Personal Statement: Chronic

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Illustration by Jake Wellins

 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 - 7:58pm

I was walking to my 9:00 a.m. lecture on a brisk fall morning in Ann Arbor. However, I had stopped at a bench outside of South Quad and was unable to join the throngs of students headed to their classes. I couldn’t walk because I was cripplingly nauseated. While nausea is normal for me (particularly in the morning) this was far more intense than my normal levels. I had already blown through the normal remedies that get me through these episodes — pepto bismol and nearly a sleeve of saltine crackers — in an attempt to get to class without throwing up.  

My mind wandered to the joint in the small pocket of my backpack.  

Nothing else would fix my nausea enough to allow me to walk. I pulled the joint out of its container and smelled the familiar, calming smell. I lit it and inhaled deeply, and a smile began to creep onto my face. I was able to put down the now near-empty sleeve of saltines and hold my head high without fear of throwing up. The constant negative force my stomach normally exerts onto me faded away and I was able to get to class (on “Michigan Time”) with a smile on my face.  

***

In fifth grade I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. My symptoms started manifesting in the third grade, which is when my parents began having me tested for various diseases that cause constant nausea. I was nauseated at school, while exercising, after eating, and a lot of times in between. After two MRIs and two colonoscopies, my gastroenterologist finally determined that it was Crohn’s, a disease that affects the lining of a person’s digestive tract and can cause nausea, abdominal pain, and other symptoms.

I was given a prescription for the biggest pills I’d ever seen and told the disease would be with me for the rest of my life, but that symptoms could be managed through medication, diet, and exercise.  Crohn’s is chronic, and manifests in each patient differently. Some experience flare-ups: periods (spanning hours to days) of intense nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. My version of the disease is less intense, with the primary symptom being constant nausea.

In high school, my disease took a turn. My intestine, when stressed, began blocking food from passing through my colon at a point known as a stricture. This caused intense radiating pain to my back and stomach, and sent me into bouts of writhing pain that could last for hours or an entire day. I went to the emergency room too many times in attempts to understand what was causing the pain. During the summer after my sophomore year of high school I had surgery to unclog three strictures.

While the surgery alleviated the episodes for about a year, they eventually returned. This time, the pain was not caused by blocked food, but instead by stress. My gastroenterologist told me that my mind had associated the feeling of high stress with the pain that I felt during those painful episodes, and was now causing me to feel that pain when high stress occurred. The advice I received was to stay as stress-free as possible. Not easy, or realistic for a high schooler applying to college. In addition to the pills I took every day, I was put on a bi-monthly infusion, a dialysis-like procedure in which an anti-inflammatory drug was pumped into my system over several hours. My current medication was re-evaluated. But not much seemed to help the nausea or my stress. It was entirely up to me to stay healthy and pain free.  

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Growing up in San Francisco, I saw plenty of drugs and alcohol. Kids in my high school grew facial hair as fast as they could to get fake IDs for parties on the weekends. Looking back, it makes me recall the song “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean. However, my friends and I were never around these kids. We were always in other parts of the city, playing video games or Ultimate Frisbee. As such, I hadn’t ever had drugs or alcohol before my first semester at Michigan, living on the backside of Markley.

Freshman year, as I was exposed to various mind-altering chemicals, I began finally understanding why people in San Francisco were so determined to get me to try marijuana because of my stomach. Marijuana makes my stomach disappear, and makes my constant nausea dissipate, even if it’s only for a few hours. However, I didn’t start really using marijuana to help my stomach until the summer after freshman year.

The summer after freshman year, my dad went with me to get a medical marijuana card in California. Above Amoeba Records in the Haight — San Francisco’s hippie district — sits an office that helps anyone (with a legitimate reason) obtain a medical card. The doctor (incidentally, a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School) discussed my Crohn’s symptoms and told us that I was “the quintessential patient” for medical marijuana. Later that week, I purchased gummies from a dispensary that had a high amount of Cannabidiol (CBD), the chemical in marijuana that helps abate migraines and other types of pain. I didn’t try them right away. I was nervous, because my only experience with edibles had been seeing my hall mates from Markley couch-stuck for hours on end.

On a trip to Boston that summer though, I desperately needed help. I awoke for a morning flight with extreme nausea. I finished packing for the flight, but could not even stomach a slice of toast: the only thing I could eat was saltines. My dad came up to me and told me to take one of the gummies. I obliged. I had to do something. It tasted horrible, still cold from the fridge, and took several minutes to choke down.  And like all edibles, it took about forty-five minutes to kick in. I barely made it through the Uber ride and through airport security, and I continued to eat saltines and Pepto Bismol just to keep myself from throwing up. I was slouched while walking, disheveled, and clearly in pain. Finally, we were in line to get our tickets scanned to get onto the plane.

But then, in the middle of checking in, something incredible happened: I straightened my posture, looked up at my dad, and for the first time all day, I smiled.

“It’s working,” I said.

He smiled back at me and I started laughing; I couldn’t help myself. I found my seat and fell into a contented sleep because my stomach had finally disappeared.

***

Most people use marijuana to feel good and have fun. It’s fun for me too, but much more importantly, it is the most effective drug for me in my fight against Crohn’s. I honestly don’t know if all the prescription drugs I take really help prevent serious Crohn’s flare-ups. But I do know that medical marijuana lets me participate in any activity I want without fear of my stomach preventing me from enjoying my college experience.