Meniere’s Disease and Marijuana
I was struck with Meniere’s disease in the early hours of 30 October 2004. A bolt of lightening exploded just outside my bedroom window. I jerked upright in bed, alarmed by an uncomfortable feeling of pressure and the sound of static deep in my left ear. Over the next few days the pressure and hissing in my ear worsened; I began to experience dizziness and, with the dizziness, nausea.
Doctors at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center concluded that I had something called “Meniere’s disease.” My symptoms were classic: aural pressure (similar to not being able to clear your ears in a plane during take-off and landing), tinnitus (ringing, roaring, or other noises in the ear), low frequency hearing loss, and dizziness. While the underlying cause of the disease is largely unknown, there is general agreement that an excess of endolymph, the fluid contained in the membranous labyrinth of the inner ear, brings on the Meniere’s symptoms.
I was immediately placed on a diuretic to reduce my body fluid volume, and on a three-week dose of dexamethasone. Steroids are prescribed to Meniere’s patients to decrease inflammation and increase blood flow, which theoretically help stimulate the absorption and reduce the production of endolymph. I was told to adhere to a low-salt diet as salt causes fluid retention.
Unfortunately, the intensity of my symptoms continued to increase. I had my first vertigo attack in early February 2005. It was horrendous. I began hyperventilating in panic. My arms and legs went numb. I thought I was having a heart attack.
I was given prescriptions for Valium and Antivert. Yet the vertigo raged on unabated, overtaking me almost daily with no more than a few minutes warning. These “drop attacks” were so violent that I was unable to hold my head over the toilet. The best I could do was to lie (rather than fall) facedown on the floor, where I would remain for three or four hours retching onto the back of my hands and into my hair. First came up any food, liquid, and medication I had managed to ingest earlier. Next came bile, then convulsive dry heaving. Each stage would come in waves, and I would often pass out for a few minutes during the trough before the next mounting crest of nausea. The rest of the day or night, and sometimes both, would be spent in bed drugged up on Valium, Xanax, Zofran, Ativan, or Phenergan—whatever medication various physicians thought would ease the nausea and stop the vertigo.
I had a cabinet full of antiemetic drugs. Sometimes they helped; other times they didn’t, most specifically when they reappeared, half-dissolved, on the bathroom floor. The problem with pills is the requirement that they remain inside your body long enough for them to take effect. Another problem is that some of the less potent ones—those that don’t knock you sideways—don’t do a thing for really nasty nausea that is on the verge of morphing into projectile vomiting.
An old friend who is a gifted healer and knowledgeable herbalist came for a visit toward the end of March. My friend found me in deep despair mentally and bad repair physically. I had lost 17 pounds—fifteen percent of my body weight—over three months. She gave me a small amount of marijuana and a little wooden pipe. “See if this helps,” she said.
It did help. Marijuana didn’t cure my disease (there is no known cure for Meniere’s), but it did provide blessed, instantaneous relief from the crushing nausea. It didn’t stop the vertigo attacks—endolymph was building in my ear and would inevitably rupture. However, if I could manage to take a couple of inhalations before the vertigo knocked me flat, it could stave off the attack for a few hours. Those stolen hours offered time to further digest food or to take a walk with my dog. Marijuana also helped to squelch the panic that I felt in the face of an impending vertigo attack; and it temporarily lessened the depression I suffered over having had my life taken from me by this awful disease. Marijuana offered a reprieve from my anguish.
I was so desperate that I eventually chose to undergo a chemical labyrinthectomy (the perfusion of the inner ear with the ototoxins gentamicin or streptomycin), a surgical procedure that destroyed the hearing and vestibular function in my left ear. Although the vertigo was mostly resolved, I still have occasional bouts of dizziness that last for a day or two before subsiding. During those times, I keep the nausea and depression at bay by smoking a little marijuana.
Throughout the worst of my ordeal I tried to keep secret my use of marijuana, but was betrayed by a person who worked in my place of residence. Thus, in addition to the devastation of Meniere’s disease, I endured a humiliating and sensationalistic front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, which trumpeted my use of marijuana for “an inner ear ailment.” I paid a steep price for smoking cannabis to gain relief from a devastating illness—as do thousands of desperately sick and dying Americans every year.
I am grateful to now live in Massachusetts, where medical marijuana was legalized in November 2012. And where I am no longer considered to be a criminal.
Constance Bumgarner Gee was the first lady and a faculty member at Vanderbilt University, Brown University, and Ohio State University. Portions of this essay were adapted from her memoir Higher Education: Marijuana at the Mansion, available at http://www.marijuanaatthemansion.com.
Back to Shared Stories Index