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Meth addiction: San Diegans struggle through recovery


Each year, thousands of San Diegans go into treatment for methamphetamine addiction. Most of them are mandated to do so by the courts. Not everyone who enters treatment for meth successfully completes it. The drug is highly addictive, and sometimes the straight life just doesn't measure up. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

In a non-descript building at the McAlister Institute in El Cajon, ten recovering addicts sit around a circle. They take turns talking about some of their struggles. One woman shares her difficulties in finding work.

Woman: "I've been lookin' for months now. And just with a four-year employment gap, cause I was out in the mix, doin' the dope. Before that, stripping. You know, I don't have a very good work history. So it's tough."

That's a word you hear over and over from people in recovery. It's tough trying to get off drugs, especially something as addictive as methamphetamine.

Thirty-six-year-old Stacy has made her living selling meth. She's used it herself since she was a teenager.

Stacy's life collapsed earlier this year, when Child Protective Services took her two-year-old daughter away.

In hopes of getting her little girl back, Stacy is now in treatment at the McAlister Institute.

Stacy: "It's a lot better that I thought it would be. The first week or so I pretty much had a sign on my head probably that said I'm only here for my daughter, you know. But after a while, I've listened, and I've relapsed once.

Stacy says her relapse was a real eye-opener.

Stacy: "I used the drugs, cause I couldn't get through Mother's Day weekend. And it showed me that there's no drug that's gonna erase that empty hole I have in me right now from my daughter being gone. There's nothing that can take away that pain. And that was very depressing to discover that, cause you know the drugs have always made me feel better in the past. And this time, it's like wow, they don't work. And that was a hard pill to swallow."

Jeanne McAlister: "Most addicts that come in, including your meth addicts, don't know that there's another way of living."

Jeanne McAlister is CEO of the McAlister Institute.

McAlister: "When you expose them to that other way of living, sometimes it impacts them enough to quit, sometimes it doesn't in the beginning, but it will definitely ruin their using. When they go back out, they'll say, wow, they had that taste of being sane."

At McAlister Institute, treatment programs can last anywhere from three to nine months.

The daily routine includes what's called a process group, where clients share their feelings about going through recovery. The schedule also includes classes on such topics as HIV prevention and job readiness. On top of that, clients are required to attend at least two 12-step meetings a week, and are subject to random drug tests.

Jeanne McAlister says it all comes down to one word.

McAlister: "Structure. It's getting up, having to be somewhere, having to complete something, listening to the information, learning about themselves, knowing that there's other people like themselves, knowing where to go to be with other people that are doing the same thing that they're doing, which is trying to stay away from drugs."

Drug treatment involves learning new things, and applying them to one's behavior. But what if your brain isn't working properly? That's often the case with long-term meth addicts.

Dr. Richard Rawson is with the UCLA Department of Psychiatry.

Richard Rawson: "In addition to the pleasure centers, methamphetamine affects other brain centers, areas that control memory and thinking, areas that control judgment. And methamphetamine actually can damage the neurons."

Rawson says some long-term heavy-dose abusers suffer permanent damage. He believes the vast majority of meth addicts recover all of their brain functions but not overnight.

Rawson: "With methamphetamine you're really looking at months, if not years, for the brain to fully recover."

Stacy has tried to kick her meth habit before. She's gone into treatment a number of times, but says she wasn't serious about it. In fact, Stacy says she's even paid people to take her place.

Stacy: "But this time I'm doing it myself. I want to get better, and I want to get my daughter back. I'm not gonna rely on anyone else do to that, and change isn't gonna happen if I don't change. And so if I want to give her a better life, I gotta change. And I want that now."

But the odds are not in Stacy's favor. San Diego County officials say last year, about 43 percent of meth addicts in treatment successfully completed it.
Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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