Using medication to cope with anxiety comes with negative side effects. Denise Carter-Bennett shares the realities of living with her clinically diagnosed condition and how she is optimistic that, one day, access to cannabidiol as a treatment will be an option legally available.
It’s a Thursday morning, and I have just dropped my son off to school. I calculate in my head I have about five hours to get the rest of my Christmas shopping done before I have to pick him up again. I get to the shopping mall with a list in my hand carefully listing which shops to go to and what I need to buy. I step inside the mall, and my senses are overloaded with fluorescent lights, loud Christmas music and the sickly, sweet smell of perfume. My head starts to spin, and my hands feel tingly. I look down at my list and quickly walk to the first shop, determined to get this shopping done, determined to get this shopping done.
Three hours later, I start to feel the beginnings of an anxiety attack. My central and peripheral nervous systems are over- loaded, and it feels as if my spine is on fire. My hands are shaking, and my heart is beating at a million miles per second. I fumble around in my handbag, trying to find the small bottle that contains my clonazepam tablets (I call these “the tiny pink pills”), which will help me feel better.
I also realise I should have taken my second dose of ADHD medication about an hour and a half ago, and my mind quickly jolts to a thought about which sparkling wine to get from the supermarket and then that I need to get some more sunscreen onto my face. Someone comes up and asks if I am OK, and I realise I really need to find those tiny pink pills. I mumble back, “Yeah, I am OK, thank you for asking,” even though my hands are trembling and my eyes are darting all over.
I find the bottle, take out a pink pill and break it into quarters. One tiny quarter is ingested, and I have to wait 25 minutes for it to start working its magic, which is 25 minutes too long for me. I start doing every breathing technique I have been taught in therapy to try and keep my anxiety under control, slowly drifting off into random thoughts about Christmas cake, my lemon tree and the mountains of washing I have at home. After 25 minutes of random thoughts, I feel the medication kicking in, a wave of relaxation hits my body and my thoughts calm down. I calmly get up and complete the rest of my shopping, remembering I will suffer the consequences of having an anxiety attack and the side effects of taking that tiny pink pill when I get back home.
Having an anxiety attack is a typical part of my life as someone who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – two conditions that signal I am part of the neurodiverse community. Neurodiversity, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary, is “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders)”. Both ASD and ADHD are classified as neurodevelopmental disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5), which affect the structure and development of the brain, and these differences have an effect on behaviour and the processing of sensory input from various sources.
As someone who is neurodiverse, I explore ways I can better handle the side effects of these conditions, such as depression and anxiety. I am constantly altering my diet and taking various supplements to see if they have any effect, but the only thing in my life that has any noticeable positive effect is the medication prescribed by my psychiatrist and GP. One pharmacological treatment that may be effective for anxiety in neurodiverse people is the use of medicinal cannabis, specifically cannabidiol (CBD) compounds without the presence of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
I watch a video on YouTube by Candace Lowry – a former Buzzfeed employee – where she explores the use of medicinal cannabis to help with her anxiety issues. Unlike myself, she can legally purchase CBD products as she lives in California and has a valid prescription card.
The video starts with her recording an anxiety attack and how she wants to try medicinal CBD. Due to her personality and openness, you get pulled in to her story and the journey she takes. I feel jealous that she has access to these products, and I think back to that tiny pink pill I took earlier. The consequences of taking it are disturbed sleep and waking up the next day feeling very groggy and unable to achieve much, apart from staying in bed and binge watching Downton Abbey on Netflix. It comes across in the video that Candace doesn’t seem to have similar side effects to me taking a tiny bit of clonazepam, and I feel a tear streaming down my face. I have to really limit how often I take clonazepam due to the side effects and often go through anxiety attacks without taking it, which has a negative flow-on effect on my everyday life.
After watching the video, I chat to a friend who is neurodiverse like me, and we talk about how great it would be to have access to medicinal cannabis. We also talk about whether the new government will make medicinal cannabis legally accessible to people like us, when this friend mentions she uses cannabis every now and then to help manage her anxiety.
“I can’t take prescription medication for it, Denise, as the side effects are too much. I only use cannabis maybe once every two months when my anxiety is really bad,” she says, and I verbally express my empathy for what she has to do to handle her anxiety. I will not judge her for using something that helps her function in everyday life, and she exclaims, “Oh, but it would be great if I could access cannabis without the THC stuff in it, as it makes me feel a bit spaced out.” I nod in agreement.
Later that day, I ask in a Facebook group for ADHD what people’s views are on the use of medicinal cannabis to help treat and manage the severe anxiety we all seem to suffer from. I get a couple of positive replies before the post is deleted by an administrator of the group. I feel deflated when I get a message that the discussion of illegal drugs is not permitted in the group.
With a new government and a new Bill being introduced to legalise use of medicinal cannabis in New Zealand, it is an exciting time to see whether people like myself may be able to access and use CBD to help manage our conditions. Currently, the process to access CBD products is tangled up in red tape and requires ministerial approval, with those getting it needing to have very specific and life-threatening medical conditions.
Public approval for the legalisation of medicinal cannabis increases each year, with MP Chlöe Swarbrick saying that 78 percent of New Zealanders agree with the premise of her Bill, which relates to her recently defeated Bill to allow New Zealanders who are unwell to grow and use cannabis.
While I agree that access to medicinal cannabis needs to be expanded, I believe that prescribing guidelines need to be established for doctors and that the CBD used must be of a standardised, pharmaceutical grade. I feel optimistic that, with increasing pressure from the New Zealand public, people who are neurodiverse will benefit from what Candace has access to, and I may not have to rely on those tiny pink pills.
Survey participants also reported that barriers to accessing services, resources and information were high.
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95% of respondents reported positive effects, in a study that looked at both prescription and black market cannabis use.