I am the atypical weed user. I’m over 50, retired, in pain and I partake.
At the fringes of Colorado’s marijuana debate are the stereotypes and the not so typical partakers of cannabis. They are only atypical because they are everyday Coloradans who just so happen to partake.
Editor’s note: This is a first is a series by Lisa Wheeler who will look at what has generally been the silent group of cannabis consumers in Southern Colorado.
The walls in the waiting room are plain white—the first thing I notice when I walk into the clinic. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Yes, I was. I was envisioning black-light posters, and patchouli incense sticks, and a doctor who could have been David Wooderson with a medical degree (or maybe I’m thinking of a recent Matthew McConaughey dream?). My being here is very surreal. The room is not packed with the barely legal tourists, but instead filled with an over-50 crowd, along with their caregivers, friends, or family members. Walkers, crutches, and oxygen tanks take up space in the waiting area, as I inch my way over to the receptionist to hand over all of my paperwork, and new Colorado driver’s license. How did I end up in a doctor’s office, applying for my medical marijuana card?
It was the pain.
It all started about five years previous, I was living in Austin, TX, and I had what seemed like usual aging aches and pains for a 50-year old. I kept active by running half marathons, albeit slowly. By luck of the draw, I won a place in the New York City Marathon, which meant training in what would become the hottest year on record for the state. During the course of preparation, my aging aches became worse, and started to spread – my back pain was unbearable, which seemed to radiate to my knees, then my face, neck and shoulders. The muscle spasms were keeping me up at night. I chalked it all up to just being nervous about the big race, or my body rebelling against the punishing training in 100-degree heat, but after I crossed the Manhattan finish line, the pain didn’t go away. I went to the doctor.
“You need physical therapy,” my doctor said. “I’m also going to give you some painkillers to get you through the day.” In and out with prescriptions in hand, that was it. But it wasn’t. After months of cat and camel, clam, and pelvis rotating poses, the pain continued—the physical therapy only made it worse, and the now three-times-daily hydrocodone was affecting life at home and work.
I quickly learned that “You might” and “Let’s run some tests” were code phrases for we have no idea what’s wrong. I was a regular so much at the hospital’s imaging center that I joked that they should name the wing after me. The thickness of my doctor’s chart was bordering on War and Peace. It stopped being funny.
Spine x-rays and MRIs showed arthritis, disc bulge, herniation, spurring, and stenosis. More MRIs revealed a torn meniscus and arthritis in my knee. An ultrasound determined my muscle spasms were proctalgia fugax and pelvic floor dysfunction. The face pain was due to trigeminal neuralgia, and the overall body pain was diagnosed as fibromyalgia. My insurance denied surgery, but approved more physical therapy. My doctor gave me more pain pills.
My medicine cabinet became a pharmacy. Hydrocodone or Oxycontin for the pain, Cyclobenzaprine for the muscle spasms, Savella for the fibromyalgia, Gabapentin for the neuralgia, and Trazodone for sleep. When I wasn’t suffering from intense headaches from one pill, I was down for the count from another. The anxiety was unbearable. My doctor then suggested I go to a therapist to help me mentally cope with my physical issues. I was a mess.
I had been reading about alternative medicines for pain and muscle spasms, and my husband, who has virgin lungs and could pass any DEA test, suggested I try cannabis. Getting high in Texas was dicey. Call it paranoia or the anxiety of losing my government job, but I thought it was safer to fill my body with legal, FDA-approved prescriptions than take a chance with a friend’s easily accessible homegrown. Besides, my history with marijuana was a sitcom script.
The first time I smoked weed was in 1980. A family member lit up a glass pipe in my mother’s Pueblo backyard, and handed it to me. I coughed until I puked. A few months later I found myself on a date with a guy who filled me up with his hash brownies, and took me out to a cliff in Manitou to show me where he said Satanists hold their rituals (I doubted the two campers I saw below were practicing anything other than cooking hamburgers, but it made for a memorable evening). Flash-forward a couple of years later, when I attempted to smoke from a bong for the first time – and being very grateful that there was no YouTube in 1982 to record my instructor telling me to get the best hit I had to wrap my entire mouth around the mouthpiece. Considering cannabis as something that could help with my myriad of physical ailments wasn’t even on my radar.
Then one day I received the official notification – I was eligible to retire from my Texas state government gig. My husband soon found a job in Colorado. I was finally coming home.
The four months we were apart, setting up a home in Colorado and selling the house in Austin, had me racking up frequent flyer miles, and essentially being a lab rat when I visited. The goal was simple, or so I thought: I didn’t want to get stoned. I wanted relief. After my first ever trip to a dispensary, and a lengthy Q&A with the very patient budtender, I tried the strain he recommended. For the first time in years I slept for eight hours straight that night, and my back and neck pain had subsided.
I woke up and cried.
Due to my not-quite-resident status, I took advantage of the tourist dispensaries while in town. It was trial and error, and I quickly discovered what worked and what didn’t. By the time I had moved up in October I was off most of my pills, and I was sleeping. The pain was now manageable. It was apparent that there was nothing recreational about what I was doing and why.
The clinic’s office receptionist tells me the doctor will see me now. Armed with my Tolstoy-sized medical records, I shake hands with someone who could easily pass for my late grandfather, who I called Papa. A tall, athletic-looking man, dressed in running shoes, jeans and a casual shirt. His appearance puts me at instant ease. He grabs my charts and pours through the heap of recent and past test results, scans…and drugs.
“Were they trying to kill you?”
The question startled me, as I was anticipating the “You might” or the “Let’s run some tests” I was so used to in Texas. Doctor Papa admitted to being appalled by my current treatment, or lack thereof, and was shocked by the number of “legal” drugs I was being prescribed. He intently listens to my story, takes notes, then proceeds to spend over 30 minutes explaining what medical cannabis can and can’t do for me, what I should take, how much, when, and what I should expect, as well as other pain management options to consider. The visit was not the revolving door, hand over your papers to the doctor and they will sign, appointment I was led to believe happens at these clinics. I walk out of the room, with my signed temporary documents feeling educated, and more importantly, validated as a medical marijuana patient.
I walk past the plain white waiting room walls and smile. It’s a clean slate.