Cannabis and PTSD
Michael McKenna is a Vietnam veteran who suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder. He reports his descent into a profound addiction to heroin, and his use of cannabis as a singular medicine for becoming human.
My name is Michael McKenna. I’m 46 years old, and I’ve been using marihuana on and off since 1970. I’ve gone without it for long periods, but I use it today and probably will for the rest of my life. I have no choice. I went to Vietnam right after my 18th birthday. When I had been there for two weeks, our company lost the first men that I knew. Back at base camp, I sat in the dark by myself wondering what the hell had happened. I asked myself where these souls went, and was there a heaven for men who died the way they did. As I stared into the darkness I heard a voice behind me say “Man, you shouldn’t be out here by yourself thinking about this shit or you’ll go nuts.” I couldn’t look him in the face and didn’t even look up for fear that he would see the tears in my eyes. He told me I needed to get drunk to forget it and go on, or I would die there. I told him I didn’t drink, and he said he would be right back. When he returned he had a big joint and asked if I had tried pot before. I told him that I had, a couple of times. He said this shit was about 100 times stronger than anything in the States and I should only smoke a little. Then he left.
That night alone in the dark, I smoked the whole thing, and I’ve never regretted it. He had given me my mental survival tool. It did not make me forget, just allowed me to digest the pain and fear peacefully and respectfully with dignity. I’m sure you’ve heard before that over there we had Jesus freaks, straights, potheads, and diesel freaks (drinkers). While the diesel freaks made up the majority, pot smoking became more and more open. The straights became potheads by the drove.
My job over there meant I had to deal not only with our dead but theirs also, along with murders, suicides and heroin overdoses. I did not allow my crew to get high on the job, but when we hit camp we all smoked. There was not one drinker in my crew, because we had to move on a moment’s notice, and you could not trust the drunks to be ready or sometimes even able. The potheads came through like champs, always ready, always able. When I returned home, I was hit by the same crap that most other vets got: unemployable, hate, prejudice, called all of the names I’m sure you’ve heard. All you had was family and close friends, and that didn’t last, because in your head they knew that you were the murdering, rapist scum that they had been reading about and seeing on the news. So I threw away all the people who knew me and loved me and turned to vets and then threw them away too, just as some had thrown me away because they knew the scum that I was. Soon no one I was seeing even knew I had even been in the Army, and I wasn’t talking. My way to cope was heavy drugs and booze.
About this time my father (a combat vet from WWII) told me in a loving way that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t adjusting. He saw death in my eyes, and knew that I was killing myself. He and my Mom begged me to get help before it was too late, or my rage and anger would kill me or someone else. So with my Dad almost holding my hand, we went to the VA hospital in St. Louis. They told me there that I didn’t really have a nervous problem, and in time I would adjust like everyone else who had served in combat. They gave me Valium and told me to come back in 90 days. When I went back and told them the Valium wasn’t working, they said there was nothing else they could do, and I had to live with it. I began to hit the drugs even harder, running all over the country from my demons. Eventually I got strung out on heroin, a $500 a day habit. When I found myself thinking about robbing places because I could no longer support my habit, I decided to quit so I wouldn’t hurt my family any more. All the people I knew who took methadone in the morning were still doing heroin at night, so I decided to quit cold turkey.
I called my father to come and get me. All I told him was that I need his help. He never asked why, and I never told him until later, but he knew anyway. He put me in a camper on his property not too far from their home, and then the hell began. He watched me from time to time, puking, screaming, not able to sleep or even stay in the trailer. I would build campfires to sleep by, if I slept at all. If the fire went out, he would keep it going when I didn’t even know he was there.
On the third day, while I was rolling on the ground screaming in pain and puke, a yellow convertible pulled in and a barefoot guy with waist-long hair and no shirt got out. He said my father had sent him to help me. Seeing my confusion, he said, “Just call me Dr. Jim, and you’re going to sleep tonight.” He had a bag of pot and a gallon of whiskey. I told him to take his shit and get out. Pot wasn’t going to do shit, and the whiskey would probably kill me. But he said getting drunk would help me sleep, and the pot would make the withdrawal less violent and help with the puking. I stayed drunk and high for a week.
When I finally went to my Dad’s to take a shower, he came over and hugged me, as nasty and disgusting as I was, with tears in his eyes. He told me that I had been through enough, that he would have gone through the withdrawal for me if he could have, but that I still had a long way to go. He said that he was never so proud of me as he was when he realized that I wasn’t going to turn back to heroin instead of continuing the withdrawal. He suggested that I quit the booze, but maybe the pot wasn’t a bad thing. Well, I drifted away from the other drugs, but continued to drink and smoke pot. I was unknowingly starting to refine my own treatment. Pot was no longer just a party high for me but a survival tool. I used it to cope with everyday things that others seemed to do on their own, going out, seeing friends, working.
I was just another bombed-out crazy vet, useless, suicidal, and violent. I’ve had a lot of women in my life who liked me but could not stand the mood swings, the striking out and fighting, and the depression. After a while they all would learn the same thing: that when I had pot, I was nicer and more romantic and didn’t get into fights. So they made sure I had pot even if they had to buy it for me.
I’m in my third marriage, and my wife has mixed feelings about pot because it’s illegal. I’ve bought my first home, and she’s afraid we will lose it if I get busted. So she’s scared, but she sees that pot helps me. Since 1990 I’ve been in therapy for PTSD. I’ve been in the Stress Recovery Unit at Bay Pines VA hospital in Florida four times. My doctors there have tried me on different medications for depression and anxiety such as Valium, Prozac, trazodone, Cetrizine, and Serzone. All of my doctors know I self-medicate with pot, because I never hid this from any of them. Most of them don’t really discuss it with me, but some have, and have even told me that the only problem is that they can’t control the dose. They ask me not to smoke while I’m adjusting to their drugs, but I always go back to the pot because it is what works for me. I still use trazodone to help me get to sleep and short-circuit the nightmares, but pot is my daytime drug. I’ve had a lot of pain in my lower back for many years. During one of my stays at the VA, they told me I had a spondylopathy there that they could not operate on, and that I would probably end up in wheelchair. While pot does not stop the pain, it sure makes it a lot easier to live with at bad moments. My pain pills don’t stop the pain and are addictive.
I think it is important for you to know that I’m not a “Cheech and Chong” type. I’ve been a deputy sheriff as well as a police chief and a private investigator, but the PTSD always made me crash and burn. I’ve lost everything several times, and for the last few years I have been rebuilding again. My doctors have told me to retire and try to maintain as normal a life as possible.
Yes, I’m still in a lot of pain mentally and physically, but I am still alive, and I know that I would not be if it weren’t for the pot and my family. And as I said earlier, without the pot I would not have maintained my family. I’m sorry I’ve been going on longer than I thought I would, but I guess I had to defend my continued use. I hope I can help others who have guilty feelings because the stuff is illegal. We must make choices, and mine is to continue to smoke and tell others about the benefits that I got. Thank you for helping me vent.
Back to Shared Stories Index