Meth has a special position among other drugs, as it is rumored to provide particular benefits besides the high it produces. Some people begin using meth “constructively” to help them work or study longer or to help with weight loss. This is an extremely slippery slope and no matter the reasons for beginning meth use, the habit typically progresses to dependence as tolerance to the drug begins to build. Similarly, recreational meth use will sometimes begin as a rarity, something to be done on the weekends and only with friends. Alternatively, some people will embrace meth wholeheartedly after the first use. There may be a genetic and/or environmental predisposition for the “all in” response as opposed to the gradual response, but regardless of how someone starts using meth, continuing to use it typically has the same end results.
Symptoms of Meth Addiction
Addiction to meth can be a life-changing experience, almost always for the worse. Aside from the negative physical consequences of dehydration, tooth decay, malnutrition, neurotoxicity, and extreme sleep deprivation, the lifestyle involved in chronic meth use is extremely detrimental as well and somewhat unique among other drug addictions. This is due in large part to the level of sleep deprivation most meth addicts experience. When staying awake for days on end, the only other people who tend to be around are others who are likewise intoxicated and unable to sleep. This can have the effect of a user withdrawing from people who maintain a more “normal” sleep-wake cycle and strengthening relationships with other tweakers who can “keep up” with the user. This isolation from non-addicts can further degrade a user’s grip on normal life and speed up the slide into a full-blown addiction.
Some behaviors which are apparent in meth addiction include:
- Withdrawal from Family and Social Life
- Increased Absences from Work
- Erratic or Unusual Behavior
- Failure to Keep Plans
- Frequent Appeals to Borrow Money
- Decreased Emphasis on Personal Hygiene
- Calling or Texting at All Hours – Day and Night
Signs of Meth Use
Some signs which are immediately apparent when using meth may include:
- Jaw Clenching or Teeth Grinding
- Dramatically Increased Energy
- Repeatedly Performing Menial Tasks (cleaning, fidgeting, disassembling things, etc.)
- Non-Stop Intense Talking (usually involving grand plans for the future)
- Dramatically Increased Sex Drive (typically immediately after using)
- Paranoia or Delusions (perception of the world or society as hostile to the user)
- Insomnia (the user may show up, call, or text at all hours)
- Dramatic Weight Loss (due to lack of appetite, sleep, and hydration)
After meth has been used for a brief time, the brain begins to adapt. This means that the amounts of meth used must be increased to produce the same effects. Conversely, a user will begin to feel extremely fatigued and depressed when they are not on meth and will begin to have strong cravings for meth. This is the beginning of full-blown meth addiction.
Signs of Worsening Meth Addiction
People who are early in meth addiction typically begin to exhibit worsening symptoms. These usually present as antisocial, self-destructive, and outright hostile behaviors and can include:
- Selling Possessions for Money
- Theft or Robbery
- Increasingly Erratic Family, Work, and Social Presence
- Open Hostility to Friends, Coworkers, or Family
- Unexplained Wounds or Illnesses such as Nosebleeds, Pneumonia, Abscess, or Necrosis (from snorting, smoking, or shooting meth)
Meth addicts will typically lose touch with family and friends fairly quickly after they begin using heavily. Aside from possibly scaring their family and friends, the hours they keep tend to be odd and vary greatly, depending on how long they can afford to binge. Their new friends (other meth addicts) will reinforce the chronic use as well as assist in the detachment from society. Since sleep is no longer a priority there is no telling how long a binge could last. The more sleep-deprived the user becomes, the greater a risk there is for delusions, hallucinations, and paranoid behavior. It is not uncommon for meth users to experience daylight hallucinations when staying up for days, as well as the possibility for psychotic episodes and delusions. A condition related to drug use and sleep deprivation called oneirophrenia is fairly common as well and the symptoms are similar to those of paranoid schizophrenia.
Why Is Meth So Addictive?
Meth has extremely potent physiological effects which are produced through a multifaceted mechanism of action. Meth use will result in a very large secretion of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin while at the same time causing synaptic vesicles to release stores of these same neurotransmitters. In addition, meth will cause reverse transport and inhibit the reuptake of these 3 neurotransmitters resulting in excess levels to build up in the brain. This compound action results in a massive flood of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin as well as improving the signal transmission between neurons which has the effect of creating an extremely intense rush of euphoria and almost instant effects on the user. Due to meth’s molecular similarity to dopamine, it is possible that it may also act as a false transmitter, meaning that the body thinks meth itself is dopamine and responds accordingly.
Along with cocaine and amphetamines, chronic meth use can result in long-term changes to the structure and signaling functions particularly in the limbic system, or “reward center” of the brain. This is a neural complex involved in learned behavior, motivation, and feelings of reward with regards to said behavior. This is shown in chronic meth users (rodents and humans) through MRIs exhibiting enlarged striatal volumes, as well as PET scans which show decreased brain glucose metabolism¹ which is an indicator of decreased or abnormal neurological function¹. In effect, meth use can rewire the brain to link all positive feelings to meth use. Further, these changes coupled with downregulation make it possible for a user to be neurologically unable to feel pleasure at all unless they are on meth.
The results of changes to the limbic system can range from almost unnoticeable to dramatically life-changing, depending on the amount of time meth has been used. The main function of the limbic system is to enforce positive behavior by linking “good” behaviors like eating, mating, or spending time with your loved ones to positive emotions. The massive amounts of neurotransmitters released during chronic meth use completely overpower the normal functioning of this system. Through years of use, an addict will gradually lose the ability to feel any positive emotions for anything other than meth or similar drugs. Meth induced limbic changes are essentially a hijacking of this system which end up reinforcing the drug-seeking or addict like behavior. Depending on genetics and the length of time used, these changes may or may not be reversible.
The Progression of Meth Addiction
Early meth users may see using as a luxury and do it mainly on the weekends or in a manner that doesn’t interfere with their life. This can begin a slowly accelerating process of becoming chemically dependent on meth as well as begin altering the structure and function of the brain itself. Using will typically become more frequent over the course of months, weeks, or even days. The more meth is used the worse the user feels when they do not use meth, and this typically will snowball into daily use if the user continues. Anxiety, fatigue, and depression will increase during this time as well as an increased craving for meth. Once the user has exhausted their own resources by spending all their money, borrowing all they can, and probably selling whatever they can they may turn to crime to further fuel their all-consuming habit.
A long term addict (1 year + of using) is typically on very shaky ground mentally. This is sometimes called the withdrawal prevention phase of addiction. Meth withdrawal becomes a terrifying prospect, to be avoided no matter what. The need for meth is paramount to all else, and there are steadily decreasing limitations to the lengths someone will go to get more meth. Robbery is not uncommon in this phase of addiction. This could be through means of misdirection or deceit as well as more direct means such as armed robbery or breaking and entering. Being awake at all hours of the night, car hopping is a common activity where users will break into cars that have valuables visible such as laptops or phones. Once these kinds of activities become a regular occurrence, it is typically only a matter of time before the user will be caught, and depending on who catches them this can result in an arrest, a beating, or getting shot. These are only some of the external consequences and does not even take into account the ever-present risks of brain damage, overdose, and death.
- UC Davis Medical Center: Methamphetamine Toxicity
- Journal of Criminal Justice: Methamphetamine Use and Violence Among Young Adults
- Griffith University School of Psychology: Mechanisms Underlying Aggressive and Hostile Behavior in Amphetamine Users