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Mothers on meth: New book highlights family struggles in the suburbs

Published: Friday, May 24 2013 2:00 p.m. MDT

Kandice Spencer with Waymon Williams and their family at a neigbhorhood park in West Valley City

Eric Schulzke

A few weeks ago, Kandice Spencer went to Southern California with her two boys and their dad, Waymon. The beach was chilly, Disneyland was fun, but the big hit for the boys, ages 8 and 9, was Universal Studios.

On the surface it was a routine family vacation, but things were not always so routine for this family. Just six years ago, Spencer, now 42, was hooked on meth, writing bad checks and losing custody of her children. Waymon was also dealing and using, and the kids were headed for foster care.

Early in her meth use, Spencer actually thought the drug was helping her be a better mom. “Initially it makes you feel like you're more effective, only because it gives you more energy. You don't go through the same cycle going to work, coming home, cleaning house and feeling tired. You feel like you have a lot more energy to get things done."

The paradox of the supermom on meth is quite familiar to Miriam Boeri, a sociology professor at Kennesaw State University, whose new book deals with suburban women on meth.

Part gripping reality show, part academic tome, "Women on Ice" shows how women in the Atlanta suburbs get into meth, how some get out, and the dangers that dog them along the way.

More than 12 million Americans have tried methamphetamine, and 1.5 million are regular users, according to federal estimates, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported. While the precise data is elusive, usage is actually more widespread in rural than urban locations, and the suburbs have long been on the front lines.

Boeri found meth all over the multiple Atlanta suburbs she studied, noting that the housing patterns intermingled low-income trailer parks with high-end developments.

In researching her book, she interviewed 65 women — from college-age social users to middle-class or struggling working-class moms just trying to hold things together.

Some used it to numb pain, some to lose weight, others to enhance focus and expand energy — allowing them to become super students or supermoms in their own minds. Often lurking in the background, Boeri said, was depression, emotional abuse or a struggling family trying to keep up a façade.

From crack to meth

Kandice Spencer was raised in Layton, Utah, in a middle-class family. Her dad was a civilian contractor at Hill Air Force Base, her mom an IRS employee. She graduated from Arizona State University in computer information systems.

After college, she made some “bad choices,” as she puts it. She got hooked on crack cocaine on a whim and it immediately took over her life. Within one month she lost her job and her house.

Her family intervened, and rehab seemed to do the trick, until a few years later she began using meth.

It wasn't until the law stepped in and threatened to take away her children that Kandice finally woke up.

Supermoms

For women using meth, Boeri found, motherhood and domestic responsibilities play a dominant role in explaining and justifying use.

The majority of the 65 women she interviewed specifically cited housecleaning as one of the joys of meth use.

"Yeah, I'd get up, and clean the whole house up, and cook, have a big dinner ready, and felt happy,” Dolly told Boeri. “...Personally I never associated it with being high. At that point I was not having enough to get the high, high feeling. Just enough to, wow, I feel great. I feel good. Let's paint the house [laughs].”

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