Content- medical system, ableism, denial of access, chronic pain, mention of parent death, pharmaceutical medication, naturopathic medication.
I was eight years old, running some relay race in gym class, when I first experienced the pain. Burning, throbbing, aching pain in my ankles and knees. My ankles gave way, and I fell, embarrassingly, in front of my peers. That was how it all began- a lifetime of chronic pain.
Between then and when my mom got sick when I was fourteen, she advocated or me to have any and all testing done to rule out any potential chronic health issues. She had fibromyalgia, and had since my brother was born, so she knew to believe me when said I was in pain…though I don’t think she wanted to believe the extent of it. As tests came back negative again and again, I grew to normalize my pain, assuming everyone lived this way. By the time I was in university, the pain wasn’t just in my ankles and knees anymore- it was overwhelmingly in my shoulders, neck, and back, though my legs also often ached and I couldn’t seem to digest any food or drink aside from water and milk chocolate. It was overwhelming, but as far as I was aware, everyone felt this way.
If anything, I believed that the issues all stemmed from my depression, which is what my doctors told me after yet another CT scan came back normal. My doctor had prescribed me Prozac and Clonazopam after my mom died, days before my sixteenth birthday. By the time I was in university, my prozac prescription had been maxed out and replaced with a high dose of Cipralex. Despite this, I was actively self-harming (via cutting and self-starvation) daily and was in more physical pain than ever.
Then the accident happened. You can read about it here. After that, my pain got infinitely worse. What I had been able to normalize before was no longer something I could even think about ignoring. So I went back to my doctor and we started the torture- I mean testing- process again. CT scans, (“inconclusive”) MRIs, EKGs, and a million other tests I can’t even remember the names of. For one, they put thin needles in my nerves and sent shocks in to test my nerve response. The specialist didn’t believe me when I said it was excruciating. At some point, my doctor diagnosed me with fibromyalgia. In other words, he gave his lack of understanding about what was going on with me a name that was meant to acknowledge and validate my wide-range of painful symptoms.
I took to the Toronto Public Library, reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. I made lists of potential treatment options- both based in traditional Western medicine and more alternative methods. I stepped into the role of advocate for my own treatment and watched the battle unfold. Since I was no longer a passive recipient of my doctor’s decisions, he and I began to clash. At one appointment, he suggested the third or forth pill I could try (he’d prescribed me more medication, Lyrica and Tramadol, on top of my psych meds upon my diagnosis).
I said, “I use cannabis to manage my symptoms and have for years, that’s how I am able to function. Can you please give me a prescription so that I don’t run into any issues with the law while trying to medicate appropriately. My understanding is that fibromyalgia makes me eligable for this prescription”.
He said, ” I will maybe consider it after you have tried every approved pharmaceutical drug approved for your condition”.
He sent me to a pain clinic in Hamilton, where the doctor prescribed me Gabapentin and began to give me nerve block injections, a cocktail of drugs injected directly into the nerve in the curve where my neck and shoulder meet with a long, thick needle. The first time, I screamed the way people cry when they get punched in the nose. The spasm I experienced throughout my entire body was simply indescribable.
“Be quiet, you’re going to scare the other patients,” said the specialist. He turned to my partner, “don’t let her read up on the Gabapentin, I’m sure she’ll just end up with all the side effects if she does that”.
As it turns out, Gabapentin was one of the medications I got the most side effects from. It’s also the most common medication people recommend to me to this day when they find out I experience nerve pain.
It took three or four trips to the pain clinic before the specialist diagnosed me with neuropathy and declared that nerve block injections were not an appropriate treatment method for me after all.
I don’t even remember how many medications I tried to appease my doctor. Lyrica, Gabapentin, Tramadol, Nucynta (a powerful opioid similar to oxy), Cymbalta, Amitriptyline, Prednisone, and more. I was a full-time student in the first few years of my twenties, and feeling like a drug addict because I was following doctors orders. It was around this time that my partner’s father accused me of being an opiate addict and threatened to disown us (flash forward- we ended up disowning him). It was right around this time that I failed the only class I would ever even come close to failing. It was right around this time that I was constantly suicidal because the quality of my life was so deeply affected.
I began to try every alternative treatment I could think of- yoga, acupuncture, massage, naturopathic remedies, homeopathic remedies, energy therapy… Most of them seemed to work a bit better, but I had a long way to go. Regardless, it cemented my commitment to having some control over how I managed my symptoms.
I went back to my doctor and said, “I’m done with this. I don’t want to me on drugs anymore. I want to manage my symptoms naturally, and I know it’s going to take a lot of work, but this is what I want to do. I brought my paperwork, I’ve filled it out, please sign off on a cannabis prescription.”
He said no.
I found another doctor through a friend who was compassionate and gained legal access under the MMPR in 2013. After evaluating my symptoms, he prescribed me 20 grams per day so that I could tincture or eat it if I wanted to, rather than smoking it. At the same time, I (against the advice of my doctor- don’t do this!) went off all my medication cold turkey and changed my diet to exclude gluten, sugar, and nightshades. I went through about two weeks of the hell that is opiate withdrawal and sugar withdrawal combined, and then almost immediately noticed a huge difference in the way I felt. I still lived with serious pain, but I was able to manage it- through choices I made.
Because my prescription is so large, I realized the importance of having access to grow it myself. It would cost over $100 000/year to purchase my medication from an LP. Since having my prescription, I’ve experienced two sets of law changes and the advent of recreational legalization. At one point, I literally received a letter form Health Canada telling me to destroy my plants because they were no longer allowing patients to grow for themselves. LPs were to be the only option. While I’m excited that access will be easier for many people and they won’t have to go through what I did, I’m also terrified that it may impact my access moving forward. My access, and thousands of other people who could probably tell a story similar to mine.
I am 26 years old, I received my diagnosis 7 years ago, and I work full time, volunteer 10-20 hours/week, maintain countless beautiful relationships in my life, and manage my pain pretty damn well overall. I smoke a ton of cannabis, am conscious of my lifestyle, eat really well, go to therapy once a month, and take naturopathic medicines. Because that is how I choose to manage my pain.
I want to see the widest possible range of access for this versatile plant. I want to see people having access to grow their own, cultivate the strains that work best for them. I want to see dispensaries where people can easily access multiple strains. I want to see mom-and-pop shops instead of LPs. I want to see less stigma, because autonomy is important for disable people like me. Access is important to disabled people like me.