Cannabis for medical purposes changed former soldier’s life.
When Alexander Main first thought about joining the Canadian Forces as a combat soldier, he was 16 and heard that people got paid to do physical stuff and camping. Today he’ll tell you it’s because he didn’t want an office job. “For a little kid, that was an easy call,” Alexander said with a smile, talking about his dream job.
He was 17 when his parents in 2009 signed their consent for him to proudly join into Quebec’s famous Royal 22 Regiment, the “Van Doos,” the largest regiment in the Canadian Army. Alexander was 18 when he completed most of his training at the Canadian Forces Base Valcartier, Quebec, and 19 when he celebrated his birthday in Afghanistan.
It was Alexander’s knee injury at 19 years old that changed everything. It took two knee surgeries to his right knee before the Canadian Forces had no choice but to conclude he was “no longer fit to serve.” A devastating blow. A heartbreaking moment. The end of his career.
A painful chronic knee injury that would lead him straight into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), opioid-induced depression, anxiety, and isolation. He was taking 6 pills a day, hurting his liver and digestive system, feeling fuzzy all the time.
He also almost lost his house. “When I got out of the service I had nothing to survive,” Alexander said. “Think about it, I came straight out of school with no work in the work environment.” It was a tough first year.
“If I could have my knee, I could do a physical job,” Alexander said in a tone of frustration. “This was my dream. It’s one of my values. I’m not handicapped but the fact is that I have to ration my leg for the rest of my life because, my situation is going to get worse.”
Few Vets Tell Their Stories
Most Afghans just want the fighting to end. Afghanistan today is more than only bad news stories. Afghanistan is today celebrating how its national cricket team is becoming a global player against India, Pakistan, England, and the West Indies. Its history is rich with ancient Buddhist statues. It holds one of the greatest known ancient trading routes between Europe and China, the “Silk Road.” Its people are good people, although a religious fundamentalist political minority called the Taliban keeps the fighting going.
On 12 March 2013, Canada’s troops held a flag lowering ceremony in the capital Kabul. The last 84 soldiers the left Afghanistan on 14 March 2014, ending 12 years of military presence in the country. But back in the dark days of 2006 to 2009 soldiers like Alexander increasingly found themselves in combat situations in several districts of Kandahar Province.
It was one day in the summer of 2011 that changed everything in Alexander’s life and started of all the classic PTSD symptoms to follow – nightmares, insomnia, crushing depression, flashbacks, panic attacks, bouts of uncontrollable weeping.
It’s a story of pain that starts with his knee.
A squad of 15 soldiers went to check a village in Kandahar Province. Three soldiers, Alexander and two others, went up a nearby hill to get a better look.
“We were on top of a hill with all of our gear. We were starting to get shot at. We had to run down in rough part, not the easy path we came on. It was high-risk free falls, 15 jumps of 15 feet, with all my gear, while getting shot at,” Alexander said, now sitting forward and alert to tell his story.
It was those jumps down the hill that busted his knee. The falls were so intense some of the gear carried on his backs, shoulders and legs went everywhere.
The two of them, Alexander and the other soldier, needed time to stop, to pick things up, lock and load, then to get to the bottom to run another 100 meters to the nearest village. The third man and the remaining 12 soldiers waited ahead.
The third soldier had run off ahead, in panic amidst the chaos. He ran down the hill,
100 meters, and several 15 feet jumps on his own. Fear, stress, and anxiety gripped
him – a natural human response that training could not contain.
It was a crazy moment. You couldn’t think. You had to run. “We didn’t know if there would be more people in the village, if this was an ambush. Anything was possible,” Alexander said, you could feel the adrenaline coming back into his body as it must have then, to give him focus. Shots fired behind them. Alexander ran into the village with his buddy in what he describes as a “crazy, intense, berserker mode” with guns ready.
Once Alexander and the other soldier got to the rendezvous point and all three of the soldier from the hill could feel safe, the man who ran next to Alexander collapsed from dehydration. The third man’s rotator cuff injury was severe, he could barely move his arm or shoulder.
Alexander was fine, for now. He had to take a defensive position. But as the adrenaline wore off, he saw his pant leg around his right knee blow up like a balloon.
“My leg was starting to have inflammation, water retention, pain, and reduction in mobility.”
This trip wasn’t over yet. To survive, the 12 soldier squad needed to fight another six to seven kilometers back to basecamp. A call from the basecamp support team said a Quick Reaction Force of 30 soldiers would meet them on the way. Alexander who was wounded himself took turns carrying wounded soldiers on a stretcher. Shots continued to fire at them.
“So I was relaying guys on the stretcher with my wooden leg,” Alexander said. He even found a hidden Improvised Explosive Devices on his path. The 30 soldiers coming ahead to meet them also found more IEDs. “We fought for about 5 hours. After that, we finally got out with the medical team. After that, I had 3 days off. Then back to the field.”
Yes, that’s right, after doctors gave him opioid-painkillers to numb his knee pain, he was back in the field in 3 days.
Life with Mental Anchor and PTSD
Despite early optimism, his injury was never going to heal back to what it once was – but it still could get a lot better. His knee injury would become a world of pain. Alexander is like many veterans, among the highest users of medical cannabis. It’s estimated that 41 percent of Canadian veterans report feeling a constant, chronic pain. An injury to the knee is the most common injury for a soldier. Alexander was going to need physical therapy and surgery.
If only our problems were physical, then most grief could be managed. Many soldiers return home to struggle to find meaningful work. Those struggles turn into stresses, frustrations, and sometimes demons of PTSD trying to understand what happened. “It’s rare that its one problem that happens. It’s a domino effect. If it’s your knee, it’s other parts of your body,” Alexander said. Along with trauma and chronic pain also comes mental health as an issue like depression, anxiety, anger, and social isolation.
For Alexander, the years of chronic pain that triggered his PTSD were lived in insanity. “How I explain it is as mental anchors. Mental anchors are attached to our senses: smell, eyes, ears, touch, and even taste,” Alexander explained. “We have positive anchors to our Mom’s Sheppard’s pie, the ease of being a kid.”
Most of us don’t understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not all soldiers will experience trauma or cope with pain in the same way. Before you can understand PTSD, you need to experience it firsthand or see it in someone you love. Imagine yourself sitting in traffic. You feel stressed, locked in, and there’s lots of noise and people all around you.
“I had a moment in Afghanistan where I was in a pit with one other guy. All the guys were on standby and the sergeant going pit by pit to see if everyone is okay,” Alexander said. It was pitch black at night. Almost nothing could be seen. The soldiers sat in their dugouts, listening to people walking all around them. “We don’t know if they were going to through grenade into our pits. We were stressed out,” Alexander said.
Guarding not only what’s outside coming in but also guarding several entry points inside. “We were looking around. We were in this situation for hours, stressed out, anxiety for extremely long. Stress changes the body and mind. It’s from that situation that I believe my PTSD comes from. It’s that situation that is recorded in the mind.” It’s like a pressure cooker. So let’s get back to the traffic jam.
“Every time I am in a tight spot, my mind recognizes stereotypes of the situation. It fills in a lot of mental connections to this anchor that my body recognizes. Sending everything I need to deal with the situation because my body sends adrenaline, sweat, pumping blood into the muscles. Then suddenly you realize you are in traffic. You don’t know what is happening.”
That’s PTSD. It’s a negative energy, you’re all stressed out. “It’s the body preparing itself for a second attack. There’s none. I’m in traffic,” Alexander said, saying with a sudden sorrowful acceptance. “But it is something I have to deal with for the rest of my life. That’s going to pop into my life for no #$&* reason, I’m going to have to deal with this energy.”
Faces of Wounded Warriors
There are lots of vets like Alexander to have struggled with demons. Intense conflicts and death expose soldiers to unforgettable pain and suffering that few can understand. The Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs in the Parliament estimates about 3,000 to 5,000 veterans live homeless in Canada. The Mission Old Brewery, a group dedicated to helping homeless veterans, estimates one in 20 homeless in Montreal are veterans, which is likely similar in other Canadian cities.
Friends of Alexander had problems too. One friend in particular, “This guy is not happy with what he did. He does not respect himself after what he did,” Alexander said, showing concern. “This guy is ruining all of his relations. He says he does not deserve all this positive energy for what he has done. So he rejects life for what he has done. He is judging himself.”
Another of his friends is also suffering from trauma. “I know a guy selling drugs to have a social experience.” His friend doesn’t need the money, he just needs to feel like he has a purpose. But what’s important for Alexander is that his friend is opening up to therapy.
Alexander has problems. “We do not age like wine, we age like milk. My knee is only going to get worse,” Alexander said, this time with a deeper grief. “I am an athlete that can’t be in sports and do any physical actions. I’m an active person, I need to move. It’s part of my health, physical and mental health. I need to move. I need to activate myself.”
Alexander believes the biggest problem is the medication. “There is a missing hole, a missing part.” A missing hole that Alexander feels qualified to fill. Getting soldiers out of mind-numbing opioids and away from depression and isolation is a fight he wants to win.
Sadly, some people can’t handle their pain and horrific memories. Stories of suicide, drug abuse, and self-harm are common among former soldiers. Drinking is too, along with a shared cocktail of opioid drugs prescribed by doctors to deal with painful injuries and memories.
Getting Off the Meds and Onto Medical Cannabis
There are no magic pills.
For Alexander, however, there’s medical cannabis. He has reduced his opioid medications significantly. Veterans told him it would help with his chronic pains and sleep problems. It wasn’t about getting high, it was about getting well.
“I use cannabis mostly for my knee since my knee is an anchor to all my negative thoughts and negative problems that bring me down, that steal my energy away,” Alexander said. He pauses, noticeably fatigued, and then reaches into his bag for a bottle of blended tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) oil. He takes microdoses – at a ratio of 3:1 for CBD to THC – during the day and at night when he is feeling tired and losing energy. THC has a psychoactive effect that helps you sleep while CBD is believed to help with pain and inflammation.
“Medical cannabis makes it less intense in my mind. I have a bell ringing in my mind, always thinking about it,” Alexander said. His everyday work with his injured knee takes a lot of his “negative energy.” Any misstep when he walks or unexpected pressure put on his knee can bump up the pain for hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months before recovering.
Medical cannabis helps. “Cannabis is compatible with my digestive system and gives me relief inside my brain. It helps with anxiety and my intense side effects from PTSD mental anchors.”
Alexander Helps Veterans Help Themselves
Today, Alexander is the Director of the Compassion Program for veterans at Coverleaf, a medical cannabis clinic, where he engages with and educates veterans on how cannabis can help with chronic pain and PTSD. Alexander knows what it is like when the pain can feel unbearable.
Alexander’s average day is full. He walks around, which was nearly impossible for him before. There’s one moment every week when Alexander feels he is in heaven, at a massage therapist’s. Only a soldier can tell another soldier about the importance of getting physiotherapy, learning relaxation techniques, nutrition, and especially to take care of mental health with a therapist.
Almost monthly, Alexander hosts an information fair for veterans in and around Quebec. “I want to expand my compassion program everywhere,” Alexander said. He’s thinking about spreading his message and wants to get involved with what’s happening next door in Ontario and in the other provinces. He has even initiated a veteran entrepreneurs program that includes sharing resources and showing businesses at events. “I thought of the idea of offering all the services vets could have, including therapists for cannabis,” Alexander said, describing his role at Coverleaf. He helps vets to meet specialists who offer the tools recovering soldiers need to live a happy and healthy life.
If this isn’t enough, he’s starting to contact people and organizations who can help him reach underserved wounded veterans. He is reaching out to Alpha Veteran Inc., a company that helps veterans find jobs, meet a therapist, complete Veterans Canada paperwork, join into activities like the motorcycle club, hunting and shooting club, and a range activities to include families. He’s also involved with Veteran Canada motorcycle club with members across the country. Alexander has allied with Foundation Quebecois des veterans, an organization representing 121,000 veterans in Quebec.
Consult & Grow Launches Veterans Compassion Program
In 2017, Alexander joined Consult & Grow. CEO David Selma recognized they needed help to connect with veterans. Canadian veterans have done a great job serving our country, now is the time we serve them.
Alexander has helped at least 50 veterans to register for medical cannabis, and he says Coverleaf has helped even more after opening a few years ago. Patients have access to a team of doctors, physiotherapists, pharmacists, dietitians, psychologists, and nurse practitioners. Coverleaf’s compassion program helps to educate veterans and spends the time to complete the paperwork to help veterans get the relief they need – and it’s for free.
Alexander is like an ambassador of veterans to people who are helping them. “I’ve been through the whole 9 yards, and there’s another 9 yards. I know a lot of people are misinformed. They need info. These guys are running in blind.”
Good News Stories with Medical Cannabis
Alexander knows things could be worse. He knows he is going to be wounded for the rest of his life. “The real issue is the chronic pain. It is so constant, you lose your mind. You lose your direction. It drains you of all your energy. Especially if you want to be an athlete, it brings you down.”
Alexander explains what could happen if he lets this negative energy spiral out of control, “I get depressed. I start eating wrong. What could be fun when you are in pain? My taste buds could want a hamburger and nice shake, and it starts a negative cycle.”
Then he remembers what he needs. “Cannabis starts a positive cycle. I can initiate a positive cycle just because of my cannabis. I’m going to activate these negative anchors the rest of my life. But if I can use this tool, I can have a positive cycle just because of my cannabis, that’s useful to me, because I usually can’t.” By using cannabis, he feels better, starts to stretch, eats better, does more exercise, and feel ready for the day.
There are other good news stories. Alexander met a man in his early thirties who had testicular cancer, his “guts cut out,” due to complications in his surgery that made things worse. This vet was taking copious amounts of pills, had no energy, pale skin, and could only walk with a cane.
In less than 3 or 5 months, after starting medical cannabis and joining the Veteran Canada motorcycle social club, Alexander saw him transformed back into the fighter, full of positive energy. “I saw him sitting straight, nice colour, big smile, got up to see me, he said how he changed his food, opened up his mind, uses less pills.”
This is what Alexander lives for. What he calls his “passive revenge” on his current physical condition. In these moments Alexander feels purpose. He’s helping his fellow brothers and sisters in the military to live better lives.
Ask About Medical Cannabis
The team at Coverleaf offers veterans access to doctors who can discuss the treatment options. Many former soldiers have said that medical cannabis offered them a milder, clear-headed, low-impact alternative to reduce their opioid medications. They also said medical cannabis helped them regain their strength, balance, and flexibility – all at whatever pace they felt comfortable with.
That makes medical cannabis perfect for all veterans, young, mid-40s, and seniors, people with physical disabilities, people who are recovering from injuries, and anyone else who wants to get healthy but might not want the side effects of getting high or keep using multiple medications.
Whether you’re a long time cannabis user veteran with chronic pain and PTSD or a complete beginner with no prior experience, you can benefit from medical cannabis in your daily or weekly routine. To learn more about how cannabis can help veterans, contact Alexander Main at (418) 264-9907 for a confidential consultation.