Self-absorbed. Absent. Unstructured. Ben, 19, remembers a mother who was very different from the woman he knows and loves today.
From the time he was 9 years old until later in his teenage years, his mother used, abused and battled an addiction with a substance she only described to him as “the devil” – methamphetamine.
“It was about her all the time,” said Ben, whose last name is being withheld to protect his identity. “She didn’t pay attention to me or my brother. She was always doing her own thing. … Back then, even though I was too young to comprehend it, she would always tell me never to do that with my life. It’s the devil.”
As he watched his mom battle the demon of meth addiction, Ben faced demons of his own.
With a parent too focused on finding her next hit to provide structure for her kids, Ben found trouble early on.
He was charged with felony breaking and entering at age 9.
For most of his teenage years, he was in and out of trouble with the law.
He was committed to various institutions for “getting in trouble” with marijuana and alcohol.
To date, he has spent 10 years in the system.
“I didn’t have no structure growing up,” he said. “I always did what I wanted. I didn’t let anybody talk to me. I felt grown because I had to take care of myself all of my life.”
Ben is in the local Turning Point residence program, which works with teens struggling with substance abuse and behavioral issues, for the second time.
His mother now is clean and working hard to get her life together, Ben said.
At Turning Point, he is finding the structure he sought for most of his childhood.
“It’s very structured,” he said. “I like it, though. I really do believe that this is my last chance to get my life right.”
Angela Natrasevschi, 17, saw her older cousin dive into the deep end of meth addiction, becoming a person she hardly recognized or understood.
Like Ben, she didn’t fully understand the substance that took a death grip on her 17-year-old cousin’s life, leading him to steal, lie and cheat his way to more drugs to maintain the intense high that comes with meth use.
“I saw the way it completely destroyed his life,” Natrasevschi said. “He was stealing money from his parents. He got kicked out of his house. He dropped out of school. He just completely ruined all of his opportunities. … The way our relationship was handled with him was very mysterious and confusing to me. He started to scare me.”
Dangers of addiction
Donna Goldstrom, a local addictions counselor, said that, while meth abuse is not as prevalent in Northern Colorado as alcohol, marijuana and opiates , its devastating effects on teens and families cannot be ignored.
“The biggest problem with meth is that it tends to bring with it some very violent and destructive behaviors,” she said. “It is such a destructive drug to the system of the person using it, and people’s lives tend to fall apart very fast and they become criminals quickly, whereas other drugs take longer to have such severe effects on a person’s life.”
Because of the emotional and physical intensity of meth’s effects, Goldstrom said the negative implications of meth abuse can linger long after sobriety.
From destroying relationships with family members to severe physical and emotional damage, the toll of addiction can be difficult to overcome, she said.
“As with any addiction, when people behave in ways that are unhealthy, they tend to make poor choices and feel badly about themselves afterward,” Goldstrom said. “Sadly, many people engage in risky and even dangerous sex acts while influenced by meth, which can leave people with emotional scars or even post-traumatic stress disorder.”
According to statistics from the Colorado Meth Project, Colorado ranks No. 7 in the country for total number of meth users age 12 and older. About 76 percent of all Colorado meth users began using meth before the age of 25. About 43 percent started before the age of 17.
In 2010, 4,300 individuals entered treatment for methamphetamine abuse, according to the Colorado Division of Behavioral Health.
The Northern Colorado Drug Task Force, which covers towns and cities in Larimer County, reported 42 meth arrests in 2010 – nearly 40 percent of all drug-related arrests. Larimer County Sheriff’s Office reported 218 drug-related arrests in 2010, but did not have a specific breakdown for meth-related arrests.
“From a Larimer County perspective, meth is an issue in the community,” said Kent MacLennan, executive director of the Colorado Meth Project.
Why so addictive
Methamphetamine is the mish-mash concoction of several household products – including over-the-counter medicines with pseudoephedrine and ephedrine – combined to create an intense sense of euphoria that can last from six to 24 hours.
Whether smoked, snorted, orally ingested or injected, the drug creates a “binge and crash” cycle, creating a never-ending craving to find the next high.
The cravings can become so intense that meth addicts pay little attention to the severe effects, like the notorious “meth mouth” sores and severe weight loss that can leave a person looking barely human, Goldstrom said.
“Meth addiction can look quite gruesome,” she said. “Because meth is so destructive so quickly, a person can nearly ruin their life by the time they realize they have a problem.”
Wendy Lee, male residence director at Turning Point, said peer pressure and ignorance also played a great role in propagating the appeal of meth before a clear picture of the drug’s effects was painted.
Lee has been fighting substance abuse in the Fort Collins community for about 18 years.
“We heard some kids say that after one use they were hooked and loved it,” she said. “At that time, I don’t think the research and media was out there promoting what it can do to you.”
Prevention as best treatment
Because of the highly addictive nature of meth, MacLennan said prevention often is the best way to combat a growing methamphetamine problem in America.
Five years ago, MacLennan and the Colorado Meth Project launched a series of graphicadvertisements to show the dangers of meth addiction.
The advertisements, featuring stories of violent robberies by meth addicts, girls and boys prostituting themselves to fund their habit, suicide attempts and disastrous physical ailments, are hard to watch but leave a lasting impression that makes some teenagers think twice about trying meth.
“The ads are absolutely graphic,” he said. “It has to be compelling for that teen audience.”
Lee said that, while she’s never had students specifically cite the Colorado Meth Project ads as the reason they decided not to do meth, the ads have helped create a positive culture change .
“People don’t think it’s the ‘cool drug’ anymore,” she said. “We’re not seeing meth like we used to five years ago. … Those people (in the ads) look terrible, and it’s so scary to kids.”
According to the Colorado Meth Project, 88 percent of Colorado teens in 2011 recognized meth’s risk to teens and young adults, up from 79 percent when the campaign started in 2009.
About 82 percent of teens in the same survey said their friends would give them a hard time if they said they were thinking about trying meth and 88 percent said the advertisements made them less likely to dabble with meth.
Natrasevschi, who began volunteering with the Colorado Meth Project after learning of her cousin’s addiction, said preventing meth addiction in kids her age means making them understand what meth really is: death.
“It’s a mountain,” Natrasev-schi said. “You take one step and you just fall off. After you get one taste of the drug, you become a completely different person. … You’re going to ruin your body, and if you keep doing it, you’re going to die.”
“Don’t do it,” Ben added. “If you make it a habit, I’ve seen that habit break people. It takes you to the lowest point you’ll ever be in. Save yourself the wreckage and just don’t do it.”