By Jenny Neyman
Being new parents can already feel like a roller-coaster ride: New experiences that instigate new challenges. Advice coupled with expectations. So much love and joy, underlain with the fear that something could go wrong. That, as parents, you’ll do something wrong.
For Mary and Joe Smith, their ride as first-time parents has been a particularly rocky one, because something did go irrevocably wrong with their kids. It’s something they don’t completely understand and can’t plan for or predict. They can’t always treat it with love and hugs, even though that’s their instinct. And they can’t erase it, even for all their parental desire to do anything to protect their kids.
The Smiths say their kids were theirs from day one. The first time they had them in their arms, that was it. But day one for the Smiths wasn’t day one of their kids’ lives. They were born into another family, one where drugs had taken priority over the kids’ safety and well-being. The kids were taken from that home and put up for adoption, which is how they ended up with the Smiths.
(Editor’s note: The Smiths live on the central Kenai Peninsula. The adoption process was difficult and only recently finalized, so they did not wish to use their real names or identifying information about them or their children for this story.)
Mary Smith said she doesn’t know what all happened to the kids before she and her husband got them. She’s pieced some of it together, from police reports, child abuse and neglect reports, and comments from social workers and neighbors. She knows it was a meth house, where the parents used and cooked the highly addictive and destructive stimulant. She’s heard of there being cocaine and heroine use, as well.
“You’re talking about children who live in filth, who live in a disheveled environment. They’re exposed to domestic violence and they also could be sexually assaulted. They are also in an environment where there’s a lot of pornography and exploiting of children. It could potentially lead to a really horrible life for these kids,” she said.
She doesn’t know what, specifically, her kids went through, but there are clues. The kids have been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but Smith thinks a lot of their symptoms owe more to their biological mother’s illicit drug use. There isn’t as much research into the effects of using meth while pregnant as there is alcohol, so FAS is the more common diagnosis, Smith said.
The kids are developmentally delayed and have short-term memory problems. Their behavioral problems run the gamut. They can be shy and uncomfortable around people, yet also throw huge, raging meltdowns for no apparent reason. There’s a lack of impulse control and understanding of what the results of their actions will be. One can’t sleep through the night. Another doesn’t seem to feel pain, and is a daredevil to boot.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know what the long-term effects of children being brought out of a meth house are going to be, as a result of it absorbing into their skin and living in that environment. Socially, their development is delayed. Their memory is delayed. Their whole cognitive function is off kilter because it affects their brain,” Smith said.
It’s hard to know what might trigger a meltdown, much less whether it’s a result of their disability or response to a memory of abuse.
“We had our honeymoon phase and within six weeks of them being in our home we realized that it was going to be more of a challenge than we thought,” Smith said. “It’s a fear factor that every parent has — ‘Am I going to be able to be up for this challenge?’ When the first meltdown occurred, it was scary because you want to make sure you’re doing everything right, but you don’t know how to do things as a new parent, and you don’t know how to adapt to their special needs, and you always second-guess things. ‘Am I doing this right?’ But there isn’t a lot of information out there on what happens with drug exposure and the challenges they may be facing.”
There was a defining moment early on, where the Smiths wondered if this was more than they could handle. They put their oldest child in the tub for a bath and witnessed the first big meltdown they’d seen. Smith’s husband tried to comfort the child, which resulted in the child becoming combative and violent, punching him in the face.
“Later we found out that was one of the triggers. Somewhere in (the child’s) life they’d had a bad experience with bathtubs. So we decided there would be no more baths. It would be showers, and it’s been fine. The challenging part is not knowing their background and what’s going to trigger them and just having to feel them out slowly,” Smith said.
“It’s really hard to understand where these children have been because, obviously, we were not raised this way. So when they have fits of anger or a behavioral issue arises it takes an emotional toll because you feel for them. They don’t understand why they do what they do sometimes. They don’t have control of what they do. So it’s heartbreaking to watch. But it’s really encouraging to see the strides that they make,” Smith said.
The family has come 360 degrees from where it started, Smith said. There are still, and will always be, challenges, but they are more manageable, she said.
“They’re happy kids. They know that they’re OK. They know that they’re safe and they’re moving on and we’ll deal with what they have to deal with as it comes. I can honestly say we were brought here for a reason, and that’s because our kids were waiting for us to be here. It’s not easy but it’s worth it because you’re changing a pattern, you’re changing the direction of lives and that’s the reward — you’re paying it forward. You just cope with it and put your running shoes on and go to bed so you can get up and start running again,” she said.
It’s an odd dichotomy, thinking of her kids’ background. On one hand it makes her sick and furious to think of what happened to her children. On the other, if they hadn’t been born into a situation of drugs and neglect, they wouldn’t have ended up with Smith and her husband.
“It is a frustrating feeling to try to figure out why on earth would somebody do that to an innocent child? Why does any kid have to suffer? And you do want to protect them and you are angry and bitter, but you do have to let those things go. It gave us the opportunity to be parents when we couldn’t be parents before, so I do have to appreciate that, but I don’t have to appreciate the choices they made,” Smith said.
That’s why meth is such a scourge. It doesn’t just affect the users, or the people who make or sell it, she said. It affects all those people’s families and friends. It creates ripples that spread through neighborhoods and communities, from the police officers who face often violent situations to bust the drug users and makers; to the technicians who have to clean up the toxic mess of meth labs; the neighbors whose property values decrease because there’s a meth lab down the street; the social workers, educators and medical personnel who try to mitigate the lifelong effects the drug causes; the taxpayers who foot the bill for all this; even complete strangers, like passengers on a plane who give the Smiths dirty looks when their kids act up during a flight.
“It happens a lot, and it’s going to continue to happen, and it’s probably going to continue to grow if we don’t stop these drugs taking over people’s brains,” Smith said. “That’s why I believe if we can touch one person, and that person will tell their friends, maybe we can stop the cycle for the next child,” Smith said.
‘Never a First Time’
The Alaska Meth Education Project was formed in 2006 to do just that — help break the cycle for those using meth, but primarily to prevent it from ever beginning. The project started through the Tri-Borough Commission, a partnership between the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Municipality of Anchorage, as a way to combat increasing meth use and all the far-reaching problems meth causes in Alaska. Juneau and Fairbanks soon joined the effort.
AME is funded primarily through a federal grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. The program maintains a Web site, http://www.alaskamethed.com, that has resources on meth treatment and prevention education. It has financed a meth education ad campaign and sponsored summits. The program also offers free meth education presentations, based on the Meth 360 curriculum used in the Lower 48, to community groups, schools, employers and any other audiences interested in the participating communities.
“The purpose of the Meth Education Program was prevention. We want to prevent Alaskans from ever trying methamphetamine because the drug is so addictive,” said Allison Biastock, project coordinator of the Alaska Meth Education Program.
The program’s motto is “Never a First Time,” because that’s often all it takes to get hooked on meth. Between 80 and 97 percent of meth users are addicted after just one use, Biastock said. Once hooked, their lives quickly disintegrate, involving law enforcement, the legal and corrections systems and social services organizations. If kids or loved ones are in the picture, their lives are often endangered as they become a lower priority than the drug. If a user is making meth, that’s a whole other set of ramifications because the process produces so many toxic byproducts.
“Nationally, the cost of methamphetamine is about equal to the cost of childhood obesity, because lifestyles really deteriorate very quickly. You can picture a casual user of other drugs, but that is rarely the case with meth. You don’t have casual users. It really does consume one’s life,” Biastock said.
“With methamphetamine, it’s so highly addictive. The rate of addiction can blow some other drugs out of the water.”
Meth is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that affects dopamine, a feel-good chemical produced by the brain. At first, meth kicks dopamine production into high gear, producing a feeling of euphoria. But meth changes the brain’s chemistry, eventually making it so the brain can’t respond to dopamine, which necessitates taking more and more of the drug to produce a high.
Being hungry and eating a satisfying meal registers a dopamine level of about 150, Biastock said. Cocaine use produces a dopamine level of around 200 to 300. With the first hit of meth, the dopamine level is 1,200 to 1,300, she said.
“It absolutely blows the dopamine levels off the charts. But the thing is, you will never feel that way again. Your chemistry starts to change. With time, you will never naturally feel good,” Biastock said.
The first hit was all it took to make Terry Wilson an addict. He was 26, had a job, a girlfriend, a place to live. Soon, none of that mattered.
“I felt as if I was on top of the world, as if I could do or say anything to anybody. Your inhibitions go down and your confidence goes up. You can say anything to anyone and feel as if you can do anything you ever wanted to do. Some say you feel like you could run five marathons at one time,” Wilson said.
Over a stretch of eight years, he lost more jobs than he was able to keep, only working to get money for meth. He got kicked out of numerous homes and apartments and ended up living in his vehicle or else walking the streets of Anchorage at night, afraid to sleep for fear of freezing to death. He repeatedly broke up and made up with his girlfriend, but their fights got more and more violent as both continued their meth use and the drug plunged them further into paranoia, aggression and violence.
He was in and out of jail, sobering up and swearing to himself that he’d stay clean on the outside, but falling into old habits almost immediately upon release. Even his two kids, born during this time, weren’t enough to pull him out of his addiction. They simply didn’t matter as much as meth.
“It was the same as everything else in my life at that point — I just didn’t care about anything else but the drug,” Wilson said. “Your life revolves around getting more dope — even if you have the drug you still are trying to find more so you don’t run out. I knew I had children and I knew I loved them and wanted to be with them, but I couldn’t break that chain between me and the drugs. No matter how bad I wanted to be there for them, meth had a greater hold on me and it had priority in my life above anything and everything else. I tried everything to get back with them, including trying to shuffle between the dope and my family, but in the end the meth always won. Yes, I did know what I was doing was bad for my children, but like I said, when you’re on meth, you don’t care about the consequences. You just care about getting high.”
During another three-month stay in jail, Wilson started a 12-step program and continued it at his next stop — a halfway house. This time he changed his habits so he would avoid the old people, places and situations that triggered meth use. He’s been clean for two and a half years now, but is still affected by his drug use. He suffers from depression and anxiety attacks, his short-term memory is hazy and his teeth are damaged. Wilson said it’s still a struggle to stay clean, but he works the 12 steps, avoids his old triggers and focuses on why he doesn’t want to go back.
He now works with the Alaska Meth Education Program, telling his story at community presentations in order to give addicts hope that they can break free, and particularly to convince others not to try it — not even once — so they don’t end up where he did.
“Every time I do a presentation and share my story I get to be reminded of where I was and what I went through to get to where I am now, and where I don’t want to end back up. It truly is a humbling experience,” Wilson said.
Alaska’s meth makeup
Three years into the Alaska Meth Education Project, the meth landscape in Alaska has changed, but hasn’t gotten much brighter. State legislation that went into effect in 2006 that requires cold medicine with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine — a necessary ingredient in making meth — to be sold behind the counter drastically reduced the number of meth labs in the state. In 2004, Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement troopers busted 62 meth labs in Alaska. In 2008, that number was down to 12.
The Kenai Peninsula was one of the state hotspots for meth labs, said Kenai Police Officer Aaron Turnage, who is an instructor with the AME program. In 2004, the majority of labs busted were on the peninsula. In 2008, there were only about six labs found, he said.
But that doesn’t mean meth use has diminished. Instead of being produced locally, it’s coming in from outside, especially Mexico, Turnage said. In 2003 through 2005, officers were seizing locally produced meth that was a dirty-looking powder. Now it’s mostly crystallized, more-concentrated meth ice that looks like shards of glass.
“If you can think of a way to bring it in, it’s coming in. All cavities a body has to offer. Vehicles, boats, airmail, U.S. post, all kinds of stuff. If you come up with a creative way to bring it, it’s coming,” he said.
It’s great that meth labs have decreased, Biastock said, but other indicators show meth is not going away in Alaska. And that fact isn’t getting as much attention as the flashy busts of meth labs did, she said.
Admissions for meth addiction treatment in the state have doubled since 2005, she said. According to ABADE, the number of grams of meth seized by law enforcement went from 646 in 2004 to 3,849.63 in 2008. Nationally, there has been a slight decrease in the number of young people who say they’ve used meth — 1.9 million in 2006 to 1.3 million in 2007. The average age of first-time meth use has also gone down — which isn’t good, Biastock said. In Alaska, 18- to 25-year-olds are still the highest user group of meth, and Alaska still has a higher-than-average rate of use in that age group, she said.
“I would be hard-pressed to be convinced that meth use is going down,” Biastock said. “Just because you don’t see it in the media as much, methamphetamine is still a serious threat to Alaska.”
Turnage said that meth still “is definitely up there” as far as controlled substances local police deal with.
“It’s out there. You can feel safe walking up and down the streets of Kenai, you’re not going to get mugged and have to turn over your wallet so they can go get their next hit of drugs. (But) if you want to find the drug world, it’s not far away,” Turnage said. “It’s not taking over the community. It’s out there if you want to find it. If you don’t want to find it, you can pretty much stay away from it.”
Staying away from it doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to it. The proponents of meth education hope to raise awareness of the drug — what it does, how it’s used, what it does to people, how others can spot meth use, and what they should do if they suspect someone is using.
“We as a society tend to shy away from the darker parts of life or the things that we feel uncomfortable with. But it is a part of life and it needs to be brought out into the light for everyone to see. How are we supposed to change our views on things if we don’t know the truth about them?” Wilson said.
On the Kenai Peninsula, Turnage and Rita Huss-Magee are on the AME team. Both do meth awareness presentations, Turnage more for fellow law enforcement and public safety personnel, and Huss-Magee to middle and high schools and community groups. They’ll present wherever they’re requested, and both said they’re happy to be a resource for the community.
On May 12, Huss-Magee was at the Sterling Senior Center, giving the Meth 360 presentation to a wide swath of the community. Some were teachers, Head Start and child-care workers — all who end up dealing with kids from meth homes. Some were community members, wanting to know more about the drug, what to look for to spot a meth cooking operation, and if a recent spate of break-ins in the Sterling area may be motivated by drugs. There were also parents, wanting to know how to talk to their kids about meth and what signs to look for if their kids or kids’ friends may be using.
“There are no boundaries in class. There are no boundaries in education. There are no boundaries in anything. It’s pervasive, like green slime. It just seeps anywhere,” Huss-Magee said. “Kids go to parties, pretty soon alcohol is there and the drugs can happen with parents in the next room. You just never know.”
The presentation is informative and punctuated with a shock factor. Photos and descriptions of the side effects the drug can have — like users compulsively picking sores in their skin because they hallucinate that there are insects crawling under the surface. Photos of people strung out, compared to what they looked like a short time before. Descriptions of babies crawling around in the filth and toxic chemicals of in-home meth labs.
Huss-Magee herself is a bit of a shock, with her slightly graying hair gathered up behind her head and a pastel scarf tied around her neck, looking like she could be giving a quilting presentation, yet rattling off terms like “dope,” “crank,” “tweak,” “shake ‘n’ bake,” “Mexican speed balls,” and describing how desperate addicts will do anything to get high — even injecting meth into their eyeballs.
As a clinical forensics nurse with Central Peninsula Hospital, having worked in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough previously, Huss-Magee has seen far more graphic examples of meth use than she shared with the Sterling crowd. It’s the situations that involve children that affect her the most, she said. It was two kids, ages 2 and 4, brought out of a meth house that led her to get involved with meth education. It was a situation not unlike the Smiths’, where the kids were removed from a drug environment and ended up being adopted into a good home.
But not nearly enough cases end like that.
“There are some cases that are more heartbreaking than others. You feel like you’ve done everything possible, but there’s not enough information to take the kids out of a home for placement. You know that these kids are going back, knowing that we’ll probably see them again at some point,” Huss-Magee said.
It can certainly be a discouraging field to work in, but a program like Alaska Meth Education gives hope that things will eventually change. If people get educated, and if they make it their business to do something about it — to spread the word about the dangers of meth, and to report abuse if they suspect it.
“I’m the facilitator, now you guys are teachers. You go out to the neighborhoods and talk to anybody who will listen to you, even if it’s one at a time. Talk to your friends, to your neighbors, to your kids, to your co-workers or anybody,” she said at the end of the Sterling presentation.
“It is definitely a community issue,” she said. “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village or community to clean up a problem.”
For more information on meth in Alaska, resources on treatment and education, and to request a Meth 360 presentation, visit http://www.alaskamethed.com. There also is a quilt raffle ongoing to benefit the Child Advocacy Center in Kenai, which often deals with kids in meth situations. For raffle tickets, call 714-4548.
What is meth?
- Methamphetamine is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that produces increased physical activity, alertness and feelings of euphoria. It can be an odorless powder or chunks of crystalline “hard candy” that is snorted, smoked, ingested and injected, which changes how long and how intense a “rush” will be.
- Meth affects dopamine, a feel-good chemical produced by the brain. At first, meth kicks dopamine production into high gear, producing a feeling of euphoria. But meth changes brain chemistry, eventually making it so the brain can’t respond to dopamine, which necessitates taking more and more of the drug to produce a high.
- Meth use leads to mood swings, psychotic behavior, paranoia, aggressiveness, convulsions, stroke, anxiety, confusion, impaired learning, poor judgment, auditory hallucinations, delusions, insomnia, constant motion and rapid speech, self injuries, weight loss, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, increased body temperatures and dental problems.
Warning signs of meth:
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Abnormal sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Dilated pupils
- Burns on lips or fingers
- Track marks on arms
- Dental deterioration
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Long periods of sleeplessness, then long periods of sleep
- Incessant talking
- Irritability, anxiousness, agitation, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions of parasites or insects crawling under the skin
- Twitching and shaking
- Extreme moodiness and severe depression
- Repetitious behavior, such as picking at skin, pulling out hair, compulsively cleaning, grooming, disassembling objects
- Aggression or violent behavior
- Carelessness about appearance
- Deceit or secretiveness
Signs of a meth lab:
- Glassware, tubing or soft drink bottles with hoses attached
- Heat sources, such as hot plates or Bunsen burners
- Matches and striker pads
- Windows covered
- Lots of traffic, especially at night
- Excessive security measures or attempts to ensure privacy
- Unusual odor of chemicals
- Lots of chemical containers — Heet, drain cleaner, paint thinner, toluene, denatured alcohol, ammonia, starter fluid, antifreeze, acetone, hydrogen peroxide, Red Devil lye, rock salt/iodine.
- Propane tanks, often with blue corrosion on fittings or bent or tampered valves
- Starting fluids
- Electrical or duct tape
- Homemade generators
- Fuel cans scattered around
- Red-stained coffee filters and gloves