Summer 2017: Walking On. And On.

I’ve been hiking a lot this year. I’m on hike 25 with the goal of hitting 52 by the end of the year. I’ve walked a lot of different terrains: The Mojave and Colorado deserts, the Sandia Mountains, the rocky beaches of the Olympic Peninsula, and now the deeply forested hills of the Appalachia. I’m swallowed by green, here now in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, one of the states I’ve called home.

Westerners often scoff at the rolling, rounded, old mountains that make up the Appalachians. We’re used to younger mountains, whose prominence has not been worn away by time. We look at them, jutting crags, exploding upward out of the golden prairie of the Midwest. We hike them, bike them, climb them, and our sweat hits their dusty ground. The steep fourteeners imbue a hubris in us westerners that could be a downfall in these green hills. The trails are deceptively steep, and the muggy flora creates an environment that is something to contend with.

I hiked these hills the other day, sweating more profusely than I ever do in New Mexico, feeling calve muscles pull and stretch with each steep step (I often remark that using a pedometer is a misnomer because it only counts a number of steps you take, not the quality of step). The air is thick and I feel like I can chew on it as I walk. I stroll past bluffs overlooking a grand, green-brown river; another landform we are not often graced with in the west. Our Rio Grande would often look like a creek to eastern folks. I can see kayaks and canoes below, fishing rods arching through the clear sky.

On the short, three-mile hike through Penn’s Woods, I found I worked harder than many of the high desert hikes I walk in the southwest. Each step I take is different, some bring joy others bring pain. Most of these are bringing pain as I strain to make it to the top of the next rise. The elevation is only 1500 feet, but the mugginess turns each breath into a deep burn. This isn’t fun right now. This is healthy, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, but this isn’t fun. This hurts. I’m discouraged and I want the hike to end. The problem is that I’m only halfway there.


I’ve been playing music full-time for two years as I type this. June 2015 saw me leave my education and career behind and I threw out plan B. Music was the only plan, and that’s how I continue to think today. For the first time in two years, I have begun to feel discouraged about this path. I’m in a state 2500 miles away from home and I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing here. What the whole point is. Living authentically just isn’t cutting it right now.

People often tell me, “You have the coolest/greatest life.” I hate this statement. The reason my life feels so miserable is that I know that it’s supposed to feel amazing, but it doesn’t. My depression and anxiety take that away from me, and there really isn’t anything I can do about it. That’s the true sadness of my life.

I left the house under a cloud of depression almost two weeks ago. The thought that ran through my mind as I made my way across Oklahoma was “Just get through the next five weeks, then you can go home and watch cartoons.” It’s the same thought I had every day when I was depressed in the traditional working world. “Just get to the end of the day, then you can go home and go to sleep.” At least my respite came at the end of 8-10 hours. Now I have no real recourse but to keep going, to plow through this discouraging time.

My wife and a couple other friends have been singing the same tune to me lately, although they don’t know the others are doing it. The lyrics to that song go, “The world wasn’t made for you.” I’m not normal, I know that. I’m not status quo. I have a disability and a career path that is nontraditional, and these two things put me at odds with the way our world is set up. Society is set up for the 9-5. For people who have the skill set of being normal. It’s not set up for someone with severe and disabling depression, or PTSD, or if they’re blind, or if they have Lyme’s Disease. Our society is set up for the normal because that’s what most people are. It’s a utilitarian necessity and I guess I understand that to a point. I just wish the system would have some degree of plasticity.

But it doesn’t. That’s not the way the world works and those of us who are unlucky enough to fall outside of society’s designated circle have to walk on in spite of having the deck stacked against us. The house always wins.


I made it back to my car and drank water. It felt soft on my throat and my panting began to cease. I made myself a small snack and sat on the tailgate of The Gray Haven. I felt good in that moment, with a burning sense of accomplishment tightening in my quads. I was smelly, that was good, too. It means I worked hard (also there were showers at the campground). These things all felt good to me. Hours later they would be gone, lost again in the haze of my never ending walk with my darkness. That darkness will give way to a new dawn, and I just have to keep walking long enough to get there.

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Hiking in Virginia.

 

 

Let’s Talk Cannabis

Sandbridge Beach in Virginia is a favorite place for my wife and me. Each year we are privileged enough to spend a week with her family amongst the dunes and waves, laughing and bouncing up and down in the water, getting minor sun burns, and avoiding the tiny, translucent fiddler crabs poking out of their dens in the sand and running across the playa. It’s a joyous reunion: dozens of family members converge upon several different beach houses and spend the week recharging their batteries in unison. I love this week and look forward to it every year. Walking the beach at sunrise and sunset, letting the sun slowly brown my typically pasty skin, watching the kids play in the sand and water. These things are surely energizing and life-giving. There’s only one problem with this week: I’m not allowed to take the only medicine that is effective for my mental health.

Throughout my life I have been on over a dozen medications to treat my intractable depression and posttraumatic stress disorder: Lithium, Lamictal, Prozac, Abilify, Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Cymbalta, Effexor, Serzone, Tofranil, Remeron, Seroquel, Zyprexa, BuSpar, Wellbutrin, Trazadone, Topamax, Prazosin, Brintellix,  and most recently Zoloft… not to mention the following benzodiazepines to combat anxiety: Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, and even Halcyon. None of them has done anything to alleviate my depression or symptoms related to my PTSD. Here’s what they have done:

  • Caused me to gain 60 pounds in 3 months (Abilify)
  • Caused my digestive system to be in constant upheaval
  • Time loss (when all of a sudden its an hour later and you don’t know how that happened, different from forgetting, more like blacking out)
  • Suicidal thoughts have been exaggerated (they’re always there, but they come harder on some meds)
  • Severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Thousands of dollars

These are all just off the top of my head. If I thought harder and read my old journals, I could easily list more detrimental effects. These are the most salient, the ones that have impacted my daily life for over twenty years. I’ve continually put myself through further hell and pain by following the advice of several doctors because, well, they’re doctors. All of them, save two, had no understanding of the Endocannabinoid System, or ECS.

So what is the ECS? It is the “essential regulator in bodily function…” (Russo, 2004). Its basic functions are “relax, eat, sleep, forget, and protect” (DiMarzo, 1998). It’s a very nuanced system that mediates a physiological homeostasis when in balance. When it is out of balance we start experience some serious, and often mysterious, health concerns. According to Phytecs, its discovery was only a generation ago and therefore many in the medical community have a knowledge deficiency when it comes to this crucial component in healthy bodies. In fact, there may be medical practitioners who have no knowledge of it whatsoever. This is truly an oversight in our medical community.

Recent research has shown that an ECS that is out of balance can result in many adverse medical conditions, some that are heretofore mysteries to the medical community (e.g. fibromyalgia). A hyperactive ECS is linked to morbid obesity, diabetes, and hepatic liver fibrosis. Similarly, we see a deficiency in endocannabinoids in persons experiencing fibromyalgia, migraines, and idiopathic bowel syndrome (IBS). Further research is beginning to show links between deficient levels of endocannabinoids and retractable depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and various neuropathic pain conditions.

This is pretty revolutionary stuff. But here’s the big kicker: persons with cancer have been observed to possess increased levels of the two main endocannabinoids. What does this actually mean? It means that when the body encounters cancer it fights it using the natural method it has: the ECS. The problem is that our bodies do not have enough endocannabinoids to fully do the job and both stop the growth of cancer cells as well as kill them off. In research coming out of Europe, the addition of extreme ECS therapy in cancer cases is showing incredibly positive results. Qualitative reports have been popping up in the media quite a bit over the past 2 years, most famously President Jimmy Carter’s miraculous recover from cancer by using 1000s of mg of THC and CBD, the main chemical responders in cannabis.

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Endocannabinoid sounds an awful lot like “cannabis,” right? There’s no coincidence there. Cannabis, more derisively known as marijuana, weed, and pot, is the key to balancing an out-of-whack ECS. This is the science behind medical marijuana, this is why it works. Simply put: using cannabis in conjunction with other supplements is going to straighten out a lot of medical problems. With someone like myself who experiences posttraumatic stress, the experience of adverse memories is lessened, not because I’m stoned- that’s more of a necessary side-effect, but because of what the endocannabinoids are doing to my brain’s chemistry. They’re assisting me in experiencing the awful memories of my trauma in a different way. This manifests itself in decreased levels of hyper-vigilance and anxiety, decreased experiences of depression, and decreased adverse dream-states (no more nightmares), to name a few. The result of these decreased negative experiences is that I can function in my day-to-day life. I can get up, do my work, take care of my hygiene, clean the house, and cuddle happily with my wife and dogs. It’s an amazing reaction that I’ve never gotten from any of the multitude of pharmaceuticals I’ve been prescribed. Better yet: it doesn’t give me any negative side effects.

Those of my friends who know me are aware of my long-standing love affair with cannabis. I first started using it when I was 13 and have rarely looked back since. Cannabis was an exclusively recreational plant for me until four years ago. As I began to understand how medicinal it can be my entire paradigm around its use shifted. That’s not to say I don’t recommend it for recreation, because I most certainly do. For a lot of people, it can be a lot of fun, and regardless of what the media has always tried to portray, it has far fewer detrimental effects than other recreational substances (I’m looking at you, booze). Yes, it needs to be used mindfully. So does everything else in this world.

I now see my own personal use as a mixture of medical and recreational, with a strong emphasis on the former. There’s a misnomer in our society that says that one cannot enjoy taking their medicine. For a lot of situations this has a lot of truth and utility: someone who enjoys taking their pain medication too much is bound for a lot of trouble down the road. It can’t be a hard and fast understanding. Cannabis makes me feel good on a medical level, and it makes me feel good on a recreational level. Why is that so wrong?

Here are the facts:

  • Cannabis has not been linked to deteriorating lung functioning or lung cancer
  • Cannabis has not been proven to be addictive
  • Cannabis has not been proven to have accompanying withdrawal symptoms
  • You cannot overdose on cannabis (but you can take too much and feel miserable if you’re not careful)
  • Cannabis leads to eating excessive amounts of Hot Cheetoh’s and pizza, so you must take care when using it.

When Nixon put out the Schafer Commission Report (which has since been debunked as an attempt to corral the African-American and left wing communities and omitting the final conclusions that cannabis should be folded into the medical community) policies were set in motion and propaganda machines went full press to demonize cannabis. We are now in a day and age where we can see through these transparent attempts to keep the public in the dark, if we open our eyes (they don’t want you to do that).

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I’m typing this lengthy post in the living room of my in-law’s rental. It’s sunny with clear blue skies. If I poke my head out of the window I can hear the lull of waves crashing on the beach and children playing. I’m in Virginia, a state that has not approved medical cannabis. I have nowhere to get it and if I had it in my possession I’m at risk for prosecution by a state with archaic drug laws taken directly from Nixon’s little report. Therefore, I’ve been struggling with my depression and anxiety all week. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed myself, I certainly have. But then I start feeling the ball in my chest grow and I have to leave where I am and sit alone until the tears stop. Sometimes this lasts all afternoon when the sky is clear and the air smells of salt and sunscreen. And I’m inside typing a blog about how I can’t use the only medication that works for me. I sincerely hope that those who read this with an antagonist opinion have done so with an open mind. As always, I would love to help anyone understand this pretty complicated issue via personal communication.

 

Works Cited

Di Marzo, V. 1998. “‘Endocannabinoids’ and other fatty acid derivatives with       cannabimimetic properties: biochemistry and possible physiopathological relevance.” Biochim Biophys Acta 1392 (2-3):153- 75.

Russo, E.B. 2004. “Clinical endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD): Can this concept explain therapeutic benefits of cannabis in migraine, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome and other treatment resistant conditions?” Neuroendocrinol Lett 25 (1-2):31-39.