BY THALIA COLE
The effect of methamphetamine addiction on the brain is like the elastic in a pair of old jocks. You can keep pulling them up for a long time, until one day you can’t. You keep taking meth and you have no idea when the day will come when your brain will go ‘ping’ and that will be that.”
Hearing those words from his drugs counsellor, ice addict Mark* contemplated how close he had come to permanent disability or even death. After using the drug for six years, it had such a hold over him he felt powerless to stop.
Mark has now been clean for three months and few people would suspect this well-dressed 33-year-old to have such a secret. But up close the scars on his arms from compulsive picking at his skin and the sadness in his eyes tell the story all too well. Mark lost his marriage, his business and almost his sanity.
Ice is a purified form of methamphetamine that appears as a rock-like crystal. It is an illegal and highly addictive drug.
National Drug Research Institute director Steve Allsop says ice is a powerful stimulant that appeals to people who want a sense of power and control. He says chronic users face mental deterioration from sleep deprivation, psychotic episodes and nutritional deficiencies. “Ice very quickly unbalances the neurotransmitter system so, in order to feel normal, [ice users] have to take more and more,” he says.
Mark’s first contact with drugs occurred when he joined an amateur football team at 17. Using ecstasy, cocaine and alcohol were considered part of team bonding. He was quickly seduced by the party lifestyle that drugs offered. Mark began dealing ecstasy in such substantial quantities that he risked a serious jail sentence if caught. But, for Mark, the drug dealing lifestyle made him feel like a rock star.
In 2004 Mark was offered ice. He says the drug made him feel powerful and invincible.
“I did it because I enjoyed it. It was all about getting up and going as hard and fast for as long as possible.”
His ice use escalated when he started his own home business. In his mind ice meant he could work more hours and make more money. But this mindset created a vicious cycle: the more Mark smoked the more hours he had to work to pay for his addiction. To meet deadlines he would stay up all night on ice. “Before I knew it, I had to use just to be able to function at all,” he says.
By July 2009 Mark’s habit was costing between $2500 and $3000 per week. To fund his growing addiction he began withdrawing large sums from the savings account he shared with his wife. Within four months he withdrew more than $50,000. Mark’s wife was horrified when she noticed the money was missing and demanded he see a drug counsellor or their marriage would be over. Mark agreed but confessed his heart wasn’t in it; it was a token effort to keep his wife and family.
Mark’s marriage ended on Christmas Eve last year when his wife caught him smoking ice in his shed. By then he was so emotionally disconnected by years of methamphetamine abuse that his first thought was: “Good, now I can smoke all I want without trying to hide it.”
His drug use skyrocketed. “I stopped eating, didn’t clean the house, any money I made went straight to buying meth,” he says. “I then started embezzling money from my clients.”
In March this year Mark sought help from an addiction psychologist in a desperate bid to salvage his marriage and business. The psychologist told him he was yet to reach rock bottom and he should go away and use all the drugs he wanted. Mark says this advice, while unexpected, was right. He was not yet ready to face his addiction head-on.
For months Mark’s ice use continued; he paid $16,000 to buy the drug in bulk but ended up smoking most of it in four days. To make money he tried to sell ice but being “selfish and greedy” he “cut it with chop”, spoiling the quality so it was unsellable. By July Mark was having serious psychotic episodes, deliberately hitting his head with rocks and lumps of wood. Rock bottom arrived when Mark got into his car on his birthday and began speeding through red lights, not caring if he died. This event finally forced Mark to acknowledge addiction was destroying his life and he checked into a rehabilitation centre. Mark’s rehabilitation has been difficult. There are many days when the initial high that came from addressing his addiction has faded. The hardest part is facing the effect of his past behaviour. “I have some very low days where I am devastated about the loss of my marriage and what I have put my family and friends through,” he says.
Mark’s mother says she was devastated when she found out early last year about his addiction. She says the professionals treating Mark believed he would be dead by the end of the year, and she sometimes thought the same.
Cyrenian House representative Carol Daws says drug addiction should be viewed as a health issue rather than a moral deficiency. “We live in a society where drugs and alcohol are sanctioned,” she says. “I don’t think many people, when they start using drugs, believe they are going to end up in the condition they do.”
Mark estimates he has spent $500,000 on ice. His house, business and marriage are gone and he must now begin his life from scratch, when most of his friends have settled and have families. Mark says there are “a lot of misconceptions about the problem because it is such an unspoken topic”. As part of his healing process he wants to share his story with as many people as possible. Mark feels blessed to have a second chance but he is apprehensive about rediscovering the person he was before drugs took hold. “I have to find who that person was, but I can barely remember,” he says.
*Real name withheld.
Published in the Western Independent October 2010