Finding a Different Kind of Magic in Life After Meth

When she was in her teens, Shannon R. began searching for “something magical to help me be happy every day.” Marijuana, though enjoyable, wasn’t enough. Ecstasy was “tons of fun, but I never felt like, ‘Oh my God, I want to do this every day.’” And mushrooms and other psychedelics unnerved her. Then when she was 22, her boyfriend at the time told her he’d been struggling with meth. “He expected me to break up with him. Instead I jumped on the horse and couldn’t wait to ride alongside him. I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me.” The couple began using the drug together “and he taught me how to do it really well — perfect tweaker etiquette.” And she was quickly convinced: Meth was the magic she’d been seeking.

An Escape From Adulthood

Now 26, Shannon looks back and realizes her boyfriend’s confession was a cry for help. “I wish I knew then what I know now because I would have been able to help him. But how could I have known without going through it?” What she would end up experiencing was the full force of meth’s addictive power. But she would also find her way to recovery and learn more about herself than she dreamed possible as part of the journey. For one, she’s come to understand that a large part of her drug use was about escaping the pressures of being an adult. “I was so afraid of doing grownup things that I would just have panic attacks all the time when they came into play. I was using drugs as a tool to not grow up.” With time, therapy and addiction treatment, however, she has shed that fear and replaced it with growing resilience and confidence. Today, she says her happiness comes from being able to deal with uncomfortable feelings, no matter what they may be, without the need to turn to substances. “It’s finding a way to just sit with those feelings and be OK.”

‘Searching for Meth’

When Shannon’s meth use began, she thought of it as “my first true love,” she said. And as that relationship intensified, the other relationships in her life suffered. She was juggling college and working at a restaurant at the time while she lived at home. “There was a lot of hiding from my parents,” she said, “and sometimes I wouldn’t come home at all.” Fights also began with her boyfriend, who was her only source for the drug. “I would always beg him for one more hit and be crying in desperation. And he would say, ‘No, we have to save it until tomorrow,’ and I would get really mad and say he wanted it all for himself. It was just really ugly.” One day while she was at work, her parents called to say they had picked up her car and would be driving her home when her shift was over. She knew what was coming. For a moment, she thought of running away, “but we went home and they drug-tested me.” Her parents broke up the young couple, and for four months, Shannon remained meth-free. “But I didn’t realize that my mind was searching for meth again,” she said. And she soon found it through a fellow employee at the restaurant. Later on, another boyfriend provided access to the drug and then she found her own series of dealers. Through the year and a half that followed, her primary concern became eluding her parents’ notice so that she could continue meth use. But it became increasingly hard to hide the changes to appearance and behavior that so often accompany chronic meth use, such as weight loss and a compulsion with skin picking, often in response to the sensation that there are bugs under the skin. “I tried everything to keep my weight up, but no matter how much I ate I just couldn’t stop losing it. I learned how not to pick my skin because I would do anything to continue doing meth even if that meant giving up the love of picking my skin. I just absolutely loved to sit there for hours and dig for the things I thought I saw. Unlike some people, I never thought there was anything alive in there. I just saw hairs and pores and maybe a blackhead. I would destroy my skin with tools until it was so bloody that I couldn’t find what I was looking for anymore.”

Into Psychosis

A couple of months before she finally got help, things spiraled even further out of control, she said. “By this time, I had plucked all of my eyebrows out. A lot of my time was spent figuring out the best way to draw on my eyebrows so they looked real. And there was such a huge fear of my mom walking in when I was taking a shower or washing my face and seeing me with no eyebrows because that would be a huge red flag.” She also began to experience another meth side effect — psychosis. While her parents were out of the country on a trip for several days, she became convinced she heard them arguing about whether she was using meth. “It went on 24/7,” she said. She would think she heard them in her car, in the attic, or under the floorboards. “I would go down in the crawlspace underneath the house at 4 in the morning and bust open the little teeny door and scream, ‘I caught you! I know you’re here trying to catch me!’” Not long after her parents returned, her mother caught her sneaking into the house at dawn and it became clear Shannon was again using meth. Finally, they convinced her to go to addiction treatment for young adults at Promises West Los Angeles. Shannon remembers the depression and nervousness she felt as her parents drove her to the facility to check her in. But the feelings soon lifted. Today, she says, “Promises was one of the best experiences of my whole life.”

Learning ‘Slowbriety’

For reasons she can’t fully explain, Shannon spent the first 30 days of her time in rehab on a “pink cloud.” She theorizes it was partly the chemicals still working their way through her system, mixed with the stimulation of the new situation and the welcoming atmosphere. “Everybody who worked there was really caring, and it was helpful that there were a lot of young techs because when I used to see people my age doing important jobs it made me feel like I could never do that — like they want to make a change and I just want to work in a restaurant for the rest of my life. But for some reason at that moment it made me feel like I could do it, seeing them and knowing that they were once addicts too. That helped a lot.” She was also meeting new people and making friends, both male and female, and feeling healthier and more attractive with each day. “I was gaining weight. My eyebrows were growing back. … I was feeling really good about myself — and I hadn’t had that feeling in a year or so.” She also discovered she liked the accountability required of the clients, and “it slowly started feeling good to do responsible things” — even simple things like making her bed or going to group therapy whether she felt like it or not. “It just kind of prepared us for all the structure that adults have.” That group therapy became one of the most helpful aspects of what would become a six-month stay at Promises, Shannon said. “I felt really free because my parents weren’t there, and I didn’t have to censor myself. I was very open about the ugly parts of me. For example, we had to write answers to some questions like, ‘What do you want people to know about you?’ And I wrote, ‘Don’t let me get away with any small thing because if you do I’ll do it over and over again, and I’ll take advantage of you.’ And I think just answering questions quickly and then rereading them made me realize a lot about myself.” Even therapy experiences she didn’t find particularly helpful in the moment turned out to be important. “A situation will happen and it will make me flash back to a moment where I learned something and it didn’t feel like I needed it at the time, and I realize I was meant to learn it.” One of those lessons came when she moved to phase two of the young adult program, which groups women and men in their own sober homes with 9-to-5 intensive outpatient therapy. After six weeks, those who are ready can seek a job while they continue their outpatient treatment, and Shannon, whose little pink cloud had evaporated by now, lobbied to get a job and start moving on. Her counselor advised against it, however, encouraging her to keep the focus on her recovery and practice “slowbriety.” At the time, her response was “Ahhhh gawd, this is the hardest thing in the whole world!” she said with a laugh. But now she realizes it was the right call. “And I think that going through that uncomfortable feeling of not wanting to be somewhere and having to be somewhere really helped with school and work now and it will help in the future because I know there will be things I don’t want to do but I need to.”

A New Perspective

After her return home, Shannon got busy using the lessons she’d learned to make the most of her new life. She finished off her undergraduate degree after passing one remaining class that she had failed a traumatizing four times — and one of those times was after she was in recovery. That was an eye-opener, she said. “I thought everything was supposed to magically happen when you’re sober!” But she called upon her newfound determination, took the class again, and succeeded at last. “I feel like that’s comparable to being sober as one of my biggest accomplishments.” Now she’s setting her sights even higher, returning to college to pursue a physical therapy assistant license. “It’s looking like it’s really hard,” she said, “but I’m telling myself all the advice that I’ve given myself when I thought I couldn’t do things this past year in sobriety. And I know I’m capable of hard work.” Her perspective has also undergone another change. “Up until about six months ago or so, remaining sober was something I was doing so I would have a relationship with my parents and my sister.” But now, “it’s become for myself. I have aspirations and things I actually want to do now — like having a grownup job, something where you really matter — and I think I want to do those things because now I feel like I will be able to do them.” By Kendal Patterson Follow Kendal on Twitter @kendalpatterson

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