Note: This article is about an individual who uses cannabis as a Tourette's treatment, but who resides in a state where cannabis is not legal for medical or recreational purposes. His identity has been withheld at his request due to the present illegal nature of his cannabis usage. The name “Aaron” used in this article is an alias.
“When did you first start noticing your tics, or did you always have them?” I asked, while also admitting that I didn’t know a lot about Tourette’s or Tourette's treatment options, for that matter.
“I think I was around 9,” Aaron said. “None of my tics were really severe, but I would squint my eyes or clear my throat… It was enough to be annoying.”
“You say it was ‘annoying.’ Do you mean to yourself, your classmates, your teachers?... All of the above?” I ask.
He laughs. “All of the above.”
Aaron is a friend of mine, in his early 30s. He’s a really congenial guy with a good job and a cute house and a dog. And in all honesty, I didn’t know he had Tourette’s until it came up in a conversation I had with his wife (who, I should note, is also delightful).
When Aaron started experiencing tics as a kid, he says he always knew that something was up. He credits his mom for realizing it, too, and not just blowing his behaviors off as “nervous habits.”
“I saw a handful of doctors and psychiatrists, and a lot of them just called my tics ‘nervous habits,’” he said. “It took about 6 years, from the time I was 9 until I was 14, before somebody finally said, ‘You know, I think this is a form of Tourette’s.’”
So What Does That Mean?
According to the National Institutes of Health, Tourette’s Syndrome is a neurological disorder whose sufferers experience repetitive, “involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics.” It was discovered by its namesake, Dr. Georges Gilles de la Tourette, in 1885.
The condition affects races equally, but males are three to four times more likely to experience symptoms of Tourette’s than females.
In many cases, people with Tourette’s display symptoms of other behavioral or neurological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression. Because many people with Tourette’s experience more dramatic tics when they are anxious or stressed, their behaviors tend to work in a sort of perpetual motion, a tic exacerbating stress and stress exacerbating the tic.
This was the case for Aaron.
There’s no Tourette’s treatment silver bullet, but medications may be prescribed with the hope that they will minimize symptoms.
“When I got older, my tics were still visibly noticeable and really hard to control, and kids started to ask questions or make fun,” Aaron said. “That led to more stress, which just compounded everything and made the tics worse.”
Some days, Aaron would clear his throat so much that it would get sore or blink so many times that his eyes would turn red.
“You can only play that off as allergies so many times. Kids are jerks, you know,” he laughs.
So doctors prescribed medications.
Aaron explains that there were times that he was taking five or six prescription medications every day. Adderall to focus. Kolonopin for sleep. Anti-anxiety meds for stress. Muscle relaxers to suppress the tics.
“Sometimes you’d read a label on one of these medications and think, ‘Wow, this is an antipsychotic…’ There was one that even messed with my blood pressure,” he said.
Some of the medications took the edge off for a while but became ineffective after a year or two. And even when the medications helped with Aaron’s tics and stress, the side effects outweighed the benefits.
“I would wake up feeling drunk,” he said. “Really, what it all boils down to is that I wasn’t using most of these drugs for their intended purpose.”
Finding Freedom in Cannabis
At this point in our conversation, I asked Aaron the big Tourette's treatment question: “So, when did you realize cannabis made a difference in your symptoms?”
Aaron says he tried marijuana in his late teens if it was around. His story was very much the same as most people you hear about trying weed when a friend pulls out a bowl or a joint at a party. He never smoked heavily or regularly, and it was actually friends who noticed the positive effects first.
“I’d never smoked often enough to really notice a difference until I lived with a couple of guys who smoked pretty regularly,” Aaron said. “We weren’t smoking all day or anything, but it turned into my evening wind-down routine, and we all started noticing that the tics weren’t as severe.”
Around the same time, Aaron was losing his parents’ insurance and realized the medications he’d been taking for so long would be much more expensive without the cushy plan he’d been used to growing up. So that was that: He quit the meds.
(Note: If you are taking prescription medications for anxiety, depression, or other medical conditions, we are absolutely not suggesting that you try this “cold turkey” method. Our story source even said he found out after-the-fact that quitting one of his meds too quickly could have caused him to suffer from seizures. Fortunately, he didn’t — but this is not medically advised. Talk to a medical professional before changing course on any prescriptions.)
The Rest of the Story
Aaron hasn’t taken a prescription medication for 6 or 7 years. He smokes a puff or two most nights and says his tics have subsided. Aaron also noted that he sleeps better than ever and doesn’t wake up feeling groggy.
“At the end of the day, I just hate that I have to keep this quiet and that there’s still a stigma attached to it,” Aaron said. “When you see the kinds of things it’s helping—like keeping kids from having seizures and stopping tremors in people with Parkinson’s—the evidence is there. Something has to be done.”
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