Vanessa-Lyn Mercier (photo: Sean Berrigan)
High Expectations is a photo series that aims to challenge the negative connotations attributed to women in the cannabis world. We want to explore the taboo and change modern perceptions in an effort to educate and bring to light the positive aspects of cannabis for those who have been prescribed cannabis as a tool for care. We live in a society that has such ‘high expectations’ of women and want to break that mold.
My name is Vanessa-Lyn Mercier and I’m a young 27 year old working professional living downtown Toronto. I come from a very French Canadian family in the Montreal suburbs. You could say I was raised in a typical middle-class suburban setting with very strict parents. I was raised in a home where discipline and respect were at the core of our values. Let’s just say that discipline didn’t fly back then for me, but I’m grateful today because hard work definitely got me places.
I was a very creative child and teenager that did everything from singing, writing songs, painting, making jewelry, etc. However, I don’t think my parents quite understood creativity because it wasn’t something they had been exposed to and here I was, trying to do everything and anything. As a result, I lost sight of that side of myself and threw myself into sports. I believe the environment I grew up in definitely helped shape who I am today, but I also don’t blame my parents for not understanding a crazy loud and imaginative kid like me. I also didn’t have the best time in school because I was bullied a lot and because I was considered different. It took me years of therapy and self-care in order to realize that your difference is what makes you unique. A wonderful life coach once said to me “hurt people hurt people” and from that moment on, my whole perspective changed, and I knew that I had to try and forgive in order to grow. I have so many people to thank for making me the woman that I am today, but I also have to thank myself and this is part of why I am telling my story. I want to reinforce the choices I made as a woman and for my health even amidst the current stigmas, repression and ignorance we face daily.
Photo: Sean Berrigan
Needless to say, I truly believe in knowledge and education and my parents did too: I attended private schools from grade 3 on and they made sure I was always getting good grades. I didn’t really speak English until I was 11 years old, so bare with me if some expressions below sound distorted; that’s just who and how I am. In 2008, I also decided to move to Italy by myself to try and learn the language. When I came back four months later, my Italian was near perfect; there was something appealing about being completely immersed in an Italian family and within their culture. When I came back, I enrolled in the Honours BA with Specialization in French-English Translation at the University of Ottawa. I graduated in 2013 with Cum Laude and was able to find a job in Toronto 3 months later as a translator for a medical company. I packed everything I owned (or almost) and moved to the big city that is Toronto. I worked there for two and a half years perfecting my craft and learning a ton. Last year, I was recruited by a leading pharmaceutical company to lead their Translation Services team. I decided to take on the job in January of this year, but unfortunately, because of my health, I had to go on disability since the spring. Today, even though I am still nursing myself back to health, I consider myself a pretty successful young woman. Ironically enough, I’m also a regular and daily cannabis user and a lot of people don’t know that about me…
I first contacted Tokyo Smoke about a month ago because I really wanted to share my personal story to inspire others, and especially women. I had been thinking for a while about how marijuana has affected my life in the most positive way and really believed that there should be plenty discussion surrounding women and cannabis. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to present a photo series (with my amazing photographer boyfriend Sean Berrigan) through their social channels and I am really grateful for that, so here it is!
Photo: Sean Berrigan
I was probably 14 or 15 when I first encountered cannabis. I don’t remember who I was with or exactly when, but I do remember inhaling (or taking a puff like we Quebecers say) and choking on the smoke. I immediately hated it. I would later grow up to go to parties and when joints were being passed around, I always passed my turn, much like all the other girls in my circle of friends. If you didn’t know already, the province of Quebec is pretty conservative when it comes to any type of drug, and that is directly reflected in our education, but also deeply rooted within our family core values. I remember dating this guy when I was 17 years old and I had broken up with him because he smoked weed. I was convinced that using marijuana led to a life of laziness and damaged brain cells. I guess I had to grow up a little and see for myself that this whole war on drugs had simply been created based on ignorance and inaccurate testing of monkeys in the 70s. Quebec is also great at doing things differently (if you didn’t already know! haha) and I always found that people judged more, gossiped more and of course, created more rumours. Don’t get me wrong, and I speak from personal experience, I love my home and it’ll always be a place I have copious amounts of respect for, but the environment it created for me as a young woman definitely discouraged me from using marijuana. My opinion was tainted for many years and so, I never really tried using marijuana until I turned 24.
To give a bit of a background, I have to say that I’ve been living with chronic back pain for over 10 years. I was a huge athlete in high school and sports were my outlet. I was in the school’s golf, soccer, volley-ball and track and field teams, all while playing competitive tennis and soccer outside of school. I lived sport because I loved it and I was pretty good at it. And then the back pain started. On some days, I couldn’t walk and I was fueling on Advil every day. Then ensued two long years of investigation and testing at Montreal’s Children Hospital as to why I my back was in pain all the time, and at such a young age. They discovered I had gotten a compression fracture in my lower back which resulted in some disk slippage and that I had something called Scheuermann’s Disease (a growth condition in which the normal curve in the upper spine is increased, forming a hunched back and creating pain). So ten years of daily pain definitely forged my character, but I also learned to live with it. I’ve had flare-ups for years where pain lasted months at a time. And I couldn’t walk, or work, or concentrate during those months… To be really honest, my back pain prevents me from doing so many things I love and that’s what has been really hard on me. I loose my independence and myself and it is so debilitating.
Photo: Sean Berrigan
You see, my back pain started intensifying about a year ago and I started experiencing neuropathic pain as well, which is something I hadn’t experienced before. Nerve pain can be so painful that it prevents you from being comfortable in any position and so, it makes sleeping, sitting, or even lying down, barely possible and barely endurable. I’ve been experiencing an increasing amount of pain in the last year and trying to do everything to get better. My neuropathic pain still cannot be explained and it is still under investigation so this past year has mostly been spent in hospitals or clinics and I’ve been doing so many tests and going to specialists’ appointments and it has been exhausting. I have become so tired and because I have a history of mental illness, I am also now going through depression and have daily anxiety. I’ve been diagnosed with recurrent Major Depressive Disorder and panic disorder. Things haven’t been easy this past year and it has been really hard on both my physical and mental health combined. I think that we should really talk more about mental illness because it affects so many different souls and it doesn’t change who I am as a person, but I definitely have to fight for my happiness. It takes a whole lot of effort in order to live and overcome depression and a whole lot of understanding and compassion (I can’t thank my friends, family and boyfriend enough who have helped me navigate through this past year – I am so eternally grateful). On top of that, I have to walk with a cane on most days, which I have yet to accept because I’m so used to feeling alive with sports and movement. It sometimes feels like I have lost myself completely and I have to try and cope in order to live with my new disabilities.
And sometimes, persistent pain, mental illness and life don’t go so well together; and so, as a result, my doctor and I decided last May that it would be best if I went on Short Term Disability. I am not afraid, nor ashamed to say that I am still recovering today and still concentrating on my health while going on Long Term Disability. But I’m also really happy to say that medicinal cannabis has been a huge part of my quality of life and my pain management. It has completely changed my perspective on the multiple benefits of cannabis. I still think that access to medicinal cannabis is still too complicated and especially for women because it’s a known fact that women experience discrimination and that there is a gender bias in medicine. Before meeting my amazing doctor at Integra Health Centre (thank you for always advocating for me and for believing in alternative medicine!), there had been so many occasions when I felt vulnerable or judged by a medical professional. And I remember a doctor asking me if I was “certain” my back pain wasn’t just “period pain” (come on!).
I think the taboo and discrimination for women in cannabis goes back years and years, but I believe there needs to be a change and I want to be a part of that reform. Even before today’s talks of legalizing marijuana, and the recent pop-up of multiple dispensaries, people were buying off dealers… And I don’t know a lot of women who would meet a dealer in the street at night all by herself! As a woman, I like to remain safe and so, I really believe it’s also one of the reasons why a lot of women have never tried using marijuana or maybe don’t feel comfortable enough to. And I really don’t blame them, because I never did myself. The cannabis industry needs to feminize products in a way that we will feel comfortable trying something new. That’s why I’m telling my story: I want women to know its ok and I want them to educate themselves because medicinal marijuana is an amazing and natural way to medicate.
Curator: Vanessa-Lyn Mercier
Photographer: Sean Berrigan
Strategist: Katlyn Jennings