In the past, I have had trouble talking about having Crohn’s Disease. It was just a reality I have lived with for over a decade but one I was loathe to discuss. It has been not just a major inconvenience in my life; it has altered its course significantly. The subject is emotionally difficult to explain because it is personal and unpleasant.
I felt compelled to share my story a couple years ago, as I weaned off the only pharmaceutical drug I was taking, Remicade, and have embarked on the journey of conquering my Crohn’s naturally through cannabis, diet and lifestyle. Since that time I have had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of people around the world embarking on the same healing journey. We are learning and healing together.
It isn’t just intuition, Internet research or hope that leads us to seek out cannabis as treatment; studies have proven smoked cannabis has a higher success rate than any pharmaceutical drug used to treat Crohn’s Disease, without unpleasant or deadly side effects. We don’t need the studies to know that, we live it, despite the fact that we must heal illegally.
Let’s see. Where do I begin…
It is difficult to explain to people what Crohn’s is, because it involves the digestive system and people like to just think it is IBS. It is not IBS. It’s especially hard to explain because the causes are unknown; it is a chronic illness that was only given a name in 1932.
Genetic factors can signal its onset, but I had no such forewarning. My mom was adopted in the 1960s, when laws pertaining to adoption allowed all records, including medical, to remain locked—even fifty years after the laws have changed. Some digging produced some vague birth records showing a great-grandmother and some biological relatives who died of their colon exploding inside of them. My doctors urged me to find family members who had the illness so they could try to find patterns. We found my biological grandmother in Pennsylvania, but she wanted nothing to do with either me or my family and refused to provide any medical records.
I began fasting in middle school, but I didn’t start seriously starving myself to the point of illness until my sophomore year of high school. Some people believe malnutrition can be a trigger for those who carry the gene and I think so, too. By my senior year I was in such terrible pain I would double over crying at night, unable to sleep. A nutritionist my doctor sent me to said it was my vegetarian diet and I needed more protein. I started puking everything I ate. The starving became involuntary.
The day I graduated high school all the other students were lined up ready to process into the auditorium discussing their college plans, I was sitting against a wall trying to regain my composure to get up and walk across the stage with everyone else, biting on my hand to get through the pain so hard I broke skin. That summer before college was pretty miserable. I was in and out of doctors’ offices while trying to make plans to move over 300 miles away for college.
Entering the college scene with a disability.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease three days before I moved into the dorms at San Francisco State University. I spent much of my first semester in my dorm bed under mounds of blankets with the heat blasting because I couldn’t eat food and I just never could get warm. As it turned out, I had a blockage in my large intestine that had caused inflammation, which in turn shut my whole body down.
I was desperately trying to maintain a normal social life just after moving to a brand new place without friends or family. That November before going to a dinner party a co-worker was throwing, I decided to shower and get ready in our shared hall bathrooms. I got in the shower and shivered so hard I couldn’t stop shaking. I kept turning the knob higher and higher until my skin was lobster red and near blistering. Though I had begun to burn my skin, I couldn’t feel it. I reluctantly got out of the shower and moved into a stall to put my clothes on. As I zipped up the back of my dress I started to get dizzy. I clutched a wall for a moment, telling myself to keep it together, before I collapsed on the concrete floor.
A couple of minutes later a girl from down the hall found me on the floor, lifted me up and walked me back to my room. The first thing I said was “don’t tell my mom, I have a party to go to tonight…” before passing out in the bed again. Thankfully, she and my roommate ignored my suggestion and found my mom’s number in my cell phone. She told them to take me to the hospital immediately.
When I got there, the doctor was ready to do emergency surgery to remove the blockage. I stubbornly pleaded with the doctors to find another way – after all, I had this crazy idea I was going to complete my Bachelor’s Degree in only three years and it was late in the semester to be dropping my classes for a surgery. The surgeons inserted a tube through my nose that snaked down my esophagus into my stomach for two days while it drained the bile built up behind the blockage that was turning toxic. I had become anemic, which in turn caused the unshakeable cold and fainting.
Luckily, the doctor who treated me knew a specialist and major researcher in the field at UCSF, a world-renowned medical research school.
The specialist removed the tube, allowing me to speak aloud for the first time in days. We agreed to do the surgery over my spring break in March 2005 as long as I promised to take the prescribed medications and my condition didn’t worsen.
I started taking a lot of pills.
I was always the youngest person by at least 40 years in my local pharmacy. One of the pills, Asacol, I seemed to be taking all day with no perceived benefit. The one that stood out the worst for me though was Prednisone. Prednisone is a steroid used to reduce inflammation and is typically prescribed to people suffering with arthritis. It caused me to gain 10 pounds of water weight almost immediately. When I stood up to walk to class I would have sloshly ankles within minutes, so I started taking a shuttle to the other end of campus when I became unable to make the walk. My otherwise clear skin broke out in a bad way. I had mood swings; any little thing would set me off crying or picking fights. I remember one particularly depressing Friday night when the dorms were abuzz with partiers and I was watching Oprah with my feet propped up and crying into a carton of strawberry ice cream like a pregnant woman.
I made it to March, miserably, and then I went in for surgery. Because I was only 18-years-old they wanted to do what they could to not to scar up my body too much, so they did the surgery laparoscopically (with lasers) and pulled the damaged part of my intestine out through my belly button and glued it back together. While this procedure avoided any major scarring, to this day my skin’s misalignment becomes apparent when I gain and lose weight, which I do constantly because… I have Crohn’s Disease.
I came out of the surgery a little angry. A nurse commented to me that the surgery was more painful than childbirth so it should be a breeze when I start having my own. Why would an 18-year-old who just had their body torn open even care about childbirth?! I think it was her way of telling me it was okay that I was constantly tapping at the morphine drip button they put in my hand. I was using it to put myself to sleep. I was even angrier when they started telling me about all the meds they wanted to give me and when they told me that I had an 80 percent chance of having to do this again in two years, and AGAIN two years after that until I would eventually have to carry a colostomy bag because I didn’t have enough intestine left. I wasn’t going to accept it. The doctors painted a very bleak and expensive picture of my future, right when it was just getting started.
Time To Give Natural Medicine a Try…
I had smoked cannabis regularly in high school, but my D.A.R.E. education still stigmatized my use. Proposition 215 had already passed but there were no medical cannabis clubs in my conservative, rural, part of California. We still had to buy our pot from shady street dealers.
Moving to San Francisco and seeing the dispensary and medical card ads in the back of the free weeklies was a revelation. I was nervous about getting a medical cannabis recommendation because of the rumors I heard about government watch lists. But I knew I didn’t want to take any more of those pills, the effects of the pills were worse than the actual Crohn’s both mentally and physically.
I also had classmates at journalism school chastise me for wanting to write about medical cannabis, like it was some funny joke. I stopped telling people about it unless they were already “in the know.”
My first “pot doctor” put me at ease immediately. Oddly enough he was the first doctor to ever even ask me about my diet and lifestyle; my gastroenterologists just wanted to talk about symptoms and drugs.
He started telling me how I should use it for my Crohn’s Disease, how it would help me stop the pills and actually feel better. He made me feel normal, comfortable. I got to ask him all the questions my traditional doctors wouldn’t answer and he answered honestly. He said there needed to be more studies, but from what he was seeing with other people like me, cannabis was working. I asked my doctor at UCSF about it on the next visit, she briefly said she had heard encouraging things but she couldn’t recommend cannabis to me. Politics, you understand.
Over the years I researched holistic medicine and integrated that into my daily routine. For the last two years I have been 100 percent pharmaceutical free, regularly hiking and doing yoga, and eating a whole foods anti-inflammatory diet.
I also smoked a lot of pot. I would be lying if I said I only smoked pot to ease the pain. Sometimes I smoke pot because I like it. Sometimes my brain is just as sick as my body and it feels good to do something to help myself instead of relying on everyone else.
A Decade Later I’m Healthy.
This March marked 10 years since my surgery and this August will mark 11 since my diagnosis. I show no signs of needing surgery again. I have been able to finish an undergraduate degree in 3.5 years (just shy of my goal of three), get a master’s, travel, have a career and be an active participant in my life. My health is one hundred percent attributable to my decision to ignore everyone’s discouragement years ago and replace all those drugs with cannabis.
While my story is one of hope and success, it is also a plea to others to push for drug policy reform because people still go to jail for cannabis. All across the country military-style SWAT raids are conducted on peaceful people because of cannabis. We all need to “come out” and talk about this, to tell our stories.
Cannabis isn’t a deadly drug, it is a plant with the potential to replace thousands (if not more) of deadly pharmaceuticals. It’s how people like me—your friend, acquaintance, daughter, sister, cousin, coworker, teenage daughter buying pot from a drug dealer—get to live a quality life. After all, isn’t that what we all want?