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Veteran's life of addiction reflects evolution of meth

This screen capture of Navy veteran Robert Carter shows him talking about the evolution of meth in a video on Cleveland.com's YouTube channel.

CLEVELAND.COM

By JOHN CANIGLIA | The Plain Dealer | Published: August 5, 2018

PIKETON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Robert Carter returned from four years in the Navy in 2003 to his hometown of Portsmouth a broken man.

He had two to three nightmares each time he slept, many about his time while enlisted and the death of a friend and crew mate on the USS Nassau, Dwayne Williams.

"I watched Dwayne drown right in front of me [in the Atlantic Ocean],'' Carter said. "I was told not to jump in because the Navy had people to do that job. I [see his death] every night and even through the day.''

He struggled to leave his home, and he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In Portsmouth, he found a community ravaged by illegal pill mills and cheap, readily available methamphetamine.

Meth, a stimulant, gives users a powerful high that can keep them awake for days. That was the attraction for Carter.

"I didn't want to go to sleep; I was afraid of the nightmares," Carter said. "So, I self-medicated. And then I became everyone's nightmare.''

At the time, small-time cooks brewed meth in pop bottles using cold tablets and solvents, creating a small, crude amount for themselves and a few users. Carter fell hard for it, as do many with PTSD.

A University of Arkansas study found that people with the disorder were ''significantly more likely'' to use methamphetamine, and use it longer, than those who did not have the disorder but were exposed to trauma. Meth intensifies mental health issues, according to researchers.

Julie Weinandy, the vice president of medical services at A Renewed Mind, a treatment center in Northwest Ohio, said the harsh chemicals in meth can damage the brain, hurting a user's ability to think rationally, and causing severe paranoia in which a person cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy.

For instance, chronic meth users while high often believe something is crawling under their skin. They dig with their fingernails, seeking to uproot the sensation. Users call them "meth mites,'' but they are actually hallucinations.

Medical treatment specialists said that once taken, meth causes an excessive amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine to flood the brain's reward system, creating a frantic high. The drug brings on violence and mood swings.

When the high is gone, users can feel extreme depression and suicidal thoughts. Unlike opioids, there is no medication to treat an addiction to meth.

'A smurf,' then a cook

In about 2010, Carter became what meth cooks call a ''smurf,'' a person who drives to various stores and pharmacies to purchase the drug's ingredients, including cold medication, which they would pull out from the plastic packs.

Carter said he soon began cooking his own stash, something he did for about four years. Along the way, he smoked it, swallowed it and later plunged needles full of it into his arm. He contracted Hepatitis C, a viral infection that can damage the liver. His kidneys shut down, and his body became severely weakened. His mind raced, and he grew paranoid and violent, he said.

On Feb. 12, 2014, he held family members hostage after having used the drug for several days, Carter said. Police were called, and Carter begged the officers to shoot him. They didn't. They did use a Taser on him, and they rushed him to a hospital as his organs were shutting down.

Seven months after he left the hospital, Carter said he injected a gram of meth into his arm. Then, at 4 a.m. Sept. 24, he drove to a Walmart in New Boston, a small village that borders Portsmouth, to buy chemicals to cook more meth.

"I was out of my mind, just gone,'' he said.

Store employees called police, based on his suspicious purchase. He was arrested in the parking lot and charged with the illegal possession of chemicals for the manufacture of drugs.

He pleaded guilty in Scioto County Common Pleas Court and served about two years in the Pickaway Correctional Institution.

"When I was in prison, I had plenty of chances to use. But I didn't,'' Carter said. "When I got out, I didn't think that I would go back to it.''

But he did.

His addiction overcame him, and he quickly relapsed.

A more intense high

In 2016, after Carter was released from prison, much of the meth in Portsmouth was no longer being cooked in garages and backyards. It had a high degree of purity. It was being manufactured in Mexico and shipped north.

He said he could throw a rock and hit a place in town that sold the new form of meth.

"The [locally produced meth] would keep you up for 24 hours or so,'' he said. "This stuff, from Mexico, will keep you up for days. The high is more intense. And when you try to stop, it is almost impossible. People have done it, but it is really, really hard work.''

Carter didn't have a choice. He had to enter a treatment center or face a return trip to prison.

At 38, Carter checked into Freedom Hall Recovery Center in Piketon, a tiny community in Pike County, where he has been for five months. The residential drug treatment center for 48 patients focuses on group therapy and individual counseling. Freedom Hall is a nonprofit funded by private donations.

There is no medically approved way to treat an addiction to meth, medical experts said. But they are quick to explain that in-patient treatment assists in overcoming the addiction.

Since he arrived, Carter has seen counselors and attended daily meetings. He is surrounded by others who struggle to fight the high meth offers.

For him, the treatment appears to be working. His nightmares have dropped from two or three a night to two or three a week, he said.

"I've never felt better in my life,'' he said.

Last month, at a group therapy session at Freedom Hall, Carter fought to keep still. While others spoke, he tried to listen. The effects of the drug still linger. But he broke into a huge smile when a counselor began dancing at the end of the session.

Recovery is hard, and he knows how easy it would be outside the treatment center to find drugs.

"We can spot our own,'' Carter said. "We can spot their actions. How they walk. How they look over their shoulders because they're so paranoid. How their skin is hanging off their bones. How their teeth and mouths are a mess. They look like they are zombies.''

But he resists. He wants to re-unite with his six children. He wants to take advantage of his computer repair skills.

Most of all, he wants to avoid another relapse that could send him back to prison.

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Petty Officer 3rd Class Dwayne Williams drowned after falling off the bow of the USS Nassau in 2003.
U.S. NAVY

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