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By Danette Clifton*
MORGAN CITY, Ala. (UMNS) "No one is immune -- no family, no church, no community," Mary Holley warns.
Holley is addressing a church group about the danger of methamphetamine. She knows firsthand the effects methamphetamine has on the user, his or her family and the community. In 2000, her younger brother, Jim, died after years of methamphetamine addiction. As a practicing obstetrician/gynecologist, Holley increasingly saw the drug?s effects in her patients and their babies.
So in 2002, Holley, a member of Guntersville (Ala.) First United Methodist Church, founded Mothers Against Meth-Amphetamine.
"After he died, I started looking into it as a physician, as a scientist," she says. "What is this drug that destroyed his life in just two years? What I found out appalls me."
"Science knows how methamphetamine works," she says. "We know what it does to the chemistry in the brain. But nobody was translating this stuff into plain English so everybody else can understand."
Holley's efforts started as a series of editorials she wrote to local newspapers in nearby Arab and Albertville, Ala. As she discussed the effects of addiction, she also included an invitation to experience the healing power of Jesus Christ in each editorial. Soon Holley was being asked to teach drug education classes for the county and city jails as well as juvenile probation programs. Individuals also contacted her for help and information.
Now retired from medical practice, Holley has produced booklets and pamphlets about methamphetamine and its effects, along with videos used in public schools, prisons and rehabilitation centers. She recently published a book, Crystal Meth: They Call it Ice.
Holley also speaks to churches and civic groups and encourages them to be more aware and active in offering help and hope to addicts, families and communities affected by the drug. That's why she?s speaking in Morgan City, a small town with such a big addiction problem that some people refer to it as "meth mountain."
For seminar participant Olivia Smith, Holley brings an important message for the local church to hear. "I think it's good to do it in a church environment because everyone is so comfortable with each other," Smith says.
As Holley has produced more materials and addressed more groups, her organization, Mothers Against Meth-Amphetamine, has grown to 100 chapters worldwide.
One of the most active of those chapters is in Polk County, Florida. The chapter serves close to 900 people a month from community education to support groups for recovering methamphetamine addicts and their loved ones.
Libbie Combee, 42, started the chapter after learning about Holley?s program from her son, Jason, who is in prison because of his addiction to methamphetamine.
"The day I picked up the phone to have my son arrested was the hardest decision I'd ever made but I knew the cycle had to be broken in my family and the cycle had to be broken starting with me."
Combee says addiction runs in families. This mom knew from experience only tough love would work. She, herself, was once a methamphetamine addict but has been clean for 12 years. Combee?s personal understanding of the dynamics of addiction has helped her share Holley's ministry with those in need.
"What I have seen is the families prolong the process of the loved ones recovery because families enable, families rescue, and families won't get out of the way for God to rescue."
Holly, a 29-year-old recovering addict and mother of two little girls, asked that her last name not be used. She agrees that families can complicate the recovery process.
Holly came to the Florida Mama Chapter with a $50 a day methamphetamine habit that had become a dark family secret no one wanted to talk about. For years her parents had given her money to feed her children because her own paychecks were feeding her habit.
"After a while you end up using people and using people to the point they don't want to help you anymore," Holly says.
For Holly the breaking point was the pending breakup of her marriage. She has been clean for four months and is now working to mend her relationship with her husband and her children.
Holly has tried to quit many times before but says Dr. Holley's program has given her hope for long term success. "It feels different this time. I'm not alone. It's not a secret anymore."
Methamphetamine use is growing in the United States and worldwide. According to the 2004 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 11.7 million Americans ages 12 and older reported trying methamphetamine at least once, representing 4.9 percent of the population ages 12 and older.
Dr. Holley explains that because of meth?s strong chemical effects on the brain, one use is enough to become addicted.
"Use it once, you will do it again," she says. "You did not choose it, it chose you."
Methamphetamine, developed in the last century, was originally used in nasal decongestants. Now it is being manufactured in clandestine laboratories known as meth labs, using ingredients purchased in local stores, such as over-the-counter cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. Other chemicals used to make crystal meth are also available as household items such as rubbing alcohol, lithium from batteries, red phosphorus from matchbooks, salt and drain cleaner.
Meth labs are being set up in homes, barns, even in the trunks of cars, and they are popping up in both urban and rural settings.
The drug's effects
The first effects of methamphetamine are increased alertness and energy. Holley explains that this high can last 12 to 20 hours and the user may "feel invincible." As the high goes away, the user experiences a crash. This can last from one to two weeks. During the crash, users often experience irritability and the unbearable sense that "nothing feels good." The only thing that can make the crash go away is using meth again.
Crystal methamphetamine damages and overwhelms the pathways in the brain, Holley says. It causes the brain to flood these synapses with dopamine -- a neotransmitter that affects the processes controlling movement, emotional response and ability to experience pleasure and pain -- at 100 times the normal concentration. She compares this to one brain cell yelling at another brain cell for 20 hours.
"You yell for 20 hours, you get hoarse," she says. "This is what happens to cell A."
This breakdown in the normal communication of brain cells can cause loss of control of cravings and temper, mood swings and panic attacks. Some people even develop anxiety disorders and experience hallucinations, paranoia and loss of muscle control. Other effects of meth use include depression, sexual dysfunction and the deterioration of tooth enamel leading to tooth loss.
Holley says the brain needs a year to 18 months of complete abstinence from methamphetamine to heal. However, she says, some ingredients commonly used to cook crystal meth, such as battery acid, cannot be absorbed by the body. As a result, meth use often leaves lasting effects, such as holes in the brain or acid burns on the skin.
Methamphetamine users aren't the only victims of the drug, Holley says. The families of users and the community are also affected. While parents are high on crystal meth, children are often abandoned and not cared for, she says.
A user's family can help through tough love, Holley says. Her experience in talking to addicts and former addicts has shown her that most people don't want to get off meth until "it hurts worse to keep using," she says. "That's when they'll stop."
So she instructs the family and friends of meth users: "No matter how ugly it gets don't stop praying for that child." But she also warns, "They will break your heart."
Holley says 50 percent of the people she talks to who are addicted are good people who went to the wrong party, made the wrong friends or were just looking for a quick way to find energy to make it through another shift at work. She says the other 50 percent she meets are wounded people who have experienced pain in their lives and want an escape.
Hope through Jesus
No matter how or why a person gets addicted, Holley offers the same hope and help: Jesus Christ.
Although the spiritual aspect is not included in her public school curriculum, in other teaching situations, Holley freely offers to power of healing of Jesus Christ for addicts.
She labels methamphetamine use as a form of idolatry and urges addicts to "put God back in the center of your life. You are more than the sum of your brain cells."
She says Christ gives strength for any temptation. "He (Jesus) forgives. You will love him and you will live for him and you will die for him. That's what it takes to get off crystal."
This night, as she leads the group in a closing prayer, she says, "Lord, this drug is more than we can handle but not more than you can handle."
That is the ultimate message Holley seeks to spread through MAMA. More info on Mothers Against Meth-Amphetamine can be found at www.MAMAsite.net.
*Clifton is director of communications for the United Methodist Church's North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference. Lilla Marigza, a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.