Debunking Myths about Methamphetamine Recovery

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By David Fawcett, PhD, LCSW

September is National Recovery Month, meant to raise awareness about mental health and substance use disorders. While the nation has been gripped by the opioid crisis, a second epidemic has been growing and now overshadows heroin and Fentanyl in many communities. This second epidemic is methamphetamine. Meth has a unique folklore among drugs of abuse, and the myths surrounding it cast doubt on the possibility of recovery.

Here are five such myths and correct information to dispel them.

Myth #1: Sustained recovery from methamphetamine is impossible.

Because meth relapses are common along the road to permanent abstinence, many people believe that sustained recovery is not possible. It is true that strong bonds between meth and rituals (such as pulling out one’s phone), sights, sounds, places, smells, and nearly any physical sensation, especially sexual sensations, create a web of triggers and cravings that make recovering difficult until they are undone. However, with time, patience, and vigilance, these triggers can be minimized, opening the way to lasting abstinence from meth.

Myth #2:   Meth destroys your sex life forever.

Many people use meth to disinhibit their erotic thoughts and desires, and to push their sex drive into overdrive. Unfortunately, pairing meth with sex rather quickly “resets” the level of stimulation required for sexual arousal to unnaturally high levels. Most chronic users find that it eventually takes highly specific and often dark, taboo, or rough fantasies to become sexually aroused. The good news is that this is not a permanent condition. A meth user’s capacity for sexual arousal will return to normal with sobriety. This healing process can be slowed, however, if the individual continues to use drug/sex fantasies to become aroused – even if they have stopped using meth.

Myth #3:  Meth causes permanent brain damage.

Scientists are discovering that all addictions cause changes to the brain, some of which can be permanent. Meth, unfortunately, injures the brain in a more dramatic way than most other drugs because it is neurotoxic, meaning that when the meth molecule sits on a dopamine receptor (resulting in the feeling of pleasure), it actually destroys that receptor. This is a very serious consequence because when the brain cannot adequately distribute and receive dopamine, the individual becomes depressed, impulsive, hopeless, and unable to experience pleasure (regardless of the stimulus). It is this brain injury that makes meth recovery more complicated and difficult than most other addictions. It is concerning that this damage occurs, but it is generally not a permanent form of brain injury. Generally, with continuous sobriety, these pathways will regenerate over a period of about two years.

Myth #4.  Meth brought me down, but alcohol is still OK.

Meth users are typically intensity junkies who crave the effects of stimulants drugs and high-risk or otherwise intense behaviors (like sex). Active meth users often avoid significant use of alcohol or other depressants because they don’t like that feeling (although they still tend to use these substances to come down from the “edginess” of a meth run). Because meth is the identified problem, many individuals in meth recovery see nothing wrong with having an alcoholic drink or two even as they abstain from stimulants. However, experience shows this is a bad idea. Alcohol disinhibits and weakens resistance to using meth, often leading to a full-blown relapse.

Myth #5:  When I stop using meth, I experience emotions that overwhelm me.

Most of the individuals I treat for stimulant addiction initially discovered that addictive drugs and behaviors, particularly meth, were very effective at numbing uncomfortable feelings. These dissociative properties helped them escape from stressors and anxiety, and to push aside their sexual inhibitions. One client described using meth as “eight hours of bullet-proof happiness in a dreary world.” It is logical, therefore, that when someone stops acting out addictively, the troublesome thoughts and emotions that had been repressed begin to bubble up. It is essential, especially for newcomers in recovery, to develop and use tools and skills that can help them regulate emotions, to correct false beliefs about themselves, and to strengthen their social networks so they have support when they’re triggered to use.

Contemplating recovery from meth addiction (or any other addiction) is intimidating. But when myths are dispelled, the pathway to recovery becomes clear. At Seeking Integrity, the company for which I am VP of Clinical Programming, we understand the unique aspects of meth and its powerful companion sex addiction. We know that when these two addictions are fused, it requires specialized treatment and a skilled clinical team that can dispel myths, thereby providing hope for recovery while reducing the shame and stigma that accompanies this type of addiction.