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Treating meth addiction requires a different approach
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Ryan Hintz is a recovering meth addict. He says meth is a tough addiction to beat, but it can be done. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Methamphetamine scares people. The stimulant is extremely addictive, and stories are common of the outrageous behavior of meth addicts. The myths about meth are common too. One of them is that it's almost impossible to kick the habit for good. Addiction counselors say that's just not true. But recovering from meth addiction can require some new techniques.

Fergus Falls, Minn. — It's a busy day at a Fergus Falls coffee shop. Several women sit at a table laughing and trading stories. Ryan Hintz sits nearby. He fidgets in his chair while he sips coffee. Hintz is a recovering meth addict.

"When I was about 12, I was into smoking pot and drinking," says Hintz. "When I was about 16, somebody came along with some meth and that's how I got introduced to it."

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Image Jim Atkins

For the next six years, meth was the primary focus of Hintz's life. He went through a series of jobs. He stole from family and friends to feed his habit. He got in trouble with the law. He was arrested and spent time in jail. Along the way, Hintz bounced in and out of treatment programs. On average, once a year.

"Ranging from outpatient to relapse prevention, to inpatient, halfway houses. Things like that, between eight and 12 times, since I was 14," Hintz says.

Hintz says meth is a tough addiction to beat, but it can be done. He hit rock bottom when he was busted on meth charges. He was ordered into treatment once again.

"The treatment center I was in -- a lot of people were there because they wanted to be there. That played a big impact I think on my recovery, just got me really excited about it," says Hintz. "You have to want it. I mean, it's got to stop being fun, in order to stop."

The treatment center I was in -- a lot of people were there because they wanted to be there. That played a big impact, I think, on my recovery. ... You have to want it. I mean, it's got to stop being fun, in order to stop.
- Ryan Hintz

That was 18 months ago. Hintz is still clean and sober. Now 23, Hintz is going to college and planning for his future.

For the past 10 years, Jim Atkins has worked at the Hazelden treatment center. Jim Atkins is a recovering methamphetamine addict. He says treating meth addiction is difficult. Some drugs, like alcohol, can take 48 to 72 hours to clear through your body. With meth, it can take six weeks or longer to de-tox.

Many meth addicts are still high when they're admitted to treatment. Atkins says they're agitated and paranoid. They'll have violent mood swings and hallucinations. Meth addicts can lose a lot of weight. The drug can change the color of your skin. Atkins says in some cases, a meth addiction is misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.

"We have to sort through what is drug-induced -- which mental health issues are drug-induced, and which might be there regardless of the drug," says Atkins. "Some of those symptoms are short term. Some of them go away. Some of them don't."

Atkins says sorting out which behaviors are meth related takes time and care. Most insurance programs only cover 30 days of treatment. In fact, most addiction programs last 30 days or less. But that model doesn't help meth addicts.

Atkins says it's common for someone hooked on meth to go days, even weeks without sleep. So when the drug leaves the body, all an addict wants to do is sleep -- sometimes for days or even weeks. Atkins says that eats up precious time in the recovery program.

"The way a lot of insurance policies are written, and managed care companies are forced to operate because of funding constraints, they want to measure progress in what's happening today that's better than yesterday," says Atkins. "When someone's in early recovery, when someone's in treatment for methamphetamine addiction, you're not going to see dramatic breakthroughs from one day to the next."

Ask a recovering addict and they'll tell you the high from meth is incredible. Brad Brown, an addiction counselor for Prairie at St. John's in Fargo, describes meth as enhancing the pleasure pathways in your brain.

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Image Brad Brown

"It releases large amounts of dopamine and feel-good type chemicals throughout the brain. What happens is, the brain has so much of that being released in it at one time, that it sort of becomes accustomed to it and it likes that," says Brown. "It likes the pleasure that it is getting. And for someone who is using, the goal is to seek that pleasure every time."

The problem is, after a while it takes more and more meth to reach that pleasure point. Brown says in the process, the drug numbs the addict's senses. He says treating a meth addict is difficult, but not impossible.

Figures from the Minnesota Department of Human Services show more than 3,900 people were admitted to treatment programs for meth addiction last year. More than half have completed treatment.

Brown is not aware of any statistics tracking the success rate of treatment for meth addicts. But he suspects the numbers are similar to those who seek professional help for any addiction.

"If 10 people come into treatment, of those 10, three are probably going to clean up with the first treatment. Three are going to relapse and clean up later. It might be a year later, it might be five years later, it might be 15 years later," says Brown. "And four are probably not going to clean up. That means they're probably going to die from their illness."

Some programs are beginning to establish a data base on recovery figures. Gerard Voz, an addiction counselor at the Regional Treatment Center in Fergus Falls, says defining success is tough.

"Does success include complete abstinence since treatment -- not using any chemicals? Or does success include a person going out and maybe she's relapsed a couple times, but she's turned it around, she's gotten back to the meetings and now she's back on track," says Voz. "So it all depends on how you measure that success when you start looking at success rates."

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Image Dr. Greg Peterson

Voz says the most effective treatments integrate several approaches. Those include the 12-step program used by Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous. He says a spiritual approach appeals to some. But there is no magic solution.

Greg Peterson, clinical director at the Regional Treatment Center, says people need to understand it's unrealistic to expect meth addicts to break their habit easily. He says the physical challenges presented by meth addiction make a first-time success unlikely.

"Throwing the onus back at a person that they're a total failure because they tried and they didn't make it, gives you the mindset that, 'Well gee, since I'm a failure already, then why should I even bother to try again?'" says Peterson. "I think that's a mistaken thing."

Counselors say being addicted to meth is an not excuse for a person's behavior, but an explanation. They say the key to recovery is getting an addict to realize if their behavior doesn't change they'll die.

Ryan Hintz seems to have gotten the message. For Hintz, recovery means going to meetings, talking with his sponsor. He's made new friends, people who have nothing to do with meth. He doesn't miss his old way of life.

"But I did have a guy once show some (meth) to me, out of the blue. I was completely unexpecting it," says Hintz. "I could feel like I did some just by seeing it. It was quite the experience for me. I just called my sponsor right away, and called some friends right away, and that was that."

Hintz says he's lucky. His family never gave up on him. Hintz says staying clean is hard work, but now he has a future to work toward. He's studying to be a counselor. He wants to help others beat meth.

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