Essays

When Mom Started Vaping, Her Chronic Pain Disappeared

My mother had given up on ever finding relief for her chronic fibromyalgia. Then her doctor prescribed medical marijuana, and everything changed.

My 72-year-old mother doesn’t drink. She’s never smoked cigarettes or taken drugs. My mother reads Shakespeare for fun. She loves opera and classical music. She and my father own six exotic birds, pets they adore.

My mother is an artist. I grew up watching her draw portraits rendered in charcoal, pencil, and pastel. She continued to draw after my sister and I moved out in the early 90s, entering local art contests and filling up sketchbooks.

I live a couple of hours away from my parents in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, so I didn’t notice when Mom stopped drawing until she began tentatively sharing work on Facebook that she’d done on her iPad.

These drawings were different from the ones I remembered as a child. They had a digital flatness to them that wasn’t present in her earlier work. When I asked her about them, she explained that she could only draw in bed using a tablet because she didn’t feel well most of the time. Standing at an easel was impossible. Even sitting at the table to draw had gotten extremely difficult. This was the first time I realized just how bad her chronic illness had become.

My mother, and my two daughters.

A slow descent into chronic pain

My mother has fibromyalgia. She was diagnosed in 2007, the year she turned 61. My kids were six and three at the time. My focus was entirely on balancing the day-to-day needs of a young family.  Maybe that’s why I’d failed to notice that as my own life was speeding up, my mother’s life was slowing down.

When I asked my mother what she remembers about her illness from this time in her life, she described it as coming on gradually. “It started slowly. I was very active, going to the gym every day. Then my daily headaches started to get worse. I hadn’t been getting migraines very often. Now they came back and were more severe.”

I read about fibromyalgia and tried to understand it better, but I was distracted, engulfed in the chaos of early motherhood followed by the frenetic pace of having school-aged children.

When I asked my mother what she remembers about her illness from this time in her life, she described it as coming on gradually.

During one of my parents’ rare visits, my father mentioned that Mom slept until 9 or 10 every morning. It took her a long time to wake up and get moving. Then she would inevitably take a nap, spend some time on the computer and go to bed early.

My parents couldn’t plan anything or go anywhere. My father had taken on the responsibility of caring for the birds, cleaning the house, food shopping and preparing meals. This was a wakeup call for me. I’d had no idea how debilitating my mother’s fibromyalgia had become.

In an effort to reconnect with my mother, I asked her to illustrate a children’s book I was writing. I missed her pencil drawings from my childhood and wanted to feature them in the book. I also wanted to give her a reason to get out of bed, even if it was only for a few minutes a day.

Renewed purpose and connection

My mother loved the idea of illustrating my book. She got a sketchbook, some new pencils, and a tabletop easel so we could work together from afar.

We fell into a routine where I would request a drawing via email and Mom would get to work on the piece. It took her days or weeks to finish a drawing depending on how she felt, but neither of us were in any rush. This collaboration made us closer, gave my mom a new purpose, and helped me understand how her illness impacted her life on a day-to-day basis.

Our daily interactions made me much more cognizant of what Mom was going through. She continued to struggle with daily headaches and fatigue. Botox treatments and pain killers helped somewhat, but bad weather could easily derail her. She was tired all the time. She had flare ups that left her bedridden for days as if she had the flu, but she was determined to work with me.

Eventually, the Botox stopped working. Mom described dealing with her worsening symptoms as “pushing through” the pain. She said, “I’ve always had something hurt. You get used to it. The fatigue was much harder to overcome. It was like hitting a brick wall.” We finished the book, but Mom was getting worse.

Illustration by my mom, Judith Krongard.

 

Cannabis brings relief

In August 2018, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order intended to make it easier for people to obtain medical marijuana. By then, my mother was once again isolated and depressed, unable to plan things or experience any real quality of life.

“I spent most of my time on the computer. I read a lot. I drew my pictures. I accepted that I was disabled,” Mom said.

By the time Governor Phil Murphy came along, my mother—a 70-year-old grandmother who never had so much as a hit of pot—was more than ready to ask her doctor about using cannabis to get relief. 

Says mom: “I had always wanted to try medical marijuana, but it wasn’t available.”

Her neurologist referred her to a doctor who could prescribe medical marijuana. The process of getting the drug took about two weeks. She left the dispensary with two different strains of pot and a vape pen.

“We went home, set up the vape, and I took my first hit. About 15 minutes later, the headache I’ve had all my life, every day, 24/7…stopped.”

“What happened after that?” I asked.

“We went home, set up the vape, and I took my first hit. About 15 minutes later, the headache I’ve had all my life, every day, 24/7…stopped.”

“Did you cry?”

“I think I giggled,” Mom said. “It literally gave me back my life. I’m no longer a prisoner of the weather. I can get out. The fatigue is just about gone. I’m off Ambien and opioids.”

New beginnings

This past Thanksgiving, my parents were able to come over even though the weather wasn’t good. My mother brought her vape pen and when she excused herself so she could use it privately, I told her it was perfectly fine for her to vape in the living room. It is, after all, her medicine.

Mom has begun adding activities back into her life. At first it was just little things – trips to the store with my dad, breakfast at the diner, doing a load of laundry here and there. Recently she started exercising. “When the weather warms up, I want to take walks outside again.”

My mother is strong. She’s lived with her illness in silence for over a decade, just as so many people with chronic illnesses do.

My mother is strong. She’s lived with her illness in silence for over a decade, just as so many people with chronic illnesses do.

Mom continues to draw on her tabletop easel. She loves drawing nature scenes and animals, especially birds. I’m incredibly grateful that she found something that gives her relief and enables her to do what she loves.

I’m also grateful that she was so willing to share her struggle with me. It taught me the importance of small triumphs and the value of each moment.

Creative Commons photo from the Electric Tobacconist.