How pot helped me with PTSD

When I re­turned home from an eight-month tour in Afghanistan, my PTSD al­most killed me. Then I dis­cov­ered the magic of cannabis

Toronto Life - - Front Page - by chris du­pee Chris Du­pee is a vet­eran, founder of Mil­i­tary Minds and co-founder of Ca­dence Health and Wellness Inc. Email sub­mis­sions to me­moir@toron­to­

I hardly knew any­thing about the mil­i­tary when I en­listed 12 years ago. I couldn’t have told you the dif­fer­ence be­tween the army and the navy, let alone the or­der of mil­i­tary ranks. But I al­ways wanted to help peo­ple, and fight­ing for my coun­try seemed like a good way to do that. For years, I bounced from base to base, learn­ing ba­sics in Que­bec, do­ing drills in Alberta, jump­ing out of planes in Tren­ton. The train­ing was re­lent­less but re­ward­ing. Fi­nally, in 2008, my unit was de­ployed to Afghanistan. I said good­bye to my wife, An­gel, and our three lit­tle girls, know­ing it could be the last time I saw them.

Alarms were blar­ing when we landed in Kan­da­har. I was ush­ered into a bunker, where a su­pe­rior calmly told us that a rocket had hit the base. His non­cha­lance was con­fus­ing yet com­fort­ing—if he wasn’t wor­ried, maybe there was noth­ing to worry about. The camp was the size of a small city, he ex­plained, and rock­ets hit all the time. “Wel­come to Afghanistan,” he said.

My tour lasted eight months. Some days, I scouted en­emy po­si­tions from the gun­ner seat of a light ar­moured ve­hi­cle, rolling through the dusty Afghan coun­try­side. Other times, I kept watch on the base. I was sus­pi­cious of ev­ery­thing I saw: an unat­tended bag, a vil­lager wear­ing un­usual clothes, a util­ity pole by the side of the road. My vig­i­lance paid off. Though I was in a num­ber of fire­fights and trav­elled roads rid­dled with IEDs, I was never hurt.

Life on the base was harder than life in the field. I ached to see my fam­ily. Once, in the mid­dle of a call home, my wife screamed, “Oh my god, she’s chok­ing!” and hung up. I tried to call back, but I couldn’t get through. An­gel had no way to reach me, so for an en­tire day and night, I waited help­lessly, won­der­ing what had hap­pened. The next day, when I got word that ev­ery­thing was okay, I un­der­stood why so many phones and com­put­ers at the base were bro­ken, smashed by sol­diers en­raged by one dis­tant tragedy or another.

When my tour ended, my unit went to Cyprus for what the mil­i­tary calls “de­com­pres­sion.” We rode Sea-Doos by day and par­tied by night. Doctors warned us about the pos­si­bil­ity of PTSD, but most of us were too hun­gover to care. Be­sides, I thought, I was fine. None of this ap­plied to me.

I was wrong. Back home, sta­tioned at the Downsview base, I couldn’t turn off the part of my brain that treated ev­ery­thing as a threat. My mind raced so fran­ti­cally that I had trou­ble sleep­ing, and even the small­est things caught me off guard. Once, dur­ing an ar­gu­ment with my wife, I punched a hole in the wall.

At my an­nual phys­i­cal, the base doc­tor rec­om­mended I get help. A psy­chi­a­trist di­ag­nosed me with PTSD, those four let­ters I had dis­missed back in Cyprus, and pre­scribed an­tide­pres­sants and sleep­ing pills. It was a re­lief to un­der­stand my sud­den short tem­per, but the news stung. My di­ag­no­sis ended my mil­i­tary ca­reer: I was dis­charged just be­fore I hit the 10-year mark.

Be­fore I left the army, I founded a sup­port net­work for sol­diers liv­ing with PTSD, where vet­er­ans from around the world could share their sto­ries and con­nect with pro­fes­sional ser­vices. Our work saved lives, but I was los­ing con­trol of mine. Des­per­ate to ease my chaotic mind, I started tak­ing too many sleep­ing pills. Some days I slept for 12, 18, even 24 hours at a time. My drug use drove me away from my home and fam­ily, and for more than a year, I lived out of my truck, swal­low­ing pills and hop­ing ev­ery­thing would be bet­ter when I woke up. It never was.

One day in 2014, I re­ceived a Face­book mes­sage from the co-founder of a med­i­cal cannabis com­pany for vet­er­ans in New Brunswick. He’d heard about my work and wanted to tell me about his busi­ness. I’d smoked a lit­tle in high school, but I’d never thought of mar­i­juana as medicine. Still, I was so ea­ger to try any­thing that might help, I drove 14 hours to get a pre­scrip­tion. When I first tried cannabis oil cap­sules, I was floored. The sen­sory over­load was gone, and wor­ries stopped cir­cling around in my head. The oil made me alert and en­gaged, not slug­gish or high. I felt like my­self again.

I took a job as the com­pany’s On­tario rep­re­sen­ta­tive. We pro­vided re­lief to 1,500 vet­er­ans— in­clud­ing me. I took cannabis cap­sules daily. And while they helped me pick my­self up, I needed my fam­ily’s love to feel whole again. A year and a half ago, af­ter many apolo­gies and a lot of tears, I moved back in.

Life hasn’t been per­fect. I still struc­ture my rou­tines around my ill­ness: I stay off busy streets to avoid trig­ger­ing my road rage, and I try not to spend too much time alone with my thoughts. But with­out my ex­pe­ri­ences, I would have never re­al­ized one of my proud­est ac­com­plish­ments: co-found­ing, with my wife, a clinic in New­mar­ket that of­fers men­tal health ser­vices for mil­i­tary, fire­fight­ers, po­lice and paramedics. I’ve re­al­ized I don’t need to be in the mil­i­tary to make a dif­fer­ence. Help­ing from the side­lines can be just as good.

Des­per­ate to ease my chaotic mind, I took too many sleep­ing pills

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