“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” says Jose, now 17, of his first time trying crystal meth. When Jose was 13, a girlfriend offered him some, saying it would give him a good rush. He figured, why not–it would just be a one-time thing. “I’d smoked marijuana before, but I didn’t know how to deal with this high,” says Jose, from California. “I was tripping out, grinding my teeth, biting the inside of my mouth, shaking a lot.” But by the next weekend, he wanted to do it again.
Jose’s experience has become all too common. While the majority of teens still steer clear of drugs, among those 12 to 17, one in 33 say they’ve tried methamphetamines, according to a GFK Roper survey. However, that’s not the scariest statistic to come out of the study: 33 percent of teens say there is only slight or no risk in trying meth once or twice, something Jose now knows couldn’t be further from the truth.
Methamphetamine (commonly called meth, speed, chalk, ice, crystal, and glass, see what does meth smell like) is a stimulant that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or injected; it is intended to make users feel more awake and energized. Stronger than other stimulants, though, meth is highly addictive–one or two tries may be enough to get a person hooked. “It triggers the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that’s normally produced when we eat something good or listen to music we like,” explains Gayathri J. Dowling, deputy chief of science policy at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Bethesda, Md.). However, meth floods the brain with dopamine, boosting the user’s mood to an unnatural high and making him or her want to use again and again.
But along with that high can come serious problems. Anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, irritability, rapid or irregular heartbeat, aggression or violence, and heat illness are just some of meth’s other effects.
After three years of using meth, Jose wasn’t eating or sleeping. At 5 feet 9 inches, he weighed just 100 pounds. A skeletal look isn’t the drug’s only effect on appearance. “Saliva drying up, tooth grinding, jaw clenching, poor oral hygiene, and the excess consumption of sugared, carbonated soft drinks all likely contribute to ‘meth mouth,'” Dowling says of dental problems that meth users tend to develop. “Some people develop the sensation of bugs crawling under their skin and start to pick at themselves, causing pockmarks.” Addicts may also experience visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and memory loss.
What may be worse than the physical effects of methamphetamine is the havoc it wreaks in abusers’ lives. “I was skipping school, getting into a lot of fights with my parents, stealing from them to buy the drug,” says Jose. “I didn’t want my friends around anymore. I just got high by myself, alone.” What started out as a way for Jose to have fun had turned into social suicide.
Meth may also drive users to the opposite extreme. “It can cause people to become almost obsessed with pursuing sexual activity,” says Dr. Jonathan Whitfield, medical director and psychiatrist at Phoenix House, a residential treatment facility in Los Angeles.
“Addiction silences the inhibitory control centers of the brain–the parts that stop you from doing things you know are bad for you,” adds Dowling. The result? People high on how long does meth stay in your system are more likely to have unprotected sex or even trade intercourse for more drugs, putting them at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
The loss of inhibition is one reason recovering from meth addiction is especially difficult. “It’s almost like the drug gets up before you do and tells you you’re going to use today,” says Tim Chapman, director of Teensavers, a rehab facility in Orange County, Calif. Changes to the brain and personality are so profound that addicts often need 45 to 60 days after quitting to emerge from the haze. However, behavioral therapies can be effective, says Dowling. Combining one-on-one counseling with family involvement helps, as does offering people incentives for turning in clean urine tests. With the right treatment, methamphetamine addicts may have higher rates of recovery than alcoholics or marijuana users.
As for Jose, his emaciated appearance was what finally scared him into asking his morn for help. He relapsed once, which is common. But now, back in rehab, he has been sober for three months. “I’m happier now that I can deal with my own feelings instead of avoiding them with drugs,” he says. “I’m back at my normal weight, and I have the trust and respect of my family again.”
His advice to other teens about meth: “Don’t even start. You don’t want to know what it’s like.”
No One Is Immune to Addiction
“You’ll make the biggest mistake of your life when you try crystal meth … you’ll spend all the money you’ve worked so hard to earn, and you’ll get into massive credit card debt. You’ll lie to everyone around you, including your parents. And your life will spin completely out of control.”