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July 5-11, 2006

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Tips for Teens

Photos by Patricia Lynn Henley
Tips for Teens: While national use rates decline, meth addiction in the North Bay is on the rise.

Totally Tweaked

Cheap, fast and out of control, methamphetamine increasingly ensnares California's teenagers in its downward spiral. Is this drug poised to swamp a whole generation?

By Patricia Lynn Henley


Editor's note: This is part of a yearlong Bohemian series on methamphetamine's impact on life in the North Bay. The names of the minors in this story have been changed and their towns of residence elided to protect their privacy.

Jordan sits on a metal folding chair in a corner of a bright, clean gymnasium in Petaluma. Her posture is erect, exhibiting a natural grace. Her long, blonde hair is tucked neatly behind her ears. The gaze of her blue-gray eyes is clear and steady. It's easy to assume she's a cheerleader or perhaps a teen model. Instead, Jordan, 15, rattles off the depressing details of her life as a tweaker, someone addicted to methamphetamine.

"A tweaker is the kind of person who will steal your wallet and then help you look for it," she explains with a rueful laugh. Jordan understands this truth all too clearly; not only has she done that herself, she's spent a lifetime watching her mother, who is also an addict.

Jordan started drinking when she was nine. She was 13 when she first tried meth, smoking and snorting it with her mother and two friends. Jordan was high and wired for three sleepless days and nights. She loved it. Within a few months, she was living in a downtown Petaluma parking garage, huddling at night under a friend's truck. He'd turn the engine on for a few minutes so it would get warm, she'd slide a piece of cardboard under the pickup, and that's where she would lie all night, wide awake and wired.

"At the time," she explains, "I'd rather lay under a truck and have my drugs than go home and be sober."

It would be nice to think that Jordan's story is an aberration, but it isn't. There's an all-important distinction between the natural experimentation of adolescents and the ensnarement of addiction. The trick is in knowing when someone has crossed that invisible line. Not every teen becomes hooked, but teens can be addicts; there's no magical protection provided to the merely young and curious.

In the North Bay, where alcohol and marijuana are almost commonplace, kids are indulging in one or both substances at increasingly younger ages. Through impaired judgment, curiosity, rebellion, peer pressure or other factors, many end up trying meth.

Known as tweak, crank, crystal, speed, meth and numerous other nicknames, methamphetamine packs an incredibly powerful wallop, working not just on the brain but inside the brain cells. It triggers as much as 12 times the normal production of pleasure neurotransmitters, depleting the body's supply. While it isn't possible to develop a physical addiction with just one use, many teens say they immediately get emotionally hooked. Tweak becomes the only thing in their lives. They lose all interest in school, family, friends, hobbies, sports and other activities. They'll start doing things--stealing, lying, experimenting sexually--that they wouldn't have considered before.

Which kids are at risk? Teens whose parents ask too little of them. Teens whose parents ask too much from them. Teens who feel invisible. Teens who feel everyone expects them to be the best, the brightest, the thinnest, the prettiest, the handsomest. Teens who are stressed, insecure, depressed, struggling to find their identity or struggling to escape an identity imposed upon them.

Which kids are at risk? All of them.

David's Story

David, 16, believes that meth stripped away both his values and his identity. "Your persona is being a tweaker. And no one likes tweakers because they're crazy. They're just not good people. You feel like you're never going to get out or completely away from it unless you're locked up somewhere where you just can't get it."

Although he says he's from a "really good" Sonoma County family and was involved in lots of activities, David says that didn't prevent him from getting suckered in by tweak. He started on alcohol and weed when he was 14 and graduated to meth when he was 15. "I'd been wanting to try it for a while, because kids at school always talked about it. I knew this guy handled it, so I bought it."

He used money his parents had given him. Later, when he needed larger amounts of meth to feed his addiction, he'd shoplift or steal car stereos and trade them for the drug. He started staying at a friend's house because he didn't want to go home.

David's parents finally confronted him and then sent him to a residential treatment program in Washington. Now he's back home and attending the Clean and Sober School in Santa Rosa. (Sonoma County's other Clean and Sober School is in Petaluma.) Since the end of April, he's relapsed three times. The last experience scared him.

"The last time I did it, I just flipped out when I was coming down and was just like really suicidal."

When he was tweaking, all David thought about was getting money so he could buy more meth. He loved the highs but hated the lows that followed.

"There are no bad sides that you can see until you do it, until you mess up, and that's when everything comes back to you and you remember everything that you once had."

The only answer, in his view, is to get rid of the drug entirely.

"We need to get the government to do something about it, to crack down on chemicals so they can't even be manufactured or imported. I don't think communities can stop it," he emphasizes. "The drug needs to stop."

Bad Signs

"If you think that your kids are on drugs or have any connections with drugs or are dealing drugs, they most likely are," says Sally, 17, a Clean and Sober School student in Sonoma County. Sally started getting drunk and smoking marijuana when she was 13, and got hooked on crystal meth when she was a freshman in summer school. "If they have random pots of money hanging somewhere, if they have empty baggies, if they're acting strange or if they're getting skinnier and they don't go to the gym and aren't on a diet, they most likely [are doing meth]."

Empty plastic bags can be a sign of meth use. So can mirrors, glass and even aluminum foil, which is used to melt the drug in a method called free-basing. Butane lighters, to heat either the tinfoil or a glass pipe, may be an indicator. So, too, are tall candles. Light bulbs can be cut apart to create homemade pipes. Torn toilet paper squares or napkin scraps are also used. A small amount of low-quality meth can be wrapped tightly in the soft paper and then swallowed with a glass of water. It's called parachuting.

Acnelike scars are a tip-off. Tweakers may feel a crawling sensation under their skin, and will keep poking until they produce a raw gash. They'll scratch feverishly at a pimple until it becomes a scar. Meth can also cause the hairs on a user's skin to stand erect. Sometimes an addict will become convinced the hair is a spider or other bug, and try to dig it out.

Excessive cleaning. Missing money. Endless phone calls to friends. Drastic weight loss. Severe irritability. Inability to sleep. Agitation. Twitching. An outburst of aggression from someone who's never been aggressive before.

"The key is to watch for changes in your child. Sometimes they won't be related to drugs; sometimes they will," says Erica Clementi, program manager for the Clean and Sober schools run by the Sonoma County Office of Education and the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center.

Many male teens get caught because they become outrageously angry and physically aggressive. Frightened parents call the police, and the young man ends up getting treatment through the legal system. However, one teen boy went from giving little more than sullen grunts to his mother's questions and never cleaning his room to chatting with her breezily and keeping his space spotless. Delighted, his mother praised this new behavior, not realizing it was prompted by methamphetamine.

"Parents should trust their intuition. You kind of know when your child is different," Clementi says. "[Meth] is one drug that I really feel steals their soul. When you see someone come in from using speed, they look lost."

Big Small Picture

The number of methamphetamine-related hospital emergency room visits nationwide for youth ages six to 17 jumped from 2,338 in 1995 to 4,394 in 2002, an 88 percent increase in seven years. In 2004, 2.5 percent of eighth graders nationwide reported using meth at least once; in 2005 that rose to 3.1 percent. For 10th graders, the figures were 5.3 percent in 2004, down to 4.1 percent in 2005. There was an even sharper drop for 12th graders, from 6.2 percent to 4.5 percent.

Those declining numbers are highly deceptive, says Rachael Gonzales, a research analyst for UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Program, one of the nation's leading facilities for meth research. National figures don't accurately reflect local problems, she says.

For example, the 2004 California Healthy Kids Survey found that 7.6 percent of the state's 11th graders had used meth; 5 percent had used it in the preceding 30 days.

"If you look at it on a regional level, there's a huge problem," Gonzales explains. "Looking at it nationally is going to minimize the areas that have real epidemics. I think that's the issue here." Gonzales notes that surveys of students also don't include the teens most likely to be using, those who have dropped out or been incarcerated.

Meth has been a major presence in California since the 1980s. Currently, there are an estimated 500,000 adult methamphetamine users statewide, split evenly between males and females. Many are in their child-bearing and -rearing years.

While a much higher percentage of teens use alcohol or marijuana than meth, the fact that so many adults are tweakers means that this drug is woven into the fabric of California society. There's been a fair amount of concern about "meth orphans," young children who are endangered by the drug's manufacturing process, or abandoned and abused by their speed-obsessed parents.

In contrast, there's been almost no research or media attention on the impact on teens and young adults whose parents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, neighbors or other adult role models are caught up in methamphetamine's relentless downward spiral. Furthermore, its impact specifically on young women is only beginning to be understood.

"What we're seeing is a huge gender differential," Gonzales says. "For youth ages 12 to 17, females are about three times as likely to be using methamphetamine as their drug of choice when entering treatment." According to Gonzales, there are four main risk factors: weight and body image concerns; low self-esteem; depression; and such trauma as physical or sexual abuse.

Gonzales worked on one of the only recent studies on teen addiction, which focused on treatment outcomes in Southern California. "We found that teens using methamphetamine were more likely to not complete treatment, to drop out early, than teens not using meth," she says. "We found that teens using methamphetamine were more likely to use alcohol and marijuana during treatment, when the programs promote abstention."

Present filled with hope

Present Filled With Hope: Clean and Sober School aims to model citizenship and life skills many addicted teens don't receive at home.

Donna's Story

When Donna, now 15, was tweaking, she used to clean her Sonoma County bedroom carpet with a toothbrush and a bottle of Zout. "What else do you do at 2 o'clock in the morning?" she asks with a laugh. Donna also cut the tags off all her clothes and used Q-tips to clean the bathroom faucets. "I obsessed over the littlest things; I'd pull a hair out if there was a split end or something."

At age 12, Donna started smoking cigarettes. She moved on to alcohol and weed by age 13, and was tweaking by the time she was 14. She got the cigarettes, booze, marijuana and meth from her older sister.

Most teens drop out of school when they get hooked on meth, but Donna didn't. "I would go to school when I was high on crystal, and people would be like, 'Oh my God, you look so good, your eyes are beautiful,' and I'd be spun out of my mind."

At 5 foot 5 inches tall, Donna soon weighed only 100 pounds. People complimented her on her rapid weight loss, but didn't seem to notice other changes.

"I'd be fidgeting a lot, playing with my hair. I tried to keep my eyes closed, like I was tired. I wouldn't draw attention to myself. And [the teachers] never noticed or never told me they [saw anything different]."

Donna got kicked out of her home a couple of times, and stayed with friends.

She mentions casually that she lived under a bridge for a while. She got suspended from school when she was caught with a meth pipe, and then expelled for being drunk on campus (she and her older sister split a bottle of Chardonnay for breakfast). Donna ended up in the Clean and Sober School in Petaluma.

Together, the two campuses handle about 45 to 50 students who are coping with addiction and a host of other problems.

"The reality is we're basically on the frontline of a battlefield," says Ken Kennemer, one of two counselors at the Petaluma site. The schools are open 11 months each year. The teens get standard academics as well as counseling; it's mandatory to attend a group session daily. There's also random drug testing. Many of these students come from neglectful or abusive homes, or live with parents who have their own substance abuse problems. Often, a teen first gets hooked on meth because it is easily available from a parent, older sibling or other family member. The Clean and Sober schools provide the solid role models, stability and life skills that these kids aren't getting at home.

Donna likes attending the Clean and Sober School. "The teachers and the staff treat me with respect," she says, "like I'm equal. I've never been treated [that way] before."

Donna says she's had a couple of "slips" since starting at the school last March, but only with alcohol or marijuana, never with meth. "I don't want to touch it anymore. I guess I'm doing better. Yeah, I'm doing better."

If she leaves her current campus, she'll attend a continuation high school. A regular high school offers too many temptations.

"Most of my friends use, and I get offers all the time," she explains. "Like yesterday, I was at my house sick and someone called me. It was like, 'Hey, you want a couple of grams of tweak for free?' And I was like, 'Ohhh, that sounds so good,' but I just couldn't touch it. It's hard because my friends are all doing it, but I feel like I'll let a lot of people down if I do use."

Is there anything that might have stopped her from trying meth?

"It would have helped if I had seen people, not when they're on it, but when they're coming down or after they've been doing it for five or six years," she says. "I have a couple of friends who've been doing it maybe twice as long as I was, and their eyes are sunken in their head, their teeth are gone. If I had seen that, I probably never would have touched it."

Courage to Live

Parents in small towns are sometimes slow to seek help because they don't want everyone to know their kid has a problem, says Amy Potter, a substance abuse counselor with Full Circle Family Institute. She works with regular public high school students along the Marin and Sonoma coastlines. Those wide-open spaces and serene-looking farmlands are no barrier to tweak.

"It's important for parents in this area to know that there's a serious problem here and they need education and help with it," Potter says. Middle school can be a critical time for kids in a rural area without a lot to do. "Summer between eighth and ninth grade is when a lot of them start their experimentation."

Two years ago, Sonoma County Superior Court judge Gary Nadler created the Courage to Live program to help middle school students understand the consequences of abusing drugs and alcohol. As a family court judge, Nadler sees the negative impacts of meth addiction on a daily basis.

"Whether you're in criminal or family or juvenile court, it's all around you," Nadler explains. "[Meth] affects every aspect of a judge's life, and I think most people don't realize it." On his own time, he's put together a two-hour presentation. "I started with the idea that we need to get to the middle-school kids before they become jaded."

Nadler's main focus is on alcohol and driving under the influence, but through the question-and-answer sessions, he's has learned that most ninth graders have already heard about tweak or speed from their friends. "They've been places where it's been offered. They all know about methamphetamine in junior high. That doesn't mean they're using it, but some of them are."

One of the highlights of the presentation is when a volunteer jail inmate tells his or her story of abusing drugs and alcohol, and the consequences. "We demystify jails. They know it's not cool to be in jail," Nadler says.

The inmates are typically in their early 20s and talk about the poor choices they made when they were 13, 14 or 15 years old. "In an auditorium full of middle-school students, you can hear a pin drop when the inmate is speaking," Nadler says.

The program includes a discussion about how to make good decisions.

"I figure that if I get even one kid to think about making choices each time I do the program, then I've been a great success--and I'm hoping it's been more than that."

Emily's Story

Seventeen-year-old Napa County teen Emily started smoking marijuana when she was 12. She began drinking about a year later, and not long after that, started using cocaine. She was 14 the first time she got high on meth. She'd heard great things about it from her friends, how it helped them have energy, get skinny and feel good about themselves.

"I was having a lot of problems with my family, and there were so many people doing [meth]. I just wanted to try it once to see what the big deal was," she says with an ironic laugh.

The desire to get more tweak quickly took over her life. She left home and lived with her boyfriend. When he got sent to prison on drug charges, she hung out with other friends who had access to drugs. In about two months, her weight dropped from 160 to 115 pounds.

Then Emily and her friends were busted. "We were drunk and the cops pulled us over, and it all went down from there." Emily had four or five grams of cocaine on her, so she was charged with possession and locked up in juvenile hall overnight. Because it was her first offense, she was put on probation and referred to drug court, which got her into the Wolfe Center outpatient program in downtown Napa.

Housed in a sleek multistory building that looks like an upscale office complex, Wolfe Center offers a combination of academic classes and counseling during the day. Those who need less intensive help attend just in the afternoon. Of the approximately 40 teens currently at the center, about 47 percent are considered marijuana-dependent, 30 percent are alcohol-dependent and 21 percent are meth-dependent.

Many have a dual diagnosis; in addition to their addiction, they are also coping with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression or severe behavioral problems. There are 26 employees, including eight counselors and a medical director who's a psychiatrist. Staff meetings are held several times a week to review cases and decide how to help a particular teen.

Emily stays in the Wolfe Center program in part because she's still on probation, so she has to. But she's also trying to fashion a future for herself, one that doesn't involve drugs or alcohol. She's completed the training to be a certified nursing assistant, and hopes to eventually become a nurse. She'd like to earn her high school diploma before she turns 18, so she can move out of town to start a new life.

If Emily could talk to a 14-year-old girl who's thinking about using meth just one time, she'd tell her not to do it.

"That stuff is not worth it. I lost a lot of friends from it and it screwed up my family life. I would never think about going back to meth. I'm clean off it now, and I know it would take over my life really easy."

Forever Is a Long Time

Recovery from addiction is a lifelong process, says Mary Patock, program director for Kaiser's adolescent treatment facility in Sacramento. "Relapse is often a part of the treatment process. When you go into recovery at age 15 versus age 40, those kids have 20-plus years more time in recovery, so of course the chances of relapse are high."

Few teens make the choice to go into rehab on their own. Instead they are forced or coerced into treatment by their parents, schools or the legal system, meaning that many adolescents enter treatment with a lot more resistance than adult addicts. But it's still worthwhile, Patock says.

"A lot of times they're able to see why they want to be here [in rehab] once the resistance drops. If you never give them that opportunity, they will take their addiction into their adult years. If teens are forced into treatment, at least it gives them an opportunity to think about it and maybe see things a bit differently. If you do nothing, nothing is going to change."

Many teens have trouble grasping the abstract concepts that underlie traditional outside treatment programs, so it's harder for them to stay clean until their mental and emotional processes are more fully developed. "People don't think kids can be addicts, so there are very few treatment programs, very little research," Patock explains. "Kids even get that response when they go to 12-step meetings--you're too young."

What Bottom Looks Like

Jordan talks in a soft, rational voice about her irrational tweaker life. Coming down from her first meth high in March 2004, she says that she became convinced she had a hair stuck in the back of her throat. She spent about four hours trying to remove it with a serrated kitchen knife. The resulting jagged gash became infected, but because Jordan was too wired on speed, she forgot to take her prescribed antibiotics and developed a throat fungus. By July 2005, she was ill and exhausted, lying at night on that piece of filthy cardboard in that Petaluma parking garage.

"I hadn't slept for two weeks, give or take a couple of days," she remembers. "I was coughing up blood. I felt like I had just crawled out from under a rock. I sat in my own [menstrual blood] for two days because I couldn't move. I was so weak, I couldn't get myself up."

Jordan's mother found her and convinced her to come home.

Some tweakers develop meth psychosis, which means they become delusional. Sitting in her mother's home, Jordan thought her veins were on fire. She grabbed a wire and started ripping skin off her legs. She heard voices. Her mother had to literally sit on her to get her under control.

Eventually, Jordan's mother sent her to Camp Recovery, a residential treatment program in the hills above Santa Cruz paid for by the family's health insurance.

For teens like Jordan, meth doesn't initially feel like the problem, it feels like the solution, says Camp Recovery director Jerry Bayer. The false sense of power which meth provides seems to solve every problem. For teens who haven't developed any coping skills other than using, this makes it extremely difficult to give up their drug.

"They're telling us, 'You don't understand how important this is to me,'" Bayer explains. "'If I give this up, how am I going to live?' Or they'll say, 'I can't go back to how I used to live. I'm not going to do that.' Our job is to show them how to do that, to give them some aspect of sober living that allows them to live in their skin without that meth-induced feeling of power."

After 47 days in Camp Recovery, Jordan returned home and entered the Clean and Sober School in Petaluma. It's been eight months. She's relapsed four times but only with alcohol or marijuana, never with meth. She's determined to keep trying until she stays clean. And she has no intention of ever returning to a regular high school.

"Too many chances," she explains. "Too many opportunities to get high. In this school, it's more controlled. It's more intimate and secure. I feel like there's a safety net."

Jordan's mother is still using meth and Jordan still lives with her mother. It's hard, Jordan said, to be around a tweaker and not use.

The school counselors are helping Jordan cope with her drug-induced psychosis. For most addicts, the symptoms abate after they stop using. For a few, the delusions and paranoia continue for a long time--perhaps all their lives. Jordan, unfortunately, still has episodes. "It comes in waves," she says. "I'll get really paranoid. I'll hear people talking about me. I'll hear voices, that sort of thing."

She was on antipsychotic drugs, but her mother recently lost her health insurance. They can no longer afford the pills, which cost $180 a month. How does Jordan cope?

"I just hippie-talk myself," she says calmly. Her voice becomes sweetly sing-song-y as she demonstrates the technique. "I tell myself, 'It's OK, just feel the breeze, look at the trees, hear the birds.'"

It's the only thing that works, she says.

Does it make her angry that she still has meth psychosis, that she still gets paranoid or hears voices?

"I'm grateful," she explains calmly. "Because it gives me a reason not to go back to meth. You never know. It's like Russian roulette. You go back out and use meth, you don't know if you're going to come back. If I do it again, I could be one of the homeless people on the corner, rocking back and forth.

"I don't want to be one of them."


Next in our series, 'Mistress Methamphetamine,' a prisoner's first-person account of the addiction that has him locked away for life.


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