The first time he ingested methamphetamine, Jake Dunbar wasn't old enough to legally drive. It was at night. He was with a friend who seemed to be hiding something. After persuading his companion to let him try some, he inhaled his first hit, sucking the milky-white cloud into his then-14-year-old lungs.
Last week, when asked to describe how it made him feel, Dunbar paused. Standing in his garage, he looked out across the moonlit yard of his family's home in Evansville and finally said, "It's sort of a groggy kind of relief."
Later, clearly feeling he hadn't done the experience justice, he tried again: "When you get punched in the nose, your eyes go to water, your knees get weak, your heart starts beating and you're just dazed -- that's it, in a way."
If Dunbar felt he couldn't fully articulate the first sensation of a methamphetamine high, the 24-year-old conveyed the second sensation with confidence.
"I woke up the next day and wondered where I could get some more," he said. "You do it once, you're going to want it again."
After that first hit -- supplied, like so many firsts, by a trusted friend -- Dunbar says he spent the better part of the next six years in Casper tracking down, and finding, hits of methamphetamine. Though he smoked it that first time, his preference over the next six years was to take a syringe and shoot it into his right forearm's veins.
"The closer to the heart it is, the faster it hits you," he explained. "Throw it back, put it in your vein and in three, four seconds, it hits you."
Dunbar's methamphetamine story is typical, while the details in each tale are different.
Patty Linville, the supervisor of the residential facility at Central Wyoming Counseling Center, says that for many people who find themselves battling an addiction, "the system was already in place." They grow up in a negative environment, one where maybe alcohol abuse or other drug use is prevalent, one where maybe they're told they won't accomplish much, one where options appear limited.
So, she said, they reach for a feeling of escape.
"People like to be out of their own reality," she said.
But a yearning for an altered reality, mixed with a genetic propensity to addiction, can become an all-consuming lifestyle.
Methamphetamine, like cocaine, offers an immediate high -- or "release," Linville said. The drug heightens confidence, sharpens senses and gives someone a sense of euphoria. Most users, after taking their first hit, seek that same initial release every time they use the drug.
"You chase that first high for the rest of your life," she said. "That's what [addicts] are after. Only they can't. It's forever changed."
Ingredients vary, but some substances used in making methamphetamine can include rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, rock salt, Freon, camping stove fuel, drain cleaner, cold tablets and battery acid.
"Nothing good can come from that," Linville said. "You can't put that stuff inside your body and think it's not going to change your chemical make-up."
Dunbar's father left home when he was 4 years old. His mother routinely worked 12-, 13-hour days, he said. She didn't have time to keep tight tabs on her son, who dropped out of high school.
Not long after Dunbar got high on methamphetamine the first time, his life revolved around the drug. It wasn't out of the ordinary for him to spend $120 to $150 a day on the drug. If short on cash, he'd steal -- money, items to pawn, the drug itself -- from people around him.
"Everything I could do, I'd do it ..." he said. "It'll take you to the point where you're robbing people that you think are your best friends."
* The wedding ring his father threw at his mother when he walked out the door? Dunbar pawned it.
* He missed a vein once when shooting up. What followed, he said, was a hardened calcium deposit that turned the inside of his arm, from wrist to elbow, blue.
* Five of his teeth fell out. ("You don't give a s--- about anything. So teeth? First thing to go," he said.)
* He stayed awake for days a time. His record, he said, was one month.
"I think I passed out because I was so tired once or twice in there. But other than that, that was it."
Ashamed, he hid his habit.
"I tried to hide it from people," he said. "I was a closet druggie."
The girlfriend he met, Jeananne Pierson, was one of the people he hid it from. She saw signs -- taking household items apart, leaving for days at a time, sunken face, pale lips -- but was in denial. It wasn't until she researched the drug online that she understood what was going on. Dunbar, after being confronted, still wouldn't quit.
"You don't [care] about anybody," he said. "As long as you've got your high, you don't [care] about anybody."
Pierson said love kept her around. The final straw came at a family picnic when, five months pregnant, she found a glass pipe beneath a seat in their car.
"We had it out," she said. "I basically told him that if he didn't mind seeing me walking hand-in-hand with another man who would be pushing his child in a stroller, then keep on doing what you're doing."
Dunbar agreed to undergo an addiction severity index to help determine what level of counseling he needed. Told he would need to start with one week of in-house treatment with no contact from the outside world, he took it upon himself to quit.
The first thing he did: throw his case of syringes, ties and baggies of methamphetamine in the trash. Then he cut himself off from his friends.
"When you quit meth, you have to quit your friends," he said. "You have to find all new friends. Because you will go right back. I have very few friends left from those days. Flat stay away from them. They'll suck you right back in. Cut ties with every person you know."
He landed a job with a local cabinet maker. That was the biggest part: finding something to do with his time. Coupled with Pierson's devotion, he found self-worth enough to want to quit the drug.
"If Jeananne hadn't of been there like she was, chasing me down, being crazy about it, really," he said, "I'd be dead or in prison right now."
Dunbar's case is an exception. Linville guessed that a mere 10 percent of CWCC's clients come in as self-referrals. The others, perhaps caught in the legal system, are either ordered into counseling or are hoping for a lighter sentence. It is not unheard of for someone to go through "five or six" stints of rehabilitation, Linville said.
"It grabs hold of people," she said of the drug. "It just ravages peoples' lives, it tears apart every fiber of their lives."
But there is hope, she said. The addiction can be beat. At CWCC, the first thing the seven counselors chip away at is denial. Once an addict admits to the problem, the counselors comb a patient's life for anything that could lead to a desire to quit the drug. Next comes personal inventory. Patients write their own obituary, they write a "Dear John" letter to their life as an addict.
"To stop using, you've got to change people, places and things. Change everything except your last name -- and consider that," she said with a smile.
Dunbar and Pierson, who recently married, bought a home in Evansville in September 2009. Today, there's a dog inside and a sprinkler in the yard. There's their 4-year-old son and Pierson's two children from a previous relationship. Dunbar still works for the company that hired him three months after he smoked methamphetamine the last time. Pierson works at a local bank.
Dunbar, goateed and scarecrow thin, is no angel. He still smokes the cigarettes he started at 11, drinks occasionally and peppers his sentences with four-letter words. Like any couple, he and Pierson have spats -- mainly about the amount of time Dunbar spends working.
"The more money I have, the more my family can do, the more happy we are," he said, explaining the reasoning behind 60-hour-plus work weeks.
He admits methamphetamine still sometimes haunts him. But Dunbar, arms crossed, said he can't imagine the drug ruling his life again.
"My advice to anybody," he said with a bluntness that matched the way he quit the drug, "is if somebody asks you if you want to try it, tell them to f--- off."
By WILLIAM BROWNING
Star-Tribune staff writer
October 15, 2010
Recovering Wyoming meth addict rebuilds life by changing 'everything'