Red Ribbon Week: Effects of meth make it monster drug

tchitwood@ledger- enquirer.comOctober 28, 2010 

To those who deal firsthand with addiction, meth is the horror-movie monster drug that eats its victims alive.

“You think you’ve seen the worst thing that drugs can do to somebody, and then in a week, you’ll see another case that’s horrifying in what it’s done to a person physically, but just as horrifying is the impact on them spiritually,” said Paul Morris, 57, the Muscogee County Jail’s health services administrator.

Ted Bobe understands. It took the Alabama tile setter nine years — from the time he first tried crystal meth in 2001 until 2008 — to hit rock bottom, with hard bounces all the way down.

“It destroyed my marriage. It destroyed my family,” said Bobe, now 49. “I had a real successful tile business — I was making about $150,000 a year. I lost that. I lost my house, cars, boat, Jet Ski, tools. I lost everything.”

Most of his income, when he had any, went to meth. When he was working, he did meth five to six times a day. “It was nothing for me to go to work with five or six shots already made up in my sock every day — go out to one of those portable toilets, do a shot and go back to work.”

When he was off on weekends, he did meth nonstop. “I’ll be honest with you, it was nothing for me to buy a box of 100 syringes and them be gone by the end of the weekend,” he said. “I have long, what seem like cat scratches all up and down my arms, scars from the thousands and thousands of needle shots. I weighed 129 pounds. I’m 5-foot-9 1/2. Now I weigh 190.”

Today Ted Bobe is clean, and has his life back. For that he thanks God every day, he said, because he’s lucky to be alive at all.

Addiction

“Spiritually” seems the only adverb that fits what Morris has seen happen to inmates burned out on meth, said the jail medical director. “It would be too simple to say ‘intellectually and emotionally.’”

“Meth is a soul-stealer. It seems to really change the nature of the ethical compass,” he said. “It can take a strong and brave person, and turn them into a coward. That’s the horrifying thing.”

One of the more striking effects of that — and one that gets little attention until authorities find a baby in a meth lab, as they did recently in a trailer in Russell County — is the effect on child neglect.

Estimates of meth’s cost to society sometimes include such stats. Jim Langford of the Georgia Meth Project notes that meth is now involved in at least half of the cases of spousal abuse and 42 percent of child-endangerment cases. A judge in Gordon County, Ga., told him meth was a factor in all of that area’s cases of criminal child deprivation. In Bartow County, he was told the drug was involved in 91 percent of the cases in which children wound up in foster care.

It seemed the addicts’ obsession with making or buying and using more meth outweighed all other aspects of life, becoming a more valuable pursuit than child care.

Morris has seen TV nature shows depicting whales and elephants doing anything to keep their offspring alive. That humans using meth would leave their children unfed and neglected in a poisonous atmosphere seemed to make them less than animals, he said. That is the fundamental twisting of their moral compass, the effect on them “spiritually,” that he’s describing.

Also fitting meth’s horror-film image is its physical effect on longtime users.

Morris sees that, too.

“Rapid and pronounced weight loss,” he began when asked to describe a users’ spiraling health decline. “The body begins to eat itself. You see that they lose all of the subcutaneous fat storage, and pretty soon it appears as though the body is feeding on its muscle.”

Then comes the zombie-like visage.

“There’s a phenomenon that’s hard to explain, but the body seems to stop nourishing the skin, the hair,” Morris said.

The corrosive chemicals in the drug eat away at the teeth.

“It attacks directly the enamel of the teeth, the tongue, the gums,” he said. “You’ll see sores, abscesses, ulcers on the gums. It just absolutely destroys the teeth. In probably 18 to 24 months, people lose the vast majority particularly of the teeth in the front.”

Bobe, the tile setter, can attest to that. “My top ones are completely gone to the gums, and my bottom ones are starting to fall out,” he said. He’s saving up now to get the $4,000 he needs to get his remaining teeth pulled and buy dentures.

Morris said the morphing from health to horror is most startling when it involves the young.

“We see young people who had been healthy when we first met them,” Morris said. “In fact I know a young girl who in a period of probably four years, that I can recall, lost all of her teeth. She had been a young, vigorous girl when we first met her, and between the age of 18 and 22 or 23 years old, she lost all of her teeth.”

What makes meth such a monster of a drug?

The flood of the pleasure-causing chemical dopamine that it releases in the brain, in many cases causing a sort of superhuman euphoria that can last from six to 24 hours. But it can’t be reproduced to that same degree because continued use warps dopamine receptors and depletes the brain’s supply.

“Meth changes the nature of the dopamine receptors in the brain,” Morris said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that meth boosts the dopamine level to 10 times that caused by normal pleasures such as eating delicious food or having sex. But as it releases that dopamine through the synapse connecting neurons in the brain’s pleasure center, it blocks the receptors that otherwise would allow the dopamine to recycle. The result is not only a long-lasting rush of euphoria, but the depletion of dopamine.

Researchers say long-term users continually strive to regain that intense high they got the first time they used the drug, and that leads to using more and more meth in a futile effort. This repeated use can lead to their staying awake for days, until they exhaust their energy and crash.

That’s why authorities warn that one of the more pronounced signs that a friend or relative is headed for a meth-induced burnout is a “nonexistent” sleep pattern.

Pain and suffering

Bobe intimately knows the physical effects of methamphetamine addiction.

“I had all the problems with the staph infections and such that people get from the meth and shooting up,” he said. “I had all the horrible, painful cycle of sores and stuff like that. I think in one year, I had 14 places lanced because of the drugs.”

Twice he almost died. On a binge he once stayed awake eight days, got thirsty and went out to get a drink. He was sitting in his truck, in the summer, with his windows rolled up, and passed out. When he came to, he couldn’t move. He was like that for two hours, he thinks, until he finally regained his motion and got out of the overheated truck.

The next time he had been awake for four days straight. “I hadn’t drunk or eaten anything, and when I finally stopped doing the dope, I decided it was time to eat, and the only thing I had was popcorn,” he recalled. “I ate a whole bunch of popcorn and didn’t drink anything. The popcorn kernels got caught in my large intestine and caused a sore, which I thought was a stomach ache, and by the time I got to the hospital, I had a ruptured colon, and almost died.”

At his peak usage, he was spending between $1,500 to $2,000 on meth and about $180 a week on a cheap motel room. He bought some food, too, but that wasn’t a priority.

“For about five years I lived in a motel room,” he said. “I’ve dug in garbage cans to get food. I’ve dug in garbage cans to get clothing, anything I could sell at a flea market to make money either to buy food or more drugs. It was nothing for me to ride by the smoking areas at Walmart just to collect cigarette butts so I’d have cigarettes for the day.”

Still he had not yet bottomed out. That came later, in the summer of 2008, after his intestine ruptured. He was renting a trailer then.

“I woke up one day, and the motor in my car blew up. I went inside, and about 30 minutes later, they came out and turned the power off.”

He left for an hour, and when he got back, an eviction notice was on his door.

“Then I called my boss to complain about why I wasn’t at work, and he said, ‘Well, you don’t have a job either.’”

All he had left was his addiction: “So I sat there, and said a prayer to God.”

Recovery

After praying, Bobe called back his boss, a Christian man, and asked for help. Turn your life over to God, and go into rehab, his boss told him, and Bobe did.

He started going to church, and got into a yearlong recovery program. He tried to reconnect with his family, and found out his estranged wife was dead, as were his mother and father. They’d been dead for months. About the only family Bobe had left was a son, who hadn’t spoken to him in 10 years.

It was hard news to take, but Bobe didn’t let it turn him back.

He dried out. He focused on his work and his newfound faith. He found new friends.

“Drying out from the drugs is not the big part of it. The big part is retraining your life, your thinking, your actions. That’s what I work on every day,” he said. “You’ve got to eliminate all your friends who do drugs.”

Morris echoed that: The Muscogee County Jail gets addicts into treatment while they’re incarcerated, but the ones who don’t find new friends and a fresh purpose in life don’t make it. If they go back to peers who do drugs, if they don’t find some meaning to their lives, they relapse and wind up back in jail.

Today Bobe and his son are close again, so close they’re next-door neighbors. “We got reunited about a year ago,” he said. “We’re on great terms.”

Besides his son, his work and his faith, Bobe devotes himself to telling others his story, to save them from what he endured.

And he fights the temptation to turn back.

“I have rough days sometimes, and the thought will come into my mind, and I’ll say a prayer, and I think of all the things I’ve been through. I don’t want to go back to that, and I’m not going to go back to that,” he said.

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