A health peril for all of us
Part Two: Meth: A deadly epidemic -- Users of meth face many grave dangers, but the drug can harm anyone in its path
|Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review|
Steve Wade's brain was damaged by a methamphetamine binge five years ago. "I can sit in my own private hell, but that's not going to help matters. It helps to tell my story to other kids." Wade has created a drug prevention program called Smart Choices.
- Staff writer
This spring, a Spokane social worker picked up a homeless methamphetamine addict she'd been trying to coax into treatment for months.
After three hours with the addict -- in her car and her office -- the social worker became violently ill.
"Have you been hanging out in a lab?" the social worker asked.
"Yeah. Why? Are you getting sick?" the addict replied.
Moments later, the social worker was headed to the emergency room.
That's meth's signature.
You don't need to smoke, snort or shoot it to screw up your body. Just hang out with someone whose clothes soaked up fumes from its caustic ingredients. Or rent a house where the last tenants cooked dope.
But far greater miseries afflict the people who use meth as little as a few times a month, those who make meth, and children living where the cheap, powerful dope is manufactured.
Angela's meth use torqued her unborn baby's heart. Steve baked his brain. Virginia's meth-fueled fights landed her and those around her in the hospital.
Occasionally a meth cook blows off a hand. Or blows up a life.
Many meth addicts inject the drug for a faster high and share needles they don't bother to sterilize. That means many are contracting HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and necrotizing fasciitis -- the flesh-killing strep bacteria.
Meth pushes the body into an endless adrenaline rush, numbing the brain, hammering the heart, weakening blood vessels and kidneys. Addicts lose their teeth and their minds.
"It's like accelerated wearing out," says Dr. Alex Stalcup, a 30-year veteran of treating meth addiction. "Imagine taking a year's worth of life and using it up in a week."
Ask Steve Wade what he misses most about his pre-meth life.
"My . . . my brrr-a-i-n," he says in halting, laborious syllables, pointing to his head. "I can't . . . think as clear as I used to."
Wade once dreamed of being a race car mechanic. Five years after a harsh meth overdose, he shakes too much to shave with a razor.
Some days, it seems the whole room spins. Other days, individual objects spin. Either way, Wade's always dizzy.
He forgets key words in mid-sentence. He hates his monthly speech therapy sessions, where he practices sentences such as, "How?" "What?" "Are you OK?"
"I get frustrated," Wade explains. "This is hard mentally."
A poster on Wade's wall says: "They say meth won't kill you. But you'll wish it had."
Which is how Wade felt those months he lay in a nursing home, unable to walk.
After his binge. After he ran his body temperature to 110 degrees, blew his cognitive skills, the hearing in one ear and the reasoning power that keeps worry from becoming paranoia.
Yet Wade, a five-year meth abuser, will tell you he's lucky.
He downed a fifth of 151-proof rum, injected meth five times and snorted it 10 times -- in a single evening.
Wade had used other drugs, in quantity, before meth obliterated his mind.
Yet he had a good job as a diesel mechanic, a steady girlfriend and attended Spokane Community College when he went on his last drug bender. He cashed a student grant to escape the dullness of it all, took a motel room on Division, downed his fifth of rum and took several hits of meth.
"Spun" -- high, in meth lingo -- Wade hired a prostitute, then did more meth. Somehow he managed to catch a taxi for the emergency room before blacking out.
Nurses covered Wade with ice to bring down his temperature and attended to him around the clock. Once out of his coma, he went from the hospital to rehabilitation to a nursing home before finally moving in with his mother.
Today, his girlfriend is gone. He is permanently disabled and, at age 31, depends on his mother, Ida, to help with simple daily tasks.
He started a struggling nonprofit organization called Smart Choices and takes his story to schools. His presentation includes a slide show of photos his mother took of him while he was in the hospital and graphic photos of the gunshot wound he received during a soured attempt to buy pot in Tennessee.
Revolting images, Wade admits. "I try to show how much it sucks . . . what kind of a prison I'm in."
Why Steve's brain doesn't work
Steve Wade's brain is wrecked because of repeated assaults from meth and traces of the toxins used in its manufacture.
Meth cooks rely on drain cleaner, gasoline, liquid ammonia fertilizer, Red Devil lye, red phosphorous, toluene, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid and xylene to extract meth from diet tablets and over-the-counter cold remedies. Many of these chemicals carry warnings: "Do not ingest. If ingested, induce vomiting and call a physician. Avoid contact with skin or inhaling."
Cops call small-time operations using these concoctions "Beavis and Butt-head" labs. If the meth cooks are sloppy, or using their own dope -- as most are -- the meth they produce is tainted with these poisons. That's why the drug burns so much when it goes up an addict's nose or into a vein.
As a prescription drug, tiny doses of meth are used to treat narcolepsy, Parkinson's disease and depression. As a chronically abused street drug, meth has overtaken crack cocaine because it's cheaper, four to six times more powerful than the "speed" of the '60s, and the high lasts hours instead of minutes.
Meth zips to the central nervous system and triggers releases of dopamine in the pleasure center of the brain and adrenaline into the bloodstream. Dopamine makes you feel great. Adrenaline gives you tremendous energy and sets off your fight-or-flight response.
Normally, your system kicks a microscopic amount of adrenaline into the bloodstream. With today's potent street meth, the amount is millions of times greater. Your heart rate jumps, your blood pressure soars. The walls of your blood vessels weaken.
"You feel like you are in a 100-mile marathon," says Stalcup, medical director at New Leaf Treatment Center in Concord, Calif. "Your body feels it, too. Your system isn't getting a break."
Meth addicts don't eat and don't sleep, sometimes for a month. All of their body's resources go to maintaining the high. There's no energy for normal tissue repair.
"Your whole body starts to rot," says Angela, who requested anonymity. She quit using six months ago after finding out she was pregnant.
Gums break down. Teeth fall out. Major organs such as the kidneys disintegrate. Sores don't heal.
Meth is believed to induce strokes, psychosis and schizophrenia, says Dr. Thomas Martin, director of the University of Washington's Toxicology Service.
Then there's "speed sex."
Meth increases the sex drive and enhances sexual pleasure, Wade and other addicts say. The sex drive lasts. But performance plummets.
Couples get together for a weekend of meth-charged sex, complete with kinky, meth-induced fantasies, Stalcup explains. They start energized and end up frustrated. Addicts get to the point where it takes between 18 and 72 hours to achieve an orgasm.
The Addict mind
Meth's mental consequences are as disastrous as the physical ones.
Adrenaline agitates your mind, especially at such extreme levels. Meth addicts are aggressive, belligerent and mean, experts say. Or they are anxious, fearful and paranoid. These extreme feelings persist for weeks, exacerbated by fatigue.
Meth addicts often beat their children, their spouses and their friends. They imagine a cop lurking behind every curtain, and another doper intent on stealing their stash - behind every door.
Sarah Cook's son, a meth user since 1996, runs outside with knives ``because he thinks people are after him,'' the Coeur d'Alene woman says. ``He tears his clothes off and ties them around his head.
``He picks and picks and picks at himself, like there are bugs inside his face. It's Satanic.''
Even Wade, clean for five years, props a space heater against the inside of the door when he goes into the bathroom - in case someone comes after him.
Physicians once believed time and abstinence would clear an addict's brain. Now it appears damage is permanent.
Cerebral scans show large areas of meth users' brains either no longer function or appear to be missing entirely, Stalcup says.
Meth addicts don't realize they are making themselves stupid. And they can't stop using.
The craving is so intense that ``some people get addicted to the (needle) prick,'' says Angela. ``Your addict mind thinks there's going to be a rush. I have friends who get a rush just from a needle - giving blood.''
People who use meth as little as twice a month are at great risk of becoming addicted. It's both psychological and physical: the sexual rush; a cheaper, longer-lasting high than even cocaine; a brain and body soon rewired so that increasing levels of meth are the only way to feel good. ``It makes you feel like you have control of your life. Like you are something, someone. You don't feel lonely,'' says Virginia Holme, 24, who recently graduated from a treatment program at the Isabella House in Spokane.
Meth also is hard to avoid because, to many addicts, using isn't wrong. They learn it at home.
``I remember my aunt smoking crack,'' Holme says of her early years in California. ``I never asked, `What's that?' It was normal.''
When Holme smoked meth for the last time in November, she got high with her mom at a house in Airway Heights.
Holme ended up in the hospital at Christmas a few years ago after a meth-fueled fight with a girlfriend. Her mother once put her baby sitter in the hospital after a meth-induced fight.
Addicts stay on meth to avoid the hell of coming down into intense depression, and to delay feeling the consequences of running a malnourished, fatigued body at full throttle for days. The more they use, the more they need.
They crash, sleep for days, and start again.
If they quit using, they still long for the drug, smelling it, tasting it, twitching without it.
``It's worst 180 days after you stop,'' Stalcup says. ``You are irritable, your mind's racing, you literally dream craving.''
Meth also is self-medication for a raft of problems.
``We find no matter what the drug, it is a symptom,'' says Nancy Echelbarger, who runs Substance Misuse Services for the Spokane Regional Health District. ``Ninety-five percent of both men and women use drugs to cover the memories, pain and anger of a traumatic past, or childhood, or both.''
Most of the women have been sexually molested and are ``shattered at a level we know very little about,'' says Lindy Haunschild, coordinator of the Parent-Child Assistance Program in Spokane. ``When they reach adolescence, they go to drugs and they go to the sexual arena and get pregnant.''
Children born to these mothers also are likely to be sexually abused, Haunschild said. ``They don't have stable, loving, nurturing parents to keep them safe. They end up being taken from their homes, moved around in the foster care system and are not allowed to bond'' with an adult.
The mother gets pregnant again - in part to heal the loss of the child that social services has taken, in part to deal with other ``very deep wounds,'' Haunschild adds.
One such woman has seven children, six of whom have been removed from her custody. She is trying to get pregnant again.
It's graduation day for Virginia Holme. Her fellow addicts take turns sharing a word they believe defines her. ``Courage,'' ``persistence'' and ``free'' are offered.
Every addict in this room is a woman still in treatment. Every one is either pregnant, holding her newborn child on her lap or has children somewhere else.
Children are trampled by meth. When they grow up in a home lab, they inhale volatile fumes and are burned by the caustic chemicals.
They live amid household garbage that may get a foot and a half deep. They play outside where mom and dad dump hazardous byproducts.
Some are locked in rooms for days by parents who don't want their kids to see them getting high and then forget to let them out.
If their mothers used the children were in the womb, they are born with behavioral problems and tremors, and they scream from withdrawal 24 hours a day. Many grow up to be drug users because ``their systems are hard-wired to crave this drug,'' Haunschild believes.
Angela's baby is due in June. Because she leveled with her doctor, her child will have an operation almost immediately after it's born. Otherwise, the baby would die within a few days.
An ultrasound shows the infant's heart is backward and has two holes. That's a condition nicknamed ``worm heart.''
Officially, it's called ``transposition of the great vessels'' and it's another signature of meth. As the child develops in the womb, the heart is supposed to rotate into normal position, Stalcup says. When mom is a meth addict, the heart often remains reversed.
``The brain, heart and kidneys form very early on - often before the mom knows she is pregnant - when the developing baby is the size of your thumb,'' Stalcup says.
``If there's an insult to the organs, they don't develop properly. Meth is a very serious insult.''
1. About this report
Meth is so dangerous that you can get sick just by walking into a house where it was made. The drug damages users, the people around them -- especially children -- and the environment. The stories and pictures in this series are intended to reflect the devastation of meth. To fully document it, we've made an exception to our policy of not identifying juveniles who are victims of criminal activity. We hope to make readers aware of a world that may seem distant, but surrounds us every day.
Users of Meth face many grave dangers, but the drug can harm anyone in its path
2. At a glance
Spotting a user
Telltale signs of chronic meth abuse:
* Small sores on arms and legs, similar in appearance to infected bug bites. Users wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to cover the sores, known as "meth mites."
* Yellowed teeth that appear to be splintering. Many addicts lose their teeth.
* Undernourished or gaunt appearance, often with a pale skin tone. Methamphetamine curbs appetite and pulls nutrients from the body.
* Lack of sleep. Users can stay awake for long periods, sometimes days or weeks.
* Lack of mouth control. Users click or move their tongues around, move their jaws or bite their lips. Users have rapid, excited speech.
* Aggressive and paranoid behavior. Users express fear they're being stalked or targeted, and often have guard dogs and weapons to bolster a sense of security.
Meth user's paraphernalia
* Glass or metal rod pipes
* Hollowed-out writing pens or drinking straws
* Aluminum foil
* Light bulbs with a hole in the bottom
* Razor blades
* Straws or rolled dollar bills
* Syringes and spoons
* Surgical tubing, bandannas or belts
Ken Olsen can be reached at (509) 459-5148 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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