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Shattered Lives: Crystal Addiction
by Owen Keehnen
2005-02-02

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Pictured The new book Tweakers and author Frank Sanello.

The use of crystal meth is reaching epidemic proportions among gay men. It is the No. 1 drug at circuit parties and No. 3 in use at sex clubs ( behind alcohol and marijuana ) . Crystal meth is more addictive than heroin. It can be smoked, injected, hot railed, snorted, ingested orally and even rectally ( 'a booty bump' ) . Admittedly, crystal certainly has an appeal. It's a good party drug—under its influence the user frequently can have sex for hours, and experience unbounded energy and states of euphoria.

Crystal is also affordable, but this buzz comes with a horrible price.

When the user ( or 'tweaker' ) starts to come down. Severe depression follows, far surpassing any peak of the high to such a degree that many get high again simply to avoid the pain of that post-tweaked-period. It can commonly cause heart attacks, rampant lesions, drug-induced osteoporosis and massive tooth loss, anorexia, and mental incapacity. Crystal also impairs judgment and is directly linked to the increase of new HIV cases and STD transmission. Plain and simple—crystal ruins lives—mentally, physically, socially, financially, and thoroughly. Using it is playing Russian roulette and continued use is simply adding bullets to the chambers. It is not a matter of IF it's a matter of WHEN. This drug will kick your ass—plain and simple.

In response to this epidemic, Alyson Publications has released Tweakers: How Crystal Meth is Ravaging Gay America, by journalist Frank Sanello. This is an amazing and eye opening book that's time is long overdue. It contains up-to-the-minute statistics, advice from addiction experts, facts, personal stories, case studies, data on crystal's effect on the brain and body, and its link to other dangerous behaviors. Tweakers also contains an impressive appendix of information and advice for getting and staying clean. Recently I had a chance to talk with author Frank Sanello about the crystal epidemic, what the drug does, and, most importantly, what can be done about it.

OK: What made you want to write Tweakers?

FS: Two guests in my home within days of one another asked me if I minded if they smoke. I'm not a tobacco Nazi, so I said, 'OK.' Then both of my guests immediately pulled out a small glass pipe and began to smoke crystal. While I was writing the book, the guy who cleans my apartment began acting in a bizarre manner, which finally peaked when I went into the kitchen and found a gas burner ignited on the stove. The guy had used the burner to light a cigarette and then rushed out of my apartment to smoke outside. I found it an amazing coincidence that while writing about crystal addiction, it impacted my personal life.

OK: Yeah, it's so prevalent anymore. What makes crystal so chemically as well as mentally addictive?

FS: Crystal floods the brain with pleasure-inducing chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and other chemicals. Anti-depressants like Prozac, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors ( SSRIs ) , also raise levels of serotonin in the brain, but only a fraction of the way crystal creates tsunamis of pleasure. Crystal may be psychologically addictive because it gives the user energy and a sense of power and self-esteem. Withdrawal is very unpleasant. The crystal user feels tired, disoriented, irritable when he goes off the drug, so to make those symptoms go away, he resumes crystal use. Another reason crystal is so popular is that it costs only a fraction of what cocaine and crack cost, and the euphoria it creates lasts hours longer than cocaine and crack's effect.

OK: In your book, I found it fascinating to discover that crystal's release of euphoric chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain blocks the body's natural ability to be excited or euphoric. Could you explain a bit about that?

FS: Crystal replaces and then some the brain's naturally occurring pleasure chemicals, which shut themselves off when crystal is used. When you go off crystal, it takes some time for the brain's natural chemicals to start being released again. During this period, the user can become very depressed because of the lack of natural chemicals.

OK: When someone quits using crystal for good does their brain chemistry return to its original state or has irreparable structural/functional damage been done?

FS: Brain chemistry returns to normal, but it may take some time. One of the experts I interviewed for my book said he had one patient who couldn't form a complete sentence for two years after quitting crystal.

OK: Could you describe a typical tweaker progression from recreational use to addiction?

FS: The most common refrain I heard while researching Tweakers was, 'I only do it on weekends.' I felt like saying, 'Crystal is as addictive as heroin. Do you know anybody who only uses heroin on weekends?' As I mention in the book, weekend use turns into Monday use to overcome the hangover from crystal withdrawal. Then people start using the drug on Fridays because it's almost the weekend. Pretty soon they're using the drug every day.

OK: Despite the knowledge that this is more addictive than heroin, why does methamphetamine usage continue to skyrocket?

FS: Many reasons: peer group pressure, the ability to use crystal for a while without getting addicted leads people to believe it's not addictive. Crystal makes sex terrific and gives you extra energy to stay up all night at circuit parties.

OK: Something else I think that it's essential to discuss is the frequency of new HIV infection with crystal. Would you mind saying something about that?

FS: My book cites research that says almost one third of new HIV cases are caused by loss of sexual inhibition brought on by decreased mental capacity associated with crystal use.

OK: What also surprised me when you were discussing the personal histories in your book was how few tweakers stop when they start the downward spiral as opposed to smacking bottom hard! Why are so many willing to ride that spiral all the way?

FS: Crystal creates euphoria before you crash. Users are always trying to capture the original high.

OK: Yes, that 'chasing the dragon' phenomenon of addiction. So in response to potential critics of the book—is there any way to use crystal responsibly? Or is it going to necessarily wreak havoc in some manner?

FS: Very, very few people can use crystal without becoming addicted. It can happen, but it's rare.

OK: So was your intended audience for Tweakers the crystal user or potential crystal user?

FS: Both. I'm hoping my book 'scares straight' crystal users. Whenever I told anybody who doesn't use crystal that I was writing a book about it, they all said such a book was greatly needed. Many times, when I interviewed people who were still using crystal, they became very defensive.

OK: You interviewed a number of crystal users in this book. In general were they pretty open to you?

FS: The defensive people refused to be interviewed. Others claimed crystal was a take it or leave it drug, not a problem for them. The saddest cases were the people who realized how much trouble they were in but didn't know what to do about it or they were not yet ready to quit using meth.

OK: In your book it's mentioned that if someone is doing crystal frequently, because of the effect it has on bones and especially teeth, it's important to take a calcium supplement. Are there any other suggestions for people to help counter the destructive effects of the drug?

FS: Crystal causes dehydration, so drink plenty of water. Also, people who are tweaking often forget to eat or won't eat because of the drug's appetite-suppressant quality.

OK: What was the most sobering thing you encountered when writing this book?

FS: Crystal destroys careers, friendships and health. One study calls crystal a 'chronic, relapsing illness.' [One major organization] also says it only has a 7 percent success rate in treating its client's crystal addiction.

OK: So if someone has a problem and is looking for help, is CMA the route of choice?

FS: Yes, Crystal Meth Anonymous is probably the best way to get off the drug. You should also tear up the phone number of the drug dealer who sells you crystal. Don't hang around with people who 'party' on the drug. Stay away from places, like circuit parties and bathhouses that trigger the desire to use.


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