Back through the looking glass


Jan. 26, 2006, midnight | By Robert Feasley | 14 years, 12 months ago

Blair students choose to turn away from ecstasy


Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

"You have to understand, my family is perfectly normal," says John, a junior. "We all have secrets we don't tell each other. My secret is just that I used to do ecstasy."

John is among the eight percent of high-school seniors who say they have tried ecstasy at least once in their lives, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). But he is no longer part of the 31 percent of teens who plan to do ecstasy in the future.

John started using ecstasy his freshman year. His journey from ecstasy enthusiast to responsible teen has taken him away from the netherworld of chemically-induced euphoria to a hard-won maturity. But, he still remembers the drug's allure.

John, among other Blazers, has defied the statistics and walked away from the party. The reasons for quitting ecstasy use go far beyond surface slogans like "just say no," but instead cut to the quick of each Blazer's core ambitions and self-worth.

"Tripping"

John's first encounter with the drug is still etched indelibly in his mind.

He recalls sitting on his couch in his freshman year, surrounded by friends, staring nervously at the small white pill in his right hand. He was aware that, as a street drug, the ecstasy he held could have harmful added ingredients such as strychnine and PCP or simply the wrong ratio of speed to acid. He knew that the pill could hamper him for the rest of his life, but the fear of losing face in front of his friends negated even the most infallible of reasoning.

Eyes closed tightly, John placed the pill on his tongue, said a silent, quick prayer and swallowed.

Within seconds, his apprehension began to dissipate as the effects of the tiny, bitter pill began to overwhelm him, lifting him into a euphoric state. His pulse quickened, his pupils constricted and beads of sweat began to form on his forehead.

Once down this rabbit hole of unrestrained bliss, even the most mundane activity, like running his fingers through his hair, seemed to exude a near orgasmic sensation.
The effects of the drug lasted 24 hours. Emerging from the cloud of euphoria, John was struck in the face by reality. Red-eyed, dehydrated and irritable, he felt ill-prepared to meet the day. Everyone seemed to be breathing too loudly. The incandescent lights of his room, once the focal point of such fascination, now only glared cruelly and beat against his withered corneas.

Lurking dangers

According to Jerry Frankenheim, a pharmacologist and project manager for NIDA, ecstasy, the street name for methylene dioxy methamphetamine, was synthesized in the laboratory for one sole purpose: "tripping," or getting high. It came of age during the all-night rave and party scene of the early 1980s. Initially hailed as the ultimate party drug, ecstasy was the first of the "designer club drugs." Users paid up to $25 a hit despite a 1986 ruling that made it illegal to ingest, possess or distribute. Ecstasy became standard fare for anyone looking to take a vacation from reality.

But ecstasy is far from the harmless escapism that 20th-century party-goers thought it to be. Leslie Hillary, a Suburban Hospital social worker, has witnessed the side effects of the drug firsthand. With ecstasy patients ranging from late teens to early 20s, she has seen a wide range of symptoms. "Sometimes, the only difference between a schizophrenic and an ecstasy patient is that a schizophrenic will stabilize on medication," she says.

Designed to maximize dopamine receptors to kick pleasure into overdrive, ecstasy often creates a dangerous chemical unbalance, which can result in serious mental disorders. "One dose can profoundly affect your brains chemistry forever," cautions Hillary.

More immediately, ecstasy results in a miasma of physical symptoms, including dehydration, elevated blood pressure and abnormal heartbeat. "People will literally dance until they drop," says Hillary. "Some of the kids I see are so brain-dead from dehydration they won't even remember why they've come to see me."

Taught in high-school health classes nationwide, these facts are common knowledge among users, and yet ecstasy use persists. "Users think that it's all a conspiracy, that it's just something they're hearing from `the man,' while in fact it's very real," says Hillary.

Stepping aside

Health risks aside, most Blazers quit for quite a different reason: Their use of ecstasy keeps them from what they wanted to achieve in life. This realization came to different users in various ways, however.

For George, now a graduate student at the Peabody Conservatory, it was a need to focus on his musical training and the appeal of real-life pleasures and challenges that convinced him to stop using. He found he could no longer spend 20 hours at a rave and still be prepared for his weekly lesson. As an aspiring musician, his ability to concentrate and to evolve on his instrument was compromised. Forced to choose between fun and his future, he made what he considers to be the right choice. "It was time to grow up," he says.

For Michelle, a junior, it was the need to take responsibility for her life. "Being screwed up is only fun for a certain amount of time," she says. "My grades were slipping. It was a decision to trade fun for maturity." However pleasurable the use of ecstasy was for her, the experience with the drug became repetitious and ultimately empty. The daunting tasks and responsibilities of adulthood, while frightening, proved more alluring than the pleasures of ecstasy.

For Emily, a senior, one-half of one hit took her far past where she had any desire to go. "It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing that really shook me. I swore I'd never do it again," she says.

Crossing over

John's reason to quit ecstasy came vicariously. Sam, a friend from another school, was once at a rave, ripped on X and swaying to the throbbing beat. Interrupted by a sudden movement in the crowd, Sam glanced towards the floor to see a fellow raver convulsing on the ground, his body awash in the pulsing strobe lights, his screams drowned out by the unremitting techno music. By the time the EMTs had reached the boy, they were unable to revive him. The double dose of ecstasy he had consumed had given him a rapid, irregular heartbeat that had resulted in cardiac arrest.

Hearing this story shook John to his very foundation. A glimpse of what his future might entail was frightening enough to scare him straight. John has been clean for over a year now, and predicts that he will never resume his previous habits. "It took three hits to realize it, but it finally occurred to me that this was not what I wanted to do with my life," he says.




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