Unhidden: Participating In Her Own Wellness – A Chat With Medical Cannabis Patient Becky Cassel
In this episode of Unhidden, sponsored by Vermont Hempicurean, we chat with 71 year old medical cannabis patient Becky Cassel about how she uses cannabis to manage her pain and sleep better.
Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.
Kathryn Blume: You have arrived at Unhidden, produced by Heady Vermont. We’re about bringing cannabis in all its forms out of the dark ages of prohibition and into the light of a world which can definitely use some help from this awesome plant. I’m your host, Kathryn Blume.
In this episode, brought to you by the Brattleboro store Vermont Hempicurean, we chat with the forthright and uninhibited Becky Cassel. She’s a medical patient in her 70s, who is happily managing severe chronic pain on her own terms and in her own inimitable way.
So, Becky, you were saying that you have been experiencing chronic pain since your 20s.
Becky Cassel: Yes.
Kathryn Blume: Was it all from the same source of issue or was it a bunch of different problems?
Becky Cassel: No. It started with back problems, and I had a fusion done in the early 80s, and I was pain free for about 10 years and then all around the fusion it became arthritic. And as you get older, your spine narrows. This is normal for people getting older. And so, the nerve endings get pinched and it’s painful. They, in the past, have treated my pain issues and I’ve also had knee replaced, hip replaced, shoulder replaced. It just goes on and on. Thumbs, and just goes on and on and–
Kathryn Blume: So, how much of the original you is even left?
Becky Cassel: [Laughs] Well, there’s still a few more that can do. I was treated with radio frequency ablation treatments at the Pain Center, which would fry nerve endings in my back but they grow back and the pain. So, it’s sort of once or twice a year, you had to go in for the treatment. It’s not fun. I used to say it makes the Iraqi torture chambers – you put them to shame with this stuff.
As the years go on, you start hearing about opiate problems, so the doctors became very, very tight with them and you had to argue with them to get what you needed for pain relief, and you almost felt like a criminal yourself. So, about a year ago, I talked to my doctor and she thought I was a good candidate for medical marijuana.
Kathryn Blume: And you say you’re how old now?
Becky Cassel: 71.
Kathryn Blume: And you’re still working full time?
Becky Cassel: Yeah.
Kathryn Blume: And are you still experiencing the levels of pain that you’ve been experiencing along?
Becky Cassel: No. The pain was brought under control with treatments and with opiates that I used a strictly for the pain. I never, never (thank goodness) developed any kind of addiction where I was looking for more to get higher more, whatever. As the years go on, you start hearing about opiate problems, so the doctors became very, very tight with them and you had to argue with them to get what you needed for pain relief, and you almost felt like a criminal yourself. So, about a year ago, I talked to my doctor and she thought I was a good candidate for medical marijuana.
Sleep was always elusive because you’re always uncomfortable. You can’t get comfortable for more than, say, an hour. You wake up and then it goes on all night long. So, as soon as I started using the cannabis for pain at night, my sleep has improved exponentially.
Kathryn Blume: So, she was–
Becky Cassel: She’s on board with it.
Kathryn Blume: Okay.
Becky Cassel: Absolutely. I was given the paperwork, and last fall, I started using it, and haven’t touched an opiate since.
Kathryn Blume: So, what form of cannabis are you taking?
Becky Cassel: Edibles and tinctures. I don’t like to smoke. I don’t – vaping – any of that and basically use it at night. Sleep was always elusive because you’re always uncomfortable. You can’t get comfortable for more than, say, an hour. You wake up and then it goes on all night long. So, as soon as I started using the cannabis for pain at night, my sleep has improved exponentially. And I track it with a Fit Bit, so I have comparative numbers to look at. And it’s incredible how well you sleep. And you wake up and there is no fuzziness in your head, there’s none of that leftover residual feelings that you get when you use opiates or pills for pain.
I think that the use of cannabis might be really helpful in weaning people or getting at least not as much of the pain medication they need.
So, it’s been a real blessing for me to be able to take what I need, and for me to decide what I need for my pain, and not feel like I’m a drug addict or a criminal. Because if you really – you’re sort of made to feel that way even though you’re not, you know you’re not, the doctor knows you’re not. The state of Vermont has made it very difficult. And I understand. I mean there is a problem. And I think that the use of cannabis might be really helpful in weaning people or getting at least not as much of the pain medication they need. But it works.
Kathryn Blume: Now, when you started taking cannabis, did you have to experiment a little bit with strains and amounts and things like that?
Becky Cassel: Absolutely. I started out very carefully, and took a quarter of the dosage recommended. And then just would build up a little bit until I reached what I know is what I need at night. And I usually put the tincture in tea at night, and put as many drops as I need, and drink the tea an hour before I want to go to sleep, and then I’m asleep. You know, you never remember falling asleep, but you sleep soundly and it’s really wonderful. For me, it’s been a real breakthrough and a real – It just makes me feel good to be taking something that’s natural and herbal rather than what Big Pharma thinks is the cure or the fix.
My goal now is not to get high. My goal now is to control the pain and I never have that feeling in my – I never feel stoned.
Kathryn Blume: Yeah.
Becky Cassel: And every single caregiver I’ve spoken to, and I’m very upfront about it because they need to know what I’m putting in my system. If anything happened, they need to know it. And every single one of them have been fully supportive and really happy I’m doing it. So it tells you something.
Kathryn Blume: Had you ever used cannabis recreationally before you started?
Becky Cassel: Yeah. I came of age in the 60s and God knows what we were smoking, [laughs] eating, and our goal was to get high. My goal now is not to get high. My goal now is to control the pain and I never have that feeling in my – I never feel stoned. It creates a feeling of wellbeing for me and I –
Kathryn Blume:So, what do you have like a higher CBD to THC ratio in what you’re taking, or is it just you taking a small enough amount that it’s managing the pain without making you too high?
Becky Cassel: It’s I’m taking a small enough amount I think that it manages the pain. I found the sweet spot. And I don’t want to be stumbling around or sitting in like a lump somewhere staring at some- I’m able to fully function and think. And because I live alone, I have to be careful. You know, I don’t want to fall down the stairs or whatever. It’s really marvelous, it really is.
It’s nice to have it totally within your power to take what you need for you.
When I first tried it, I thought oh my God this is going to be interesting. I’ll probably sit here and stare at something; cartoons or something on TV. And I never really noticed anything except that I was sleeping better. And it’s nice to have it totally within your power to take what you need for you.
What works for me may not work for you. And that’s the problem with the opiates is you take one or two of these every four hours, and it may work for a few hours in the middle, but then it wears off. Whereas the cannabis, I sleep all night. I mean, I go to sleep at 9 and I get up usually at 4:30 or 5 and I may wake up once during the night, but it’s made a huge, huge difference. When I go to the patient alliance, I go to Montpelier, most of the people in there are my age which I found really interesting. All the grannies and grandpas.
Kathryn Blume: Well, we’ve definitely seen in terms of what helps with normalization. There’s the grammas arthritis effect where Grandma got ahold of some CBD cream and it’s helping her arthritis and it’s changed everybody’s attitudes about it. And seniors seem to be the fastest growing demographic of cannabis users. It makes enormous amount of sense. I had my physical therapist said she felt like everyone in her practice who was over 40 was taking cannabis and that it should almost be de rigeur.
Becky Cassel: Yeah, yeah, it is. Everyone that I speak to– Like I’ll be in a conversation with someone and someone uncomfortable talking just a person I say oh so do I, oh so do I, oh my son gave me, oh my daughter gave me edibles or gummy bears or whatever. So, it’s everybody’s using. No, I say everybody, that’s kind of a strange. Many are using it. They just aren’t talking about it. And it works. It works and it’s not an addict– To me, it’s not an addictive type. It isn’t like oh my God, [making sniffing noise], it’s almost time for my– None of that goes on at all.
You may be uncomfortable if you eat or smoke too much, you may not like where your head’s at, but if your goal is just to take care of the pain, and you are careful with dosages, it’s great.
Kathryn Blume: So, you’re not going to go into withdrawal if you haven’t had it an hour.
Becky Cassel: No. And the fact that it doesn’t affect your breathing. That was a big deal to me because I know opiates can. And I don’t drink alcohol, so I don’t have to worry about the mixing and matching. But that was always a concern to me is what if I had something else that was bothering my ability to breathe. And I’m taking an opiate now, I’m complicating the issue whereas cannabis doesn’t. From what I understand, doesn’t touch that, doesn’t go near that.
Kathryn Blume: Yeah.
Becky Cassel: So, you may be uncomfortable if you eat or smoke too much, you may not like where your head’s at, but if your goal is just to take care of the pain, and you are careful with dosages, it’s great.
I’m not unusual. This is common.
Kathryn Blume: So, you said you’ve got a knee replacement surgery coming up?
Becky Cassel: I’m postponing it as long as I can, but I do. I have another knee. I have a shoulder and another hip that need to be replaced.
Kathryn Blume: So, how do you think you’re going to manage that process with cannabis in conjunction with what the surgeons might recommend? Like, how are you going to do this differently than someone who’s not a cannabis user?
Becky Cassel: One of the reasons I was trying to postpone the knee is they’re getting very close to having outpatient surgery for these things. Different people have the procedures done. I think Dartmouth Hitchcock does a lot of outpatient for hips. So I can go home and manage my pain with the cannabis. They’ll probably give me opiates. If I need them, I’ll take one but if I don’t, it would be awesome not to need them at all.
Kathryn Blume: Now, are you now pain free or is it just that you can sleep through the night?
Becky Cassel: I still have pain. During the day, I have pain but I have no interest in using anything during the- Because I work, I drive, etcetera. The biggest issue for me was the nighttime just being tired and not being able to sleep well and just constant moving around all night long.
You have to participate in your own wellness. You can’t expect a pill or a drop under your tongue or whatever to be something that’s going to fix everything and you don’t have to do anything.
Kathryn Blume: So, there’s a lot of people who suffer from chronic pain.
Becky Cassel: Oh, my gosh, yeah.
Kathryn Blume: You know, I figure you can’t get to midlife without having something that you’re dealing with.
Becky Cassel: I’m not unusual. This is common.
Kathryn Blume: So, for someone who’s struggling and hasn’t tried medical cannabis yet and is trying to figure out how do– If this is a new situation for them. This is more like a larger question of your advice around, how does someone contend with living with chronic pain? What advice would you give them for how to manage it – both as a process, but how to manage it emotionally and mentally? Because it’s a huge impact on how you live your life.
One of the main things I found dealing with chronic pain is you have to remain active.
Becky Cassel: Oh, it is. I mean it can make or break your life. And one of the main things I found dealing with chronic pain is you have to remain active. Sitting and doing nothing is not good because it gets even worse. Moving, keeping everything fluid. I walk two miles a day. I tell people the dog takes me for a walk. Using stairs and working out in the yard and mowing and doing stuff to keep yourself active. It doesn’t make all the pain go away but I have to say addresses I would say about 40 percent of it. And then you’ll sit down and everything goes back the way it wants to. I seize up and I get up and maybe for a few steps, I’m stiff. But as soon as I walk it off, you’re able to move around better and I just find it’s very important.
You have to participate in your own wellness. You can’t expect a pill or a drop under your tongue or whatever to be something that’s going to fix everything and you don’t have to do anything. So, it’s almost like a lifetime contract. You have to participate in your own wellness. And you have to be your own advocate with the doctors. Feel free to challenge them when they say you can’t do that. Well, what about doing something this way or that way. I expected resistance using cannabis and I was very surprised when the first doctor I saw was an orthopedist and I said, “I just need to tell you this,” and his reaction was, “I think that’s great.”
Kathryn Blume:I would imagine the same holds true for the aging process as well; staying active, continuing to move will allow you to remain a certain degree of strength and fluidity that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
I’ve just found getting that good night’s sleep with the cannabis, I’m good to go the next day I’m up, ready to go.
Becky Cassel: Absolutely. And you’re keeping your brain active. I use to tell people I can’t wait to retire but on the other hand, I’m glad I work because I’m responsible for things, I have to think, I have to use my brain. And a combination of physical exercise and keeping the brain engaged and getting enough sleep and eating well. I think you extend your life, and you have a better quality of life, and none of us want to be a burden.
You know, you get older and you think about these things. And scary things are Alzheimer’s and cancer and heart disease. And some of these things, we can put work into being preventative care for them. Alzheimer’s is a little scary because– But I hear people say keeping your teeth clean, getting your teeth cleaned, gum disease. They’ve linked gum disease to heart disease and Alzheimer’s. That’s all I had here was Alzheimer’s and I’m there.
Kathryn Blume: I heard Alzheimer’s link too to blood sugar.
Becky Cassel: Sugar is the devil. It’s a common question now when you go to the doctor as an older woman. Are you diabetic? No, it’s almost like they expect you to say, “Yes, I am.” It’s a problem and what you eat, you have to think about what you’re eating and how you’re cooking it and you have to eat healthy and you have carbs and sugar. They should be bottom on the list. Now, I’m not saying don’t need it. Once in a while have ice cream or once in a while have cake but not every day. And don’t sugar in everything and there’s other ways of getting a sweet taste without sugar.
I see the people, the naysayers becoming educated and watching what’s happening and nothing terrible is happening.
Kathryn Blume: We’ll be back in a moment with more of our chat with medical cannabis patient Becky Cassel. But we wanted to take a moment to mention that this episode of Unhidden is brought to you by Vermont Hempicurean. Located at 8, Flat Street in downtown Brattleboro, they have got a curated selection of high quality farm to body CBD products and they are dedicated to supporting Vermont hemp farmers and the products they produce.
In fact, they just got back from a farm tour where they were checking out the gorgeous plants which will go into this year’s offerings. And they’ve got to know hemp flower coming in from their partner farms. Their stock of grow supplies just keeps growing, and their new website is up and running, and it’s gorgeous. So, check them out at vthempicurean.com. That’s vthempicurean.com where you can find the perfect solution for all your hemp needs. And now, back to Becky Cassel.
Becky Cassel: Using cannabis has also helped me to relax about the pain in my mind. Because it’s very frustrating. When you’re trying to do something, and it either – you end up really being uncomfortable because you overdid it or you’re in too much pain to do it. And I’ve just found getting that good night’s sleep with the cannabis, I’m good to go the next day I’m up, ready to go.
Kathryn Blume: Sort of like the Buddhists talk about the difference between pain and suffering. And pain is the discomfort that you’re experiencing, and suffering is all of the mental anguish and narrative that you apply to your situation.
I think there’s enough Baby Boomer age people that are using right, they’ve been using right along. They just haven’t talked about it.
Becky Cassel: Yes, yes and you can be your own worst enemy that way. Using cannabis has made a huge difference in my life, my health, and just my general wellbeing. And without the side effects that you get from pills, and without having to beg for what you need. You can get what you need and you can figure out your own pain plan. That’s really to me, that’s one of the biggest bonuses.
Kathryn Blume: So, as you’ve been watching the rollout of medical, as much in the rollout of personal use and we’re debating tax and regulate right now. Just as an interested observer, how do you think it’s all going?
Becky Cassel: I see it being legalized. It may not be in the next few years, maybe longer, but I don’t think they can stop it. I think it’s just becoming bigger than them. There’s always problems. I don’t care what it is. Look at what alcohol does. I really, really think it’s just going to make a big turn. There’s people coming around. I just saw the other day where Governor Dean, he was totally against it. He didn’t even want to hear the word.
Kathryn Blume: And now he’s on the board of Tilray.
Becky Cassel: So it’s like yeah baby! But I see the people, the naysayers becoming educated and watching what’s happening and nothing terrible is happening. Everybody is going about their way, but people are growing it, using – even words that don’t need it for pain for it just to relax.
Know what you’re getting. Get it from a reputable grower. Just don’t buy it on the street from anyone. And real easy in the beginning because everyone gets affected differently.
Kathryn Blume: What do you think happens when a critical mass percentage of the population is all using cannabis? Do you think there’s a larger cultural shift that happens as a result of that?
Becky Cassel: It’s hard to say, because I think it depends on your age when you’re using what you’re– The younger people, I think it affects you differently. too. When you’re younger because if you’re younger, you might be smoking and drinking and you’ll get a whole different result. Whereas older people, people who have jobs, that have families, that etcetera, they’re going to be a little more conservative with it. And they know this is a wonderful thing to have and don’t screw things up, because we don’t want to give it a bad name. In this state, I think there’s enough Baby Boomer age people that are using right, they’ve been using right along. They just haven’t talked about it. I think their use of the herb is not going to present a problem, I really don’t. I know so many professional people that I mean, it’s amazing.
Kathryn Blume: I will admit to having smoked with members of the legislature so, there is people everywhere.
Becky Cassel: Who wouldn’t?
Kathryn Blume: So, first someone who has never tried before, but who has whatever issues that they’ve gotten they think cannabis might help. What advise would you give them about getting started?
I think most people, if they took too much, they would either fall asleep or they would just be dull for a while. But once you know what your body, how it reacts to it and what works for you, you can hone it down to your dose which is wonderful to me.
Becky Cassel: Know what you’re getting. Get it from a reputable grower. Just don’t buy it on the street from anyone. And real easy in the beginning because everyone gets affected differently. And if you’re taking medications, if you have a drink with it, I even think the time of day could make a difference how it affects you. You’ve heard the old wake and bake. If I did that in the morning, I’d be probably for the rest of the day, I’d be baked because I just wouldn’t have that same energy.
So, I think anyone that’s thinking about it, just go into it cautiously. Like I hadn’t touched it for oh my gosh, 40 some years. I mean, I stopped using it when I was in my 20s. And I really didn’t have any idea how much of what and went how far. I didn’t remember how it affected me. But just easy, just use common sense.
Kathryn Blume: Right. And for people who have been infused with just say no and reefer madness and fear of cannabis –
Becky Cassel: That did more damage than, yeah.
Kathryn Blume: So, do you feel like – do they have anything to fear? Can you assuage that?
Becky Cassel: I mean, it’s possible that someone who had a mental condition or maybe– It’s hard to say. It could, maybe, put them off in a direction they shouldn’t or don’t want to go. But I think in general, I don’t see what the harm is. For centuries, it’s been being used. And different cultures have used it — medical reasons for– I mean, we’re so far behind that use of it that there are many countries — I mean look what the Chinese herbalists do. And you know there’s weed in there somewhere along the line there, there has to be. I mean there could be other things.
But I think nothing is a 100 percent safe. But I think the bulk of people that would try it or use it for relaxation, or for pain, would approach it in a way that wasn’t — they weren’t looking to get to harm themselves or get high or I don’t think most people want to get… Well, not my age. [laughter]
It’s nice, it’s a relief to not white knuckle it through pain all the time, or feel guilty about asking the doctor.
Kathryn Blume: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want to say?
Becky Cassel: No, you’ve been very thorough. And I’ve just re-learning about all of this stuff. I’ve been using this for about six months. And I just, I tell people, “Man, it does the trick. It really does.” And it’s natural and that’s the important thing which brings to it the other topic, why it’s so important to know who you’re buying from and what you’re getting or what you’re growing. Because different strains have different effects. But there are different strains and different strains have different strengths and could be used for focus or for sleeping, for pain.
There’s a huge menu of varieties. You just need to know what you’re getting. And if the person that’s helping you with it, they should help you and explain it to you. But there’s many different ways to use it and it affects you differently if you smoke it, you instantly feel it, if you eat it could be an hour delay which a lot of people say outside doing anything then they’ll eat more. And that’s the worst thing you can do.
Kathryn Blume: Famous last words. Just send another one down to see what the first one is doing, and then you end up in the ER because you don’t know what to do with yourself.
Becky Cassel: And I think most people, if they took too much, they would either fall asleep or they would just be dull for a while. But once you know what your body, how it reacts to it and what works for you, you can hone it down to your dose which is wonderful to me.
It’s amazing the number of people I’ve spoken to where I’ve been in a conversation start talking about medical marijuana and hemp and all that stuff. “Oh yeah, I do that.”
Kathryn Blume: That we can customize our own medicine for ourselves.
Becky Cassel: Your own for you. It may not work for you, but it works for me. And that’s one of the marvels of it is that that can be done. And you don’t have to worry about overdosing or — Some of the ads that you see on TV for medicines the side effects that they’re required — I would be terrified to take some of that stuff, death [laughs].
Kathryn Blume: Not a good side effect.
Becky Cassel: I’ve never seen anyone die from weed, ever. That to me is another good reason. The side effects are minimal, minimal. And you don’t have to worry that you’re going to be vomiting from it or — Some of these medicines, I mean what they say is I wouldn’t— And you pay out the nose for it, too.
Kathryn Blume: There you go and if you’re lucky enough to be able to grow your own…
Becky Cassel: That’s my next step. Someone’s coming to the house and setting me up with a plant. I’m going to start growing.
Kathryn Blume: Oh, fantastic!
Becky Cassel: Yeah, so it’ll be — I grow flowers and vegetables, so it’ll be —
Kathryn Blume: It’ll be easier than flowers and vegetables that’s your issue.
Becky Cassel: That’s what you’re telling me. So yeah, I’m anxious to learn about it. It’s all an education about how this herb works. It’s completely different from the hippie days of the 60s and no one cared about just let’s get high.
Kathryn Blume: Not that that’s not fun, too. We have purpose with this as well.
Becky Cassel: Yeah, sometimes I’ll get home from work and I might put a little bit under my tongue and take the dog for a walk and it’s just so relaxing, and I’m not out of it. If I had to deal with something, I could deal with it right on the spot. It’s nice, it’s a relief to not white knuckle it through pain all the time, or feel guilty about asking the doctor.
I mean, I hate to call because even the lecture about do this, do that. And I understand is the pressure is being put on the doctors. They don’t have any choice. They’re doing what they’re told and they I think part of their realization is they know some of their patients need this stuff. But they’re not allowed to prescribe what they need because other people are abusing it. I mean, it’s crazy.
One of my granddaughters had an opiate problem. And she’s fine now. It was years, years of struggle. She finally came out the other side of it. But when we see every day, we see in the paper. You look at that and then you look at pain control with an herb. that’s a no brainer. Do you want the chance of taking too much or building up a tolerance to it versus honing it to into your own little recipe that works for you. It’s marvelous. And I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see this. Who would have thunk it?
Kathryn Blume: Yeah. And it’s happening so fast now after all these decades.
Becky Cassel: Yes.
Kathryn Blume: Years of prohibition and decades of activism, and all of a sudden there is a tipping point that’s happening, and we’re right in the middle of it and we’re getting to watch history being made.
Becky Cassel: And we can talk about it, and it’s legal. We can talk about it. No one can say, “You know—” We can talk about it. And I think it’s wonderful that it’s not just young people that, it’s you know all of the population in Vermont. There’s all different age groups, backgrounds, what have you. It’s amazing the number of people I’ve spoken to where I’ve been in a conversation start talking about medical marijuana and hemp and all that stuff. “Oh yeah, I do that.” It’s amazing to me. You know, everybody was in the closet, I guess. I don’t know [laughs].
Kathryn Blume: Well, thank you so much for coming in today.
Becky Cassel: You’re welcome.
Kathryn Blume: It’s great to hear your experience and I’m so glad it’s working for you.
Becky Cassel: As am I. Thank you. Enjoyed it.
Kathryn Blume: And that, my friends is it for this episode of Unhidden. Thanks to Becky Cassel for her time, to Vermont Hempicurean for all their support and to the whole team at Heady Vermont: Erin Doble, Monica Donovan, Christina Hall, Kelly McDowell, Karen Santorello, and the resident Hounds of Heck, Luna, Oso, and Potato. Thanks also to West End Blend for our excellent theme song. You can find Heady Vermont at headyvermont.com as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Look for the Unhidden podcast at Sound Cloud, iTunes and wherever fine podcasts are sold. We’ll see you next time.