A couple of weeks ago I ran into a man that was – and I still count as – a good friend. We will call him Nathan. I passed him in the Canberra Centre as I was coming out of Woolies. He was going in and I was coming out. I was pleased to see him, but there was something very disturbing about his appearance. He had the hollow-eyed look of a heavy ice user. I’d heard he was back on the ice, but this was the first time I had seen him face to face in a couple of years. The sight of him was so disturbing that after I said hello, I made my excuses and left.  

About 12 years ago our paths had crossed on the street in a similar manner, except then our situations were reversed. He had already been clean and sober for some years in AA and I was still staggering from pillar to post struggling unsuccessfully with suicidal drinking. It was one of those magical moments which members of 12 step fellowships describe as a moment of clarity, or if you prefer, divine intervention. My friend gave me the tools to rebuild my life, and for a while we were brothers. Such a relationship goes deep. It has elements of family, spiritual mentorship, and comrades in arms, but it is more than each of these, it is a relationship based on the concern for another human’s wellbeing.

I have seen people relapse after being clear-eyed and abstinent for a while, then they take up their old habit and their minds become foggy. They withdraw from you, but even so, you can still have a connection with them. You can discern the same person that was there when you knew them in better days. But ice is different. I remember looking into the eyes of one heavy ice user and finding no perceivable human connection. It reminded me of the gaze of a tiger I had once seen at the zoo, who looked at me with a detached curiosity that was purely instinctual. It is an awe-inspiring experience to see this close up in the eyes of an apex predator, but it is truly unnerving to see it in the face of another human being.

This is the extreme end of ice usage, not all users go that far down. There are many social users who don’t. My friend hadn’t gone all the way to the bottom, but there was a deadness behind his eyes which made me sad. So why is ice such a devastating drug? Why does it have such a destructive effect on the personalities of some people?

Tiger gazes through grass.
Photograph: Joshua Lee

There is no shortage of scientific literature on the effect of methamphetamine on the human brain. It is written by scientists, for scientists, and contains all sorts of scary passages like, ‘severe grey matter deficits in the cingulate, limbic, and paralimbic cortices’, and, ‘Reactive oxygen species that are thought to cause neurite degeneration’  – neuronal cell death.

In layman’s terms, it rots your brain by killing brain cells. But it doesn’t do it indiscriminately. It targets the limbic system which is responsible for emotions and the formation of memories. The limbic system, ‘combines higher mental functions and primitive emotion into a single system often referred to as the emotional nervous system.‘. Disorders of the limbic system are linked with epilepsy and schizophrenia, and loss of grey matter in the limbic system of some ice users has been measured at 11%.  

By contrast, alcoholic brain damage is considered ‘frontal’ in nature. The frontal lobes are important for voluntary movement, expressive language, and for managing higher-level executive functions. 

Of course, neuroscience is all well and good, but the rubber really meets the road for health care and law enforcement professionals when ice addicts break the law and are sentenced to a period of rehabilitation. I interviewed Gary, a counsellor at the Salvation Army’s drug and alcohol Bridge Program in Fyshwick, to find out about the long term effects of ice on the individual and their prospects of recovery.

Canberra Recovery Services Centre entry
Photograph: Michael Jaffery

Gary is a long-time recovering addict who rides a Harley Davison which he parks just outside the reception. His big shining motorcycle is the first thing you notice as you come on to the property, and for those who are entering this institution in a state of crisis, it carries a subliminal double message: This is one of the fruits of recovery, and you don’t have to give up everything about your old life to get it – only the bad stuff.

Once in his office, I described my impression of hardcore ice addicts, and he confirmed my experience.

“They look through you,” he said.

I came here to find out about ice addiction, so, as a point of comparison, I asked him what the psychological difference is between ice users and alcoholics.

“One of the things we experience here mostly with alcoholics coming into the place [Canberra Recovery Service], it doesn’t take them too long to get on board, where ice users tend to take a lot longer, detoxification time is a lot longer, they do tend to struggle,” he said.

“Alcoholics do struggle with memory retention initially, we have a lot of alcoholics who want to take a lot of notes, [but] we find that the ice users, a lot of the time they struggle to participate, struggle to understand, they to struggle to grasp the simple concepts here…We’ve had clients in here who six months down the track are still affected by ice use.”

Gary told me that alcoholics are generally doing well after six months.

“They’re back on track no problem at all. Depending on the alcoholic too…”, but with ice users, he said, “…they’re not paranoid but they’re quite wary, they don’t trust a lot, they’re uncertain of their surroundings a lot more.

“They’re medically affected as well, because more often than not they present to GP’s in crisis and [are] over-medicated or wrongly medicated. Some of them can go back into psychosis…So paranoid is a big thing, I just think that they’re quite knocked off for a while. You’ve got to be careful the way you work with them, not that there’s any violence or anything.”

It can take a long time for recovering ice users to start establishing healthy relationships again. Gary said it can depend on a lot of factors. If an individual has been an ice user for a long time they may not have many family connections and lost a lot of relationships.

“But what if they persist with the program,” I asked Gary, “Can they re-establish healthy relationships?

“Absolutely, I mean as far as recovery goes.” He told me.

After talking to Gary, I talked to the receptionist at CRS.  She is a former ice user and a graduate of the program. I asked her about her own experience with recovery.

“It took me two years to get my emotions under control,” she said smiling.

Recovery is difficult for any addiction, but for ice addicts, it seems to be a particularly hard road to recovery.

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