Crystal Mess

Crystal methamphetamine promises you the world. When you’re high on meth,you are filled with joy and confidence. You feel smart, energetic, and convinced you’re exuding great personal magnetism. You are possessed of extraordinary sexual powers. Best of all, the drug is long-lasting, inexpensive, and easily available.

Meth is one of a long line of addictive drugs used by humans over the centuries to stimulate their central nervous systems. Historically, stimulants have been highly popular. Coffee took Europe by storm in the 17th century, and cocaine was a favorite among the intelligentsia of the 19th century. Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes famously partook, long before the rich and flashy snorted it through rolled up hundred-dollar bills in the bathrooms of Studio 54. Of course, uppers have not always had such glamorous veneers. Countless families in the 1950s were ruined when suburban housewives became addicted to their medically prescribed diet pills, and whole neighborhoods were decimated by the crack epidemic during the 1980s. Methamphetamine itself is nothing new. It was used in pill form by soldiers and truckers to fight fatigue long before outlaw motorcycle gangs manufactured and distributed powdered “crank” throughout the western states.

Today, crystal methamphetamine in a highly potent, smoke-able form called ice is sweeping the nation. Here in Santa Barbara County it hit first in the rural north, where its distinctive smell while it’s being cooked in illegal processing labs is less detectable. Now, law enforcement authorities are concerned about its use in the South County. Speaking at a recent forum, Sheriff’s Deputy Sandra Brown, without an ounce of irony, called it “Satan.” A Santa Barbara narcotics officer said that his informants are all turning to meth; worse, the snortable powder has all but disappeared, replaced by ice. In the last few years, terrifying meth stories have been all over the news. There was Jason Gomez, in Lompoc, who rolled over on his infant twins and killed them when he was crashing from meth; and Jason Allan Page, on the Westside, who beat his wife to death in front of their children. Recently, Joshua Miracle was sent to death row for stabbing a man 48 times in Goleta; and then there was the tragic story of Nathan Cain, who began wielding a knife and raging about demons in his parents’ backyard. Frightened, they called the police and then had to watch as he came at an officer and was gunned down.

Whether or not meth causes more violence than other drugs is debatable. A 1999 Department of Justice report found a smaller percentage of violent crimes among arrestees using meth than those not. However, it is at least as bad as any other drug out there, swelling jail populations, mental-health caseloads, and foster-care rolls. It is easy to understand the horror of civil servants — paramedics, police, social workers — who must enter the homes of meth addicts, where they find deranged people who have been awake for days, who haven’t eaten, or changed their children’s diapers, or taken their kids to school. A middle-class grandparent fighting a custody battle with her own adult daughter anguished, “She would have made a better mother when she was 10 years old.”

Methamphetamine may promise the world to the user, but looking through the eyes of the children, it is easy to see what a dirty lie that is.

The names of drug users past and present have been changed.

Meth: Love It, Hate It

Marta is a 38-year-old mother of three. She started smoking meth at the age of 30; seven months ago she stopped. Before meth, she had sometimes battled depression and on weekends would party with her husband, but she had a career as a hospital lab technician, a functioning marriage, and a stable home. Now that’s gone and she must begin rebuilding a life from the rubble her drug addiction created.

“We actually at the beginning used to have fun,” she said. “We had barbecues and watched football games with the family. For somebody like me, with depression, I could be happy. I could get things done. At first I had rules for myself. I managed somehow to always make sure my kids were in bed before I got high. Then the rules got broken.

“In the beginning I worked off and on, but jobs were hard to keep because I had to stay focused a full eight hours. That’s impossible unless you are doing an activity you can tweak on. (Tweaking is when you obsess on something.) I have a friend who fixes cars — but he gets so hung up that he can’t finish. He gets sidetracked cleaning all the chrome off some part.

“When I came down out of it I was depressed really bad. It makes you feel like you have to cry. It makes me suicidal. I usually had to go to the hospital if I was high for a long time. With my husband and me there was lots of cheating and fighting. We put each other in jail so many times. I remember crying, begging, ‘Please let’s stop, please be strong for both of us.’

“But it does something weird to men. They say it triples their sex drive. And you know what, I’ve got to admit, it’s like the best sex you can have on meth — like having a three-hour orgasm. That’s one of the things people like about it. But it distorted sex, is what it did. It wasn’t lovemaking at all.

“One day I had been up for five days. I got jealous, and irritated, and in a rage. My husband told the police I tried to run over him with the car. Maybe I did. They charged me with attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

“After that incident, we got kicked out of our house. The kids were sent to my brother’s. I was homeless for a month, living out of my car and getting into all kinds of trouble. But finally I made a deal to take the drug program — Project Recovery — to get my kids back.

“Now that I’m sober, I have to admit life seems very boring. I’m on antidepressants. I’m doing home healthcare, and I have another part-time job at an auto body shop. I have to totally seclude myself from all those people I used to hang out with, even my cousins. “But my kids actually came out really good for all I put them through. My son’s 18, he’s the helper. He helps everybody. He fixes everything. He took care of his two little sisters while I was getting high. I think he saved them. He stepped in; he made sure the girls were ready for school.

“I have an A student. She’s a little pigheaded demon child. She talks back, she argues. And she’s messy. But she’s really a good student.

“My middle child is really struggling. She’s always getting into trouble. She saw my husband with a knife to my throat.

It’s horrible not to have control over your emotions. I love meth, but I hate it. I hate that I want to do it.”

Lyin’ Eyes

Not everybody believes that meth is destroying their lives. Brad feels he’s maintaining pretty well. He’s 35, and has been using meth since he was 28. He looks quite good, except for the sores on his hands and a gory-looking fingernail. His eyes are perpetually bloodshot, which he attributes to the apparent destruction of his lachrymal glands. But he believes crystal meth has helped improve his game of golf, which he takes very seriously.

Brad worked in a skilled trade steadily for eight years of his life. Since starting on meth, however, he has taken and lost a series of jobs. He recently acquired a new job with a weeks-on, weeks-off schedule that he hopes will allow him to binge and clean up in time to pass the random drug testing the job requires. Whether or not he really believes this, it’s clear that meth is doing a good job affecting his ability to see what’s really happening.

One of the big lies meth tells is that everything is just fine, because among its other actions, it floods the brain with four times the amount of dopamine that cocaine provides, according to the American Psychiatric Association, which bases its conclusions on magnetic brain scans. And the dopamine keeps on coming. Dopamine is thought to be the brain’s reward hormone, like chemical applause, letting you know you’re doing great. Meanwhile, back in reality, methamphetamine use truncates the terminals of the brain’s dopamine-producing neurons, thereby damaging its ability to produce enough dopamine under normal circumstances. Scientists are not sure whether this damage is permanent, or merely long-lasting.

Last but not least, methamphetamine stimulates the adrenal glands. In the short run, some studies suggest, this does indeed improve mental acuity. The lie is that this effect will last. Ultimately, the jacked-up attention becomes scattered, especially after several days and nights without sleep. Confusion and disorganization are signs by which cops identify tweakers who, too jumpy to hold regular jobs, often try home businesses: Petty burglary, petty theft, and that other old addict’s standby — drug-dealing — are popular choices.

While many users start out thinking they can dip into meth lightly as an occasional party drug or useful tool, things seldom work out that way. It’s not only the psychiatrists and drug courts who say so. Dealers, who unquestionably have the most firsthand evidence, were willing to speak straightforwardly about it, apparently unconcerned about discouraging their customer base. “Some people try it and don’t like it,” said one. “If they take to it, though, they keep taking it more and more frequently.” Some people go downhill faster than others, of course. “I noticed a lot of my customers were trying to get high,” said a guy who admitted he used to sell it. “But they couldn’t anymore. They were tweaky but couldn’t get that good feeling again, so they kept coming back to buy more dope. That’s what I loved about them.” He charged $20 for a hit, which he said should have lasted all day. “They were trying to get high, but it’s like with anything. One cup of coffee gets you high, three and you get the shakes.” Some people, he said, just can’t handle it. “I wouldn’t sell to people once I saw that they were delusional, hallucinating, accusing people of plotting, thinking every white van is full of cops.”

Though he considered himself to be an exemplary user, more self-disciplined than most, he said he doubted he would ever lose his craving for the drug, “No matter how many times I go through recovery.”

Filling in the Cracks

The question everybody is pondering at the moment is what, if anything, can be done to counter this growing epidemic. The South County has long had a strong alcohol and drug recovery network, including outpatient programs for adults and teenagers, detox beds at both Cottage Hospital and the Rescue Mission, and numerous clean and sober group homes. Public Defender Rick Barron, who represents participants Santa Barbara Superior Court’s various drug diversion calendars, believes Santa Barbara has “the Cadillac” of treatment models, which may contribute to a lower crime rate here than in the North County and other places. But will it work with crystal meth? Families who have tried to intervene in loved ones’ meth use say it’s not enough. They envision a state-of-the-art treatment center where addicts can stay for as long as it takes to kick their habit.

Though it would take an enormous effort to create such a facility, it would not go empty. Eighty-five percent of probationers receiving court-ordered drug treatment at Project Recovery identify meth as their drug of choice, ahead of alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. Most of the teenagers at the Daniel Bryant Youth and Family Treatment Center’s drug treatment program are there because they got caught cutting school and using drugs, said director Peter Gallway. Most got caught smoking marijuana, but 60 percent say they have tried meth.

Walking the Line

If there is any sign of hope in an unspeakably grim situation it is that a recent study suggests that young people, in particular teenagers, can to a great degree mend the damage done if they stop early enough. But this is by no means easy. A shining example of both the hope and the difficulty is the story of Deirdre.

Things were not going well for Deirdre even before she started using drugs. She was prescribed antidepressants at 13 when her father died of a cocaine overdose. Then at 14 she switched to meth. She and her friends got into snorting meth while they were hanging out at the now defunct Hot Spots, a coffee shop near the beach. It was a big drug scene, she said. But what really hooked her was when they went over to somebody’s house to smoke meth. “It was good if you want to not cry over the loss of someone, or not be angry about things,” she said. “It makes you feel like you can get through the day.”

At the age of 16 she realized she was not getting through the days at all well, and she quit cold turkey. She was paper thin, and “going to die. I had sores all over my face and arms. My nails were green and oozing puss, and my hair was falling out.”

Older, non-meth-using friends took her into their home. “At first it was the worst anxiety and depression ever,” she said. “I just smoked pot and played video games. Once I started walking to town to score, and I ran into my friend, who was coming home from his lunch break. He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t do that.’

The way I got well was, you just wake up in the morning and do one thing that’s productive — read a book, paint, write in your journal. When I was able to, I took classes that really interested me, like philosophy and art.” She stayed for almost two months. That was four years ago. Now she’s 20 and has finished two semesters of school. She is sharing an apartment with friends, some of whom are ex-tweakers, and she is trying to start a craft business. “I’m proud that I fought the battle and won,” she said. “I know I’m susceptible, but I fought the battle and won. I think I’m a strong and vibrant person, and I love that.”

Deirdre has a dear friend named Colin, whom she’s known since they were both hanging out at Hot Spots. Unlike Deirdre, Colin always enjoyed school and did very well. His parents are both professionals who sent him overseas to visit relatives when he graduated from high school. This interrupted a three-month meth habit that they never knew he had.

Photos from graduation day show him looking like a healthy, gleeful, matriculating senior. He may have had some withdrawal depression, but nothing that he could distinguish from homesickness. Colin is courteous, handsome, full of ebullient good humor. He’s studying and working in retail. He started using meth again last summer. Unlike Deirdre, he doesn’t think it’s a problem.

He and his friends are smart about taking meth, Colin said. They make a point of eating three times a day when they use, even though food is completely unappealing, and they take vitamins and drink water. He only uses it on special occasions, as a party drug. His personal record is staying awake for five-and-a-half days at the Burning Man festival — then he ran out of meth. Most recently, he used it when a friend of his got out of the military, and they drove across the country in 36 hours, getting back in time for Colin to go to work in the morning. Colin added that all the users he knows minimalize their meth use — like gamblers who insist that they always break even. Colin’s movements are lightning fast, but some people are just like that. Some days he talks very quickly. It’s hard to tell. But if he keeps using, eventually it will be obvious.

Deirdre thinks Colin is headed for trouble. “I do not believe people can maintain on meth,” she said. “I think people think they can. I think it takes beautiful, wonderful people and turns them into nothingness, into empty canvasses where once there was beauty and light and color and idea.” ■

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