SANTA CRUZ -- Some of the triggers are obvious -- loud noises, open spaces, the darkness of night. Others, not so much. Like roadkill.
It's not that animal corpses reminded Jake Scallan of all the death that surrounded him during his deployment in Iraq. It's something more immediate, more horrifying than that.
"They use to hide IEDs in dead animals," says Jake. "So (after I returned from Iraq), I would see roadkill and just gas it, drive in the middle of the road, cut everybody off. Y'know, I feel like I'm a fairly self-aware person and I try to be aware of what's going on with me. But sometimes something snaps. And you're watching yourself, thinking 'Why am I doing this?'"
That's what post-traumatic stress disorder feels like, and in the case of the 28-year-old Santa Cruzan, it almost destroyed his life. A couple of years after returning from Iraq, Jake found himself on suicide watch at a psych ward at the VA, where the nurses carried pepper spray and the chairs were weighted down so they couldn't be thrown across the room.
Eventually, Jake crawled out of that deep hole. His story is told in a new book, the title of which encapsulates his life from that moment to now. "Cannabis Saved My Life: Stories of Hope and Healing," by Santa Cruz journalist Elizabeth Limbach, chronicles the stories of people across the country who found relief from their crippling physical or psychological problems through cannabis.
In fact, Jake has devoted his life to cannabis and its power to put lives back together. He now runs the Veterans Compassion Program at the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, a group that, under California's Proposition 215, provides veterans with cannabis and the support system they need to help them navigate their medical issues.
Jake and his organization hold monthly meetings at the VFW post in Live Oak for veterans interested in 'cannabis therapy, and what started as a gathering of eight to 10 people has ballooned to 10 times that many. The vets need help, said Jake, not only with healing from their serious ailments but from the heavily pharmaceutical treatments proscribed to them by the VA.
For years after his diagnosis, he was taking a trail mix of mind-fogging pills: Zoloft, Klonopin, Seroquel, Vicadin.
Today, Jake is off the pills entirely. He and his girlfriend are house-hunting. He's consumed with the art and science of growing cannabis. He's found a purpose in a life that once looked lost.
"I still have my good days and my bad days," he says. "But working with cannabis has propelled my life to the level where it is now. It allows me to slow down, think and not get angry."
Getting to know
Home: Santa Cruz.
Originally from: Born in Redwood City, Scallan grew up in Fremont.
Military service: Joined the Air Force at the age of 21 and was deployed to Iraq in 2009 to serve as part of the security forces at a joint base compound. His duties included manning a security tower with a sniper rifle and going on patrols, often at night, outside the perimeter.
Post-military struggles: In 2010, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, spinal injuries and traumatic brain injury. Was treated in the VA health-care system for depression and anxiety as well as for other symptoms of PTSD. Was put on a regiment of anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic drugs. 'You'd sleep for 16, 17 hours a day, and even when you were awake, you could barely open your eyes.'
Attitude about cannabis growing up: 'I grew up in the Bay Area, so I had a lot of friends who used cannabis in high school. But I was a BMX motorcycle rider and that was all I could think about back then, so I didn't really party. I remember when Prop. 215 (the medical marijuana ballot measure) passed. Some of the stoner guys would do projects on it. It just wasn't for me.'
Cannabis treatment: Using cannabis as treatment for PTSD, Jake found it allowed him to get better sleep as well as perspective on his thoughts and behaviors. He said his primary-care doctors are generally supportive of his cannabis use, but do not give him any guidance due to marijuana's continuing classification as an illegal substance on the federal level.
Activism: Jake now works for the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, managing the gardens and engaging in what he calls 'horticultural therapy.' 'It's funny. In the military, you're trained to crush, kill, destroy. And with this, it's the complete opposite. You nurture this little seedling and take care of it as it grows.' For more information on the SCVA and its program to assist diagnosed veterans with cannabis treatment, go to scveteransalliance.com.
The book: Jake's story is included in a new book by Santa Cruz journalist Elizabeth Limbach titled 'Cannabis Saved My Life: Stories of Hope and Healing,' featuring testimonials from people of all ages and backgrounds on how cannabis helped them cope with suffering with everything from cancer to epilepsy to PTSD. For more information, go to elizabethlimbach.com. ___
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This article was written by Wallace Baine from The Santa Cruz Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.