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Paynesville Press - November 2, 2005

Nurse describes horrors of meth addiction

By Michael Jacobson

Think that getting high on methamphetamine might be fun...think again. Using meth is highly addictive, it destroys brain cells, and it wrecks lives.

That was the message Julie Sagen, a Certified Addiction Registered Nurse, brought to Paynesville two weeks ago, when she spoke to students at PAHS and at PAMS during the day and to parents and community members during an evening session.

"That's why I do this, " said Sagen, who has worked with meth clients for the past six years at Prairie St. John's, a health care system that operates a hospital in Fargo, N.D., as well as several clinics in Minnesota and North Dakota. Sagen is working to create an effective treatment program for meth addiction. Pre-vention, she stressed, is more effective than recovery. "I come out and say, 'Don't start,' " she explained.

Sagen, who gave her talk, "Meth 101," sponsored by the Paynesville Area Health Care System and the Paynesville Area School District, on Wednesday, Oct. 19. During the school day, she gave three hour-long sessions to the seniors and juniors, to the sophomores and ninth graders, and to the middle school students (grades 6-8). Then, in the evening, she gave a 90-minute sessions to 40 people, mostly parents, in the auditorium.

Sagen's lecture included graphic examples from her work with meth addicts, such as clients who have lost 60 pounds in four weeks, who have gone four weeks without sleep, who have only one tooth left, or who have permanently scarred themselves by picking at their themselves while high.

Senior Kayla Nelson, a member of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) at PAHS, said Sagen was a good speaker to have because she gave vivid descriptions, not just generic warnings, that drugs are bad.

Sagen started with a detailed description of methamphetamine, which helped prove her point to Nelson. Once you learn that meth is made with battery acid or cleaning products, it's easy to conclude that it can't be good for you, explained Nelson. "She showed us what it was and why it's bad," said Nelson.

Sagen's graphic details about the long-term consequences of meth addiction also grabbed students' attention, according to Nelson.

While some students may dismiss the talk as just another speaker, Nelson said that she has heard many students talk about meth on account of the presentation.

Sagen covered all the basics of methamphetamine, from how it is made to its colors and forms and how it is used (eaten, snorted, injected, or smoked).

Meth, she explained, affects brain chemistry and brain function. It hurts the brain's ability to recycle neurotransmitters, causing brain cells to die from the first usage, she warned. "The more you use meth, the longer you use meth, the dumber you get. It kills brain cells."

Because meth is made by common chemicals and can be "cooked," a dangerous process, virtually anywhere - a cooking kit can fit in a backpack, in a closet, in a plastic container, or in car trunk - it has grown in popularity in recent years.

A meth high lasts from five to 24 hours, she said, while the same amount of cocaine would produce a high that only lasts 20 to 30 minutes, she explained, leading to meth's greater usage due to its relative "value."

Meth has an addiction rate of 85 to 90 percent the first time it is used, said Sagen. Typically, users start slowly but then escalate their usage. Their binges become more frequent to avoid the crashes when they stop. To avoid coming down from their high, addicts shot up again until (1) they run out of meth; (2) they physically are unable to continue; (3) their brain chemistry is shot (so stimulated that a high is no longer possible).

The main demographic group of meth users is people ages 20 to 34, said Sagen, who has seen meth addicts as young as nine and as old as 64.

Meth addicts usually can't stop their addiction on their own. Frequently, brushes with the law are what break the cycle or physical exhaustion. Stopping by choice is difficult in the face of a powerful addiction, said Sagen, and requires an individual still to be able to value family, say, over methamphetamine.

Addicts in prison, she said, even drink the urine from new inmates because meth passes through the body unchanged for 72 hours, meaning they can get high from the urine of someone who recently used meth.

Recovery from meth addiction is slow, she explained. First, clients must recover physically, usually with days of sleep and lots of food. The damaged brain improves slowly over three months with verbal skills taking six months to recover.

This hinders most short-term treatments as the clients has after-effects like short-term memory loss and impaired decision-making ability. The success rate for four-week treatment programs is only seven percent with meth users, she said.

Longer treatment programs, which allow the brain to heal during treatment, have greater successes. Six-month treatment programs have success rates between 60 to 80 percent, she said. But the only six-month treatment in Minnesota is a five-bed unit in Thief River Falls that costs over $50,000. A longer treatment, 12 months to 24 months, might be needed, said Sagen.

Such intensive treatment, physical damage to meth users (including "meth mouth," the rotting of teeth, and "meth bites," where users have picked at their nerve endings, causing scars), incarceration, and the toxic clean-up make meth a multi-million-dollar problem.

And all the effects of meth are still not known. Because its popularity is so recent, the long-term effects of meth addiction are still to be found.

There are lots of signs of meth usage, said Sagen. These include: "cooking" equipment (such as a lava lamp taken apart or a crock pot); pipes made from tinfoil, pop bottles, or even a light bulb, using a straw or the tube from pen to inhale; using a propane tank to store anhydrous ammonia for cooking (anhydrous will turn the copper fittings blue); folded pieces of shiny paper folded into miniature envelopes, called "bindles" and used for selling meth; or plastic baggies with cut corners, another standard package for meth; and odd repetitive behaviors, such as dusting ceilings or mowing lawn at 4 a.m. Female meth addicts tend to clean; males tend to take things apart, said Sagen.

Parents wanting to test their children for meth usage, Sagen added, should use hair sample testing, the most accurate, specifically for meth. Normal drug testing will miss 90 percent of meth users, she said.

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