Meth use among women growing across the nation but often hidden

Monday, June 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ To outsiders, Debra Breuklander appeared to be a tireless single mother of three. She had an immaculate home in a middle-class suburb, perfect credit and was a homeroom mom at her children's schools.

She also was taking methamphetamine and selling the drug to make ends meet.

``I thought I was 'Super Mom' and I was doing everything right,'' said Breuklander, 43, now serving a 35-year prison sentence. ``In actuality, my thinking was so twisted. I was doing everything wrong.''

Breuklander is among a growing number of women who have abused meth, a highly addictive stimulant that produces a euphoria similar to cocaine, but lasts longer and is made from common household ingredients.

Experts and users say meth appeals to women because it's relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain, and it gives them energy to take care of their children or feel more efficient in everything they do.

``There's no comparable drug that we've ever seen as long as I've been in substance abuse that appeals to women as much as meth does,'' said B.J. VanRoosendaal, spokeswoman for the Utah State Division of Substance Abuse.

Nationally, women made up 47 percent of patients in substance abuse treatment centers who identified meth as their primary drug of use in 1999, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In Iowa, 43 percent of women entering prison in the first quarter of fiscal 2002 said meth was their drug of choice, compared with 29 percent of men. In fiscal 2000, it was 25 percent of women and 19 percent of men.

More than 40 percent of women arrested in the counties surrounding Honolulu and San Jose, Calif., in 2000 tested positive for meth use, a National Institute of Justice program found, and the figure was more than 20 percent in several other areas studied.

Miranda Charbonneau, like Breuklander an inmate at Iowa Correctional Institution in Mitchellville, said she turned to meth after previously using marijuana. It soon became an obsession for the then 16-year-old who had left school and was working.

Every day, the focus was, ``where I could get it, who I could get it from, how much was it going to cost me ... and what was I going to have to give up to get it,'' said Charbonneau, 23, who is serving 10 years for child endangerment.

``I gave up personal items with sentimental value. I sold a lot of my belongings ... I lost my car, I almost lost my job. I ended up losing part of my relationships with my family,'' she said. ``I began to steal to find ways of getting methamphetamine.''

Breuklander, a former nurse who was on disability for a degenerative back disease, said her relationship with meth began with financial troubles. Her boyfriend at the time was selling meth and she joined in, selling it to a group of friends.

``It all looked glamorous and wonderful and there was such a demand for it,'' she said.

``I think for a lot of women, especially single mothers, it gives you the energy that you think you need to keep the house, the kids, the yard, the cars, the groceries, the laundry, everything going,'' she said. ``At least, that's how it took me over.''

Sheigla Murphy, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Studies at The Institute for Scientific Analysis in San Francisco, said she started seeing women fitting Breuklander's profile in the early 1990s.

``There seemed to be a little proliferation when people started to realize that cocaine was trouble and that's when we started seeing more middle-class women drinking 'biker coffee,''' Murphy said. That drink is made by adding meth to coffee.

``A lot of women use it for performance things or weight control,'' Murphy said.

Women ``get into this for a lot of what many could consider to be good reasons,'' she said.

Women's meth use may initially be more concealed than that of men because of different reactions when they take it, said Arthur Schut, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Eastern Council on Chemical Abuse based in Iowa City.

Men abusing meth get police attention because they are more likely to be involved in assaults or to drive drunk. Women are less likely to do those things, Schut said.

Breuklander said everyone thought she was fine because she didn't look like a drug user.

``I did not look like an addict, I did not function like an addict, but I was an addict and that's a scary thing,'' Breuklander said.

Meth ``can cause you to look like you're highly efficient, highly effective in your daily living when in fact, you're going downhill fast,'' she said.

Charbonneau and Breuklander have been treated at a substance abuse program at Mitchellville and now are mentors there. Nearly 100 women are either in the inpatient care program or in after care, which helps prepare inmates for their return to the outside world.

Women spend their day in classes, therapy groups and live in a communal environment _ all in one room. The treatment is peer led: they give each other push ups _ congratulating each other for good behavior _ and pull ups _ telling each other when they do something wrong.

Breuklander is grateful to the program, but has regrets.

``I have three children. I have missed two of their high school graduations. I've missed their birthdays, I've missed important things in their life,'' she said. ``It ruined my life.''