After using painkillers I began experimenting with cannabis flower, edibles, and topical extracts to manage the psychological and physical pain of Hidradenitis Suppurativa.
By Jasmine I. Espy
When I smoked my first joint, it wasn’t to manage any type of pain. In all honesty, I just wanted to get high with my friends. It wasn’t until my parents found out about my use that I started actively researching the health and medical benefits of the herb. I was on a mission to prove to my parents smoking cannabis was in no way harmful to my mind or my body. It just so happened the research I found in articles on High Times, CNN and other media outlets showed me cannabis was actually helping me to manage my often physically and mentally debilitating skin condition called Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS).
I was diagnosed with HS in 6th grade. The condition caused recurrent boils and cysts to form in places where skin touched skin, like the armpits, lower back, breasts, stomach, and other intimate spaces. I would get flares every month—sometimes every week. These boils would often grow to be the size of a golf ball or larger and brought an indescribable amount of pain with them.
I remember lying awake during school nights crying my eyes out because I just wanted to get some sleep and couldn’t due to the throbbing pain surging through my nervous system. When the aching became unbearable, I would take large doses of Ibuprofen and other pain killers until the boil popped. It felt as though my body was constantly attacking itself and there was nothing I could do about it. That was until I took the treatment and pain management of my HS into my own hands.
After years of popping pain killers as an adolescent, I began experimenting with cannabis in college. I grew up in a Black Christian household, so “weed” use was not encouraged. I heard horror stories from my parents about laced blunts and friends with promising futures being checked into psych wards because they lost their minds. It was an understatement to say I was afraid to consume cannabis.
I eventually implemented a vegan lifestyle through the elimination diet and I saw drastic changes in the manifestation of the disease, going from having boils every month to no boils at all. At one point, the wounds underneath my breasts closed completely without any surgical intervention. Later, significant weight loss made me a great candidate for plastic surgery to remove scar tissue caused by HS.
Unfortunately, with plastic surgery came opioids for pain management. For the first week or so I used the prescribed opioids because I couldn’t move to go outside and smoke flower, but once I was mobile again I ditched the opioids and found cannabis did the trick without all of the terrible side effects—like a disrupted sleep pattern, withdrawal symptoms, nausea, and headaches. I started evaluating how I felt when I consumed cannabis—especially around a flare. I realized the pain was much more tolerable on weed and I hated myself less.
I’m not alone—34% of HS patients, according to a recent study, use cannabis compared to patients with psoriasis and the general population. The same study suggests cannabinoids alleviate pain through various mechanisms, including direct analgesia, neurotransmitter modulation, and has anti-inﬂammatory effects.
Having HS is synonymous with chronic physical pain but one of the factors largely unmeasured is its psychological effects. One study suggests irritability, depressed mood, embarrassment, fear of social stigmatization, and sexual distress are prevalent in patients with HS and can reduce patients’ quality of life.
I often found myself disassociating from life by putting my brain on autopilot just to get through. When I smoked I became present in my body and was able to take time to sit with my feelings and unpack my trauma. It was a lot of trauma to unpack so a lot of my sessions were difficult especially on my own. Eventually, I was able to find a therapist specializing in the mental health treatment of HS patients in Detroit. Now that I live in Los Angeles, with cannabis and not so regular therapy I am able to manage my condition when flares, depression, or anxiety does come.
I consume cannabis flower, honey, extracts, teas, and have experimented with CBD lotions. Most of my cannabis use now regulates my mood and minor pain if I get a flare. I’m still not 100% free from HS and probably never will be but cannabis helps me and so many other patients battling Hidradenitis Suppurativa feel like superhumans on our worst days when it feels like our bodies are giving up on us. As an alternative method for pain management, cannabis allows us to reclaim our bodies as well as our minds.
Jasmine IVANNA Espy is a documentary filmmaker who is spreading awareness of Hidradenitis Suppurativa and advocating for the community through her documentary My Gold Lining: A Documentary on Hidradenitis Suppurativa. Outside of film, she is sharing her experience with the disease through writing in hopes that it reduces the shame associated with the disease, encourages other patients to tell their stories, and increases representation of chronically ill patients in media, arts, and entertainment. You can find her social media as @whoisivanna and follow @mygoldliningdoc for film updates.