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.

Earlier this year, Bobby says, he started injecting the drug. It was a stressful time, he explains, with his wife in a difficult pregnancy with her first child, and money pressures.

"The needle took over my entire life," he says. "My wife was bedridden, and I had to take care of everything. Our relationship sort of distanced itself a lot."

His wife, whom Bobby says doesn't use drugs, watched from her bed as he deteriorated.

"I had all the regular stuff that meth addicts have," he says. "I thought people were coming into my room. The shadow people were running around in my head. I had a window cardboarded up to keep them away, just in case."

She left Bobby shortly before their daughter was born last June 7.
"She didn't want me around a baby when I was like I was," he says. "I had basically lost my mind. I would talk for hours straight, about nothing. One reason I'm here is because I want my wife back, my kid, my life."

Another reason is that police busted Bobby for meth possession. He spent eight days in jail, and, later, was accepted into drug court. He says he slipped about a month ago--"Got some stuff and shot it up"--but insists he can kick his habit.

"I have to," Bobby says.
Kirk, the welder, says he's tried any number of times to quit drugs. Kirk is in drug court with his wife, whom he says he introduced to methamphetamine.

"We've been around a bunch of people in drug court who are young enough to be our kids," he says, "but I don't get preachy with them. I remember how I was at that age. I remember how I am at this age."

Kirk announces to the others that he and his wife are scheduled to collect their "diploma" on December 19 from Judge Susan Bolton.

"Being in drug court saved my life, saved my ass, saved my marriage," he says. "Now comes the hard part, the staying straight part."

No one adds anything to that.

Dr. Charles Shaw has finished processing a new patient into a chemical dependency unit of St. Luke's Hospital. Friends brought the man into the East Van Buren Street clinic a half-hour ago. He's strung out on methamphetamine, and his frenzied eyes and constricted arm muscles provide a clue to the mayhem inside.

The middle-aged man is wearing a tee shirt that says, "Set the Night on Fire."

For Shaw, the unit's chief physician, it's business as usual.
"Two and a half, three years ago, there was all this fuss about heroin making a comeback, and it was very frustrating," he says. "I remember thinking to myself, 'You've got it all wrong. It's not heroin we should be worried about. It's crystal.'"

By 1995, Shaw says, meth overtook cocaine as the most popular drug of addiction reported by those seeking treatment at St. Luke's--a report echoed by the directors of other Valley drug-treatment centers.

Meth, he adds, still rules.
"We're seeing more and more of it. We're starting to see a lot of women who began using meth for weight problems. I expect that to get worse, now that phen-fen's off the market. We see a lot of single, working moms, who were taking care of the kids and working a job or two, and meth lets them get it all done. For a while. We see all kinds."

To illustrate his point, Shaw jabs a thumb over his shoulder: "I've got a 40-year-old accountant [patient] next door who's psychotic as hell."

The word "psychotic" means a difficult treatment problem.
"A lot of the time, when these people come in, it takes three or four days before we can even talk to them," says Jim Corrington, director of the Valley's Charter Hospitals. "You've got to get them on some antipsychotics and tranquilizers to stabilize them, so they don't run through a plate-glass window, thinking all the staff members are FBI agents."

About 20 percent of those who suffer from methamphetamine-induced psychosis don't recover, studies indicate.

"Most come back to reality," says Charles Shaw. "Sometimes it takes two to three days, sometimes it takes a year, sometimes they never come back."

That comports with the experience of counselor Leslie Roth, who works at Maricopa Medical Center's crisis-care unit.

"It's much more crystal coming through here now, and much more in the way of meth-induced psychoses," says Roth. "They hear things, see things, they swear there are cameras in the air vents--all induced by chemicals. A brain is a brain is a brain, and can only take so much substance abuse."

Roth's unit--run by Southwest Behavioral Health Services--may keep patients only up to 23 hours before deciding to send them home, to a rehab clinic or to a mental hospital.

"We see people who have been selling their bodies for dope," she says, "people selling dope for dope, people who have money, families. People who have ruined their lives and are desperate. People who are either going to die or find a new way to live."

Hard-core tweakers won't die if they quit cold turkey, and withdrawal from meth isn't as perilous as, say, heroin or alcohol.

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