cover_story (2005-38)

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Tweaking

ROAD TO RECOVERY: After 18 surgeries, David Parnell’s face is patched up, and he’s made ammends with his wife and seven children.

THE LOWEST LOW: David Parnell narrowly survived this gun shot wound, which he inflicted upon himself while high on meth.

by Molly Kincaid

“You take your first hit and someone asks you to go clean the port-a-potty, and it sounds like fun—any menial task becomes appealing. You feel like king of the world.”

“Richard” (not his real name), a local restaurant manager, has been off drugs for more than six years, but he talks about meth vividly, as if he can almost feel it coursing through his body. He and other users don’t remember exactly why they started, and they never dreamed they’d become drug addicts. “The first time I tried it, I poured it in water and drank it. I was like, ‘I’m not snorting anything up my nose—that’s what druggies do,’” Richard recalls. But it wasn’t long before he was snorting, then smoking, methamphetamines regularly.

Unfortunately, the story is not unique. Meth addiction has become an epidemic in Tennessee—the state’s law enforcement busted 1,574 clandestine meth labs last year, ranking us runner-up in the nation in lab seizures, second only to Missouri. Though many law enforcement officers are optimistic about Gov. Phil Bredesen’s Anti-Meth law, which passed in April and has greatly reduced the number of lab seizures across the state already, they say importation—from Mexico and super-labs in bigger cities like Atlanta—is filling the void.

Meth’s popularity, to the outsider, may seem quite a paradox. Its ingredients vary, but may include lighter fluid, lithium battery strips, Drano, nail-polish remover, anhydrous ammonia and, of course, high concentrations of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, the drug found in over-the-counter cold medicines like Sudafed. Why would anyone choose to put these things into his or her body? Because the drug has its allures, at least for a while.

It’s a surefire diet plan, because you don’t eat at all. One user says he would go on two-week benders and eat only a couple of cheeseburgers in that time. Meth gives you energy; many people start using to stay up late studying or working. By many accounts, it even increases sexual pleasure—a fact anti-drug campaigns often leave out for fear of intriguing, rather than deterring, potential meth users. It’s also relatively cheap and easy to make in an apartment, hotel room, even the trunk of a car. So far, it sounds like the perfect drug.

On the other hand, meth wreaks plenty of bodily havoc. Prisons are seeing higher dental expenditures because of “meth mouth,” or tooth decay, due to constant exposure to caustic chemicals. Then there are the chemical burns and dangers of explosions in meth labs, which may endanger others as well as the cooks. Many users have the urge to scratch incessantly at phantom itches, causing scabs, which they then pick off and eat, hoping that they retain some trace of the drug. Paranoia and hallucinations are perhaps the most dangerous side effects.

Most users don’t exactly make a pro and con list before getting into meth. If they did, the cons would certainly win out. Some users don’t even know exactly what they’re ingesting at first. Jesse Pinkerton, a lanky, athletic-looking 24-year-old from Lake City, says he was already addicted to “oxys” or oxycontin, a potent prescription painkiller, when he first tried meth. He had moved in with a girlfriend, who was a heavy addict, and began using with her. “You know when your arm or your leg falls asleep sometimes? Well, my whole head felt like that,” says Pinkerton of the initial high.

Like many meth addicts, Pinkerton has been in and out of jail multiple times on drug charges, the most recent one landing him at Centerpointe, a Helen Ross McNabb rehabilitation center. He’s been there five days, and he still has trouble connecting thoughts—a common side effect of long-term meth use. He stops for long pauses in the middle of sentences, kneading his sandy crewcut with his fingers, as if trying to extract a thread from a perplexing tangle of thoughts.

The first time Pinkerton went to prison, drugs weren’t hard to find. “Oh, the guards knew what was going on,” he says. “They would do cell checks at night, and we would all be sitting up, eyes dilated, skinny. They couldn’t do nothing about it though.”

Being in jail didn’t help clean Pinkerton up, but it did increase his disillusionment. “You’re just in this cage, and it’s hard to say no,” he says. “I wasn’t rehabbing in jail—I learned worse things in there than on the streets. It’s the school of drugs.”

When Pinkerton got out of jail in 2002, he attempted to quit meth and “just get back on oxys,” but he soon fell into the same crowds and the same habits. This time, though, the drug

Pinkerton sank deeper and deeper, “tweaking,” or going on jags of using, coming down, and using again for weeks straight. “You lose track of time and reality. I was a babbling idiot, talking shit to people who weren’t even there,” he says. “It just got to the point that when they caught me the second time, they pretty much saved my life.”

Toward the end of his second stint in jail, Pinkerton made the decision to detox from meth. Now he’s got a court-ordered 30 days at Centerpointe, where he’s safe from outside influence and his user friends. He knows he’s susceptible to the drug, though, and he seems literally terrified of himself; he says just talking about it brings on cravings. “I’m still unstable,” he says. “I’m scared to death I’m gonna get out and use.”

 

A skinny meth addict wouldn’t fare well in a fistfight against Kelly Tanner, KPD narcotics investigator. His hulky, gourd-shaped biceps flex as he hoists a huge black bag onto the floor in his basement office in the police department. He begins pulling out pieces of the scary-looking garb that an officer would wear when busting a meth lab. The slick white hooded body suit, he says, is made from Tyvek to protect from chemical splashes. The black Santa-esque boots are made out of PVC. Most importantly, though, is the gas mask, as a meth experiment gone bad can produce noxious fumes. “You can tell there’s a deadly atmosphere if there’s dead people or dead animals,” says Tanner. “But otherwise, it’s hard to tell because it’s all gases. So we use a meter to measure the amounts of chemicals in the air.

“In the urban areas we still see some residential labs, though not as many as in rural areas. What we see more are mobile labs—in hotel rooms or trunks of cars. They can be in the process of cooking it in the trunk and just drive around for hours.” The process is so toxic that hotel rooms or homes have to be gutted in order to make them safe again. “A mobile lab costs your tax dollars about $9,000 to clean up,” Tanner estimates.

Toxic vapors aren’t all meth cooks have to worry about. There’s also the occasional explosion. “These people are really manic. They want this stuff made quick,” says Tanner. “And they’re using solvents like ether that will just catch fire. To speed the process up, they’ll add heat, throw it in the microwave or set it in the sun. The really dumb ones use gas stoves. That’s how the explosions occur.”

Dr. John Averett, a practicing psychologist and police officer in Cookeville, describes the squalid conditions of the labs he has seen during meth busts: “It’s filthy. There’s this nasty chemical smell, sometimes there’s sex toys lying around [meth reputedly heightens sexual pleasure]. These people are living in deplorable conditions. You don’t typically see mice and rats, though. They’re too smart to be in there.”

Children sometimes become victims of meth, not only by experimenting at young ages with family members but by being exposed to those conditions should their parents decide to cook up a batch of meth at home. “We’ve taken over 1,200 kids from homes where meth is made, and we’re not well prepared to deal with them,” says Knox County District Atty. Gen. Randy Nichols. “The Dept. of Child Services does the best they can, but the truth is the state is not a very good parent.”

Most law enforcement officers perceive Tennessee’s 61 percent decline in meth lab seizures this year to be an indication that meth production itself is down, and they credit the Meth-Free Tennessee Act that passed April 30. “Gov. Bredesen’s task force was a brilliant idea. It really takes on the whole breadth of the problem,” says Averett. “It gave law enforcement more power to arrest users and also took Sudafed off the shelves, so there has been a significant drop in clandestine meth labs.”

The new law, modeled after a successful law in Oklahoma, not only requires pills containing pseudoephedrine to be placed behind the counter at the pharmacy, it allows a customer to buy only three packs at a time; logs are kept on who’s buying and how often. Nichols explains another benefit of the law. “With the statute we had before, the problem was that just possessing the ingredients was not a crime,” he says. “The new statute has given us some teeth; if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck.” Essentially, if a patrolman pulls someone over who has five or six packs of Sudafed, some lighter fluid and matches, the officer can arrest and charge that person.

Despite the law, addicts are still finding ways to make and get meth. “The law has tightened it off to where people either have to steal [Sudafed]—and they do—or get several people together and stock up at different stores,” says Tanner.

Even if homemade meth is on the decline, the new problem facing law enforcement these days is imported meth and crystal meth. “The Mexican drug cartels are manufacturing this stuff now. We fear that they will fill that void,” says Nichols. “I suspect it will be like crack, and they will get the price pretty low. If there’s a demand, there will be a supply.”

Mobile labs are another problem. What sets meth apart from other drugs is the ease with which it can be made, and its ability, despite the danger, to be made just about anywhere. “The fact that you can pull a recipe down from the Internet and make it in your car, we can’t police that, and that scares us,” says Nichols.

 

The first time I ever did coke was when I was 8 years old. A close family member gave it to me,” says Eric Blalock, who’s the picture of the boy next door, on the stocky side with a bashful demeanor; he seems fascinated by his sneakers or his hands, which he wrings and fidgets, for the majority of the interview. He’s 22 years old, grew up in Sevierville and talks painfully about being separated from his wife and child. Like Pinkerton, he’s in rehab at Centerpointe under a post-jail court order. He explains that he wanted to go to rehab before, when he realized he had a problem, but he didn’t have the money. His wife got him started on meth. “I tried it and fell in love with it,” he says emphatically. “It was the greatest adrenaline rush of my life.”

Blalock befriended his dealer and soon found himself stealing ingredients and standing on hillsides watching boiling pots of meth. He explains that red phosphorous meth can be made indoors, but the kind he made—anhydrous ammonia or “gas” meth—has to be made outdoors because of the fumes. Blalock has countless chemical burns and recalls one particular explosion. “It’s pretty rough when you get acid all over you. It ain’t no fun at all,” he says. “But we went back to finish the batch. That’s how addictive it is.”

Blalock went to jail briefly, only to hear different methods of making meth while inside. When he got out, he kept using and making. “As much as we were making, we were always real paranoid,” he says. “We were making a lot of dope. We pretty much supplied the whole Kodak area.”

Blalock finally bottomed out when his wife, who got clean, left him. He decided the only way to quit would be to go live with his grandparents. “I had very severe physical and mental withdrawals. For the first seven days, I didn’t do anything but lay in the bed and shake violently. I was foaming at the mouth,” he says. “I had to have something, so I got an oxycontin and stretched it out over a few days. I haven’t been back on it since.” Soon after, he entered Centerpointe under a prior court order and is scheduled to get out Sept. 23. “Since I’ve been off of it, I noticed that all of my senses have become impaired—hearing, sight, smell,” he says. Baring his teeth to reveal several brown nubs of broken teeth, he says, “I’m embarrassed of my teeth.”

 

Methamphetamines first became widespread in the United States in the early ’90s beginning in California and slowly spreading to the Midwest and finally to the East. People nicknamed it “crank” because bikers were known to carry it around in their crank cases. Before that, Japanese kamikaze pilots took a form of meth to make them fearless, and Hitler’s men as well as U.S. and Allied troops would use it to bolster their stamina through the long battles and marches of WWII.

Today, one of the most common ways of cooking meth in the Southeast, using anhydrous ammonia, is still called the “Nazi Method.” Cooks typically steal—or send their junkies to steal—the ammonia from meat-processing plants, ice-skating rinks and large farms, where it is commonly used in refrigeration and fertilization.

Blalock talks about the process of making meth almost as zealously as he does the drug itself. He and his partner had “hook-ups” who knew pill factory employees to get pseudoephedrine, though most of it is made overseas. They would steal the ammonia and other ingredients. He mimes the rote actions of pouring and sifting when he talks about the final process, filtering the meth in a coffee filter, using a bath of Coleman fuel to separate the sediment out.

Though meth does find its way into urban areas, it’s mostly a rural phenomenon. “We’ve not been inundated in Knox County,” says Nichols. “All of the surrounding rural areas have been hit harder. With most drugs, it’s the other way around.”

Perhaps meth’s proliferation in rural areas is because there are more remote areas in which to perform the distinctly stinky cooking process. Pinkerton offers an alternate explanation: “There just wasn’t much to do in my town. Drugs and women were all I cared about.”

Meth does reach urban dwellers, notoriously women who want to lose a little weight and get more done in the day, but also teens and 20- and 30-somethings who might try it once and get hooked. It’s been called “poor man’s cocaine,” and though it’s not significantly cheaper, meth does seem to hit the lower socioeconomic level of society harder than others. “People who are disenfranchised are attracted to it,” says Averett. “People who don’t fit into the world anywhere else.”

 

“Richard,” the aforementioned ex-meth addict, said he would be wearing a UCLA shirt, but he didn’t mention he’d be drinking a beer. Meeting a former user for the first time, it’s a little shocking to see him sitting at the bar at Downtown Grill with his hand wrapped around a Coors Light. Don’t recovering addicts have to quit everything ? Richard pretty much breaks all the former-junkie stereotypes. His broad boisterous face is a cross between a cunning salesguy and an excited puppy. “I’m a bullshit artist. I mean, not to sound arrogant, but people like me,” he says without a wisp of conceit. “Back then, I would use that to my advantage. That’s why I was able to do it for so long.” Since then, he’s been able to use his personality to get his life on track. Just a few years after being a hopeless junkie, he now manages a Knoxville restaurant, owns a home and a car. Richard never went to rehab, which may explain why he still drinks beer. He just quit meth cold turkey. The trick, he says, is to remove yourself from your life situation. He began using in California back in the early ’90s, and he’s been clean now since May 21, 1999. “I remember that day because it was the last day I ever did that shit, on a one-way plane ride to Kentucky [where he lived with an aunt and uncle before moving to Knoxville],” he says. “I had some dope with me, and I smoked for the last time in that airplane’s bathroom, just hit the flush button and blew in the smoke.”

Richard started using meth when his sister-in-law offered it to him, and he became addicted almost immediately. “I got to the point where my whole day was focused on getting it and using it,” he says. “I was selling it and hanging out at places where they were cooking it.” When the money his parents gave him ran out, Richard says he shoplifted from Home Depot and then returned the stuff for cash, because they didn’t require a receipt. “I probably took Home Depot for about $4,000 in the end,” he says.

Talking about it in hindsight almost seems to amuse Richard in a morbid way; like someone regaling war stories, he’s still in awe of the depravity he experienced. One particularly dirty story, he warns, “gets a little Jerry Springer.” He makes sure to preface, “You have to remember: everyone in this story is on meth.” It goes like this: his girlfriend sleeps with his best friend and also with her mother’s boyfriend. So his girlfriend’s mother calls Richard over for what he calls “the ultimate revenge fuck.”

Selfishness and a lack of remorse are the norms for a meth-head. All four former addicts interviewed for this story echo a feeling of shame for the way they treated others, for lying, cheating and stealing. They weren’t able to love anyone, because there was only room for meth.

 

David Parnell’s hallucinations nearly killed him, literally. He first used meth with his father when he was 21 and living in Dallas. He says he was addicted from the first time he used. On the phone in his longtime home in Martin, Tenn., Parnell retells a sickening story, intermittently interrupting to tenderly tell his kids that he might take them to Burger King if they are good while Daddy’s on the phone. He says he was hooked for years, and when things got really bad, his wife, Amy, would beg him to quit. He says he thought, “If I could get her hooked, she would quit nagging me. She tried it, trusting me that it wouldn’t hurt her, and became addicted.” For a while, they lived in squalor, with a house full of kids and a lack of conscientious parenting. “My kids were really suffering,” says Parnell. “I was verbally abusive. I would be strung out and hollering at them. My oldest girl was more of a parent than we were.”

Amy eventually got clean, but David spiraled lower and lower, gaining a fetish for guns, once even holding one to Amy’s head. “I started stalking my mailman, because I thought he was an undercover narcotics officer. I would hide behind the bushes with my assault rifle and think about shooting him in the head. He never even knew he was in any danger, but people are always in danger when there are users around who are tweaking.”

Parnell was also suicidal. He tried to hang himself once in his barn, but the rope broke before the deed was done. Nonetheless, he says, “I kept hearing whispers and voices that said, ‘You think Jesus is going to forgive you for all you’ve done? No, the world would be better off without you.’”

One day the guilt and paranoia got to be too much, and Parnell bottomed out. He was lying in bed with Amy, arguing. He grabbed the gun beside the bed, put it under his chin, and squeezed the trigger. “The bullet went through my chin, blew my nose off, blew my teeth out. Every bone in my face was broken, and my face was split open, but I was alive. I was still conscious, I think because the drug is such a stimulant.” Some of his teeth had to be removed surgically from Amy’s arm, as they lodged themselves on impact.

That was nearly three years ago, and Parnell has been clean since then. When he woke up at the hospital, Amy told him she was pregnant with their seventh child. “I knew this one would have a better start because I knew I was done with dope,” he says. “I gave my life over to the Lord.”

Eighteen facial surgeries later, Parnell is now a motivational speaker, touring middle and high schools around the country including schools in Knox and surrounding counties, warning students about meth and telling his story. “Education is the only way. When I was first offered the drug, I didn’t know what it was or what was in it,” he says.

Education is certainly important, but misinformation defeats the purpose, and some drug prevention methods lean on scare tactics. There are some claims floating around that 90-95 percent of people who try meth become addicted, and that one time gets you hooked. A random sampling of 20-somethings would suggest otherwise; plenty of folks have tried it once or done it socially on occasion and then put it down.

There’s also some disagreement over whether or not it’s possible to truly rehabilitate from meth. “If a person has been addicted, they probably still are. It typically ends up curing itself, if you know what I mean,” says officer Tanner, trailing off ominously.

Of course, Parnell and Richard would say it’s entirely possible to recover, even though users may have to “bottom out” first. Steve McNish, director of Midway Recovery Center, explains that a lot of people confuse addiction with abuse. “With abuse, when something more rewarding comes along, like a job, relationship or child, one can make the choice and quit. The responsibilities overshadow the irresponsibilities,” he says. “Addicts don’t have that ability. They have to make a complete lifestyle change. I do think all humans have the ability to change, you just have to have the right situation to ease into it.”

Most everyone has vices; cigarettes, vodka, exercise, super-sized meals at McDonald’s, trashy celeb magazines, love, sex, caffeine, religion and work can all become addictive in their own ways. Is one worse than another? Does an addict lack moral fiber or willpower? Is addiction a disease that most of us just have in watered-down versions?

There aren’t a lot of clear answers out there, only opinions. “There are many ideas about what causes addiction, from genetic to socioeconomic factors,” says McNish. “I’m a firm believer that a lot of people just have an addictive personality—they’re just predisposed to addiction. And that doesn’t even take into account the addictive nature of the drug.”

Many addicts have to find a replacement for the drug, from cigarettes to a higher power. Parnell believes that taking God into his life has kept him from getting back on meth. “If I hadn’t had that addiction of my Christianity to fill the void, I might have started using again,” he says.

In many ways, it’s a personal battle, and the demons don’t dissipate just because a person is behind bars. Maybe as a society, we’re going about drugs in the wrong way by declaring “war” on them. “Truth be told, we’ve not done a real good job of stopping the import of drugs,” says Atty. Gen. Nichols. “Some would say we’ve lost the ‘war on drugs.’ I’m not ready to concede, but I don’t think drug use has gone down in this country.”

Education campaigns are important, but they don’t deal with the problem of existing addicts. Dr. Averett, who’s involved with a state pilot program that currently works with 30 non-violent convicted felons with meth addiction, believes that it’s in the state’s best interest to face the existing problem and the potential problem.The program is unique because it stays with the addicts for two years, whereas most residential rehab facilities are usually about a month, with periodical check-ups. “We’re taking the money that we would normally be spending putting people in prison and diverting it to treatment,” says Averett. “It’s very limited right now, but if it’s successful, we’re hoping to expand it.”

As much as politicians like to fixate on it, we’ll likely never totally obliterate meth, or any drugs for that matter, from society. Many meth addicts spend their lives in and out of jail, tweaking and crashing, always chasing a better high, and eventually wasting away. The problem is that addiction is more powerful than law, reason and even love. “Deep down, [addicts] know it’s not right, but addiction is a process of decay of the soul,” says McNish. “To make a true stab at recovery, they’ve got to be brutally honest with themselves.”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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