Editor’s note: This is the final in a four-part series on methamphetamine abuse and addiction leading up to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Prevention Week, May 18-24.
Drug counselor Gary Hively recalled a nightmarish methamphetamine abuse story from California.
A woman’s aunt and uncle were high on meth when they decided to dip her in boiling water, then hang her in a closet.
Stories such as that have many drug counselors, members of law enforcement and even recovering addicts in agreement that the highly addictive stimulant drug is worthy of the title “the devil’s drug.”
Hively, an independent licensed counselor in Hood County and surrounding areas, said some of his clients who have been through the wringer trying to kick meth addiction shared that point of view.
“A lot of them think it came right from the devil himself,” Hively said of meth. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Hively summed up meth in a word – destructive.
“People become very aggressive,” he said. “It just destroys lives.”
Medical experts say that not only can meth abuse result in psychosis and aggressive or violent behavior, it can cause severe physical damage.
The destruction of teeth – known as “meth mouth” – along with unsightly skin lesions and extreme weight loss can be outward symptoms.
Internal problems can range from rapid, irregular heartbeat to memory loss to liver, kidney and lung damage. Changes in brain structure and function can occur.
Meth causes the body to produce less and less of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. That robs the addict of the brain’s pleasure sense dopamine provides. It increases the desire to use more and more meth to regain the incredible euphoria experienced in the early stages of abuse.
“You develop a level of tolerance to get the same effects,” said Tom Lucas, clinical manager in Hood, Somervell and Erath counties for Pecan Valley Centers.
Lucas warned that meth is not a rare habit or far-away problem that only pops up in other areas.
“It’s probably your No. 1 problem in Hood County,” Lucas said.
Meth addicts can escape from the deep hole they find themselves in. However, experts indicate that their rescue is more dependant on how high they are willing to reach up for help from their “rock bottom.”
“Rock bottom is definitely different for every individual – going to prison, a DUI, killing somebody, (Children’s Protective Services) taking their kids away. Living in a bar ditch for weeks at a time,” said Rita Benson, an independent licensed counselor in Granbury. “You lose your dignity, you lose your self-worth – you lose everything with methamphetamine.”
Benson said an addict must want full recovery to have a chance at success.
“First of all they have to make up their mind they want to do it,” Benson said. “Any addiction – weight loss, smoking, you have to want to do it. It’s tough to kick, in my experience. There is a lot of relapse with meth.”
Hively said, “I do a lot of motivational counseling, making (addicts) believe in themselves. There has to be some motivation – like going to jail or knocking on death’s door.”
There is some debate over whether meth abuse creates a physical addiction, or if it’s only capable of an intense psychological lock on addicts.
“I think it’s physical as well as psychological,” Hively said. “It’s both. They’re going to experience withdrawals similar to cocaine. The thing with methamphetamine, there’s so (many) hard chemicals in it. It alters the brain so much. Anything you’re addicted to becomes a way of life.”
Benson and Lucas both said they don’t believe meth is physically addictive.
“With meth, you don’t see much as far as physical withdrawals,” Lucas said. “It really isn’t a physical craving. Once it’s out, it’s out. Their brain wants more dopamine.”
Dopamine tells your brain this is a good thing. When users take meth, it’s a powerful surge.
“I don’t see it as physically addicting at all,” Benson said. “My experience says it’s not physically addicting. It’s psychological – just like marijuana.”
Lucas said Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) can set in after an addict stops using meth. PAWS can result in inability to concentrate, or cause fatigue, malaise and discontent that can last up to six months, according to Lucas.
Benson quoted alarming statistics about the use of meth among school-age children.
“Close to 75 to 80 percent of kids have used drugs or alcohol by the time they are 18,” Benson said. “If they are introduced, probably 20 percent of those people are going to try meth.”
Hively said, “With young people, their curiosity gets the best of them. It’s an epidemic, is what it is. What I’m seeing in Johnson County is Hispanic boys being rounded up to distribute it into the teen community. Young kids think they’re invincible. They will always tell you, ‘I can quit anytime,’ but that’s really not the case.”
Those who take meth do so despite the list of harmful ingredients that have been known to be used in making it. Those include sulfuric acid, battery acid, hydrochloric acid, drain cleaner, antifreeze, brake fluid and paint thinner – among many others.
“It’s a bad drug because it’s synthetic and you don’t know what’s in it,” said Benson, who said she supports the anti-meth slogan, “Not even once.”
But she also said there are recreational users who don’t become full-blown addicts. People have different tolerance levels and it’s not rare for someone to try meth once and never touch it again, she said.
“A lot of people use meth at lunch just to get high,” Benson said. “If they’re addicted to the drug, they want more and more of it. There’s abuse and there’s dependence. Family history can play into it. Genetics do play a role in it.”
Meth can provide users with false feelings of power and alertness, along with weight loss, increased energy and sexual confidence.
“They don’t have good coping skills, and that’s where psychological addiction comes in,” Benson said. “Something happens they can’t deal with. That’s where they need to get coping skills, ways to deal with adversity. You’re either escaping reality or you’re enhancing who you are.”
She said meth is “telling you you can do anything.”
Females have closed the gender gap among meth users over the past few years, Hively noted.
“Now it’s at least 50-50 (men and women),” he noted. “It knows no boundaries, for sure. I think it’s a war that’ll never be won, but at least we can try and help as many people as we can. Some people are just not going to make it.”
A number of 12-step treatment options are available for those who meet the criteria. The counselors agreed that those programs can work if the addict is determined to stay clean.
“People that stay clean will tell you that the 12-step program of recovery is a sound method of staying clean,” Benson said. “At step 12 you are able to give back to society. It takes some people years to get through those steps.
“If you’re actively using, you can get into a rehab (funded by the state). Recovery Council in Fort Worth is the No. 1 resource I use. They would do an assessment over the phone.”
Local options for treatment of drug addiction include Pecan Valley Centers, Star Council, Celebrate Recovery and Narcotics Anonymous,
”It’s a continual thing,” Hively said of the recovery process. “If you let your guard down, you’re vulnerable.”
There is good news for those who successfully kick meth addiction. The dopamine receptors in the body that are often damaged will bounce back – thanks to what Lucas called the brain’s “remarkable” ability to recover.
“They’ll grow back, but they don’t grow back overnight,” Lucas said. “If (addicts) are abstinent 18 to 24 months, the likelihood of recovery is good.”
Benson, Hively and Lucas agree that recovery is not a false hope.
“Recovery is very, very real and is possible,” Lucas said. “People don’t have to be chained to these neurotoxins.”
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