Embedded in Austin

On the ground in one of Minnesota's meth hot spots

Richard weighed 180 pounds when he first started smoking meth, but he quickly plummeted to 119. "I once stayed up for 14 straight days, just smoking constantly," he said. "I would sit right over there at that big picture window and I would literally hear voices and see people coming out of the trees, coming out of the fields. They were absolutely real to me."

The turning point came when one of Richard's best friends showed up at his door and held a gun to his head over a drug debt. "This was a guy who I would literally trust with my life," he said. "It was unreal."

These days he's trying to lay low and get some semblance of his life back. "I've been clean for six months now," he said. "I think I realize that my family and friends are worth a lot more than getting fucked up. The way you can escape it is to just separate yourself from it entirely, but it's hard. When you're in a small town and all your friendships go back to when you were kids, it's hard to start over." Richard pauses and lights a cigarette, and stares out that big picture window at the empty fields stretching away into the distance.

 

"I wish I didn't know what I know," said Jack Whittkopp, who coordinates chemical dependency services for the Austin Medical Center. "You have to recognize that this is a problem that is significantly concentrated among adolescents and young adults. You seldom see old-time tweakers, and that's because older people who use meth tend to not use it every day, or for such prolonged periods. You hate to use the term 'casual user,' but most of these people use the drug occasionally, and for specific purposes, whether it's purely social, or for staying awake while driving or working. The kids obviously have a different approach, and are much more likely to adopt meth as their drug of choice, and to seriously abuse it."

The result of that abuse, Whittkopp said, is a bunch of seriously depressed kids whose ability to cope with the perils of adolescence--school, family, depression, social pressure--is seriously handicapped by meth's depletion of dopamine. "They can no longer experience any pleasure without the drug," Whittkopp said. "And when they get out of treatment they have to go back to the same pressures they were looking at when they came in. As far as the dopamine depletion is considered, you wonder, 'Can that change?' There are some early studies that suggest that the brain can regenerate dopamine, although very slowly. There are also other good recent studies that say the depletion is permanent, which is a terrifying prospect for people in my line of work." While Whittkopp insists that meth poses a serious and daunting challenge, he also acknowledges that alcohol remains a bigger and more pervasive problem in Mower County. "No question," he said. "Strictly in terms of long-term social consequences and problems at the family level, alcohol is our number one chemical problem, and that is always a product of its ready availability and social acceptance."

Whittkopp's also said that he's not ready to throw in the towel on meth. "I'd have to say I have a guarded prognosis at this time," he said. "I'm not optimistic, but I'm not ready to give up, either. We have the advantage of being able to implement a community approach to dealing with this problem, getting families and neighborhoods and schools involved, and educating people about meth and its consequences. You really do have a responsibility as a community to let these guys know that your town is not up for grabs. You need to send a message that you're going to look out for your kids."

 

My second night in Austin I got together with three women, members of a recently formed support group for parents whose children have been caught up in meth abuse. We met around the kitchen table of someone I'll call Mary. All three--they call themselves the meth mothers, and say their kids call them the psycho moms--tell remarkably similar stories.

"I missed a lot of the signs," Mary said. "You'll hear that from most parents. I knew absolutely nothing about meth. I mean, my daughter was 14 years old at the time, an excellent student, responsible, dependable, active in everything. And then at the end of eighth grade year her grades suddenly dropped drastically. That summer all hell broke loose. Her behavior changed dramatically. There were temper tantrums and just this constant attitude. She was always sneaking around and staying out late, and I eventually caught her drinking. I wanted to believe, of course, that this was just the normal rebellion that kids go through at that age."

Mary battled her daughter all summer, a fight she knew she was losing, and in the fall things continued to slide. Her daughter stopped bringing home homework and didn't want to go to school. She started dating a 17-year-old dropout, and spent most of her time at home sulking and surfing the Internet. "I wish now I'd never bought that computer," Mary said. Her daughter eventually started staying out all night, and finally ran away. After each blowup Mary would get in her car and go out searching for her daughter, often banging on the doors of residences she now knows were meth houses. She would drag her daughter home and try to talk with her, but increasingly found herself getting nowhere. She accompanied her to school and met with the principal and the school's liaison officer. Desperate, she finally hauled her daughter to the hospital and had her tested for drugs. When she tested positive for marijuana and methamphetamine, Mary couldn't have been more shocked.

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