Methology - Part I

Arizona is awash in crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant that makes the weak strong, the lazy motivated, the fat thin, the trivial profound. Abuse it enough, and it can also make you psychotic.

Meth isn't a psychedelic, but sleep deprivation causes delusions that rival anything that LSD may induce. Experts say sleep deprivation often works with methamphetamine to produce profoundly disturbing hallucinations--including the oft-mentioned "shadow people," a typical meth-induced delusion.

"You don't see shadow dogs or shadow birds or shadow cars," a Tempe bartender says. "You see shadow people. Standing in doorways, walking behind you, coming at you on the sidewalk. It's freaky, scary shit, man, because it doesn't feel like you're hallucinating."

Explains psychiatrist Jack Potts: "You can hallucinate because of sleep deprivation alone, but the hallucinatory phenomenon that comes with methamphetamine has a conspiratorial component."

And it's most often unpleasant, Potts adds.
"I stayed up so long one time that I saw eight giant chickens jump out in the road," he notes. "I braked for them, and no drugs were involved. If I'd been on meth, those eight chickens would not only have been there, they would have been out to get me."

Many tweakers lock into what mental-health types term "stereotypic behavior."

Obsessive cleaning is big.
So is organizing, rearranging and dismantling things.
Putting them back together again often is another story.

Tweakers say that you can tell a meth-head's house because the kitchen is spotless, while the yard is littered with half-finished projects.

A Tempe guitarist in his 20s says he did meth for the first, and only, time last summer.

While he was high, he recalls sheepishly, he dismantled his stove. Then he took apart his dishwasher. Then the toaster oven. Then he labeled 26 moving boxes with a letter of the alphabet--jeans in the "J" box, spoons in the "S" box, and so on--intent on boxing up everything he owned.

His wife came up in the middle of that project, the man recalls, and threw a fit. He managed to get the dishwasher back together. The stove, however, was a total loss.

Another popular meth pastime is wild, marathon sex.
But the drug's aphrodisiac effect has a dark side. Health officials in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego attribute an increase in HIV-infection rates to methamphetaine use--especially in the gay club scene, where it's called "Tina."

Don Walsh, director of the Phoenix-based agency HIV Care Directions, says there's a direct correlation between meth and HIV infection in the Valley.

"Part one is people on meth tend to be loose about safe sex," Walsh says. "Part two is people who are infected with HIV and are getting sick . . . do meth because it makes them feel good again physically and takes away the depression . . . but it also makes them get sick faster. Meth seems to fuel the virus.

"I lost five clients in September, and every one of them was a crystal-meth user. One of them was so sick he couldn't get out bed, and he still asked his home-health aide to drive him to his dealer."

Tweakers sleep like the dead when the time finally comes, often for a day or more, as their bodies recover.

Meth users occasionally suffer heart attacks, strokes and other maladies while binging. But compared to heroin and cocaine, methamphetamine poses little danger of overdose. Valley hospitals report meth-related emergency-room admissions are almost all psychiatric.

Medical journals indicate meth is more likely than crack cocaine to cause brain damage. If you have a substantial fissure in your psyche, chronic meth use is likely to crack it open and let out the demons.

Heavy users may lose their teeth to poor nutrition and incessant grinding. Users are pale, because meth raises blood pressure and constricts blood vessels at the skin's surface. They sweat profusely because their body temperature runs hot, and they neglect to bathe, so body odor becomes an issue. They may have scabs or sores from picking at themselves. Their kidneys may falter. Because they don't eat much, and meth sends the body's metabolism into overdrive, they're usually rail-thin.

Tweakers have a name for this condition--"meth rot."
Not all tweakers, however, let the rot take hold.
The Valley's meth-using population includes many functional addicts, able to maintain jobs and relationships, even a healthy appearance. Exercising on meth isn't a problem. Although the appetite is nil, many longtime users train themselves to eat while high, and to remind themselves to complete basic hygiene tasks. If the user learns not to fidget and ramble in public--no small task--the unknowing will often have no clue.

One giveaway are the eyes. Tweakers can't control their pupil dilation and how their eyes rapidly track even slight movements.

Says a Tempe man who has dabbled in the drug: "The peepers always give them away."

Dan doesn't tweak anymore. For one thing, his employer at a Valley manufacturing firm--where he's an engineer--does random drug testing these days. And, after snorting meth a half-dozen times, he knew he couldn't keep using and hope to stay in one piece.

"I'm a big fan of the fun, but there's a downside," says the 27-year-old Tempe man. "You take a pummeling."

Dan spins an entertaining but cautionary tale of a weekend meth dabbler. He says he first used the drug in mid-1994, between engineering jobs.

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