READING FOR CHILD
AND YOUTH CARE WORKERS
So we’re sick of reading about drugs. Tough. The newspapers try to shock us with gruesome takes of ecstasy deaths — but the side-effects of "e" can be equally scary. This feature is based, with acknowledgements, on a recent report in the U.K. by teen magazine J17.
Ecstasy and our youth
In August 1998 17-year-old Rebecca Holton cheated death after taking two ecstasy tablets. Her lungs collapsed and she was put on a ventilator, but she pulled through. Fitness instructor Julia Dawes, 18, wasn’t so lucky. She took two ecstasy tablets while celebrating a friend’s birthday just weeks earlier. Two days later she was dead. Her life-support machine was turned off when her parents were told there was no hope of her recovering from her coma.
Both stories brought back haunting memories of Leah Betts’s death on her 18th birthday three years ago. Back then, her parents released pictures of their daughter’s comatose body to the media with the aim of shocking young people out of using Ecstasy. For some, the harrowing photos did their job, and no doubt Julia’s death and Rebecca’s near-miss will have a similar effect. But it obviously isn’t enough to change the minds of the millions of teenagers taking E every week, who believe it could never happen to them.
Experts believe ecstasy kills at least 20 Britons a year – most of them under 30, compare this to the 33,000 alcohol related deaths a year in Britain, and it would seem that the papers are exaggerating the dangers of ecstasy, so what’s all the fuss about, and why all the hype? John Ramsey is head of the toxicology unit at St George’s Hospital Medical School in London, where information on drugs and their effects is collected. He told J17, "The problem with the publicity surrounding ecstasy is that it is misplaced. The media focuses on the sensational aspect – the deaths it causes – instead of the far more likely risk of long-term damage to the brain, the liver and the kidneys." The truth is, a few deaths might not frighten the life out of you, but the damage to the rest of your body could be hitting thousands of users because they’re not fully informed of the risks involved. Even scientists can’t be sure of the exact risks, but what they do know is that the chemicals in ecstasy alter a chemical in the brain, one which deals with moods and depression.
Mr Ramsey also warns that buying ecstasy is a lottery. "The drugs are made in places like garages and illicit warehouses all around the world," he says. "There’s no quality control whatsoever, so users have no idea what’s in them."
But it’s not just the experts who are warning about the dangers of ecstasy. Madison and Allison, two teenage girls who’ve used the drug, are well aware how it can seriously mess up your life. Luckily they both survived to tell their tales.
Allison started taking speed when she was 15 and worked her way through cocaine and on to ecstasy. By the time she was 17 she was taking up to six Es a night – sometimes four nights a week. "I started because I hung around with a bad crowd who were a lot older than me. Then my mum and dad split up and I had a lot of family problems, so I took even more as a way of getting attention.
"My first E took me some place in my head I’d never been before. I wanted to go there again but my tolerance levels built up, so I took more and more to get the same effect. Sometimes my mates and I would just sit in my bedroom, take E and trip out watching TV."
Allison had no idea of the possible side effects. It wasn’t until she was 18 and took a bad E that she found out the hard way. "I bought an E from a different dealer at a friends’ barbecue – half an hour later it blew my mind. I was eating some fish and it suddenly seemed to come alive on the plate. I looked around and everyone was disjointed. I watched as a girl’s head imploded, then exploded."
After this experience, Allison knew she would never take drugs again. Unfortunately, coping with the after-effects of her decision wasn’t as easy as she thought. For six months she hardly slept, she had bad panic attacks when she went to work or out with friends, she was depressed, had violent mood swings and couldn’t eat.
"My whole life fell apart. I couldn’t do anything. I was so paranoid I thought everyone hated me, and everything – even watching TV – frightened me. I felt like I was going completely loopy."
Allison’s doctor put her on tranquillisers and anti-depressants and arranged for her to see a psychiatrist. In a couple of weeks her mood swings had calmed and she was able to sleep for up to five hours. The psychiatrist also taught her how to cope with her panic attacks by imagining calm surroundings and doing deep breathing. Three months later Allison was able to watch TV, although she still wasn’t relaxed enough to sit down, and she could go out for a couple of hours at a time.
She’s now 19, is into keep-fit and has a regular job. "I didn’t notice at the time, but while I was doing drugs I was an unhealthy, extremely moody person and only ever thought of myself. Now I’m much more considerate, I’m healthy and have a love for life.
She still suffers from bouts of paranoia though, and is unable to cope with any kind of confrontation. "I never watch violent movies because they turn me into a nervous wreck. And I never watch the news or read papers because I can’t cope with bad news. People reading this will probably think it will never happen to them but I reckon anyone who takes E is a human guinea pig."
Friends introduced Madison to recreational drugs when she was 15. Two years later, when her boyfriend Jimi dumped her, her habit snowballed into regular weekend benders of clubbing coupled with cocktails of alcohol and Es. "I was so depressed I wanted to hurt myself," she says. "I knew taking up to four Es a night was dangerous but I didn’t care. I just wanted Jimi to take notice of me."
One day Madison was suddenly rushed to hospital after contracting Hepatitis A, a contagious disease which attacks the liver, causing jaundice and sickness. Catching it had nothing to do with taking ecstasy, but being in hospital gave her a life-saving opportunity to change her lifestyle.
Madison didn’t realise that ecstasy had altered levels of chemicals in her brain, causing hypomania, a condition which triggers severe mood swings, paranoia and depression. "I felt like I was going mad. My brain felt like a computer that was running too fast and I couldn’t find the ‘off’ switch. My sentences were all jumbled up and I was rambling."
She was given tranquillisers to calm her down and anti-depressants. For the first week she was under 24-hour care in case she attempted suicide. "I only stayed in the hospital because I know I couldn’t cope with life outside. E had screwed me up so much I’d basically had a mental breakdown."
But Madison went through therapy and was discharged two days before she turned 18. "I’d gone from seven to nine-and-a-half stone, my hair was shiny and my skin looked healthy. I still had bouts of depression, but I wasn’t suicidal any more." Madison eventually hopes to one day become a counsellor herself and help other people who have drug problems.
Thrills with pills?
So is ecstasy a deadly killer? We know there have been about 60 deaths in the UK as a result of the drug, but if that’s not serious enough for you, experts say the real problems are long-term physical and mental ones. While millions of people gamble with their health and their lives every weekend, we leave it for you to decide if you’re willing to take the risk.