A Tribute to Late Activists Mary Elizabeth Woodside and Stephanie Leigh Hooker

During these last few years of writing, most of it has been opinion-based or experience-based, and most definitely from a personal place. This isn’t an article about Weed Woman or Tracy Curley but a subject that has certainly impacted my life: depression and cannabis.

Meeting M.E.

I met Mary Elizabeth Woodside — known as M.E. to all her friends — during the summer of 2016. I had heard rumours around Toronto that there was a new woman on the cannabis activist scene who was also from P.E.I. (The tiny red island of my birth). Funny that we both had to travel from Toronto to Harvestfest just outside Truro, Nova Scotia, to meet.  

I literally ran into M.E. as she was setting up her vendor’s tent for Epic Infusions, a company she co-owned. They were selling the cannabis-infused maple syrup and honey that they also produced. As I was touring the event and M.E. was running product from her vehicle to her booth we collided.

After apologizing to one another as Canadians tend to do, we introduced ourselves. You would have thought a popular boy band had just arrived as we squealed at the sounds of each other’s names. We had both heard lots about each other and our respective businesses.

I was surprised when I found out that M.E. wasn’t new to the cannabis scene at all, and had in fact been around almost as long as I had. She had spent some time in California and had worked in a legal medical garden there before returning to Canada and eventually settling in Toronto.

She was a patient too. M.E. lived with depression and had been fighting suicidal thoughts since the age of seven. Cannabis was her medicine.

Back-Home Friends

Once we both returned to Toronto and got back to our busy lives. We would chat online, promising to make time for each other in person soon. I regret that we let so much time pass before we actually saw each other again.

Pretty soon it seemed like M.E. was everywhere. Hard at work with Epic Infusions, promoting her products and doing the trade show festival circuit. And she had taken a job at a cannabis lifestyle magazine as Assistant Editor. She kept herself busy.

M.E. and I talked a lot. Sometimes it was about things we missed back home. Or the challenges of trying to break through the glass ceiling in our male-dominated industry. Sometimes we gossiped, and we shared a love of the film Empire Records. Often we laughed out loud.

But sometimes we also talked about death.

M.E. expressed an interest in becoming a spokesperson and speaking about cannabis, depression, and suicide. I encouraged her to speak more about her story; it was one that resonated with me as well.

I wish more than anything that she were sharing this with you right now, but instead it has taken me months of tearfully staring at my computer screen to actually write it myself.

Depression and cannabis M.E.

M.E. Woodside proudly displaying her infused products.

Depression and Cannabis

Unfortunately we don’t talk about cannabis and mental illness enough — except cautions that “it may cause schizophrenia” (there is a lot of data to suggest this is false, by the way). We have just recently begun to discuss PTSD, and how cannabis has shown to help our military veterans, but we don’t talk enough about anxiety, depression or suicide.

This past year M.E. was part of the 20% of Canadians that suffer from mental health problems. This was not a new struggle for M.E., battling depression almost her entire life. But on the morning of June 5th, 2017, I was informed by a mutual friend from Prince Edward Island that M.E. had taken her life the day before. I then had to break the news to the rest of the local Toronto activist community that we had lost one of our brightest lights.

The cannabis community is not unfamiliar with death. Those of us involved in the medical side have dedicated many candles and prayers to patients we have lost. This particular loss was harder than most, not just because of who M.E. was to so many, but because of how she left us. The loss of M.E. Woodside left many of us wondering what we could have done to save her.

I admit to having to deal with many of those what-ifs in the aftermath. What if I had tried a different tactic when trying to encourage her? What if I hadn’t missed that final call from her, or had answered sooner? I was not the only one in the community struggling with those same thoughts. Even though many had discussed depression and cannabis with M.E. in the course of her activism career, I’m not sure we really paid attention.

It was only after the loss of M.E. that I truly understood the stigma of mental illness and the barriers those suffering are faced with when trying to access mental health services and compassion from those around them.

Stephanie’s Story

Stephanie Leigh Hooker a cannabis loving, hippy chick, and fiercely proud mother of two left us four months later.

I met Stephanie at the inaugural Women Grow Toronto Networking Event in 2015, when she volunteered her time to help us set up and tear down. She showed up every month after that, always with a huge smile on her face and eagerness to help.

Stephanie had survived a long history with depression when we first met. After the loss of a relationship, online bullying on the cannabis community discussion threads, and the general stress of activism she announced that she was leaving the city to clear her head and commune with nature.

I encouraged her to move on in hopes it would be good for her and her dog, Schrader.

We talked a few times after she left the city. Her move was not stress-free, and she found herself with landlord troubles. But while shopping one day, she found an outfit that was undeniably hippy-girl Steph’s style. It was my size, so she kindly packaged it up and sent it to me as a gift along with a copy of her favourite photo of us. She requested I sign the photo and send it back to her. I didn’t.

I got busy, I got sick, and then it was too late.

depression and cannabis TC and SLH

Stephanie Leigh Hooker’s favourite picture with the writer.

Depression and Cannabis Community

People tell each other that they shouldn’t feel guilt when another succumbs to depression and suicide, but it’s truly hard not to. It’s also difficult not to assign blame. We as a cannabis community continue to fail some of our most vulnerable members, and we need to do better.

I will carry feelings of guilt and loss about M.E. and Stephanie, and how I may have mistreated others in my life suffering from mental illness. But I also witnessed how our community mistreated these incredible warriors. M.E. and Stephanie were both really open about their mental health and it was often used as a weapon against them.

A person with depression doesn’t need to be told that they aren’t good enough, are fucked up, or just another crazy bitch; it’s a running loop in their head already! Using these words against a person suffering from depression is not only irresponsible, it’s cruel. To anyone I may have hurt with my own carelessness, and made a tough day of survival even tougher, I truly apologize.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives. And in the average year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. We need to have more compassion for each other — especially now, as many of us face criminal charges, lawyers fees, and the uncertainty of surviving into legalization.

I Was Lucky

Depression is not new to me. In 2010, after having lost my brother to suicide and depression a few years earlier, I found myself recently dumped, jobless, angry, and sad. So fucking sad all the time. I realized I needed help.

I was one of the lucky ones. Not only did I find a doctor who would treat me, he most importantly listened to me. He prescribed various SSRIs and antidepressants — it took a while until we found one that made me stop crying. Once I stopped crying it was much easier to talk, and I’m sure I was much easier to understand once the blubbering stopped. Eventually I was ready to stop taking the SSRIs, and found healthy coping mechanisms and the right cannabis therapy to deal with the depression associated with my C-PTSD diagnosis.

I truly know how lucky I was to have found the right therapist. And to have friends and family who, although they may not have understood what I was struggling with, supported me through it. I repeat: I was lucky.

Currently there is a shortage of mental health services and often the services that are immediately available are cost-prohibitive to many.

I beg those of you in need reading this to not give up, there is help out there. And you are not alone.

As we approach legalization more research is being done about depression and cannabis (and other mental health conditions), including what strains can be helpful and which may be detrimental. Please talk about your cannabis use with your mental health professional or, if you lack one, a trusted family member or friend. Keep a “Cannabis Journal” to determine which strains help treat your symptoms and those which exacerbate them.

If you find yourself struggling please reach out for help. If you see someone struggling, reach out to them if you can. Or please have some compassion and don’t make their struggle harder. Please be kind to yourselves and each other, tomorrow might be a better day. And I hope, like me, that gives you the hope you need to keep trying.