BANGOR, Maine — Hitting rock bottom is something longtime Bangor resident Jessica Shaw, a recovering drug addict once hooked on methamphetamine, has done more than once.
“I lost everything. Literally everything. Basically what it boils down to is me sitting in a house with my shades drawn, all my curtains drawn, the lights all off and smoking meth by myself,” she said recently, standing in the kitchen of the Bangor Area Recovery Network’s home in Brewer on the day she reached 14 months of sobriety.
Shaw, 32, said she’s been in a repeating cycle of drug abuse, sobriety and relapse that has caused her to lose custody of three children to the Department of Health and Human Services. Her two little boys and a girl were put up for adoption after three separate investigations involving her drug use.
“It’s painful to talk about,” Shaw said, describing how she repeatedly has made poor decisions, causing the people she cares most about to suffer as a result.
“I get an abusive boyfriend, get pregnant, DHHS takes [the child] — it’s happened three times,” she said. “Every time you hit rock bottom, you redefine what rock bottom is.”
“When you’re high, you have really low impulse control and you don’t realize the things that you are doing,” she added later.
Shaw is not alone in her struggle against methamphetamine, an illegal stimulant that has plagued western parts of the U.S. for more than two decades and has crept into Maine over the last five years, according to Peter Arno, commander of Maine Drug Enforcement Agency division II, which covers the northern half of the state.
Arno, who worked as a drug agent with MDEA in the 1990s, said in the eight years he was undercover with the agency, it busted only one methamphetamine lab.
“I’ve been back for a year or so and I’ve been to 14 or 15,” the new MDEA commander said last month, sitting in his Bangor office.
There was one meth lab bust in Maine during 2009, 14 in 2012 and 20 in 2013. There have been 11 so far this year, Arno said.
“For 2014 … we’re on pace to pretty much double last year’s figure,” he said.
When methamphetamine hits the streets and rural roads of Maine, it’s called meth, crystal, crystal meth, chalk or ice, and looks like a clear, white or off-white crystal powder. The stimulant, which can be extremely addictive, can be snorted, smoked, dissolved into a beverage or injected.
Aroostook County accounts for half of the 48 meth labs found in the state by MDEA agents since 2009, and has seen increasing annual figures, with 2 found in 2011, eight in 2012 and 11 in 2013.
Arno said he didn’t know exactly why meth labs are found more often in The County, saying it’s also a place where synthetic bath salts have been popular, but he did speculate that the $100-plus price tag for a small amount of the drug from a dealer may have something to do with the dangerous trend.
He warned that, “Once it gets rooted in a community, it’s hard to get out.”
‘Shake and bake’ labs
When people think of a laboratory, they think white lab coats and test tubes with Bunsen burners. That image is not what a typical meth lab found in Maine looks like, Arno said.
“The ones we’re seeing aren’t being operated by a large criminal component — they’re users,” he said. “They can’t afford it, so they make it for themselves.”
Users and others trying to make money are using plastic soda bottles to mix the volatile and poisonous chemicals in what is called the “shake and bake” or “one pot” method they set up in their own cars, hotel rooms and back sheds, Arno said.
“Shake and bake” meth is made by mixing Coleman fuel, Red Devil Lye and other common household items together with Sudafed, which is “cooked” by adding lithium taken from batteries, Arno said. The chemical reaction creates a rolling boil inside the soda bottle, and builds up pressure with the creation of toxic hydrogen chloride, which must be released periodically to prevent the device from exploding and catching things on fire.
“They’re extremely caustic in nature,” Arno said of the “shake and bake” meth labs. “If it gets on you, it will burn. The gas released is poisonous.”
Once the hydrogen chloride pressure is released, the soda bottle is shaken to reactivate the chemical process, which is complete when the lithium is dissolved, according to “Jeff the Chef,” who made meth using the dangerous “shake and bake” method with a 20-ounce soda bottle for National Geographic for their feature “Drugs, Inc.: Making Meth in Tennessee.”
The process took Jeff the Chef, who covered his face to protect his identity, about three hours, but it can take as little as 30 minutes to complete a batch of meth, Arno said. Most of the methamphetamine found in Maine currently is produced using the “shake and bake” or “one pot” method, he said.
Cooking meth produces a “sort of out-of-the-ordinary chemical sulfur, like rotten eggs” smell, Arno said. That smell could be detected outside the Fireside Inn in Waterville, where drug agents made six arrests on March 7 after finding more than a half dozen 2-liter soda bottles being used to make meth.
Several of the meth labs found in Maine this year, including the one found in Houlton in April after a garage fire, are the result of educated firefighters noticing the components needed to make the drug who then called in the MDEA.
He said some drug makers in the small clandestine “laboratories” are discarding their used plastic bottles on the side of the road and unsuspecting people have picked them up and tried to return them for cash, Arno said.
“If you find a discarded plastic bottle that contains an unknown substance, do not pick it up or open it,” he warned, saying the contents are considered hazardous waste and are dangerous.
Each meth lab found, no matter how rudimentary, requires specially trained and suited agents and hazardous material teams from the Department of Environmental Protection to remove and dismantle the equipment. And when one agent goes in, another agent needs to be dressed and ready to go in after the person if there is a problem, Arno said.
“Each lab … [costs] somewhere in the range of $6,000 to $10,000” to dismantle, the MDEA commander said. “It’s money we don’t have budgeted and it’s time-consuming.”
The cost of combating meth
When users have to shell out $100 or more for a gram for meth, many turn to crime to pay for the drugs. Police officials across the state say drug addiction is the root cause of most crimes committed, especially property and violent crimes.
Shoplifting is what Shaw did to support her habits over the years.
“It wasn’t just to support my addiction. It was just the insanity of the drugs,” she said.
At age 17, Shaw was charged as an adult with stealing a car from the Bangor High School parking lot and crashing it on Center Street.
“It snowballed from there,” Shaw said.
She used and abused drugs for years, starting out as a functioning addict and changing into something she no longer recognized. She said criminal punishments didn’t stop her. The only thing that could stop her was herself.
“I’ve always been in and out of jail so that didn’t matter anymore,” Shaw said. “My ultimate rock bottom was losing everything. Literally everything there is to lose. The only thing I didn’t lose was my [fourth child], but I lost my home. I lost everything I own.”
‘It’s crazy what addiction can do to you’
Shaw said she has tattooed herself with the words, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” across her chest to remind herself that she is in control of her own life.
She talked about how she started drinking alcohol as a youngster, and after she was prescribed percocet for pain associated with her congestive heart problem at age 21, she started snorting the pills to get the drugs into her system faster.
She moved quickly from percocet to OxyContin, and when that became too expensive, Shaw started using crack cocaine.
The drugs she used were mostly based on what was available and whatever her boyfriends, who often had violent tendencies, brought home. She was at a party one day in 2007 and saw someone smoking meth from a lightbulb and she was intrigued.
“I tried it and I liked the taste of it and I was high until the next morning,” Shaw said. “Within a week, I had lost close to 12 pounds.”
She was quickly hooked.
“Smoking or injecting the drug delivers it very quickly to the brain, where it produces an immediate, intense euphoria,” states the National Institute on Drug Abuse fact sheet on meth.
Regardless of how it is taken, methamphetamine alters judgment and inhibition and can lead people to engage in risky behaviors, which Shaw admits she did.
She recalled how her addiction robbed her of everything she values, including three of her children and relationships with her mother and brother. She’s working on the relationship with her mom, but her brother still refuses to talk to her.
“It’s just crazy what addiction can do,” Shaw said. “I used to blame everyone for my problems. Now I know, I was the cause of my problems.”
She was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous in 2006 after she lost custody of her first child and called the state’s crisis hotline. She’s been enrolled in a number of drug and alcohol treatment programs over the last eight years, but none worked before because she never changed her actions or her social environment.
“Every time I cleaned up, some time would go by and I thought I could use again,” Shaw said. “Everybody I knew was getting high. I kept forgetting that when I use it isn’t a good time. I couldn’t be a good mom and everything I care about just goes out the window.”
Recognizing the vicious and hurtful cycle she was in was the first step needed to stop it from continuing, Shaw said, and the second step was for her to stop lying to herself about her addiction.
“I needed to find another way,” she said. “I had to walk into a [AA] meeting and lay it all out and say, ‘I lied. I’m not sober and I’m sick.’”
“Going to meetings is a daily reminder,” Shaw said later. “Now I call my sponsor every day. I have to choose everyday to live for God and my son and not to pick up a drink or a drug.
“They say if you’re not going to put in the work, nothing will get done.”
When her fourth child, a son arrived in 2010, Shaw stayed sober for 11 months but was drawn back into the darkness of her addiction. She said it was shortly after he was diagnosed with autism, which Shaw said she thought was a curse at first and now realizes is a blessing, that she returned to attending meetings. He is now age 4 and remains in her custody.
“I can’t get high, I have to keep an eye on him 24-7,” she said. “He needs my unconditional love and my unconditional support and my undivided attention. He loves and he’s found happiness and by watching him I’ve found it too.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for where I am today,” Shaw said. “I finished my steps in Alcoholics Anonymous and I’m still working on my steps in Narcotics Anonymous.”
She’s now a full-time accounting and business management student at the University of Maine Augusta in Bangor, she attends AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings every day, is a sponsor for other women in recovery, and even started a faith-based mothers in recovery support group at the B.A.R.N. in Brewer.
“This is the longest period of sobriety I’ve had in my life,” she said.