'Cannabis gave me my life back'
Marie Summers was in a 'prison of pain', until she overcame inhibitions about using an illegal drug. The result seemed like a miracle
Published 04/08/2010 | 07:40
Tell someone that you suffer from chronic migraine and you're unlikely to get sympathy in scale to the pain you suffer.
Tell them you've got chronic migraine causing neuro-deficit, plus a small cavernoma with venous angioma and you will understandably get a blank stare. This collection of words is woefully inadequate at conveying the pain that has systematically dismantled my brain and disabled my body, but they are all I have without resorting to illustrations.
I'd suffered from worse than average migraines my whole life but gradually throughout my twenties the pain and frequency intensified. A couple of years ago I began to realise there was no longer a gap between attacks. My brain slipped into a loop, migraine begetting migraine, pain creating more pain, and nothing could stop the juggernaut of my malfunction.
Despite heavyweight preventative medications (each with its own difficult side-effects), mid-2009 my daily migraine became more sinister. I'd lived in constant pain for so long that I expected nothing better; what I did not anticipate was the rest of my body rebelling as well. Suddenly I couldn't walk, and it wasn't because I was in pain, it was because my legs were simply randomly unable. When I tried to force myself I began to shake and jerk, like a leaf caught in a storm, then I usually lost consciousness. I couldn't focus on reading and writing or long conversations, and any movement made me unmanageably nauseous; I was nearly always unable to get out of bed. I was in and out of hospital but we kept coming back to the fact that migraines are doing this to my brain. If migraines continue to run amok within me they will progressively destroy my quality of life and potentially, significantly shorten it.
It's difficult to describe what living within a broken body feels like without sounding as if it's a call for pity. Pity is not what is wanted, understanding is. When pain is a constant, sickness and weakness creep into every corner of your self, and your mind begins to lose memories or words, you feel a wasted husk of a human. All the potential you once had seems a shadow, your beauty ephemeral and faded; you begin to feel a liability to those you love.
In what felt like a moment of madness, I Googled the medicinal effects of cannabis on migraines and related neurological conditions. What I found was a surprise, and almost an unwanted one at that. I didn't want to read how effective it could be, because I didn't want to feel compelled to try something that I'd once done for an illicit pleasure. I've been trained to expect my medicine to be extremely unpleasant, and like the Victorians were with sex, if I'm enjoying it I must be doing something wrong. After reading arguments for and against, I decided that trying cannabis had significantly less risk of side-effects than nearly every other prescription drug I had already legally tried, but with less of a "hit and miss" approach to the matter. I, like most chronic pain sufferers, am strongly advised not to take any pain relievers, from morphine to paracetamol, because they cause rebound pain and significantly compound the problem. When modern medicine sentences you to a lifetime of pain with little hope for a cure this simply adds insult to injury. Medical evidence shows that cannabis almost certainly does not cause rebound pain; in this it is almost unique among viable pain relief medicines. The opportunity to break the cycle chipping away at my brain seemed to be presenting itself; I still had to decide if I was brave enough to break the law at the advanced parental age of 31.
Taking my inspiration from Bertrand Russell, who said, "One should as a rule, respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways," I reflected on the aspect of staying out of prison. This is of crucial importance to me, not for my own sake (I can be sick anywhere) but for my young son's. Once I resolved that I was prepared to fight any charge that might be brought upon me in the event I was caught with cannabis, the decision had made itself.
After managing to find some marijuana, it sat unused and hidden in a far corner of the house. I continued to suffer as before, but I'd lost my courage. I remembered being high as a teenager, and I didn't want to be like that again. I didn't want to lose control of myself amid a roomful of sober adults. My internal battle waged for four weeks. Four weeks of society's conditioning wearing away while I wept. Finally one night when the pain became too extraordinary, it was either try the pot or go to A&E to be scanned in case I'd had an aneurysm. In my hospital-jaded and exhausted state, I finally opted for the pot, reasoning that if it was an aneurysm it would still be there afterwards, but if not I'd feel better and save myself an unnecessary trip.
Within minutes of taking a small amount of cannabis there was not an inch of my body in pain, and my tremors had stopped. My body felt at peace, and I don't think I can ever convey the enormity of that to anyone. Nothing hurt or felt wrong. I was still weak, but I could move with as much ease and grace as I used to. Yes, I was intoxicated, but it was not how I remembered it from my teenage years. Perhaps it was the smaller amount I used, just enough to free my body from its prison. I felt I was smiling more than usual, but this truly seemed to be because the mantle of agony I am normally covered in had been lifted. I certainly wasn't hearing or saying unusual things. Nevertheless, the "high" period was brief yet the health effects remained for a full 24 hours. It seemed to be a miracle. I tried to imagine the warning label if this was manufactured by a pharmaceutical company: "Will induce slight giddiness and loss of any concept of time for approximately two hours. Full beneficial effects will continue for 24 hours." An acceptable trade-off?
I had two weeks of this beautiful cure, and every day of those two weeks I became stronger. I was able to take up activities long abandoned and sorely missed. The excitement my husband and I felt was palpable. If I took it slowly, I was nearly normal and every minute my brain was taken out of its loop it was being allowed to recover. Personally, this is a joy, but in the bigger picture it could be an economic blessing. If the sick and disabled can benefit from cannabis the benefits would be felt by relieving the strain on the NHS and allowing some patients or carers to return to the workforce.
Sadly I don't know how reliably I'll be able to find cannabis. After years of searching I found something that can make my life bearable, even productive, but it's just out of reach. I have every intention of continuing to seek it out, but I don't know how achievable it will be. If you've been touched by cancer, HIV, MS, fibromyalgia or rheumatoid arthritis you are among many who could possibly benefit from cannabis, but I would advise each person to fully research for themselves and speak to a trusted medical professional.
Most patients, friends, family members, doctors and politicians know that there is a great truth here that deserves more than it's receiving. We need widespread medical trials now, and laws quickly changed to reflect the findings. It seems what is holding us back is not truth, but fear. Fear of a deluge of change and a "too liberal" domino effect that cannot be anticipated. My life and my family traded for your peace of mind, so you can be sure everything is as it always was.
Of course medicinal cannabis doesn't have the same scope for making large pharmaceutical companies big profits that drugs such as Olanzapine or Lorazepam do. After all, how would you patent a daffodil? This would not be a deterrent for law-making in a civilised society, but in ours, perhaps. It's time that we collectively grew up, and realised that the longer this issue remains unresolved we are throwing lives, money and progress down the drain. This may be one case where the grass really is greener on the other side.
Marie Summers is a pseudonym
Cannabis as a medicine
* Research has indicated that cannabis can relieve pain and nausea and stimulate the appetite, and can also help with the symptoms of diseases such as HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis, but people who use cannabis regularly over a long period may develop a dependence on it.
* In 1999, a House of Lords inquiry recommended that cannabis be made available with a doctor's prescription. Long-term clinical trials have been authorised but no conclusions have been made.
* It is legal for medical use in countries including Canada, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Israel, Italy, Finland, Portugal and 14 US states.
* Medicinal cannabis is primarily smoked, but it can be administered in capsules or by eating or drinking extracts. The two main components are THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol). A high level of THC is what causes the user to get high, whereas higher levels of CBD lessen some of the effects of THC and increase others, making it more suitable for medicinal use.
* Colin Davies, 42, of Stockport was acquitted of supplying two MS sufferers with medical marijuana by Manchester Crown Court July 1999. Davies himself took the drug after suffering side-effects from prescription drugs. The judgment was the first of its kind in a British court.
* Jason Turner, 23, of Clifton, was spared jail by Nottingham Crown Court in 2009 after pleading guilty to producing cannabis in his loft, on the grounds that he needed it to help relieve the pain caused by the severe arthritis that he had experienced since birth.