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December 13-19, 2006

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Photograph by Michael Amsler
Wasted youth: Writing about teen addicts was the most difficult part of our year-long series.

My Year on Meth

Writing stories, searching for hope

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Editor's note: This year, the Bohemian gave focus to the effects of methamphetamine on the North Bay, producing five features and several news stories. All but one was penned by staff writer Patricia Lynn Henley. Here are her final thoughts on this series.

For the past 12 months I've been on methamphetamine--not snorting, smoking or shooting it, but writing about it. I've interviewed recovering addicts, treatment counselors, narcotics detectives, child-protection case workers, judges, prosecutors, teachers, parents, social workers, psychiatrists and anyone else with insight into the impacts of this cheap, easily available and extremely addictive substance. I've waded through bureaucratic reports, scanned photos of meth busts, read rants on how drug use is a victimless crime and pored over countless lists of street names for meth. I've accumulated more than 15 pounds of printouts, notes and interview transcripts.

A year ago, I might have walked through a supermarket, spotted a certain kind of shopper and thought, "Hmmm, that's a really skinny, twitchy woman." Now I say, "Ah, meth."

Since my first story was published March 29, I've been amazed at how many average-looking people have quietly confided to me that they're in recovery from their meth addition, or that a family member or close friend is struggling with an overwhelming desire for this insidious drug.

What I've learned from my year on meth is that this drug steals dreams from the young, who should be full of hope. Meth warps both the present and the future, not just for its users and abusers, but also for their parents, grandparents, siblings, children and friends--anyone who loves and cares for them.

I've also learned that addicts aren't necessarily stupid and aren't necessarily poor.

In Colorado, influential pastor Ted Haggard was recently "outed" for using meth while visiting a male prostitute. Haggard claims he bought the drugs but threw them away--once a month for three consecutive years.

In New York City, a $250,000-a-year bank executive who set up a meth lab in his $6,000-a-month penthouse apartment was recently busted. The guy got caught because he used an Internet site to order chemicals that are legal but essential for one style of meth production. Authorities also nabbed a Columbia University graduate student who apparently was using his self-made, extremely pure meth supply to fuel his all-night studies.

Meth's pernicious influence is so widespread that the federal government is promoting "community partnerships" among local law enforcement, treatment centers, courts, social services and others to create a focused, collaborative approach to the overwhelming problems that accompany this drug.

The good news is that research shows proper treatment does work; people can get off and stay off of meth. The bad news is that meth goes inside brain cells, damaging them. It takes at least a year or more for the body to heal itself, and not everyone's brain recovers completely.

In the past year, absolutely none of the addicts I met were able to get clean and sober on their first attempt. They'll often try rehab two, three or more times before finally breaking clear of the drug. It takes persistence and a program set up to counteract the long-term effects of this manmade substance, not just the initial issues of getting clean and sober.

The first recovering addict I wrote about was Dennis, who deliberately smashed his pickup into an oak tree because he had failed a drug test and needed an excuse to miss a court date. Eventually, he was sentenced to a drug court program with intensive counseling through the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center. This August, Dennis celebrated three years of sobriety. No longer homeless or sponging off others, Dennis now has his own home and is raising his 13-year-old son because the boy's mother is still on drugs. Dennis is also paying off some old bills, which accumulated during the 12 years he was high on meth and alcohol. "It's been difficult at times," he admits. "I'm cleaning up the wreckage slowly but surely."

Also doing well are Carole and her two children, who were featured in the "Moms and Meth" article published the week before Mother's Day. When I catch Carole on the phone, she can't talk long because she's on her way to a 12-step meeting. She's happy to have moved into a three-bedroom townhouse apartment where it's just she and her kids. And she's been doing a lot of public speaking lately, telling her story in hopes it will help others.

"It's nice to give back, to heighten the awareness of the community that there is a problem and there are solutions," Carole explains. "It's rewarding for me; it keeps me grateful."

The teenagers have been the most difficult to write about. This summer, I sat at my computer keyboard with tears in my eyes, trying to reconcile their fresh, young faces and matter-of-fact voices with the horrific tales they told of their tweaker lives. Lying. Stealing. Homelessness. Helplessness. Doing anything and everything for the drug, and now wrestling daily to stay in recovery at 15, 16 or 17 years old.

I struggled to do justice to their stories, knowing that relapse rates indicate most of them will face even more hell before they'll manage to stay clean for any length of time. I finally had to ask for a deadline extension--something I've done less than five times in the last 11 years--so I could take some time to manufacture a bit of hope, at least in my own mind.

Counselor Ken Kennemer at the Clean and Sober School in Petaluma reports that all the teens I interviewed there have consistently stayed away from meth this past year, and are working hard to restart their lives. "The beautiful side of it is that it doesn't take a lot of recovery to give them some hope," Kennemer says.

I keep remembering a pair of fuzzy pink baby socks pinned to a bulletin board in a local residential drug treatment center. They were left behind by a young woman who walked away from her newborn baby because meth's strident call was far stronger than the tenuous bonds of motherhood.

What have I learned this year? That we all need to work together if we don't want more tiny pink socks pinned to bulletin boards. That we can't avoid the problems of meth because they're all around us, tearing holes in the fabric of our communities. And that it's important to manufacture new hope, in one form or another, because meth destroys dreams.

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