Editor’s Note: The following article includes descriptions of sexual assault.
Did you know that a study on Gulf War veterans found that sexual assault is more likely to lead to PTSD than combat? I didn’t until I spoke with writer and veteran Lauren Hough, who was brave enough to speak with me about how cannabis helps treat her PTSD symptoms stemming from a sexual assault that took place while she was in the Air Force.
For Lauren, pot makes her relationships easier, as she’s less likely to overthink an argument or feel compelled to smash a printer when she’s slightly stoned. She’s far from the first vet to experience healing through cannabis, either. While the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) must follow federal guidelines, and therefore treats cannabis as a Schedule I substance, many vets are actively engaging in activism to change that, due to the widespread efficacy of using cannabis to treat PTSD and other ailments. Lawmakers are taking note, too. Earlier this year, Congress introduced a bill that would allow and instruct the VA to research medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as chronic pain in veterans.
For sex educator and “Cannasexual” Ashley Manta, topical products such as Foria treated her vaginismus, a painful condition in which vaginal muscles spasm during penetrative sex, which can be caused by sexual trauma. Chronic pain, in various forms, can be a PTSD symptom, though it’s often overshadowed by the psychological effects of the disorder. Manta speaks often and openly about healing her sexual trauma with the aid of cannabis, and through her personal experiences and professional work as a sex educator, acts as a model of recovery in this area.
Holly, whose name has been changed to protect anonymity, developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder after years of childhood molestation at the hands of family members. Aside from being one of the strongest women I’ve ever spoken with, she has found healing through her use of medical cannabis and a trusting relationship with a woman.
PTSD is typically treated with a combination of therapy and prescription medication. The therapy methods can differ, but the most common is CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to help patients work through difficult thinking patterns. There’s also trauma-specific therapy, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (or, EMDR), which uses eye movement to involve both sides of the brain to “reorganize” traumatic memories. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication are also often prescribed. All of these options can work wonders.
However, while benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin are highly effective for treating anxiety and panic attacks, they come with a high risk for dependency and abuse, which cannabis does not. An increasing number of doctors are now turning to cannabis to help treat their PTSD patients, and studies show that it works. Read on to hear stories from three sexual assault survivors’ on how their lives were changed thanks to medical marijuana.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
MERRY JANE: When did you join the army?
Lauren Hough: I joined the Air Force right out of high school. I was living in [a small town in] Texas, which is a terrible place for a little baby dyke. I live in Austin now. The first year when I was in training, I got sexually assaulted by a Marine who lived on the base. A bunch of us were drinking on the beach. I said I was going to walk back to the dorms, he said he was going to walk back with me up the hill, and then… I mean it wasn’t really anything dramatic, it’s just one of those things that happened.
People want rape to look like some evil stranger out of Law and Order: SVU, but it’s usually just…
Some drunk guy.
Yup. Did you start experiencing PTSD symptoms right away?
A little bit. I got really depressed at first, and I didn’t even recognize it as depression. I pictured depression as what you read about or see in the movies, just the inability to function, and I just couldn’t make myself care about class or homework or anything. I pretty much was better for a long time, and then after I got out of the Air Force it just kept coming back. I got paranoid and started having nightmares. I’d wake up terrified. Anger management was a problem with me. I threw a temper tantrum over a printer not working; it’s ridiculous what will piss me off. I had a couple of terrible therapists, but a couple of good ones, too, and I eventually got diagnosed with PTSD.
The bright side is that most people can’t prove that anything happened to them. But while I was in there they investigated me for being gay. So all that came up, and they fucked themselves, I got to send their investigation back to them. I get VA disability now for the PTSD.
What was the trial like?
I went through a military trial. The entire thing is just surreal to me. It was the whole being an observer in the room thing. It just… none of it felt real. I started writing about it, and it seems to help. Writing took the power out of it, a little bit.
I’ve had the same experience. Taking control of your narrative is powerful. So how did you discover cannabis as a PTSD treatment?
So it was never a medicine for me, it was just you know, smoke weed and watch a movie. The first time I took it as a medicine was in Portland a couple years ago. I went into a dispensary and one of the budtenders was like, well, what do you want out of it? And that was one of the first times where I realized you could tailor what experience you needed. If you get a dealer with brands from a legal state, it’s easier even in Texas. You can Leafly it and figure out what you want.
What are some of your favorite strains?
Gorilla Glue is fucking fantastic. I usually go with indica-dominant hybrids. Sativas tend to make me paranoid. I need less anxiety, not more. But the heavy kushes just put me to sleep. I like to keep two-to-three strains on hand, one for sleep and one to calm down and aid in anxiety. I like to smoke out of a bong. I like cleaning it; I like packing it. And I like smoking whole-plant [flower].
Has it helped your love and sex life?
Oh god yeah. I’m lucky that I’m gay. I never had to figure out how to have a relationship with a man. I would if Paul Newman showed up, but that’s about it. Women... and Paul Newman.
First off, I don’t know if pot has anything to do with this, but sex on pot is great. Relationship wise, anxiety is really hard to date. If I can take that out of the equation, most of the time it really does help. Not being a stoned ass, but if I stay slightly stoned, it helps when I have to have a really hard conversation. Cannabis helps me overthinking arguments. I’ll let things go instead of turning it into something massive. I think more logically when I’m stoned. I know it’s not supposed to work that way, but it does. It also helps with my paranoia when I’m home alone.
Is there anything in particular about being both a vet and a sexual assault survivor that you think people should know about?
The VA is not allowed to prescribe marijuana. So if you are a vet, and you are in a state where you can get a prescription for marijuana, you have to pay out of pocket for a second doctor to prescribe it. Some VA doctors are great with you using marijuana, some VA doctors aren’t. With the VA you can’t really doctor shop as much. But even if they are great, they can’t prescribe it. They can’t recommend it because of the federal government.
Especially with sexual assault, the VA has actually done studies proving that sexual assault is more likely to cause PTSD than combat. So it would be a nice thing for the VA to be able to prescribe, just because [sexual assault] is something that is experienced, especially by women. I don’t want to say most of us have been raped, but most of us have probably been raped.
Once again, yup. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
MERRY JANE: How did you discover cannabis for PTSD?
Ashley Manta: I am a multiple sexual assault survivor coupled with childhood sexual abuse. I have had pain with penetration pretty much from the first time I had any interaction, right until my late 20s. I wasn’t until I moved from Pennsylvania to California that I heard about this THC sex spray, Foria. And it was amazing to me that a company was thinking about how to improve the sensation of sex both from a pain and pleasure perspective. I met with their marketing director and we had this amazing meeting and she gave me a bottle of Foria and she told me to go home and masturbate with it. So I did. And I was like; I have come to the right place. I was able to have penetrative sex without pain for the first time in over a decade.
So for you does cannabis work best for PTSD topically? How did you apply it?
I used four sprays all over my vulva, clit, vaginal opening, and let it sit for 25 minutes and then used clitoral stimulation and vaginal penetration with a toy, and it was 100% pain-free. That was the moment where I realized, oh my god, this could be a game changer for folks. This actually works.
I’m glad you’re talking about physical symptoms because I feel like when we hear “PTSD” we just think about the mental side.
Totally, I use it for that, too, but for me, the physical symptoms were the most pressing thing. The pain in penetration was such a barrier for me.
Do you mind if I ask about what doctors physically diagnosed you with?
I am diagnosed with vaginismus. I would try dilators, I would use lube, but once there was an actual phallus inside of me — whether it was a toy or biologically attached — it was painful. So I loved sex, but I couldn’t enjoy it right away, and that was frustrating for me. So having a THC spray allowed me to enjoy it again from the beginning, as opposed to gritting my teeth until it didn’t hurt anymore. And then there were the anxiety symptoms of PTSD. Panic attacks, flashbacks, all of those kinds of really intense things would come up when my sympathetic nervous system was firing on all levels. And cannabis would help calm me down.
What method of intake do you use for those?
I do a one-two punch with my anxiety where I will consume some high CBD under my tongue, let that start to work, and then smoke a joint. So I have the CBD coming that will last a long time, and then I have the joint for more immediate relief.
Prior to discovering cannabis, had you tried other treatment methods for anxiety?
I had been prescribed Xanax for my PTSD and anxiety disorder. I don’t like the way that Xanax makes me feel, I get really sluggish. If I am in the middle of a panic attack, I will take it. But now that I know that cannabis works for me, that is the only thing I reach for first. I get really stuck in my head sometimes. I dissociate during sex. When I can’t turn off my head, cannabis will help quiet those voices down so I can enjoy the sex that I’m having.
MERRY JANE: As much as you are comfortable with, will you describe your PTSD symptoms?
Holly: My PTSD diagnosis is actually complex post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of people don't know how that's different from PTSD, so I refer them to the Wikipedia entry that says is develops "in response to prolonged, repeated experience of interpersonal trauma in a context in which the individual has little or no chance of escape." I was physically abused by my father from a young age, on and off until I was almost 17. I was also molested by my uncle intermittently from when I was really young enough to start remembering to… well, probably around 15/16, when I felt I could avoid him at all costs.
It's weird identifying as a victim of sexual assault, because it wasn't ever underneath my clothes, and typically I associate molestation with more intimate touching like that, but according to my therapist it's okay to identify it as being molested. For a long time, I didn't come to terms with it because I felt it wasn't bad enough to merit a label. Looking back now, I can remember so many sexualized comments directed at me from like, age ten, twelve, and the feeling of never being safe from being groped. I told my mom about it repeatedly when I was younger, she said she'd talk to my dad about it. When it kept happening, she essentially told me to just avoid him and stop saying anything because it made my dad mad. I guess because part of me still thinks I don't deserve the level of sympathy that "real" victims do.
You absolutely do, and I’m so sorry you went through that. What are your symptoms like?
The C-PTSD symptoms I have are varied. Dissociating during sex, for me, is usually triggered by feeling any kind of pain or discomfort. Like, even just if a position is uncomfortable for me I freeze, mentally, I can't speak up, even when I know I'm with a kind partner who does not want to hurt me. I've let things continue even if it's actually hurting me. It's like my brain is just shut off, and I leave my body almost completely. Then, afterward, I feel horrible for not speaking up and guilty that I even felt that way in the first place. I get anxiety about displeasing a partner to the point that I give up most of my agency. I've had several panic attacks after sex. It's hard to explain to a person I'm dating, like, "So I really want to be here, doing this with you, but my body has seized up and I need you to stop touching me immediately." It's made me avoid intimate situations.
How has using cannabis improved your life?
Using cannabis has been the best thing that's happened to me for PTSD management. I've been on PTSD specific medications before — trazodone, for instance, would just incapacitate me in my day-to-day life. I stick with indica or indica-heavy hybrids, so it helps me sleep better, and eliminates most of the PTSD nightmares I used to have regularly.
I have a lot of anxiety in general, which is comorbid with PTSD, and it helps my brain "shut off" when I need to get to sleep but am kept up by racing thoughts. I also have major depression, also comorbid with the PTSD (my doctor described me as having "the Bermuda triangle" of mental illness). The medication I was taking over five years for depression stopped working, and I've been trialing a variety of new antidepressants for over nine months now.
Cannabis has helped immensely with the side effects of trying out new SSRIs; it helps me reduce nausea, and when I completely lost my appetite for several months, cannabis was the only thing that made eating palatable for me again. I don't know how I would've made it through the SSRI cycle of onboarding side effects and tapering off side-effects, over and over again, without cannabis.
It also helps me a lot with my current love life. I'm dating a woman now, and it's the healthiest relationship I've ever been in. I was having a hard time doing anything physical in the beginning, even just making out. Finally, I built up the courage to talk to her about my PTSD, and about how weed helps me in this area because I wanted to be open with her about it, rather than trying to somehow secretly be high when I was around her. She's been super understanding and has no issue with me getting high before doing anything physical with her. Being high just mutes that fear and panic response for me, and lets me be present in my body and in the moment.
Do you wish cannabis was more accessible everywhere?
It should be legalized on the federal level as well as in every state. I hate that there are still people imprisoned for minor drug offenses related to cannabis in this state, especially with so many of them being people of color and so much of the new industry in the state being primarily white. It's bullshit, but I still go to a white-owned dispensary because that's my only option (although it's run by all women, which helps my comfort level immensely).
When I'm in Oregon, I try to support black-owned dispensaries. I'm in a master's program right now for a field that has a wild job market, where you basically have to be willing to move almost anywhere if you want a career-track position, but I've thought about this a lot and I don't want to move to a state where cannabis isn't legal or easily obtained under a medical exemption. It would make my quality of life harder, similar to how losing access to SSRI's would.
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