Illustration by Genevieve Pizzale Image by: Getty Images
Far from just a tool to get high, cannabis helped this family cope with a brain injury and all its effects.
The writer wishes to remain anonymous.
*Name has been changed
It was 1 AM when my brother burst into our parents’ room sobbing. He’d just gotten home from hanging out at a friend’s house. “Mom, I smoked pot for the first time tonight,” he said choking back tears, “and it was the first time I’ve ever been able to follow a group conversation.”
He was twenty-one.
Tim* has FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), a permanent brain injury caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. My family wasn’t aware of this when we adopted him, and he didn’t get a proper diagnosis until his teen years. FASD can look a lot like severe ADHD, but none of the regular interventions help, including medication. In fact, medication generally has a drastically different, or no effect at all, on people with FASD. For example, Tim never feels frozen when he gets a cavity filled (and you thought you hated the dentist!). So, when trying to manage his crippling anxiety, poor focus, and executive functioning issues, his journey with medication has been trial and error. And error. And error.
Before Tim used cannabis his anxiety was so bad he rarely left the basement, let alone the house. He would get so nervous about upcoming family gatherings that he would stop eating days before. Having a conversation with him was challenging to say the least. His train of thought would jump around and he’d end up angry and frustrated at not being able to express himself.
Since the discovery of cannabis when he was twenty-one, Tim has medicated himself with marijuana and for years he bought weed on the street. My parents, seeing how necessary it was that he took cannabis, combined with the legal implications and uncertainty of what strength and strain he was buying on the street, helped him apply for a medical marijuana license. They started researching different strains and chose ones with higher CBD (the element in cannabis that helps with anxiety), and less THC (which causes the “stoned” feeling). After a few tries, they settled on two different strains. One, to help with his focus and anxiety, used during the day, and another to help at night with the sleep issues that affect almost everyone with FASD. They tried this new regimen... and succeeded. The effect was immediate. Tim had better focus, better sleep, and his anxiety was finally being managed. Most importantly, he was happy.
However, Tim using marijuana as the primary treatment of his FASD has had its challenges. To maintain the license, you have to renew it every 6 months and fill out pages of paperwork. For someone with a brain-based disability this would be close to impossible to accomplish alone. My brother can’t tell time and rarely knows what day of the week it is. You can imagine how difficult any type of bureaucratic paperwork can be. Another problem is the method of ingesting the medication. The safest way to consume cannabis is through oils or edibles. However, taken in this form the effects don’t kick in for up to two hours, and for someone with FASD and no concept of time, on top of issues with impulsivity control, this can be very problematic. There’s a likely chance this would lead Tim taking way more than the prescribed amount when after half an hour the effects haven’t been felt. Vaporizing, though it’s the recommended method for people with brain injuries, proved too slow to take effect as well. So Tim smokes. Smoking is the most direct way to immediately ease an anxiety attack, and the marijuana’s effects can be felt almost immediately. We know it’s bad for his lungs but we’ve weighed the risks and rewards—and the rewards are many.
The first time I saw my brother high was also the first time I can remember that he was able to sit at the dinner table for the entire meal. He even participated in the conversation, which, miraculously, didn’t end in yelling. He went from avoiding all big family functions to standing beside my husband as a groomsman in our wedding. Tim has always had a sense of humour but since using cannabis he’s relaxed enough to use it. Whether it’s poking fun at our dad’s eclectic sense of style or our mom’s driving, we have a new comradery and united front as brother and sister. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing that. Despite his disability, cannabis has enabled Tim to better maintain relationships, to not live in fear and isolation, and to more fully participate in his own life.