one pill I got very ADDish and out-of-character happy. On Tramadol I could take walks and clean my house, but it was incredibly difficult to sit down and read, or help my children with their homework. Narcotics also made it impossible for me to write. I earn my living by writing. Not by talking walks and being happy.
The next time I saw my doctor I told him I needed something to relieve the pain of inflammation but I didn’t want to feel high.
He told me I should look into medical marijuana.
I wondered if I should look into a new doctor.
My limited experience with pot comes from a few lame sessions in my early 20’s. I don’t remember giggling or feeling awesome, but I do remember falling asleep under my chair at the movies and a lengthy discussion at Denny’s regarding Prince’s new symbol name.
Pot was for tree-hugging hippies and deadbeat stoners. A writer friend from college told me pot increased her creativity, and put her in “a positive place.”
To do what? I wondered. Write sad little poems about the rain forest? I needed help to wash my hair and make my kids a sandwich without feeling as if my fingers were fastened with chicken wire. I didn’t give a damn about positive places. I just wanted the pain to stop.
One morning my boyfriend, Max, caught me doubled over in the bathroom after I’d taken eight Advil at one time. “Don’t be mad,” I said. “It’s the only thing that works.”
He knew my doctor had suggested medical marijuana. He also knew—and was getting frustrated with—my flippant attitude about smoking pot. “I’m glad you think you know more than your doctor,” he said. “I’m sure a ruptured stomach won’t cause you much pain at all.”
That night I spent hours researching weed. I bought online subscriptions to abstracts, clinical trials, and joined community forums about what some now called, The New Stoner Science. What I found most interesting were the articles written by real MDs about Cannabidiol Enhanced strains, or high ratio CBD. These lab tested strains supposedly cured everything from skin cancer, to epileptic seizures, while the low THC content (the ingredient in Indica or “old school” strains responsible for feeling high or paranoid) provides users with both pain relief and a clear head.
In the CBD forums it seemed the takers of these new strains were people like me, people with chronic pain problems or psychological disorders like PTSD and depression. A lot of them suffered from autoimmune diseases. But when the time came to visit one of the many medical marijuana doctors in San Diego county, I still wasn’t convinced.
Getting my medical marijuana card was crazy easy. A friendly and very California-looking doctor talked to me about his lupus and RA patients, which made up more than half his clientele. He gave me a general examination, looked over the notes from my GP, then $75 later, I received a certificate that basically says I am now legally allowed to toke up whenever I want.
My next step was to go out and score.
In Southern California medical marijuana dispensaries are everywhere. I still wasn’t all the way on board with this whole pot-for-pain thing, making stupid jokes about sitars and Volkswagen buses as Max and I searched the Internet for a dispensary whose website didn’t look as if it were created by Cheech Marin.
Not wanting to spend more than $50, I walked into a little mom and pop place in a strip mall near my house and bought a few of the basics. The stuff I remembered from high school: Names like Purple Kush, Skunk Weed, and Sour OG didn’t exactly reinforce any scientific standings, but these plants certainly made good on their promise to relieve pain—mainly by way of putting me straight into a coma-like sleep. There was no way I could function during the day on this kind of pot. Finally, I contacted the only dispensary in Southern California that grows and sells CBD rich weed.
Ryan, one of the co-op owners, sat at my table and opened a huge tackle box filled with tiny plastic bags of “Medi Mary.” Dressed as if he’d just come from a business meeting, he was extremely professional and knowledgeable about his wares. He shared facts I hadn’t yet read about, such as a German study where pure cannabidiol is injected into lung tumors to stop the cancer cells from metastasizing. He also said his co-op growers signed up to take part in a USC study on the effects of CBD marijuana and autism. I purchased a $100 variety pack, then rushed him out the door before my kids got home from school, lest they caught their mother with her dealer.
Back on my 10mgs of Predisone, and not serious enough to buy descent pot paraphernalia, I crept into my garage late at night to take hits from a water bong Max put together with a Gatorade bottle and an empty ball point pen casing. As I crouched behind a box of my dead mother’s Christmas decorations, puffing through a strain called Alien Outbreak, I couldn’t help thinking she was looking down at me, shaking her head and saying So, this is what it’s come down to? And right in front of my nativity scene.
Though I immediately felt the muscles in my shoulders and neck become warm and loose, I still wasn’t certain I could use this drug and remain productive enough for work. That I was sitting at my desk editing an article on birth control laws and was suddenly overcome with a desire to ride my bike and think about astronauts, was not helping that case.
When I sent an email to Ryan explaining this, he told me to keep trying all the strains. Sometimes it’s a matter of your brain accepting the cannabidiol. You’ve spent so long working through the pain in your body maybe your brain has no idea what to do when you’re not in that mode.
OK, I thought, he could have a point, though it still sounded like a bunch of new-agey, tree-hugging bullshit.
Three weeks later, when I cut my Predisone dosage again, I would get the chance to put Ryan’s theory to the test. Max came home from work and found me crying on the sofa. “I can’t move my arms. The Tramadol’s not working, and I can’t take another one because I have to turn in an article tonight.”
He sighed one of those sighs where people are trying to be nice but, really, they’ve just had enough of your shit. “You have $100 worth of pot, most of it you haven’t even tried yet, and you’re crying about taking a pain killer?”
So once again, this time by way of Max helping me to walk into the garage, I found myself behind the Christmas boxes, taking long hits of a strain called Omrita rx3. This is a rare and highly sought after strain, testing the highest for pure cannabidiol and lowest for THC. Within three minutes the needling pain in my shoulders began to cease, another hit and I could move my fingers without wincing. A half hour later I was sitting at my desk no longer having heart palpitations about not being able to meet my deadline. I wasn’t craving Doritos or wondering about the space shuttle. When I asked Max to review my work he asked how I felt. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t feel anything but normal.”
Today, whenever I talk about medical marijuana to people who take narcotics for chronic pain, I’m not exactly surprised at their skepticism. Pot? Really? Should I also be hanging out at the skatepark? The only thing I have a right to do is recommend that they read all they can about cannabidiols, because I know what it feels like to take whatever it takes as long as the pain goes away. Because two years ago that was me, before I had no choice but to change my mind.
Traci Foust holds a degree in American Literature from UCSC. She is the author of Nowhere Near Normal: A Memoir of OCD (Simon and Schuster 2011) Both her fiction and non fiction have appeared in several journals and websites including The Southern Review, Funny or Die, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is currently working on her second memoir, Love and Xanax. Find her on Facebook or her website. She is also a memoir instructor for Hardcore Memoir Workshops.