Ready to watch one of the best marijuana documentaries ever made? You should also get ready to dissolve into a puddle of tears when you rent the 2018 documentary "From Shock To Awe."
Veterans Struggling To Come Home
This film follows three veterans struggling with memories of combat. Now trying to re-adjust to civilian life (and parenthood), two of them have attempted suicide. More than once.
This film is not easy to watch. The veterans re-live traumatic memories on camera. They remember dead children.
"You have to give their bodies to their families," recalls Matt Kahl, who served in Afghanistan. "It's bad enough when it's an IED," he recalls, at home on his couch now, his face contorting with pain and tears. "It's even worse when you did it to them."
He speaks slowly, between sobs of self-hatred. His memories will haunt your nightmares.
There was nothing left of him, he says. Nothing left that was human. It was all gone. He'd forgotten how to feel like a human himself. He'd forgotten how to feel anything at all.
After one particular living nightmare, while on deployment, Matt was afforded one of the rare phone calls to his family. He spoke to his two-year-old son.
"I said goodbye to him, for good," he says. "I knew I was never coming home. I knew I was going to stay there. I was going to die there."
And he tried. He was reckless in war zones, he says, hoping to die. He wound up in a hospital, with his young son and wife visiting him. Just like they had after his first suicide attempt. But worse, he says.
Nothing is hidden. These two couples, each with young children, bare their souls on the screen. They know they're not okay. They want to heal for their spouses; they want to heal for their kids. They know why an average of 22 veterans kill themselves in the U.S. every day.
"We lose more brothers and sisters," says Mike Cooley, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
"At home," says fellow veteran Brooke Cooley. In the footage, she often collaborates mid-sentence with her husband, who, due to his PTSD, sometimes struggles to get his words out.
"At home," Mike repeats. They are both weeping in their kitchen. "More than we lose in combat."
Help Through Cannabis
The Cooleys, who both served in Iraq, use cannabis to help manage their PTSD.
At the start of the film, they step outside to smoke a joint. It's Brooke's idea. "Your anxiety's amping fast," she says gently to her husband, as his stutter increases. After letting the dog out in the fenced backyard, they light a joint near the garage.
"It allows that anxiety to drop back down to a very manageable level," Brooke says "without the fogginess of pharmaceuticals."
The couple rattles off a list of psych prescriptions they've been on – meds they've replaced with cannabis. Then, they both recall an episode of PTSD from the night before.
Brooke had sparked a lighter, in the couple's bedroom. When the lights were off. The light from the spark, to Mike, had looked like the flash of an explosion. He had dropped to his knees. His fight-or-flight instincts were kicking in, his panic level rising.
"It felt like an attack, he says. "It was...” He trails off.
"A mistake I'll never make again," Brooke finishes his sentence, smiling at him. They're almost laughing, sort of. The incident is safely in the past. Brooke had brought Mike back home, he says, by putting her arms around him. Suddenly, he realized, he wasn't in Iraq after all.
Making Tough Decisions
Every veteran in this film is heroic, but Iraq War veteran Brooke Cooley emerges as an undeniable hero of the film.
Shortly after she'd put her gun two her own head – twice – her husband had started demonstrating his own rapid mental decline.
"So if that meant I needed to put my issues, and my crap, aside, it needed to be put aside," she said. "You put down your addictions."
Including the pharmaceutical meds she'd been prescribed by the VA. Twenty different medications in under a year. She had to get off them, she says, to help her husband. She used cannabis to quit the meds. It was manageable. Like many women, she put her own healing on the back burner, to be a source of stability for her family.
Mike Cooley is enrolled in school, but struggling to retain information.
"I've seen friends blown up," he says. "How do I step out into the world and do a job after a life like that?" he asks. He's struggling to drive his Subaru to class, while remembering convoy explosions.
The film does not offer any easy answers. But one of the first steps, for all three veterans, has been replacing opioids with cannabis.
Over at the Kahns' house, Matt opens a medicine cabinet filled with prescription pill bottles. He's been prescribed over 90 of them, over four years. At any given time, he was taking 18 to 20 different medications per day.
Trying Plants as Medicine
Then he found cannabis. He stopped taking the pharmaceutical meds prescribed by the VA. Every single pill bottle in that crowded cabinet – unnecessary.
He's doing better. He kisses his sons, and tells them he loves them. But he is still filled with remorse.
Cannabis is an amazing medicine, he says, but now he needs something deeper, too.
Cannabis has helped him start healing. It has done far more than any of the endless types of medications and therapies he'd tried. But he wants a cure. He wants to get free.
The guys board a plane for Orlando, Florida. They visit an ayahuasca ceremony center.
Ayahuasca is a plant medicine traditionally used to facilitate spiritual and emotional healing. It entered the mainstream conversation in 2018, partly thanks to a best-selling book by the New York Times journalist and academic Michael Pollan. ("How To Change Your Mind" covered healing with MDMA and mushrooms, too.) In some hip urban wellness circles, Ayahuasca ceremonies are now trendy.
The film contains footage of ayahuasca ceremonies. You will see vomiting.
All of the veterans weep, openly. They've all been grappling with their own memories, their own visions, their own tears and vomit and wounds of war.
After the ceremonies, they look like different people. They discover how to smile.
"It feels like sunlight," says Cooley, weeping at the foreign feeling: a smile on his face.
Legal Status Creates Issues
You won't be able to stop yourself from weeping with him.
This film may also make you angry. Because these medicines are illegal; these vets are, technically, criminals, as Brooke points out.
And cannabis isn't even federally legal yet, which makes you worry about veterans who might benefit from it. Because for these three vets, cannabis was one of the first steps in their healing journey.
The film is not about cannabis alone, but it's still one of the best marijuana documentaries ever made. You can see firsthand how cannabis can open the door to healing.
Like when Brooke and Mike are smoking outside their garage. They're able to talk about the panic attack from the previous night. But they aren't caught up in it. They aren't afraid. They even laugh, sort of.
Each time they smoke weed, they traverse from one mental state to another. (It's what we call "getting stoned.") And by changing mental states, they gain a new vantage point. From there, they can look back at their daily mental mode, their default reactions. Mike can talk about why he has panic attacks, without having another panic attack.
Cannabis wasn't a magic pill, the vets explains. But it helped them open their minds. It gave them the first glimpse. It helped them imagine being healed.
This film isn't only one of the best marijuana documentaries ever; it's also a moving portrait of family, love, and trauma. It's an intimate snapshot of veterans in America, where the government seems uninterested in helping them – and where the medicine that so many have found relief through, is illegal.
Watch this movie, and you, too, will feel shock turning to awe. You'll be awed by the courage of our nation's veterans. And the capacity for people, and families – and maybe even whole societies – to heal.