Meth-Induced Psychosis- en Español: Fond Memoirs of an Ex East Oakland Therapist
The city of Oakland, California is famous as one of the top five most dangerous cities in the United States and is referenced in rap songs, home to the Oakland Raiders with the wildest fans, and has distinctly different neighborhoods, ranging from north Oakland that houses some of the best Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants- to Rockridge, a neighborhood of rather affluent people and expensive boutiques. In east Oakland, the neighborhood of Fruitvale is heavily populated by Latino immigrants, fruits stand on corners selling tropical fruit topped with hot chile and lime, a lady yelling out all the flavors of cream she can fill your hot churro with, and the “elote” (corn) guy with the horn and bells on his cart that people run outside just to flag down. There is a large amount of poverty, crime, highly stressed households, and low paying jobs. Due to the stressors of living in a dangerous city with frequent gun shots in the distance, robberies at gun point, and lack of mental health services, street drugs serve as the remedy for many to escape from the overwhelming environment and economic struggles.
I worked as a therapist in east Oakland for the last few years and the amount of people complaining of psychotic symptoms seems to have skyrocketed dramatically. Whenever a client reports to me that they are hearing voices, seeing moving shadows, feeling radiation, or having paranoia and delusions, I always check for meth to rule it out. Why? Meth is one of the most commonly used stimulant drugs right now due to its low price, lasting high, and abundant availability. Studies show that the use of methamphetamine can induce a psychotic break and leave someone with a lifetime of symptoms appearing very much like schizophrenia even years after stopping meth use. The majority of folks that start to show psychotic symptoms from an organically occurring psychotic illness is around age 19, give or take a couple years. When I see someone older say they just started hearing voices, I have to investigate.
A gang-affiliated Mexican female who grew up in deep east Oakland once told me in a session “What the fuck, Grace! This is bullshit! I used crystal before and it didn’t make this happen? I can’t stop these creepy ass voices telling me to do nasty shit! It makes me just wanna do it so they shut the fuck up! Then I yell back and them to shut the fuck up and then people think I’m loca.” Some people can use stimulant drugs for years and have no psychotic break but for the unlucky bunch for whom it triggers a break, antipsychotic medication and therapy for coping with psychosis are often required to alleviate symptoms.
Medication compliance can be tricky with folks who are new to taking psych meds and there is often a sense of shame around what it means about oneself to take psychiatric medication. This is particularly common in the monolingual undocumented Spanish speaking community who often report, “Pues Graciela, no me gusta tomar pastillas” (Well Grace, I don’t like taking pills). Culturally, its odd to take pills and natural remedies are preferred, not limited to doing a “limpia,” a cleansing using burning herbs performed by a traditional healer. Some try religion and church to see if they can get relief and “pray away” the radiation from the F.B.I. who, apparently, have been parked outside our therapy session for the last hour.
Methamphetamine, crystal, crank, ice…whatever you call it was referred to as “azucar amarga” (bitter sugar), by a Salvadorian male who developed psychosis after feeling intolerable sadness and abandonment after his girlfriend cheated on him and got pregnant by the other man. He stated that he was saving up for an engagement ring for her and would talk about having children together who could go to college in the U.S. and have the opportunities he didn’t have. He worked a minimum wage construction job where his boss called him a “stupid Mexican,” reminding him of the major cultural tension between his country of origin in Central America and Mexico. “Lo odio cuando me llaman Mexicano” (I hate when they call me Mexican), he commented, triggering his memory of being robbed and pistol-whipped when passing through Mexico on foot in the sweltering heat, trying to make it to California. He would share that he would sometimes hide in the “porta potty” to text her that he loved her and referred to her as “mi reina” (my queen). In Spanish he told me, “I feel like meth is comparable to my ex-girlfriend…they both were beautiful, thrilling, and seductive, but ruined my life and left my mind forever fucked.”
If you or anyone you know needs help with meth you can contact,
Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) www.crystalmeth.org
Call 211 to ask for local substance abuse treatment resources
Phone your health insurance company to gain a referral
Grace Pacheco, MFT is a bilingual psychotherapist with a private practice in Pinole, CA and sees individuals, couples, families, and performs psychological evaluations in collaboration with immigration attorneys. You can learn more about her by visiting her website at www.EastBayAreaTherapy.com