Okay, y’all. Buckle your seatbelts, because this one is about to be personal. Really personal.
One of the reasons I’ve been having such a difficult time with my anxiety and depression this year is because I’ve had physical health issues coinciding with my mental health issues. The primary physical problem I was (and am) dealing with is gastrointestinal distress. Because of my family history of colon cancer and because there has been a sharp rise in colorectal cancer diagnoses among young people (including a 32-year-old friend of mine), I decided it was time to demand to have my issues taken seriously. I went to my doctor in June after a serious bout of GI distress had left me quite shaken. She was of the mind that I should get my entire body checked out, including my my reproductive system and vagina. I was sure that this area was working just fine, and anything related to it would be ruled out.
I was wrong.
The first appointment I went to was for a pelvic ultrasound. Having grown up in rural Montana and never having birthed a child meant that I had no idea what a pelvic ultrasound actually was. I just assumed it was an ultrasound that happened to be positioned lower. That’s a big ol’ NOPE. A pelvic ultrasound involves a wand. ‘Nuff said.
After my ultrasound appointment, I received a call from the office that said they found uterine fibroids and endometrial polyps. This warranted a follow-up with an OB/GYN. At that appointment, I received news that I likely have endometriosis. I was given a similar diagnosis when I was a young girl, around twelve years old. While these situations need to be monitored, they will likely be fine and not develop into anything more serious.
There was one other issue my doctor and I addressed: pain during penetration. Because I’m a lesbian, this pain isn’t something that completely hinders my sexual relationships, but it certainly doesn’t make it easier. For women with a history of sexual abuse and assault, this kind of pain isn’t unusual either, and I’ve always taken it in stride. I assumed this was something I would always deal with, and that this is just how my body works. Imagine my surprise, then, when the doctor asked, “Do you want to try to fix this?”
Fix it? You mean, you can fix it?
The OB/GYN wrote me a referral for a pelvic floor physical therapist. Did you know such a specialty existed? If you did, it’s probably because you’ve got a good doctor. Hold onto that one. I had no fucking clue.
During the days between my OB/GYN appointment and my first appointment with my pelvic floor physical therapist, I tried to imagine what pelvic floor physical therapy involved. In the worst case scenarios in my head, I would be splayed out on a table while someone dug their hands inside me to stretch and tug me into submission. I made a deal with myself that if anything of the sort happened, I would high-tail it out of there.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
My first visit did involve a sensor that I had to place inside me and then do simple exercises. This measured the tension in the pelvic floor muscle. It turned out that at rest my muscle was almost four times tighter than it was supposed to be. The physical therapist then told me all about the autonomic nervous system, which controls all of our involuntary bodily functions such as breathing and digestion. This is also the system that works with the brain to determine a fight or flight situation. She explained that because I have high anxiety, my body is almost always living in fight or flight mode, which means my muscles are more tense and blood doesn’t flow to my extremities as well as it should (leaving me with very cold ankles and feet). She also walked me through how my past experiences with abuse and assault might lead to an involuntary reaction in my body when it comes to sex–that even though I might be consenting and willing to engage in something with a loving partner, my body might batten down the hatches and close up the wall, making things painful for me.
In order to take this issue on, I am supposed to come at it from two sides. The first is some simple physical exercises, like squeezing a pillow between my knees twice a day. The second and largely much more difficult task for me is taking on my brain. I am supposed to engage in physiological quieting on a regular basis. This involves lots of deep breathing, focusing on relaxing my body one part at a time, visualizing warmth in my hands and feet, and generally trying to quiet my mind.
Guys, this shit is hard. I can train for a marathon. I can bike 25 miles. I can complete the 30-day Shred. I can grade 60 essays by eighth-graders (YOU try it). But what I can’t do is meditate. I just can’t seem to stop my brain from racing. No matter how tired I am, no matter how little sleep I’ve gotten, no matter how much I really, really want to be peaceful and calm, my brain won’t allow it. It ping-pongs from this worry to that worry, from this obligation to that responsibility, this shortcoming to that one. It’s exhausting, and yet I am never exhausted enough for it to stop and let me rest.
That brings me to this week’s new thing: pot.
You heard me right. Pot. See, I live in the state of Washington, where recreational marijuana is legal. So this past weekend I decided that this week’s new thing would be to try an over-the-counter legal edible.
I was a pothead for a few years in my teens and twenties. That is, until my anxiety caught up with me and every single high was worse than the last. Paranoid doesn’t even begin to cover how terrible smoking eventually made me feel. I stopped when I was in my early twenties, and didn’t touch weed again until this past weekend (with one exception involving a friend who is a pot connoisseur and who convinced me smoking with her would be fine–it wasn’t).
There were a few things I knew needed to be clear before I was willing to risk the possibility that doing pot might actually increase my anxiety. The most important was the environment in which I would try the drug. I decided I must be home in the apartment I share with my wife, that we would imbibe in the evening after dinner (as you might with a glass of wine), that we would not leave the house, drive, or in any way trigger paranoia or anxiety, and that we would take the recommended dose and not a bit more. I also wanted to be sure that I tried it on a weekend night, and not a weekday, and to do it before the school year officially started.
So on Friday afternoon, my wife and I parked downtown and walked to Lucky Leaf. The block the store is on certainly isn’t the greatest. I was nervous as I walked by two shirtless men hovering outside the front door. I also absolutely hate looking stupid, so walking into the store not knowing how buying pot legally worked was far more terrifying to me than actually eating the treat. If the goal of this project is to put myself in situations that force me to try to deal with my anxiety, this was certainly a test. There was a line full of people who were clearly not first-timers. There were products galore with walls lined with stuff from floor to ceiling. There was even a TV that featured that day’s current lineup of strains (much like a craft beer bar). I was way out of my league.
Thankfully, everything went very smoothly.
When our budtender called us up to the counter he asked what we were there to purchase. We told him we wanted an edible that produced a mellow high to help with anxiety and insomnia. He escorted us to the edibles area and went through what he thought our best choices were. We settled on some caramels, paid $36 in cash, and left the store with our loot. Walking out in broad daylight with a package of pot-infused candy is definitely weird if you’ve never done it before, or if your experiences with marijuana were exclusively done illegally.
That night we ate dinner, washed the dishes, and settled in for the evening. We each grabbed one individually wrapped caramel and ate them together. Then we curled up on the couch and caught up on some of our favorite shows from the week. It took about 45 minutes for the THC to begin working on me, and almost an hour for my wife.
For the first half hour or so, we were quite giggly. Nothing in particular was funny, and yet everything seemed to bring a smile to my face. What a wonderful state of being–to be able to smile with ease, without thought. Even if I tried to concentrate on something that worried me, it would flit away like a dragonfly on its way to a new flower.
After the initial phase passed, my eyelids became heavy, my breathing slowed, and my entire body felt utterly relaxed. This was very good because at my physical therapy session earlier in the day, I was treated with a technique called strain/counterstrain, or as I like to call it, witchcraft.
In all seriousness, this woman was able to pinpoint places on my body that were in pain (some I didn’t even realize until she poked them) based on the shape of my head. (I told you, witchcraft.) Then she would press down on the painful spots while gently pulling or pressing another part of my body. PRESTO! Pain vanished. After she did that over half of my body, she told me that I needed to drink lots of water and stay away from alcohol and caffeine. She said I probably wouldn’t feel well afterwards.
Boy, was she right. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. More accurately, I felt the way I do after a very long run, when my muscles aren’t necessarily hurting, but they feel…weird. That feeling is from the release of lactic acid. After she did the strain/counterstrain technique on me, it released lactic acid throughout my entire body, hence the reason for drinking lots of water and staying away from dehydrating substances. She didn’t say anything about staying away from cannabis, so I took this opportunity to step away from alcohol (which I was glad to do) and try something new.
I can’t recall a time I felt more relaxed in my entire adult life than I did on Friday night. I felt it physically and mentally. I slept almost nine full hours, with very few waking moments (and none that I actually remember). After spending the last two months getting up multiple times a night to pee, sleeping through the night was positively glorious. I woke up refreshed, and, if you can believe it, excited. I was nearly giddy all day. I was excited to be alive, to be present. I bounced around Wal-mart getting school supplies for our foster son, braved Costco on a Saturday afternoon the weekend before school starts (something that usually would raise my anxiety so high I’d probably wait in the car), attended a political fundraiser filled with strangers, and all the while I felt…fine.
Later that night I went out with friends and had far too many drinks. Today I don’t feel fine. I feel heavy, sluggish, worthless, anxious. The difference is staggering.
I still don’t know if I will be able to eat a cannabis-infused edible on a weeknight, but I think I will give it a shot if I reach the same point of physical and mental exhaustion that I was at this week. I was also gifted a cannabis tincture to try, which has half the dose as our caramels. In the near future I will almost certainly put a few drops in a mug of hot tea a few hours before bed.
Just the thought of it is relaxing. I can almost feel the waves flowing over me as my blood absorbs and pushes the chemical through my body.
I know that this first experience could very possibly be my one and only positive experience. Pot can have the opposite effect of relaxation to those of us with chemical imbalances in our brain. It can cause more anxiety. This is why I plan to use the drug sparingly, and always in a very controlled environment that helps limit the possibilities of anxiety-inducing situations.
In the meantime, I am grateful for the one night I slept well and the one day when everything seemed okay. We all deserve one day of feeling fine.