Photo by S. Migaj

CBD Was the Answer to My Sleep Problems. Stigma Kept Me From Seeing It.

“I don’t like this!” I said to my mom, who was sitting beside me in my 1976 Ford F100. My eyes were laser-focused on the road, which banked downwards at a steep angle, curving down into the Edmonton River Valley, which was covered in ice. My Ford was a heavy old beast of a vehicle and, though I had shifted down into second gear, it kept going faster downhill.

“What’s wrong?” my mom asked, gripping at her seatbelt, her knuckles white.

“I don’t know. I think the brakes are going,” I said, trying not to swerve the wheel too far in either direction, worried about the vehicle’s poor traction.

As we accelerated down the steep hill and towards the curve, I started looking for something off the road that could slow me down — some spot where I could safely “land.” But there were no trees small enough to cushion us on impact.

“Try pumping your brakes!” My mom said, but I already had been. There was air in the lines, the brake pedal just went to the floor and the emergency brake had never worked. 

Silent, tightly gritting my teeth, I tried to make the turn, but I lost all grip on the road and we started going to a spin, heading towards the curb. I spun the wheel with all my strength into the skid but we hit the curb hard. The truck flipped and ended up on its roof. By some miracle, the seatbelts saved us. But then I smelled something — the worst possible thing —fire. I tried to open my door but it didn’t budge, so I tried my mom’s side. It opened a little. I kicked hard at it, then kicked harder.

“Mom!” I found myself yelling as I jolted awake. 

I had just kicked the wall. One of these days I’m going to break my foot doing this! I thought. Then the realization hit me: Mom was gone, having died almost 10 years before. 

I got up, dressed and headed out for a walk to clear my thoughts. Geez, it felt good to have Mom with me. 

*** 

Until recently, that was how I woke up half the time that I slept. 

I have schizoaffective disorder with anxiety. And while it has caused me numerous problems since I was 14 years old, for a long time, one of the worst of those problems has been severe sleep difficulty. 

After decades, I gave up any hope of finding a solution to my sleep disorder and just dealt with it by indulging in as much sleep as I felt I needed, whether I missed work (or even lost a job), or isolated myself by not socializing or keeping regular hours. 

the author writes

My sleep habits eventually caused me to get so out of sync with my medication regimen that my mental health deteriorated to the point of needing hospitalization to get me back on track.

***

I stayed at the hospital for six months — and my sleep hygiene was horrible. There was no way to exercise and very little to do. So, if I wasn’t eating or smoking, I was lying down trying to fall asleep. What made things harder was that the smoking room would be closed from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., and craving a cigarette made it even harder to sleep. The hours would drag along unbearably. 

Upon my release, I moved into an all-male group home and, without the hospital’s rigid schedule, I finally had the chance to normalize my sleep cycle. I only had to eat with the other residents, get my medication each evening, be up at a reasonable hour and check in with the staff. This slight change, plus a slowly progressing amount of exercise, improved my quality of life drastically. 

Still, I often stayed up too late and didn’t heed warnings about avoiding caffeine or napping during the day. At one point, I would go to sleep for just two hours, get up, either eat or drink some coffee and smoke and then fall back asleep for another two hours. 

Check out Lit.

The nights of two-hour sleep began to wear me down; I began to have severe nightmares where I would wake up kicking the wall. If I heard a sound or a knock, I would bolt upright in bed and shout. Several times, I found myself downstairs in the group home’s kitchen with no recollection of how I got there. In my distant past, I would have had an ounce of hard liquor — on which I sleep without dreaming — but with the medications I was taking, alcohol wasn’t an option.

These problems weren’t debilitating during my stay in the group home, but they became so thereafter.

***

After I left the group home, I would barely get any rest during the week, then sleep through entire weekends. If I thought I could sleep in and miss work, I would either stay up all night — or sleep in and eventually lose my job. 

Finally, I gave in and got my psychiatrist to prescribe me tranquilizers. He first suggested I try melatonin, which worked in the short term but often left me so tired in the morning it was almost impossible to get up. It also had the effect, if I took it too many days in a row, of making me extremely restless during the night.

The tranquilizers, aided by the occasional dose of the melatonin, quitting smoking, cutting back on my caffeine intake and eliminating my naps, worked well. The problem was that, though I got more sleep, it was drugged sleep, which is rarely as refreshing as sleeping without chemical intervention. I also still had severe anxiety.

Eventually, I was able to start getting a handle on my sleep problems, but only by using way too many over-the-counter sleep remedies — including acetaminophen with codeine, which is available without a prescription in Canada. At first, the codeine gave me a feeling of calmness (and the pain relief eased the discomfort in my hips and knees). But I was soon back to sleeping in two-hour chunks. 

***

There were always solutions to my problem out there but, unfortunately, due to myths and prejudices about marijuana — which only became legal, albeit highly regulated, in Canada in 2018 — I didn’t know about them.

It had never bothered me that cannabis was illegal, but since I was in ignorance of the existence of non-THC cannabinoids and had no idea where to get them, I suffered needlessly.

the author writes

This summer, I contacted an old friend who I knew suffered from bipolar and post-traumatic stress and I learned that she took cannabinoid capsules with THC in them for sleep, depression and anxiety. I had honestly thought that she wasn’t the type who would turn to “illicit” substances like cannabis, whether they were legal now or not. But knowing how cannabinoids had helped her made me start thinking — hard — about what would be wrong with me trying something like these capsules. 

My concerns were threefold. I felt hypocritical, having warned hundreds of young people as a trusted presenter for the Schizophrenia Society about the dangers of using marijuana products if they have a family history of mental illness — and I have relatives on my mother’s side with severe mental health difficulties going back generations. I also wanted to be able to pass a drug test, if that were necessary. With the depths of suffering I had experienced because of my mental illness, I also didn’t want to take anything which my psychiatrist and family doctor didn’t approve of, and they both recommended against taking cannabinoids. 

But then I found that there are ways to use cannabinoids without consuming THC.

First, I did as much serious reading on the subject as I could and talked to many people about their experiences. A friend I trusted implicitly who had a background in social work explained to me that cannabinoids — a derivative of the marijuana plant — didn’t have to get you high and could have a lot of positive effects. Things I learned about it seemed almost too good to be true: it had shown promise in helping people get off harder drugs; it could help people sleep; it alleviated symptoms of anxiety. 

Finally, I decided to go to a legal pot shop and ask a few questions. There are many stores where I live, and I happened by one a couple of months ago. I had expected some young, oddly dressed stoner type to be behind the counter, but instead, I met people who were polite, helpful and well-kempt. I asked about cannabinoids, emphasizing I needed the kind without THC due to my history with schizophrenia, and they sold me on some CBD capsules that had just trace amounts of THC. The salesperson even showed me the difference between the trace amount of THC in the cannabinoid pills and regular THC products, and assured me the small amounts of THC compared to large amounts of CBD cannabinoids in the capsules wouldn’t make a user paranoid.

***

That night — not knowing what would happen — I took one CBD capsule along with my other medication and went to lay down. I don’t know if it was the expectation of possible effects that caused it, but time seemed distorted, I laughed out loud at bad jokes from the distant past and even had hunger cravings that weren’t satisfied until I ate all the fruit in my kitchen.

But a miracle also happened: I got eight hours of refreshing sleep. 

the author writes

I kept taking the CBD pills before bed, and realized that they didn’t just help me to fall asleep: they helped me stay asleep.

I soon noticed drastic changes in my mood as well: for years, especially when I was tired, I had constantly been in a state of anger, directed at everyone and everything. I would go over memories of the past, and get upset about them all over again. It was such an acute problem that I tried therapy (for a while). 

But after a few days of taking the CBD capsules and sleeping, I could walk down the street without having negative thoughts. I got more joy out of things like reading a book or taking a long bath. 

The real acid test was when my elderly father asked me to come to his apartment to fix his TV, and I didn’t get frustrated when he kept leaning over my shoulder and distracting me with questions or comments.

Eventually, I switched to the CBD oil as, for me, it is less expensive, and I can adjust my doses more easily. I am still having much better sleep and much better moods. 

I decided to keep my family doctor and psychiatrist informed as to what I have been doing, and I know I will probably have to take time off from using it. But even if I had to stop using the cannabinoids tomorrow, I wouldn’t trade the last few weeks of pleasant rest and simple joy for anything.

***

Dr. Rebecca Haines-Saah, who teaches at the University of Calgary and co-wrote the study “Youth Cannabis Use and Legalization in Canada,” spoke with me about some of the myths I encountered on my journey. 

Through personal experience, I am aware THC use can have harmful mental health effects; I have had episodes of psychosis ranging from flashbacks of traumatic experiences to paranoia. But Dr. Haines-Saah explained the cannabis users most at risk of developing an illness like schizophrenia related to pot use are generally chronic users under the age of 25, which is the average age that the human brain matures. And some of these studies don’t show if the users were self-medicating for pre-existing conditions, like an inherited mental illness, past trauma or even organic brain injuries.

Dr. Haines-Saah also told me even the belief that cannabis is a so-called “gateway drug” is losing traction among serious people. Researchers are finding pre-existing factors to be more accurate predictors of a person’s tendency to use harder drugs — and that many mental health and addiction problems have their roots in trauma. So, if a person isn’t predisposed to use hard drugs, preventing them from access to recreational marijuana will not benefit them or anyone.

the author writes

The more education, open conversations on the subject and more awareness will benefit the public, according to Dr. Haines-Saah. Prohibition and scare tactics will not solve any problem that marijuana might cause. The truth is, harmful or not, risky or not, the police, courts, and jails have failed to deal with the situation. Dr. Haines-Saah’s research shows stigma, ignorance and criminalization only make a difficult situation worse.

Young people do need to know how cannabis works in a developing brain, and every young person should also be aware of the dangers of using cannabis when they have a family history of mental illness. But dispelling the many other myths and ending the stigmatizing and criminalization of users would give so many young people better outcomes in life. 

I know in my own life, the ignorance of the benefits of CBD caused my quality of life to be far lower than what it could have been — for decades.

Leif Gregersen is a writer, teacher and public speaker living with a psychiatric disability in northern Canada. He has written and published 11 books, including 3 memoirs about his life with mental illness. Leif's books are available through Amazon.

Leif Gregersen is a writer, teacher and public speaker living with a psychiatric disability in northern Canada. He has written and published 11 books, including 3 memoirs about his life with mental illness. Leif's books are available through Amazon.

More Articles

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!