An image stays with me, 30 years on, of a chaotic nighttime scene in Beijing: yelling, explosions and the silhouettes of thousands of people moving around while a young man, shot in the abdomen, is carried past me by several people into a makeshift medical tent staffed by university students in Tiananmen Square.
I prefer to not engage in first-person journalism, but I have my own narrative about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and cannabis. Considering this month marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, and given how stressful these times are, that story is now worth sharing.
Days and Nights in the Square
Thirty years ago, while working as a field producer for an international TV news network, I spent nearly a month in Tiananmen Square, talking with students, protestors and others involved in the anti-corruption, pro-democracy demonstrations there.
I witnessed the optimism of those demonstrators first-hand, and spoke with many of them about their hopes that they would be able to change their government in a positive manner.
The students and their supporters were living in squalid conditions in the Square, surrounded by the trash they had accumulated (although there were some attempts at cleanup). There were only a handful of public toilets nearby and they had become foul, stinking, awful places due to overuse and a lack of maintenance.
Most of the demonstrators who stayed in the Square — and there were thousands if not tens of thousands of them at any given time — slept on or under plastic sheeting. Later someone donated several dozen popup tents.
Despite the wretched conditions there was still a sense of purpose among most of the demonstrators I spoke with, at least at first. I remember one young student telling me in English that he had waited his whole life for this moment.
One evening, not too long before the massacre, a group of university art students arrived in the Square and set about building what became known as the Goddess of Democracy Statue. During that event I remember smiles and cheering from the crowds watching the statue rise up into the night sky.
As the days and weeks drew on, however, there was a mixture of boredom, dread and squabbling among the demonstrators ahead of an anticipated government crackdown. Some people were expecting something along the lines of what happened in South Korea several years earlier – when police used tear gas and clubs to break up anti-government protests in Seoul.
So, what occurred in the Square during the brutally violent repression on those demonstrations by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops, starting on June 4, 1989, shocked, and angered not only many Chinese but much of the international community.
I remember entering the square around sunset that evening and feeling like someone had kicked over a huge ant’s nest. One of the largest public squares in the world was filled people moving around quickly, angry and tense. For some time PLA armored personnel carriers (APCs) had been charging down avenues surround the Square, chased by students, as they scouted out the situation.
At one point in the evening, tracer bullets were fired skyward, somewhere south of the Square, as an apparent signal by the PLA to begin their operations.
We were in the center of the Square, at the obelisk called the Monument to the People’s Heroes, when people came running up to us. They said the military was heading towards the Square and shooting wildly as it came. Numerous people, they said, had been killed.
Thirty years on and I still have these vivid, hallucinatory scenes engraved in my mind:
An APC, stopped and set afire by the demonstrators, burning near the portrait of Chairman Mao. Demonstrators commandeering a bus and trying to set it across Chang’An (“Eternal Peace”) Avenue in the northern part of the Square, in a failed attempt to block PLA troops and equipment from advancing.
The Odessa Steps
Time slowed down for me as the shooting intensified. Several times bullets whizzed by low, over our heads.
At one point I remember watching a double-line of PLA troops, the bayonets on their rifles shining in the light of the fires and street lamps, run into position along the eastern side of the Square as they attempted to cut off fleeing students.
I was reminded of The Odessa Steps, a famous sequence from the esteemed Soviet silent film “Battleship Potemkin.” In that sequence the citizens of Odessa, who’ve turned out to cheer on a rebellious naval vessel, are massacred on steps leading down to the waterfront by Czarist troops.
It was that vision of impending bloodshed that prompted me to tell my video crew it was time to leave. They refused, saying there was still much more for us to cover. So I took the videotapes we had shot up to that point and left the Square, using the darkness and chaos in my favor. After bribing a motorcyclist, who drove me through units of PLA troops and clumps of bystanders gathered on the darkened Beijing streets, I made it back to my network’s headquarters, where I reported on what I had seen.
About a day later, while working with another crew on a nearby hotel balcony, I was eye-witness to a now-historic scene: of one man single-handedly stopping a line of tanks on Chang’An Avenue. At the time I thought I was about to witness a man getting crushed, and was amazed when the armored column stopped and then tried to maneuver around this lone individual.
Later on, I was arrested along with my film crew for violating martial law. After being held by public security officials for several hours, and watching a man who came to our defense being beaten up, we were forced to write confessions. Our gear was also confiscated.
The sense of dismay deepened. Sources told us that a PLA army group had rebelled following the massacre and was on its way to fight the troops in the Square. We were also told Chinese security forces were coming to arrest us and seize our equipment, which set off a mad scramble to hide all our gear with friendly people and organizations around Beijing. But neither of those scenarios occurred.
As the government crackdown intensified, it became clear that most foreign journalists would be unable to continue their coverage of this story. We were sent home soon after.
Anxiety and Nightmares
Months after returning from China, my wife said my personality had changed. I initially dismissed her observations but, as time went on, I knew she was right.
I had nightmares about tanks. I would become angry, irritable and even panicky for no specific reason. And while that irritability and anxiety diminished, it would return full-force when I returned to China several times later on work assignments.
During my time in broadcast news, I avoided cannabis. It was illegal in the state where we lived. I also needed a high level of focus at work and I had a family to consider.
But in 2014, after moving to Colorado and obtaining access to legal cannabis, I tried marijuana again for the first time in years and found that it helped with my insomnia and some of my free-floating anxieties. Only after speaking with experts in the field while researching articles did I realize that I had been experiencing classic symptoms of PTSD.
What is PTSD?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines PTSD as a mental health condition that affects people who have witnessed or lived through a traumatic event, such as a serious accident, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, war, combat, violence, abuse or criminal assault. Its symptoms, according to the APA, can include “intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings” about that traumatic experience, even long after the event.
While much has been written about PTSD and combat veterans, the disorder is not limited to those in the military, and can occur in anyone. The APA says about 3.5 percent of U.S. adults suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD, and an estimated one in 11 people will reportedly be (formally) diagnosed with PTSD during their lifetimes.
How Cannabis can Treat PTSD
A Veterans Administration-funded study currently underway in San Diego looks at how cannabidiol (CBD), the non-intoxicating chemical compound in cannabis, might be used along with psychotherapy to help military veterans with PTSD.
Medical researchers have been examining how cannabis might have real promise as a potential treatment for PTSD for several years now. In 2013, a study by researchers at NYU’s Langone Medical Center found a connection between the number of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain (known as CB1 receptors) and PTSD.
The NYU study’s lead author, Dr. Alexander Neumeister, said understanding the biology behind PTSD could help scientists focus on specific medications that could eventually treat the disorder.
That line of research is supported by Sue Sisley. An Arizona-based medical doctor and researcher, Sisley recently completed a federally-approved and groundbreaking three-year-long clinical study on how marijuana affects PTSD symptoms in military veterans.
“CB1 receptors are located throughout what we call the emotional center of [the] brain, (an area) that is heavily populated with CB1 receptors,” she tells DOPE. “When people smoke THC-rich cannabis, the molecule binds to CB1 receptors and possibly causes a suppression of adverse, negative memories. It seems to dampen those memories.”
Anka Vujanovic, a clinical psychologist, associate professor and director of the Trauma and Stress Studies Center at the University of Houston, said she’s not surprised that the chemical compounds in cannabis look promising as a potential PTSD treatment – as well as a treatment for epilepsy, pain and other conditions.
But she acknowledges that there’s still not enough research being done about cannabis and PTSD.
“There are so many chemical compounds within cannabis,” she says. “The studies that we have are messy because we don’t have a clear picture of what strain you are using, what are the chemical compounds from that strain, what are the potential therapeutic effects of those specific compounds.”
Cannabis in the Toolbox
I’ve been lucky. My PTSD symptoms from 1989 have, for the most part, faded away. And I’m thankful that I was able to understand what I had been going through in Tainanmen.
And while I’ve relied mostly on exercise and a set of understanding friends and family since then to help me work through my anxieties, I’m thankful that cannabis has been part of my mental health “toolbox” when I needed it.