Crystal Meth: Pain, ecstasy, addiction Series


Considered a plague in most of the U.S and Western Canada, Crystal Meth use in Ontario is on the rise. While not yet the problem it is elsewhere, the drug can still destroy lives, such as the life of a 19-year-old St. Catharines woman struggling to get clean.

The first sensation was the white-hot, paralysing pain, as though jagged shards of glass were trying to burst from behind her eyes.

She could do nothing but sit still, moan and pinch the bridge of her nose.

"I couldn't believe how much it hurt," she says. "I just prayed for the pain to go away. I didn't like it."

But when the shards behind her eyes did withdraw, the pain that had left her wanting to die was replaced by something else.

Something glorious. Something terrifying.

The 19-year-old's body was overcome by a blast of confidence and seemingly limitless energy.

Inhibitions melted and she was possessed by an urge to do anything.

To dance. To party. To prowl for men.

Sitting still was impossible now that crystal meth, sometimes called the dark crystal, was flooding her body.

"When you are on the drug, you just can't sit still. When you try you just start to get the shakes really bad," says the St. Catharines girl, who asked that her name not be used. "The rush you get it is amazing."

When the delicious high wore off in a few hours, she knew exactly where to get more - bits of crystal meth had stayed in her nose when she snorted the drug.

"You force yourself to make it drip down into your throat," she says. "You can taste it and it is about the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted."

She would close one nostril with her finger and forcibly inhale with the other, causing bits of the drug to fall into the back of her throat. It was hot, salty and bitter, sort of like grinding up a Tylenol pill covered in old french fry grease in your teeth.

The drug's addictive rush was pushing her to the edge of a cliff and she knew it. She had just lost her fast food job over drugs. She was evicted from an apartment she allowed drug-addled friends to routinely ransack.

Her straight friends were looking at her differently, at least those who still would have anything to do with her.

She knew this all clearly, just as she knew she didn't really enjoy filling her nose with crystal meth.

The pain caused by snorting it, and the disgusting taste of forcing it to drip out of her nasal cavity, had turned her into something else. Something depraved and not quite human.

"You just want the drugs. Nothing else matters."

But the dark coils of addiction and self-loathing do not release a person so easily.

"I didn't like it. It hurt so much," she said. "But I didn't care."

The next day came what users call The Crash - capital T, capital C. And for an addict it's as close to hell as you can get without actually dying.

She was exhausted. Her head pounded like a war drum. She couldn't concentrate. Without that devil's crystal to keep her going, she could barely move.

So she bought three vials of crystal meth from a dealer she met through friends.

The binge that followed lasted for three giddy, sweaty, sleepless nights.

Since the age of 16, she has used drugs. Her poison of choice is ecstasy - a drug that creates an energetic high and can alter the perceptions of a user. For those reasons, it has been popular for years in the rave crowd who use it to enhance the sensations created by the bright lights and throbbing beat of dance club music.

Ecstasy pills, better known as E, were her favourite, but she would take whatever was on offer.

She'd sniff the short-acting painkiller and hallucinogenic ketamine hydrochloride, known as Special K on the street or just K to its more personal acquaintances, to alter her senses.

Cocaine was snorted up her nose to give her an extra rush of energy.

Pot, cigarettes and booze completed the chemical cocktail swirling around in her bloodstream.

"I knew something was wrong, that this wasn't good for me," she says. "I started to stutter where I didn't before. I had some trouble remembering things.

"But I didn't care. Nothing else matter to me. I just wanted to get out there and do more drugs. I needed more drugs all the time."

So when she was offered a snort of another drug at a party, she wasn't about to say no.

It didn't look exactly like cocaine, which normally appears as a fine powder. This stuff was more like crushed glass.

"But I had been drinking that night. They told me it was coke so I did a line," she said. "But the pain started and I knew right away it wasn't coke."

It was crystal methamphetamine, AKA ice, AKA crystal, AKA krank, tweak or tina.

The rough-looking powder, which can be snorted or smoked, is a witch's brew of chemicals and toxins.

The most important parts of the drug are made from over-the- counter cold medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.

Solvents and acids are needed to complete the chemical reactions that produce crystal meth. Producers will distill the chemicals from whatever they can - battery acid, brake fluid, floor stripper or even fertilizers.

The end product in a toxin can consume the gums of users when smoked. However it's taken, it can produce brain damage that results in memory loss and mimics Parkinson's disease.

The drug is so addictive, users give little thought to what they are putting into their bodies.

"The statistics are staggering. After using it for the first time, there is a 40 per cent chance of using again. After a second time, there is a 80 per cent chance the person develops a pattern of use," says Doug Pamenter, an addiction worker instructor at CDI College, a community college, in Abbotsford, B.C., and creator of the webpage.

Pamenter knows well what what crystal meth does to the human body. He's seen it a dozen times over working in a part of the country where meth is an urban scourge.

He says users often know the drug is eating them alive. But the short-term pleasure is so intense, risks are cast to the wind.

"The best description I heard goes something like this. Say your normal emotional range goes on a scale from plus 100 to minus 100. So at your best you would be a plus 100. The mental rush from taking crystal meth would be something like plus 10,000."

The key to its addictive nature is found in the brain. Like anything else that gives pleasure, such as food or sex, crystal meth impacts the brain's dopamine levels.

Dopamine affects brain processes that control movement, emotional response and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. Basically, the brain releases dopamine as a "reward" when we do something good, such as eat, says Wendy Wood, a psychiatric pharmacist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

In many addiction scenarios, this "dopamine reward pathway" is activated when the addictive substance is consumed. This dopamine rush is, in part, what makes everything from cheeseburgers to alcohol to cigarettes so addictive.

Wood says crystal meth appears to unleash an avalanche of dopamine in the brain, but there is a catch.

At the same time crystal meth pumps up dopamine release, it appears to slowly destroy the brain's ability to produce the chemical.

"This is why, over time, users don't get the same high they used to and have to take more and more of the drug to experience what they did at the start," Wood says. "Eventually, they just don't get the same feelings of pleasure from taking the drug."

Multi-day meth binges of up to a week are not uncommon. Pamenter says the longest binge he knows of lasted nearly a month.

"This was a young lady who went on a binge without sleep for 27 days. Many of the symptoms that are associated with meth use - hallucinations, seeing shadow people - can be attributed to the slept deprivation."

That rush comes with a price.

"The five- and 10-year studies that are going on suggest that once the damage is done, it's done," he says. "The brain might be able to compensate, but it cannot recover."

Long-term depletion of dopamine in the brain of crystal meth users can result in symptoms that mimic Parkinson's disease, Wood says. After her three-day crystal binge, the 19-year-old was horrified.

"I had to stop. I didn't like what I was becoming."

The first three days were the worst. Her body craved a fix, any kind of fix. Just something to ease her nerves and clear her head.

On the fourth day, she says she felt almost like a human being for the first time in years.

"For the first little while, I was just exhausted. I think my body just wanted to shut down and get the sleep I hadn't been getting for a long time."

But the cravings just grew worse. Her entire being became bent upon a single notion - get more crystal meth.

Driven by her demons, she hit the streets and bought more meth.

This time, she bought enough for six days.

"I didn't sleep for that six days. You can't sleep. It's not like you are speedy or hyper or anything. You are just awake."

She became obsessed with whatever she was doing, a common side effect of the drug.

"I starting doodling and didn't stop for a couple of days. My friends would talk to me, but I couldn't hear them. I was just focused on this doodling."

By the fourth day of the binge, her body rebelled.

It started as a elusive tingle in her skin, just under the surface. Then her flesh began to itch and burn. There was no escaping the pain.

"The itching doesn't stop. And then my body started passing glass," she says. "It doesn't happen to everyone. I had heard about it, but now I am learning about it first-hand. It's how your body gets rid of the crystals in the drug."

Large blemishes began to form on her skin - but this wasn't acne. When the pimples broke, they released glass-like puss.

"It hurts. I know I should have left them alone, but it hurt so much. I just wanted that stuff out of my body."

Her left arm, her legs and her back were covered. A large blemish grew on the back of her neck, making turning her head a whole new exercise in pain. When the sixth day was over, and her drugs were gone, she finally decided it was time to rest. Even through the crystal meth fog enveloping her mind, with her skin still blazing, she realized she had a choice.

To quit, or die trying.

Tomorrow: Part Two

Fighting Back against the Dark Crystal. The 19-year-old girl struggles with the demons of addiction while law enforcement and addiction professionals fight to stem the spread of crystal meth in Canada.