A Meth Diary

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Finding a reason to make a new start

Date: 11/11/98 00:01

David Pulliam/The Star
In Jackson County Drug Court, Commissioner Marco A. Roldan gives people like Denise, who aren't big-time dealers or violent criminals, a chance to get intensive drug rehabilitation.
The officer patting Denise Byrd's pockets pauses when he finds an empty plastic bag.

"What's this?" he asks, carefully holding a bag the size of a cigarette lighter in front of her face.

"I don't know," Denise lies. "It looks like a plastic bag."

But inside, she relaxes when she sees the empty bag. The night before, it contained meth, meth that even now is coursing through her veins, making her heart race, flooding her brain with dopamine.

A bag with meth would mean jail, a record, time off the street. She doesn't think she could stand that.

The officer places the bag in an evidence envelope. She sighs with relief and thinks: "Thank God, it's empty."

An abrupt awakening

On a chilly January night months later, Denise is drowsing on a couch when she hears pounding on her mother's front door and shouts of "Open up! Police!"

Photo courtesy of Denise Byrd
An emaciated Denise -- she weighed less than 80 pounds near the peak of her methamphetamine addiction -- forced a smile for a snapshot.
Denise crawls across the living room to peek out the front picture window. She cracks open two blinds, sees the uniforms. She sensed trouble was coming. She's been waking up and vomiting for weeks now. Bad nerves mean bad news, she figures.

She runs for the basement, pleading: "Mom, it's the police. Help me."

Donna Byrd dreads this choice. She knows her daughter is a meth addict. She knows her daughter needs help but refuses to take it.

But the police could mean jail.

Byrd opens the front door, timidly, for the two officers.

"She not here; she's been gone for months," she blurts out.

"Ma'am, your daughter is a dangerous person," one explains. "We're not leaving without her."

The other officer speaks softly.

"I know this is hard, but do what's best for your daughter, and what's best for you. Right now, leading us to her is the easy way for everyone."

Byrd pauses. Then she opens the basement door and leads the officers downstairs. There are no light bulbs in the fixtures -- Denise had learned long before how to make a quick meth pipe out of a light bulb.

Byrd watches the officers' flashlights as they bounce across the basement. From behind a door a dog barks. And inside the basement bedroom they find Denise, sitting in the dark on her bed.

David Pulliam/The Star
The Jackson County prosecutor's office gave Denise the option of a hearing in either criminal court or drug court. She was still tweaking from her last high when she signed the paper to go through the drug court. Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Molly Merrigan (center) recently sifted through case files at a drug court session in Independence.
Legal worries

Tests on the plastic sandwich bag officers had plucked from her jacket pocket months earlier had revealed 0.04 of a gram of meth -- about as much as a grain of salt.

The charge was possession. Even for that trace she was looking at five years in prison.

Five years!

They hadn't really found anything. And who's to say that was even her coat?

Denise had only a few days before court. To pass the time, she sneaked to a friend's house and bought as much meth as she could afford. She headed back to the basement, fashioned a pipe from a light bulb and lost herself in the high.

Her mother fretted. Donna Byrd needed to protect her daughter, but she didn't know how. She called attorneys. They were all so expensive, and her daughter could still go to jail. Meanwhile, Denise wasn't getting any better.

So she prayed for guidance and emptied out her retirement fund.

A reason for change

Inside the blue Corsica, the mother and the addict drive home from the court hearing in silence.

"They're treating me like a common criminal," Denise fumes.

She was only two days from her last high and still tweaking when she signed the paper to take part in the Jackson County Drug Court. She signed only to avoid jail.

To the mother, the choice was easy. The county prosecutor's office had just offered her daughter a chance to get her life back. All she had to do was agree to intensive counseling -- counseling the county would provide. If she stayed off meth, she'd avoid jail and a lasting record.

Drug Court wasn't for big-time dealers and violent criminals. But it could save people from losing their lives to drugs, people like Denise.

Denise isn't sure she'll go through with it. But later in the afternoon, she learns something that persuades her to try.

On a hunch, Denise had picked up a pregnancy test. While high, she'd spent time with a guy she'd never loved, a guy who got her drugs. Now she's worried.

Three hours later, she is in the bathroom staring at the test as it turns blue. The nausea, the anxiety, now they make sense.

"This has got to be wrong," she tells herself, checking to make sure she's read the instructions right.

Then she has an epiphany.

"I'm a drug addict who just barely escaped prison this morning, and I'm about to have a baby," she thinks. "This isn't about me anymore; I've got to think about the baby, now. I've got to go straight."

Lethargic withdrawal

Denise sees light leaking through the closed curtains of her tiny bedroom.

She is shivering slightly under her flowered comforter.

Her body is withdrawing from a three-year meth addiction. Meth leaves some addicts with schizophrenialike symptoms. For others, withdrawal means a lifetime of listlessness because their brains are unable to produce dopamine, the natural chemical needed to feel pleasure or excitement. Others make it out OK.

"Mom," Denise pleads. "I'm so sick. Something is wrong with me. I'm so tired."

"That's just getting straight," Byrd says, smiling broadly because she knows her daughter is getting better. "You've been hopped up on that crud for so long you've just forgotten what it's like being sober."

But Denise is scared. For two weeks she's been unable to do anything but sleep. With meth she had so much energy, too much.

"Is this what the rest of my life will be like?" she wonders. "Did I ruin myself forever?"

She'd always pictured withdrawal as the sweating, screaming struggles of heroin addicts she'd seen in movies. This is closer to a coma -- long, deep, sleeps broken up by waking hours that seem surreal, hazy.

Her brain needs time to re-learn how to produce dopamine without a nudge from the meth.

Until then she sleeps, waking only if her mother forces her to shower or eat -- things Denise had neglected while high. Slowly the toxins flush from her body. Her skin clears up; her sores heal. Her weight creeps back into the healthy range.

"I'm fine now," she tells her mom.

But within minutes her eyes flutter shut. Minutes pass, and she sleeps again.

Matthew Schofield can be reached by phone at (816) 234-4303 or by e-mail at mschofield@kcstar.com.