Some nasty lesser-known side-effects of meth

Even after two years clean, I still have days when I miss using meth. Days is a bit of an overstatement. Perhaps I should say that there are days when I still have moments where I think of the good times but not the bad times. This happens especially when I write anything about the old days on a forum, or talk about it. So I have to remind myself just how bad it was. One way I do that is to imagine what will happen if I use again. (I haven’t done anything about the CBT therapy mentioned in that post – no longer think it’s necessary. But the numbered list where I break down what will happen if I use, is accurate.) Another way of dealing with my bias towards thinking of the good memories while ignoring the bad ones is to force myself to think of the bad memories. Today, I want to focus on a few nasty but lesser known side-effects of meth.

Forgetting random words

This is the worst one of them, but ironically when using, meth addicts get used to it and don’t take it seriously. It’s something that should be taken seriously because it is a clear sign that the drugs mess with your brain.

On meth, one of the first side-effects you notice, and then soon ignore, is your tendency to forget random words. Random words from your long term memory seem to fly away, out of your mind. (Pun intended, of course.)

It’s only temporary, but is really strange and I don’t know exactly how it works. Any words could be forgotten, and normally you don’t realize they are missing until you’re speaking, when in mid sentence, the word you want to say is just not there. It’s like your brain has a dictionary and needs to perform a lookup. You know what you want to say and you know the meaning of the word, but the brain’s internal lookup returns nothing. (Most probably that is exactly what happens, but I’m only guessing. The memory is there, but somehow the drug temporarily breaks the brain’s ability to lookup, to recall that memory.) Then depending on what type of word it is, or how high you are, you might substitute a synonym and have nobody notice, or maybe you’ll laugh like a gleeful goon. The latter is more common, of course.

When I was staying with my girlfriend for about a month, one fine Thursday morning I woke up to go to work, and realized, to my complete surprise, that I didn’t remember her name. (Yet nine years later I do remember it was a Thursday. As stated, I don’t know how this works.) Just like that – it was gone. Her name was Megan, and I knew that there was a girl at work with a similar name, Meggan, but try as I might, all I could remember was that there was a girl at work with a name just like hers, differing only in spelling. I could not remember what the name was. I tried as hard as I could to remember, but failed. I even told her, and asked her not to tell me, and of course it freaked her out. (Imagine how fucking retarded that sounded after waking up next to her for over a month: “I can’t remember your name! Wait, don’t tell me; don’t tell me…”) But I did not remember at all. I went to work, opened Outlook and opened up my contacts, and only reading the name of the girl at work brought my memory back.

If that isn’t a sign that meth fucks with your brain, then I don’t know what is.

You temporarily forget other things from long-term memory

This has to be related to the forgetting of random words, because both of these are issues with long-term memory. I’ve heard others mention short-term memory loss, and it was a big thing for many of the others where I attended rehab originally in 2010, but I had no such effects, so I’m guessing that not everybody does. But random long-term memory loss, while high on meth, is common.

Sometimes I’d be driving to work, and realize that on that day, I did not remember a particular stretch of road. Not the whole route, just some random part of it. Even though I drove there every day, it would seem like I’d never been there before. This only happened when I was very high, and would always be accompanied by a sense of amazement. (Like, wow, this life is an adventure!)

I felt kind of like a fish with a ten second memory, swimming round my tank that seemed new every day… Ooh, this is a nice rock…. Swims around it… Ooh, this is a nice rock! OK, the fish memory thing is a fallacy, but it suits this story well.

Again, those memories would return later, but this is something I should have taken seriously. (Both this and the section above refer to things that happened to me around 2005 and 2006, by the way, in the first year that I used.)

Too busy tweaking to pee

Around 2008, when I worked for a company called Global Vision as a developer, I had some trouble waking up in the morning… So I often worked late to make up for it. At least, that’s what I told people at the time. In reality, I was tweaking on my work, unable to stop until a couple of hours after everybody else had gone home.

I’d sit at my desk, thinking I just want to finish this… then find something else that seemed just as urgent, then something else, for the whole day. In a large code base, there are always things that can be improved, refactored and refined. Always. Any developer will tell you that. But normally, and when the developer isn’t out of his mind on crystal meth, only the high priority bugs and features are attended to. There is grave risk in going ahead with huge, sweeping code changes, especially at lower levels of complex API’s or frameworks, where changes to the lower levels bubble up through layers of abstraction or some code is reused in unexpected ways that aren’t obvious but have far reaching unintended and negative side-effects. (A cynical programmer will tell you that adding new features also always introduces new bugs, as does refactoring of any non-trivial code.) There’s considerable risk when any developer does this, never mind someone high on meth. But I couldn’t stop myself. (I was fortunate there to have much of my code confined to projects for which I alone was responsible, and through blind luck my tweaking code changes worked.)

Eventually I’d snap out of it around 7 or 8PM, with Megan calling me frantically and asking why I wasn’t home yet (because she was either paranoid and worried about me, or she wanted more meth as there was none left – “we” always finished it in the morning; otherwise she’d use it all while I was at work), and realize that in my tweaking preoccupation with the code, I’d been too busy even to get up and go to the toilet. Then just before going home, exhausted, embarrassed and desperate for my next hit, I’d stand at the urinal, stand there taking an agonising five minute piss.

Muscles cramping

I didn’t know until a few days ago, but muscle cramping is a symptom of amphetamine poisoning. I’d often get irritable bowel syndrome because the amount of meth in my system caused several muscles, especially abdominal muscles, to cramp up. It was so painful sometimes, I could barely walk.

I knew other addicts with similar problems, except they would go to their doctors and be treated for symptoms that were actually drug-induced. (Not everybody in medicine or even psychology is able to recognize the effects of addiction. People are also often incorrectly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, when in reality their mood swings are normal reactions to their drugs. Then they become attached to their bipolar diagnoses, even in recovery.) I realized that my symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, though indistinguishable from symptoms of the “real” syndrome, were caused by meth, but as stated I only read that those are symptoms of amphetamine poisoning a few days ago.

Numb feeling skin, formication and a scratch reflex from Hell

This past weekend, I went to the barber. After he cut my hair, he also used the clippers to trim my eyebrows, which led to a numb sensation in my skin around my eyes. This sensation reminded me of the numb feeling I used to get on meth, and the reminder is my reason for writing this post.

It’s hard to explain, but on meth my face would often feel numb. Numb and overly sensitive at the same time. Also I’d get a numb feeling in my fingertips. The combination would lead to a strange tingly sensation that I can not explain, when touching my face. Also, I’d get pimples and dry skin. So I’d tweak on touching my face, as well as picking at the pimples.

Actually the effects on my fingertips did not end there. Numbness would progress to pain. My fingertips were sometimes bruised and sore for days at a time, making it difficult to fasten buttons, pull up my fly, or anything requiring delicate control with the fingers.

Another effect that was particularly disturbing was formication (not to be confused with fornication), defined as the false sensation of flesh-crawling bugs. It’s also known as meth bugs or coke bugs. Typically it feels as if insects, like ants, are crawling over your skin. Megan used to insist that there were fleas or ants in the bed, and would not understand, no matter how much I explained it to her, that the sensation was a side-effect of meth. (Our cats and dog had no fleas. I always made sure of this.) This can cause excessive scratching by addicts, with unpleasant results like skin rashes and infection. The infection causes more itching, which triggers the scratch reflex again, but the scratch reflex is possessed by the meth demon in addicts as they end up tweaking on scratching. Even applying skin creams doesn’t work when you’re on meth, because that tingly sensation you get when touching your skin causes even more tweaking on excessive application of skin cream, so you block the pores and do more damage while spreading the infection.


That’s all I can think of for now. Note that the above are not consequences of using meth. They are side-effects that are common and become a normal part of everyday life, and anybody using meth has to live with them. But they’re the type of side-effects that are quickly forgotten, even though they shouldn’t be.

It may be worth noting that some people experiencing the side-effects mentioned notice the effects, but do not realize that they are caused by drug-use. They blame other things, or as mentioned above, think that they have irritable bowel syndrome or that their mood swings when their hedonic systems go up and down are symptoms of bipolar disorder. This is, I believe, because of two things: They use drugs every day and don’t realize it’s a problem, so the side-effects seem “normal” to them; they are in denial that they are addicts, so they don’t face the reality of the effects of their addiction. As stated many times, I believe that addiction is a choice, not a disease. But nobody chooses to be an addict. They choose to use drugs, and then deny and try not to think about their addiction.

When I used to attend meetings and interact with other recovering addicts, which I don’t do anymore, I noticed that nobody ever mentioned these side-effects. I’ve also noticed that other recovering addicts often don’t seem to remember the details of all that happened to them in their time using drugs. Sometimes my detailed memory of all those things seems like a curse, that I remember the unpleasant details so many seem to forget, and relive them as if they happened only minutes ago. But it’s a blessing in disguise. Though I have to remind myself, as long as I do so, I can never forget that the negative effects and consequences of using meth were considerably more significant than the positive ones, and it helps me to stay clean. I hope that anyone reading this who experienced the same can use this post as a gentle nudge to their memory of what everyday life on meth was, and that it can help deter them from ever wanting to go back.

Also, nobody tells you about these effects before you try using meth. I wonder if knowing about it beforehand would make any difference?

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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