Mothers on meth: New book highlights family struggles in the suburbs
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.
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].”
Beth, a mother of three, was thrilled the first time she tried meth because she was able to stay up two days straight, which allowed her to finish a room in the basement and refinish the floors in her kitchen.
"I was constantly running,” Beth told Boeri. “I had one kid in swimming, one kid in judo, one kid that was just a social butterfly. I was constantly on the go. I did events at my daughter's school My kids' homework was always done. Christmas time, all the school bus drivers got little baskets of cookies and homemade truffles, and I volunteered at every field trip.”
An energy drug
Boeri calls the supermom on meth a “functional” addiction, meaning the user is trying to improve daily life performance, not escape it as with other illegal drugs. It’s a distinction Glenn Hanson, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah, understands very well.
“You will see a lot of people with a history of depression using meth to self-medicate,” Hanson said. He notes that forms of meth are widely used to treat ADHD, narcolepsy and obesity, and that some research is showing that meth in very small doses can actually be used to treat addiction.
But any benefits gained are usually overwhelmed once the action kicks in. Because the dose-response pattern for meth is so delicate, Hanson said, meth users very easily tip out of control. “Then it escalates into dependence, then into addiction, and then you are in trouble."
"I say those things to help people understand why individuals will begin using meth in the first place," Hanson said. "Everyone says this is a horrible drug. We all know terrible stories, and so they say this must be a horrible person.
"And I say let's step back for a minute and look at why they start using it. Nobody starts using it thinking, 'I would really like to be a meth addict. Your teeth are rotting. You're skinny. You look like death warmed over. Yeah, that's what I want to be like.’ ”
Instead, Hanson said, they start off saying, "I’m feeling better. I can get through my day, and I think I can manage this."
Meth addiction often occurs on the margins of the middle class, Boeri and Hanson agree, especially among those with a tenuous grasp on economic and social middle-class status.
Boeri points to her own suburb of Boston as a typical meth zone. In her working-class neighborhood, her next-door neighbor is a plumber, and the neighbor across the street is a carpenter while his wife works as a nurse. Their kids go to college. It's not comfortable middle-class, nor is it a struggling working class neighborhood. It's a pastiche with elements of both.
Boeri sees economic distress as an underlying factor in most of the cases she studied, exacerbated by the lingering Great Recession. “It's not just blue-collar jobs. It’s salespeople. It's a manager at Office Depot. All those people who thought they had white-collar jobs are looking for work."
Boeri describes one woman who used meth to maintain her supermom façade so long as her husband kept his job. But when the economy tanked and he lost his job, her drug use spiraled out of control.
One particularly troubling aspect of America's meth problem is college students who become addicted by sharing attention deficit disorder drugs, including Ritalin and Adderall, to enhance their performance in studying for tests or writing papers.
The New York Times has documented this in a series of articles, including the traumatic story of an addicted premed student who eventually hanged himself.
"And when you slip over the edge you get into a compulsive behavior,” Hanson said, “then you start to feel that it's essential, that you can't survive without it when you wake up in the morning."
A real mom
In 2010, the Deseret News profiled Kandice Spencer’s recovery from drug addiction. Three years later, she is still going strong.
Since leaving jail in 2007, Spencer paid off $30,000 in debt, bought a house, and reunited with her children's father.
Spencer now speaks the language of recovery with the fluency of a native. She sprinkles her comments with "I decided" and "I made choices." "One thing I have learned is no one cares what your intentions are," she said. "They care only about your actions."
Sobriety is rewarding, Spencer said, but it’s not always fun. “One day I woke up and realized that going to work, taking care of the kids, paying bills and dealing with everyday life isn't always so bliss and contains a certain amount of boredom."
Her aim now is to “create memories that will last a lifetime and that I want to remember — Disneyland, playing with the boys' dogs, coaching their basketball team, and snuggling up with them on a Friday evening for family night with a movie.”
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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