In the run up to our women’s health webinar on Tuesday 3 August, we are sharing the stories of mothers who have found cannabis medicines helpful in the management of their health conditions – and how they’ve coped with stigma from the rest of society.
Ellen*, 39, lives with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome/ME and depression, she is also a carer for her 14-year-old autistic son and her elderly mother who has stage 4 cancer. Cannabis allows her to function enough to be a mum and carer, but she lives in constant fear of the consequences of being caught consuming illegally.
“I avoided cannabis for many years due to the fear of the repercussions if I was caught,” says Ellen.
“A criminal record could have so many implications. Having a son who is classed as vulnerable, I didn’t want social services at my door and I was a teacher, I could have lost my career.”
But two years ago while socialising with friends Ellen said yes when one of them offered her some cannabis.
A year earlier she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia – a chronic condition which causes widespread musculoskeletal pain – and had recently left her job in early years education as she was no longer able to manage.
By the time she left her friends and went home that night, her pain had eased considerably and she slept well for the first time in ages.
From then on, each payday Ellen set aside enough money to buy some cannabis through a friend.
“I only ever consumed on a weekend and I never told my work colleagues,” she says.
“Although I was no longer teaching, I was then working in the NHS so still couldn’t risk losing my job. A few close friends knew, but I didn’t tell my family as their attitude is very ‘anti-drugs’.”
Over the last 18 months, Ellen’s symptoms have progressively worsened and earlier this year she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome/ME, having given up work entirely in October.
She is now a full-time carer for her son Daniel*, 14, who is autistic and lives with severe anxiety and learning difficulties, and her elderly mother, who has stage four cancer.
Despite trying several prescribed medications and painkillers, they often caused her to experience adverse side effects and some even left her feeling suicidal.
“I now consume cannabis daily as it’s the only thing that eases my pain enough for me to move and function and carry out care duties,” says Ellen.
“I can function better after cannabis compared to some of the pain medication I’ve been prescribed, as it turns me into a zombie. I avoid taking prescribed painkillers unless my son is at his dad’s and even then I will only take them at night as they wipe me out.”
She continues: “I medicate first thing in the morning as I’m so stiff and in so much pain, it enables me to do mum duties and get my son sorted for school. Without that vape I struggle to move and pain just radiates through me.
“Although I’m not pain free with cannabis, it allows me to be a mum and carer and get out of the house a little bit more.
“I vaped some cannabis in front of a friend for the first time last week and they commented that they saw the pain almost lift out of my body. They were amazed at the difference in mobility and how my spasms and twitches stopped.”
Ellen is not alone. While the scientific data is limited, many other patients living with fibromyalgia report finding cannabis medicines helpful in managing their condition.
A study by Italian researchers published earlier this year reported that medical cannabis therapy was found to “significantly reduce pain intensity” in fibromyalgia patients, with approximately half reporting a reduction in pain.
But it’s not only in relieving pain that this treatment can be helpful, but also in managing other symptoms such as insomnia, which in turn helps cope with fatigue and improves general quality of life.
Fibromyalgia patients often report it is the lack of ability to sleep properly that leads to the horrible brain fog, fatigue and depression.
A study published in 2020 followed 102 patients who had not responded well to conventional treatments, a third reported reduced symptoms of the disease overall, as well as an improvement in quality of life.
Many patients in the UK are now reporting great improvements in their symptoms having obtained a private prescription for medical cannabis. But this comes at a cost which is often out of reach for those who are unable to work and survive on disability benefits due to their condition.
Ellen has enquired about accessing cannabis medicines through the NHS – she says she was even recommended it by one physiotherapist who had heard lots of patients use it with success.
But she was shot down when she raised with the doctors in her pain clinic.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford to go private as I no longer work, so I continue to purchase it illegally through a trusted friend,” she admits.
“I always live in fear of being caught, especially now it’s class B and I usually buy in bulk so I have enough to last me. If I was caught with that amount I could be charged with not only possession but intent to supply, as I’m sure they wouldn’t believe that much would be for personal use.”
“I only vape in one room of the house when my son isn’t around – I never do it in front of him – and I won’t do it outside in fear of the neighbours reporting me.
“I could lose my son, I could lose everything – and my partner also works in education so it could affect his job too.”
Living with depression, as well as her physical health conditions, the stress of living in constant fear has taken its toll on Ellen’s mental health.
“My mental health is awful, I consume in complete fear but feel it’s worth it to have a slightly better quality of life,” she adds.
“I don’t vape to get stoned, just to try and help my body to function properly.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of those in the story
Have you registered for our upcoming webinar, Women’s Health and Cannabis Medicines: Motherhood?
The second episode in this ground-breaking series, will focus on the complexities facing mothers who are both prescribed medical cannabis and those whose children require cannabis medicines to manage their conditions.
Join speakers Hannah Deacon, patient advocate and mum-of-six, Gillian Flood and clinicians Dr Sally Ghazaleh, pain management consultant at the Whittington Hospital and Women’s Health Consultant at Integro Clinics, and Sarah Higgins CNS, women’s health lead at CPASS to explore cannabis and motherhood on Tuesday 3 August at 7pm.
The webinar is free of charge, register here
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