No easy way to walk away from meth

Two friends who began, battled and beat a meth addiction together now are facing the daunting task of staying clean.
Wednesday, January 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:36 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Teenage girlfriends share lots of things: clothes, makeup, secrets.


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Leslie Roettgen and Stacey Norris shared alcohol and drugs.

They grew up together in Marshall, a farming community off the Missouri River about an hour’s drive west of Columbia. They were 12 when they started drinking alcohol and smoking pot together while their mothers got drunk at a local bar.

Norris would ask Roettgen to spend the night, and she’d end up staying for weeks at a time. Sometimes Roettgen’s twin sister would come along. It was a way for Roettgen to put distance between herself and a stepfather she says was abusive.

Roettgen says Norris was a beauty back then. She had long, curly blond hair and big blue eyes. Now she shows the war of almost three decades of drug abuse. Her face is puffy, her eyes worn.

This is the story of two friends who grew up using drugs together. Each was raised in a family of drug users, within a broader community of the same. Drugs were a way of bonding, just as church or children or hobbies are for others.

From booze and pot, the two moved to other drugs and, finally, to methamphetamines — a seductive force that became the center of their lives even as it tore those lives, and their relationships, apart.

In parts of rural America, meth is a communal drug, and drug addiction a way of life. Meth addicts learn how to support each other and live outside mainstream culture. They get their drugs from acquaintances, boyfriends, relatives. They learn how to make it from the guy down the road, brothers, parents. They help each other out of jams like any family.

But eventually, the meth takes over. Addicts either stay addicted together as a community — or they get clean on their own.

Roettgen and Norris are 39 now. Their lives began in the same way, and in many respects their stories are mirrors. They both were moms at 16. Both latched onto men who would get them drugs, and they both lost their children along the way.

Norris bounced in and out of prison for drug possession and drunken driving. Roettgen bounced in and out of rehab, but it never quite took.

Both got into meth about the time meth use mushroomed in Missouri. For the next nine years, the cheap, homemade drug dominated their lives, leaving little time for family or friendship. They’d run into each other now and again at dope houses in Marshall or some other small city.

Last fall, they met again — this time in a treatment program for meth addiction.

For Roettgen, it’s the seventh attempt to get clean. For Norris, it’s the eighth.

For both, it’s an attempt to break a cycle they say they learned from their parents and fear they have passed on to their children.

Kicking the habit

There’s no easy way to walk away from a life of meth, according to Susan Schopflin, director of McCambridge Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Columbia. Users cycle through prison and treatment, staying sober only when they’re locked up and struggling when they’re not. Once they are on the street again, falling off the thin line of sobriety is easy.

“They decide ‘I’m going to try to drink socially,’ and so they try it,” Schopflin says. “Within a matter of time, they’ll be right back up to where they were and sometimes even worse.”

Experts say meth is more addictive than crack and that the addiction is harder to break. Determining exactly what makes meth so addictive is difficult, according to Mark Shields, a program specialist of the Missouri Department of Mental Health. He says the drug involves so many ingredients and can be used so many ways — smoking, snorting, shooting up — that it’s hard to identify how in combination they affect the body.

Meth can be made with anhydrous ammonia or red phosphorus. Some addicts mix their types. Many addicts use several drugs at once.

Doctors do know that meth alters the body’s chemistry. It tells the body to release dopamine, a brain chemical that causes the feeling of happiness. After a short period of regular meth use, the body stops producing dopamine on its own — prompting the addict to crave more and more meth. Since the body’s reaction to meth is more severe than with many other drugs, living without it is harder and relapse is more common.

Schopflin says it takes an average of five treatments for a meth addict to stay clean, just as it takes numerous chemotherapy treatments to rid a cancer patient’s body of harmful cells. And, like cancer, meth addiction is a disease that always remains a threat.

“It can go into remission, but it can always come back,” she says. “It’s a part of your body chemistry and body make-up, and you’ll need to treat it again.”

Treatment programs provide the tools needed to stay clean, but it’s up to the recovering addict to employ those tools, according to Joel Putnam, education director at Reality House, a drug rehab center in Columbia.

“It really depends on motivation. If they see no reason for change, they won’t do it,” Putnam says. “This is a whole lifestyle change. They need to change all their associates, their value systems, the whole cognitive pattern.”

Because meth addicts see drug use as a normal, accepted part of the community they come from, relapse is easy. Schopflin says relapse can be brought on by a lack of social support, coping strategies or a major life change. Freedom from meth is more than a matter of will — it’s a battle against familiarity.

When drug use is part of a family culture, that battle is especially difficult, says Anne Dannerbeck, research assistant professor in social work at MU. Children start using drugs to self-medicate against the pain of distant or abusive parents. Even if teenage users recognize their behavior is becoming as destructive as their parents, they can’t always change it.

“Even though they say consciously, ‘I can choose what I do,’ unconsciously they’re following that same path because that is the model they know,” Dannerbeck says.

Choosing drugs over family

Roettgen says all four of her children have been in and out of the drug culture, and in and out of trouble with the law. She says they are mostly clean now but live, as she does, at the edge of sobriety.

Roettgen says her parents were alcoholic, and all but one of her six siblings has used drugs. She says she’s used meth with some of them, and that her addiction to meth started with, and often defined, her relationship with men.

“I chose my drugs and him over my kids,” says Roettgen, referring to a boyfriend who introduced her to meth nine years ago.

She says she tried to stay away from her kids when she was high from meth, just as she had done through years of abusing alcohol, tranquilizers and painkillers. Then she found out that a friend had given meth to some of her kids, and that they, too, had started using.

“They were so mad at me so much of the time because I took my meth over them,” she says. “So my logical thinking was that if they get high with me, they’ll be with me. It will be a way for us to be together.”

The togetherness didn’t last. The Department of Family Services took Roettgen’s children from her in 1995; her youngest son was just 8.

She had already lost her home. Three of her children went to live with their father. Her eldest daughter, then 15, went into foster care. The family services team laid out the rules: To get her children back, Roettgen needed to stay drug free, get a home, find work and go to counseling. She was in counseling, and had found a job, but then she gave up.

“I used it as an excuse: the caseworker down there said I ain’t done nothing,” she says. “So I said I better leave before I say something I regret. I went and got high.”

All of her kids are over 17 now. One had a baby with her boyfriend in November. Another was kicked out of high school. But Roettgen is proud of them because they work and pay their bills. She aches over lost time with them. She wants to help her youngest get back in school, and her oldest get through depression and fulfill her dream of becoming a probation officer.

Roettgen’s daughter still talks of the times that her mother would come to her apartment and sleep non-stop for a week on the couch after crashing from a meth high.

Roettgen just talks about the future and her desire to have it make up for the past.

“God takes you through these moments that just feel like too much,” she says. “But he won’t give you nothing you can’t handle.”

Still, the tug of meth remains strong. Roettgen admits that she thinks sometimes about when she will be off probation. She could go get high then, and she wouldn’t have to worry about her kids or anyone else.

Behind the bars

Norris was heavy into alcohol and IV drugs like Demerol and morphine, and she had spent almost four years in prison when, eight years ago, she tried meth.

“The very first time I used it, I liked it,” she says. “It was way different than alcohol. I didn’t have blackouts. I didn’t have to worry about who I had harmed or wronged the night before. I didn’t have to wake up in jail and not know what I had done because of the blackouts, basically because I never went to sleep.”

A meth high can last 24 hours, and Norris liked the extra energy. She says she felt like she was in heaven because all of her problems disappeared. Drugs were her coping mechanism for problems that had been brought on by those same drugs.

She lost her two kids in 1989 when she was sent to prison for violating probation on a drunken driving charge. Her ex-husband raised the children for the next five years; the youngest son later moved in with his uncle.

Norris says she loves her children, and she is proud of their drug-free lives. But she wasn’t around for much of their development. Once she found meth, she went from drinking on the streets to getting high with her boyfriends and drug “associates.”

She tried to get clean. But she says she just didn’t care enough about herself to stay sober. When her father died while she was in prison in 1997, serving two years for meth possession, she realized no one would be around to listen to her sobbing phone calls. She turned to God.

She talks about those days now, in treatment again at McCambridge, because it was the start of her turnaround. In her tattered treatment folder, she carries a poem titled “Prisoners.” She wrote it during her last stint in prison.

How can prison be a safe place for keeping your silver and gold?

You see banks have cameras to witness to people who are stealing and robbing from them.

In prison I too have witnesses that can testify that Satan is nothing but a cheat, liar and a thief.

By the time she left prison, she had sworn off drugs. She got a job at a store in Marshall and worked her way up to assistant manager. She’d been clean for almost a year when she lost that job and relapsed into drug use. Then her brother died in a motorcycle accident in front of her home.

“I stayed relapsed,” she says.

Still on probation from her possession charge, her probation officer sent her to McCambridge.

Returning to treatment

Treatment not only provides tools for recovery, but it can offer a community of support to replace a community of drug users. According to Schopflin, of McCambridge Center, it is more likely for an addict to stay clean when there are people and places to turn to in times of crisis.

Treatment comes in a variety of programs, and it can last 30 days to 18 months. None can guarantee sobriety for life. But the programs serve individual needs in the hope that something will stick. For example, Reality House in Columbia treats male addicts sent there from the Boone County drug court. Some are put through an intensive 90-day program designed to “shock” an addict into understanding how dangerous their drug use has been.

Many of the other centers, including McCambridge Center, also have special programs for addicts who suffer mental disorders such as depression or schizophrenia. Shields, of the state mental health department, says that’s common with drug abuse.

The state’s Comprehensive Substance Treatment and Rehabilitation program certifies treatment programs that try to provide whole-life coping skills. For example, at McCambridge, which exclusively treats women, counselors take as much interest in clients’ medical problems and job training as their 12-step classes.

When patients roll in for McCambridge’s day-treatment program between 7 and 8 a.m. each day, the center’s great room fills with laughter and squawking. Residential clients, outpatient clients — those who come to the center for roughly 10 hours a week — and day treatment clients do much of their therapy together. Women joke and argue as they put away breakfast dishes. They wander out to the smoking porch or onto the worn, comfortable couches that fill the great room. They carry their brown accordion folders for group work, pulling out cigarettes, notebooks and family pictures. Each woman starts her day telling the others what one goal she has set for that day.

“They’re individualized,” Schopflin says. “(One) might be ‘I’m going to say no to one person today,’ if it is a client who is a little bit dependent.”

A client’s day is arranged to teach her how to live outside the drug culture. Group therapy takes place in rooms plastered with achievement posters urging the women to believe in themselves. One faded pink poster asks God for patience. The day’s schedule is a colorful grid with yellow construction paper suns indicating “sunrise” and “sunset.” Signs are taped over other signs, posting job training workshops and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

But for all the messages of encouragement, the goal is the same: getting women out of the safety of McCambridge Center and back into the world.

“Most started (using) in their teens, and developmentally that is where they stopped,” Schopflin says. “When we get a new staff member sometimes they’ll say, ‘I feel like I’m working with a bunch of teenagers.’ And we tell them that in a sense you kind of are.”

Her staff has seen 25-year-olds short-sheet beds and throw spit wads. Older women have temper tantrums. They lack the basic adult skills needed to deal with their problems directly, and instead they turn to drugs.

In treatment programs like those at McCambridge Center, the goal is to teach addicts what triggers their drug abuse and how to respond. For example, for one addict, simple batteries were a trigger; she’d see them in the store and crave crack.

“Back when boom-boxes were real big, she used to steal batteries for her supplier and do trade,” Schopflin says.

Roettgen says her trigger is guilt — and the ex-boyfriend she used meth with.

Norris says she was always trying to defy people with her drugs.

But knowing those things, and knowing how meth destroyed their families, their bodies and their dreams, isn’t enough. Roettgen and Norris each have “successfully completed” drug treatment more than once.

Putnam says 65 percent of the clients who come to Reality House complete the program. After they leave, there is no way to track them, so there is no good way to know how many stay clean, or for how long. Probation officers keep track of the addict and decide whether they need treatment. One addict may “drop dirty” — fail a urine test — just once and be sent back; another may fail a dozen times and never be returned to treatment. An addict may cycle through several treatment programs.

And some, Putnam says, simply grow out, or “age out,” of drug use when they get too old to keep up with the lifestyle.

Meth addiction is an especially difficult cycle to break, according to Putnam, because many users are so normalized in the drug culture that becoming part of mainstream life is like asking an American to move to Cambodia. They have limited education and job skills. They don’t have the same history or experience that makes following the law preferable.

“Many of them have been sexually and physically battered,” she says. “They need extensive psychotherapy. The taxpayer is not willing to pay for that.”

On very basic levels, former addicts have little access to resources — emotional, financial or logistical. For example, Norris complains that her driver’s license has been permanently revoked because of her drinking history. The bus system in Marshall is unreliable, she says. How is she going to get a job?

Reclaiming a lifeNorris graduated from McCambridge Center in early November. Days before she was released, her pride was evident: She wore her prized blond hair down; her fingers were covered in gold rings and she waved them around as she spoke about her two sons, tears in her eyes.

“I get to watch football with them. I get to listen to (their) music,” she says. “They are different as night and day.”

Her youngest is 18. He likes hard-core rock, wears a Mohawk and sports a tattoo. He wants to be a bouncer.

Her oldest is 23 and a manager at a McDonald’s. He is a registered Republican who wants to go into politics.

“I have to give all credit to God and my ex-husband,” Norris says. “He was there. He was the responsible person. I have wonderful children. They have morals and values. They accept me.”

She hasn’t been home with them for quite awhile. And, as proud and eager as she is, she also knows she’s returning to a world of old habits and drug ghosts. She’ll see her counselor one hour a week and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week. In the meantime, she’ll have to build a new life. She wants to be a motivational speaker, but maybe she can get a job so her oldest son can return to college.

“I got them each a pillow,” she says. “It says ‘My heart belongs to my mom.’”

Fears of relapse

Roettgen, too, has dreams and fears since graduating from McCambridge Center last fall. This time she’s stayed clean for about six months, and she’s gone as far as moving out of her hometown of Marshall, away from her drug past, to Columbia.

“Being back home, I’d say, ‘Man you know you can go get dope here, you can go get dope there, and this is a miserable town so you might as well join the misery,’” she says. “And then I thought it was fun and I was missing the fun.”

Leaving Marshall meant leaving the man she used meth with for nine years. It also meant leaving her kids, to some extent, to find their own way. But she calls her ex-boyfriend occasionally and is urging her eldest daughter to move to Columbia to be with her.

Roettgen’s dream now is to get a new home, and a new start, for herself and her children — even if it is a little late. She wants to show them a different sort of love. She says she reads her Bible every day and knows she has a chance for redemption.

“The Bible says it’s a curse, you know, dope. (You) got to break the cycle.”

This concludes Part Three of Seductive Destruction.

An update: Stacey Norris

Stacey Norris says she’s been clean for two months now. She’s living in a mobile home with her two sons in her hometown of Marshall.

She works part time at the local senior citizens center, cleaning up after community dinners. She hopes this job will lead to one that has more regular hours and better pay. She supplements her small income with unemployment benefits and a little help from her family.

Each day brings ups and downs. The biggest down: the health effects of hepatitis C. The biggest up: rebuilding a life with her sons. They drive her to work and share meals with her when their schedules allow.

Her oldest is 23 now and works as a roofer with his father.

Her youngest is 18. He had dropped out of high school but decided to return this month for the winter semester. When he graduates, the family wants to move to Kansas City so both men can attend college.

Norris says she stays strong by putting her faith in God and in the love of her sons. They sang to her when she came home from treatment.

“(One) sang, ‘your love is like food to my soul’ (‘A Song For Mama’) by Boys II Men, and he is so shy,” she said. “And (the other) sang, ‘mama you are appreciated’ (‘Dear Mama’) by TuPac.”

— C. Stachura

An update: Leslie Roettgen

Leslie Roettgen continues to live at Oxford House, a group home for recovering addicts. She will complete probation at the end of this month.

She says she stopped attending group therapy at McCambridge Center for a while, thinking she could make it clean on her own, but it didn’t work.

“I started going back to old ways,” she says. She wasn’t using, but she gave in to her triggers: depression and ex-boyfriends.

Roettgen has returned to therapy, and she says she plans to stick with it. She hopes the support will keep her away from meth.

— C. Stachura

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