By Aaron Patrick
I can’t sleep unless I drink myself unconscious. It seems I can’t do much of anything without a drink. They say alcohol is an anesthetic, but I’m not drinking to numb any pain. I’m drinking because I can’t feel anything at all. I’ve cauterized my feelings.
It’s been like this since I came home from Iraq. 6pm, I’m five drinks into my evening. This probably isn’t normal, but I’ve convinced myself PTSD is something that happens to other people.
The days are indistinct. I float through sleepless nights and identical days. The repetition of my daily routine saves me somewhat. I can move through the day on autopilot, disconnected from other human beings. Eventually, through the monotony, comes a thought: I’d be better off dead.
I find myself sitting in the VA waiting room. Others brought me here because, they tell me, I was wandering around the yard muttering how badly I needed to die.
During the blurry ride to the VA I contemplated leaping from the car. Not the way one thinks about making a decision but the way one reflects on something that has already been decided.
In the VA parking lot, I argued against the need for a doctor, insisted I be taken home. My partner managed to lead me inside. I’d begun to sober up a little by the time I finally saw a nurse. She was quiet around me. I realized I must be one of many veterans she sees like this. Suicidal, drunk, dangerously impulsive. The fact was humbling and depressing, and pacified me somehow.
The doctor’s words break through my anxious ruminations. He asks if I’ve ever been told I have PTSD. The tone in his voice makes it clear that I do, in fact, have PTSD.
I’m stunned. The doctor again breaks in, tells me that I don’t meet the requirements for an involuntary hold but I should return in the morning to be seen in the PTSD clinic.
On the way home I stare out the window. Tear pour down my cheeks. My body is responding to some unrealized emotion. I can’t stop wondering when this became my life—and what I’m going to do about it.
Following my PTSD diagnosis, I am presented with various treatment options: therapist, psychiatrist, medication, yoga, anything and everything to try and deal with this condition. At the VA I have a terrific treatment team and access to the latest treatments in the field of PTSD. But I’m still not getting better.
Cannabis is initially the furthest thing from my mind. In the military I was a military police (MP) soldier. It was my job to protect people from dangerous drugs like cannabis. But as time goes by and I don’t improve, I’m starting to give more credence to the veterans who are swearing by cannabis to treat PTSD. At this point, what do I have to lose?
I’m wary of asking anyone at the VA about cannabis. As a federal institution, it’s mandated to treat cannabis as an illegal Schedule I drug. Just uttering the word within the walls of the VA could put my entire treatment plan and coverage at risk.
And so I visit a private doctor. He tells me that cannabis can be helpful for some people struggling with PTSD. More importantly, he assures my former MP self that cannabis is perfectly legal in the state of Washington. I’m referred to a medical dispensary to obtain cannabis with my new medical authorization. Entering the dispensary is a bit overwhelming, and I defer to the budtenders, explaining that I have PTSD and am looking for indica strains based on my doctor’s recommendations. They send me out the door with pre-rolled joints of Black Cherry OG.
At home, I smoke. And expect to be immediately cured of PTSD.
If only it worked like that.
It doesn’t. The smoke does not instantly cure me. But I do begin to notice feelings like amusement, pleasure, and self-respect slipping in around the edges. I’m astonished to realize that I’m not numb. I’m feeling things, but I’m not overwhelmed by rage in the process. I start feeling more connected with others.
Over time I notice that I’m less anxious. I’m able to sleep better. Conventional treatments like therapy become more productive, as cannabis allows me calm access to more and more of my feelings and thoughts about the war.
My life is not magically fixed. But things do steadily improve by using cannabis and conventional medicine in tandem. I stop drinking. I go back to school. Ultimately, years later, I complete graduate school.
Cannabis gave me back my ability to feel, and in the process saved my life.
Aaron Patrick is a social worker and dad from Washington state. He served in the Washington Army National Guard from 2002 to 2010, including a deployment to Iraq during “The Troop Surge”. Aaron began his enlistment as an Avionics Equipment Repairer but reclassified to Military Police and deployed as a Military Police sergeant. His favorite strain is Sugar Plum.