Speed Withdrawal
©Tom Moon, MFT, 2005

Q:   I admitted to myself about six months ago that I'm addicted to speed, and I've been trying to quit ever since.   This time I've been clean for eight weeks, and I feel terrible.   I'm depressed and tired all the time.   I'm not interested in doing anything.   I'm not even having sex, because I don't feel like doing it without being high.   Everything feels pretty hopeless right now, and it just goes on like this day after day.   Also, I have constant, intense cravings to use, which I don't know if I can resist for much longer.   I thought getting off speed was going to make my life better, but the truth is, I've never felt so miserable.   What am I doing wrong?

A:  This might sound like bad news in a way, but you're probably not doing anything wrong. Virtually everyone who recovers from a serious speed addiction goes through what you're describing.   It's all due to the effects of the drug on the brain.

Speed makes you high because it causes an explosion of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which elevates mood and increases physical activity.   The sudden release of large amounts of dopamine also means that the levels are below normal in the days that follow, which is why users are often depressed a day or two after being high.   Repeated speed use damages cells that contain dopamine, as well as those containing serotonin, another neurotransmitter important in regulating mood.   (The Prozac-family of anti-depressants works by increasing serotonin levels.)    With prolonged use, levels of both serotonin and dopamine drop far below normal as damage to the brain becomes more extensive. You're feeling the effects of that damage now:   depression, low energy, hopelessness, and an inability to feel pleasure, excitement, or optimism about much of anything. The good news is that once you stop using, the brain begins to repair itself and in time mood improves. The bad news is that this healing usually takes months, and can take up to a year or more, depending on how serious your speed habit was.

So, most people aren't very happy campers in the first few months of recovery. One man who went through this process described the experience to me as feeling like walking through a dark valley. He knew that eventually he'd climb out and emerge into the sunlight, but that felt like a distant hope. In the meantime, he had to trudge on in the darkness and just endure the discomfort.

Another complication of early recovery is that the brain knows that it can instantly get out of this depressed state by getting a dose of tina. That's one of the reasons that the cravings are so intense at this time.   Speed is a powerful short-term anti-depressant.   Of course it makes it much worse in the long run, but that's the classic challenge of recovery from addiction - the struggle between short-term pleasure and long-term happiness.   Usually, the mind isn't a reliable ally during this period.   It comes up with one excuse or rationalization after another to make getting high feel like the most logical next thing to do.

It's no wonder that recovery is so difficult and relapse so common in the early stages of recovery. Most speed addicts need a full year or more of continuous abstinence before they really begin to feel free from the pull of the drug, and some people continue to have occasional bouts of craving for years after they stop using.

I'm not saying all of this to discourage you, but to paint a realistic picture of the challenges of recovery. In my experience, one of the most common causes of relapse is ignorance or minimization of what a serious undertaking recovering from speed addiction really is.   It's anything but a walk in the park, and in order to succeed, it's vitally important to understand it realistically, as a challenging, long-term process. I often encourage people starting out on the walk through this valley to think of themselves as "majoring" in recovery for the next twelve months.

There are things you can do to make the process a little easier. Some people find anti-depressants helpful during this period (although they won't make you feel better if you keep relapsing.)  

It's also smart not to try to go through this period on your own.   Get as much support from others as you can.   It can really help to talk with others who have succeeded in staying clean for a year or more, because they'll serve as visible evidence that recovery is real, and that in time you'll also be feeling better. Twelve step programs like Narcotics Anonymous or Crystal Meth Anonymous are great resources for finding them, but you might also locate them among your own circle of friends.   Many thousands of people in the gay community have succeeded in getting tina out of their lives.   If you don't give up, you'll be one of them.