Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | Features

A Monster Called Meth

By Kathryn Howe
Heavy sigh, foot a-twitching Black creature in my brain is itching.

Inside the smoky haze of the Barn Door Lounge in the small southwest Iowa town of Red Oak, strains of guitar and piano fight to be heard above the loud bellows of drunken patrons. Vicki West Sickels occupies the stage, and although she'd rather play some original music, her audience insists on cheesy cover songs.

The recent University of Iowa graduate dreams of making a living as a successful artist. Her life is about to change—just not in the way she imagined.

At the end of the evening, a man buys Sickels a drink and asks the question that will alter the course of her life for the next ten years:

"Wanna do a line of crank?"

"What's that? I've never heard of it."

"It's like speed, only better."

Already buzzed from the free booze, Sickels shrugs OK. It's October 1988, four months after her father's slow death from colon cancer just a few miles up the road in her hometown of Creston. She's grief-stricken, directionless, with time on her hands. Sickels takes her first hit—a euphoric feeling of boundless energy and uninhibited confidence—and she won't take her last until the summer of 1998. By then, her addiction to methamphetamine is far from euphoric. By then, she knows it as The Monster.

Sickels, 87BGS, 03MSW, fell into the methamphetamine habit long before the drug became a household name. Today, more than 1.4 million people in the United States abuse meth, patients flood treatment programs, and neighbors know the telltale signs of clandestine labs operated by amateur "cooks" on their residential streets. From being a largely unknown West Coast drug of outlaw motorcycle gangs, methamphetamine spread eastward in the 1990s to settle as a scourge upon the Midwest—with Iowa among the states most devastated by the epidemic.

According to the state's Office of Drug Control Policy, Iowa has the nation's eighth highest rate of overall methamphetamine use and also ranks among the top ten states with higher than average per capita meth treatment rates—which have quadrupled nationwide since 1993. Of all Iowa adults in substance abuse treatment last year, 15.6 percent (more than 6,000 people) sought help for methamphetamine addiction. Meth also played a role in at least 49 percent of open child abuse cases reviewed in southwest Iowa in August 2005, while meth-related offenses comprised 62 percent of new drug crime prison admissions in 2004.

Why such a seedy, underground substance found a home among rolling cornfields, quiet farms, and quaint small towns is the subject of speculation. But most experts believe the peaceful isolation of rural places proved an ideal breeding ground for a drug that can be inexpensively mixed in homes, trailers, barns, and unoccupied buildings using available household and farm chemicals, including cold medicine and anhydrous ammonia. In addition to in-state producers who manufacture and hide meth, drug traffickers from California and Mexico use the I-80 and I-35 interstate systems to bring their product to Iowa. Along with these shipments comes untold human misery and degradation.

"Meth is a soul-stealing drug," says Sickels. "And the consequences are devastating."

At 6:19 a.m. the morning after her introduction to meth, Sickels springs out of bed ready to journal and write poetry (excerpts from her entries appear in this article). She feels invigorated, creative, inspired, and can barely keep up with the thoughts racing through her mind. She's never scribbled so many words, rhymes, and poems with such effortless ease. She can't help thinking, "This stuff is fun."
Soon, Sickels begins fantasizing about another hit of meth and she runs into her friend from the bar again the following weekend. With that, she's hooked on the irresistible high.

A needle fantasy this started out to be. Now here I sit with steel against my vein. In my mind I take the plunge, soon my soul comes all undone. The Monster has been stirred again. And oh, I like it.

A highly addictive synthetic stimulant, meth is known by many names, including crystal, crank, go-fast, glass, ice, speed, and "Tina." It typically comes in the form of a coarse powder, crystal, or chunks and can be swallowed, smoked, snorted, or injected. The high can last anywhere from six to 24 hours, compared to the 30-minute rush from cocaine.

No stranger to addiction, Sickels completed most of her senior year at the UI bombed on cocaine. A sheltered Iowa farm girl who arrived on campus ready to let loose and experience her wilder side, she jokes that she minored in "partying" and excelled in "Joint Rolling 101." Alcohol and marijuana dominated her repertoire at first, but a devastating breakup with her boyfriend prompted her to cross the line into serious cocaine abuse, which she describes as a whole other level of darkness inhabited by wild-eyed insomniacs and gun-wielding drug dealers. After college graduation, she escaped their frenzied company, returned home to seek support from her parents, then headed west to pursue an arts career in Canada.

Her father's illness brought her back to Iowa in 1988, and she took care of him for nine months while working as a hostess and bartender at a local hotel. When he died, she wasn't sure what to do next. She was a vulnerable target for a seductive drug that initially makes its victims feel invincible, productive, and downright joyful before destroying their minds and bodies.

The Monster eventually drove Sickels over the edge into madness.

Combing through her backyard, Sickels meticulously picks up a leaf and puts it back on the ground. She picks up another and another, inspecting the dirt below. Her cat's gone missing, and she's convinced she'll find his bones in the yard. Once she's done with the leaves, she gets on her hands and knees to dig through the gravel in the driveway.

It was fun for a little while. It made me twitch. It made me smile. But now the thrill is gone. Now what's making me feel poor—this black creature wants some more. I sure do love a thrill. I seem to have no will. Possessed by the craving of you I will be enslaved by desire...for the high that is higher.

The cat-bone hallucinations started during Sickels' relapse after her initial treatment in 1993, which family members had insisted upon because they worried about the welfare of her then three-year-old son. But Sickels fell into a deep depression and started injecting methamphetamine again to numb her psychological pain.

David Barloon, a registered nurse practitioner in the UI Carver College of Medicine's Chemical Dependency Services, explains that depression commonly occurs among recovering meth addicts. Methamphetamine prompts the body to release large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine, resulting in a prolonged sense of pleasure. However, repeated use depletes the brain's stores of the chemical and destroys the wiring of dopamine receptors. Easily addicted because they need the meth in order to feel good, users risk permanently damaging their ability to experience pleasure.

"The one trick they know will free them from their emptiness is methamphetamine—although they can never reach that original high and will only need more and more meth to fill the craving," says Barloon, 82MSW, 84BSN, 91MA.

Ironically, doctors in the 1950s and 1960s prescribed meth to help people battle depression, as well as obesity. Methamphetamine's history dates to World War II when soldiers and factory workers received such stimulants to help them stay awake and alert. Prescriptions reached a peak of 37 million in the U.S. in 1967. As the drug's uses grew, so did its abuses. Meth became a magic pill for people wanting extra energy, to shed a few pounds, perform better in sports, or beat the blues. The ease and cost-efficiency of production, combined with the lasting high, soon made methamphetamine the illegal drug of choice amongst a new generation of substance abusers.

Stereotypes abound about the typical methamphetamine addict. In the past, white adult males living in the rural western U.S. on lower-than-average incomes symbolized the most notorious users. But meth's spread to the East Coast diversified its clientele. The typical user remains a lower- to middle-class 20- to 30-year-old white person in rural America. However, meth has also made converts among high school and college students, white- and blue-collar workers, club-goers, farmers, and some Baby Boomers. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that the problem is growing rapidly among women initially attracted to the drug to lose weight and maintain the energy needed to fulfill career and family obligations.

"It would be foolish to think that methamphetamine affects only a certain group of people," notes Jane Caton, a certified addiction counselor at UI Chemical Dependency Services. "Anyone is susceptible."

Sickels describes the first ten months on meth as her "binge period." She devoted her energies to getting high almost every day. She enjoyed the endless go, go, go. As her addiction progressed, though, Sickels stopped feeling happy and productive and started feeling like she wanted to crawl out of her skin. Besides looking for cat bones, she soaked her feet in bleach water because she thought they were covered in parasites. She obsessed that her house was crawling with bugs. She lost countless jobs—and her home.

She also lost her looks—her once glossy blonde hair and glowing skin. Meth users are often easily identified by their physical appearance because the drug destroys blood vessels and tissues, inhibiting circulation and the body's ability to heal itself. Telltale signs of an addict include chronic sores (the hallucination that bugs are crawling on the body often leads to excessive skin picking), acne, broken, stained, and rotting teeth, and weight loss.

Throughout her ordeal, Sickels shuffled between apartments in Creston and Iowa City and periods of abstinence. By some miracle, she managed to stay off meth while pregnant with her son and for the first two years of his life. The Monster always lured her back, though, and created memories that she wishes weren't part of her son's childhood. The high made her feel sexually obsessive, and one evening she tucked her sleeping child in bed alone before driving across town after a man she liked. She remembers passing out while food burned in the oven. She can't forget the sight of a chubby toddler's hand reaching underneath the bathroom door as she shot up drugs on the other side. She recalls living in a station wagon parked along the banks of the Iowa River. Passed out in the backseat because she had no meth to give her energy, Sickels left her son to fish with strangers. "I really believe we had angels watching over us," she says now.

Sickels represents both the exception and the rule to methamphetamine addiction. She's the exception in that few users last as long as she did on the drug; and she's the rule in that treatment often takes more than one attempt to achieve success.
I am no longer driving, I am driven.

I'm barely surviving, I don't call this living. I'm wasting this life I was given.

"An addict can go downhill really quickly and in dramatic fashion," says Stephan Arndt, a UI psychiatry professor and director of the Iowa Consortium for Substance Abuse Research and Evaluation, which evaluates the state's publicly funded treatment programs. In just one year, he explains, a meth addict can lose a job, a family, and go to jail. In contrast, an alcoholic can persist for decades without such consequences.

While new state and federal laws may impact supply (Drugs in Iowa link), Arndt says curbing demand will take more than legislation. Good prevention efforts and access to effective treatment are required, he says—and that's easier said than done. Recovering from methamphetamine is an arduous process, especially as there are no approved medications to help an addict cope with the long, painful withdrawal.

In spite of these challenges, the consortium recently reported that Iowa programs for meth addicts boast a 65 percent success rate. The most successful ones feature between 90 days and six months of treatment through a combination of inpatient, extended outpatient, and long-term follow-up procedures that address both physiological and mental health issues.

Of course, help can only come if a person has access to treatment in the form of insurance or transportation. Apart from the fact that it's difficult to convince people to accept treatment in the first place, there's often a waiting list. Participants are often referred by the criminal justice system and face felony charges, possibly the loss of their children. Without post-program support, they often return to their old habits.

Vicki West Sickels illustrated "The Monster" in her mind in art therapy class at a halfway house during her recovery from methamphetamine addiction.

"You don't want to do it anymore," says Sickels, "but you can't see your way out of it."

In her case, a brush with the law forced Sickels back into treatment in 1998. After police busted a meth-manufacturing operation she was involved in, Sickels wound up at a 28-day intensive program in Mount Pleasant, followed by three months in a halfway house in Des Moines. The stay in the halfway house, followed by the opportunity to live with her sister for a few years afterward, made all the difference.

"At the end of the 30 days, you're just starting to put your brain back together," she says. "At the halfway house, I practiced how to live. You really have to devote a lot of time to learning how to be human again."

Sickels knows she's one of the lucky ones. Closing in on ten years post-recovery, she's now a chemical dependency counselor for Iowa Health in Des Moines, where she helps others break free from their own monsters. She also works as a certified poetry therapist, helping clients put healing thoughts and feelings on paper. Her office also sponsors a methamphetamine clinical trials program where research volunteers test potential drugs that may offer relief through the withdrawal process. So far, the results look promising.

"It's so rewarding to help people who are struggling and to provide some measure of hope," Sickels says. "We have a lot to learn as a society about addiction and all the problems that make certain people more susceptible to substance abuse, whether that's poverty, violence, abuse, mental illness, a lack of education. The work I'm doing gives some meaning to my experience."

With meth rates in the state stabilizing, Iowa seems to be able to beat back The Monster—or at least prevent it from claiming more lives. However, substance abuse will always persist and old drugs or new novelties will emerge to take meth's place. Whether openly or in secret, family members, colleagues, and friends in unassuming houses on tree-lined streets will continue to wrestle demons daily.

Monsters can take many forms—drugs, alcohol, the new casino in town—as they attempt to lure the curious, dark side of human nature down an unforgiving path. Even when all seems lost, though, Sickels knows firsthand that it's never too late for redemption. The only place to go from rock bottom is up.

Lightning has struck in my mind and my soul. The Monster won't stop me from reaching the Goal. Fight it. Fight the Monster.