The high price of addiction

Chris Hamilton

Drugs are expensive. Any user can tell you that. But what is the real price of addiction? The loss of a career, a marriage, family connections and freedom are all costs an addict could incur when they spiral downward into the whirlpool of drug abuse. Methamphetamine – also known as meth, crystal, ice, chalk, crank, glass, speed, tweak, and a dozen other names – is a highly addictive stimulant, and users will tell you there is nothing that will cause you to get caught up in that vortex of self-destruction more quickly. Chris Hamilton can vouch for that. From electrical engineer to drug abuser to meth cook to prison inmate to industrial painter, Chris’ journey has been a bumpy one.

“I struggled with drug addiction as a teenager,” Chris said. “I did acid, ecstasy tabs, coke. I was into the party scene, the club scene.”

In spite of his early drug abuse, Chris went on to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2000. Upon graduation, Chris secured an engineering position with a local utility company. He said during that time, he did drugs casually, on occasion when going out with friends, but was really not a hardcore user. However, Chris pointed out, that casual drug use opened the gate to abuse and led him into the world of methamphetamine.

Chris was out to get high one day and went to one of his dealers to score some cocaine. Unfortunately for Chris, his associate was all out of coke, but he had something else. He had meth.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “(Methamphetamine) is long lasting and toxic to dopamine nerve terminals in the central nervous system. It is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder taken orally or by snorting or injecting, or a rock ‘crystal’ that is heated and smoked. Methamphetamine increases wakefulness and physical activity, produces rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure and body temperature. Long-term use can lead to mood disturbances, violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and severe dental problems.”

Chris decided to give the new drug a try, and soon he was hooked.

“Once I did meth, I didn’t want coke anymore,” he remembered. “Meth is a powerful drug. It quickly becomes a daily-use drug. You need it, and you feel like you need it so you can perform at a certain level. It’s so deceptive. With other drugs, you feel like you are out of control. You know you are out of control and want to avoid people. Methamphetamines aren’t like that. With meth, you convince yourself you’re OK, and you might even be better. You feel like you can go out to the store or to work, when you really have no business doing those things. You completely lose your sense of self-perception. It’s very dangerous.”

Chris said the onset of addiction came early in his use of methamphetamines. Within a couple of weeks of his first taste of the drug, he started learning to “cook” meth. Within a month, he was manufacturing the narcotic all on his own. He said for $200 he could produce about 28 grams of methamphetamine and sold the product for $100 per gram. So for $200, he could create approximately $2,800 of product. The profits were huge, but the real draw for him was the high. He started off cooking “large” batches, producing between three to four ounces at a time about once a week. Then, after a while, he needed more to get high. He started cooking smaller batches of approximately one ounce but much more frequently, once every two days or so.

“It’s a progressive disease. It’s like cancer,” he said.

Chris said that as a meth cook he became the leader of what he called his “tribe.”

“We always referred to ‘tribes.’ Usually what will happen is you will have a meth cook, and a tribe will develop around the meth cook, a group of leeches and hangers-on. The meth cook likes to have people around. He feels like he is in power; he’s in control. These are his minions, and he can make his minions do his will. These little tribes, they start to build up and group together. One group may become basically self-sufficient with one cook, and they’ll roll like that for a long time.”

Chris said he and his tribe went on that way for some time. He was using and selling, but the money would “go in one hand and out the other” because as the leader of his tribe, he was the one holding all the money. His friends would pay him for drugs and rather than going out by himself, he would pay for the entire group outing. He said he also felt a sense of responsibility to his followers.

“My tribe looked up to me,” Chris said. “I was the responsible one. They looked to me like I was the godfather of meth or something.”

Since he was the person selling the drugs to his tribe, he had to watch out for them in order to protect himself. As an example, Chris related a story of going to pick up one of his friends from his tribe. She called him from a gas station and told him she was afraid to get back into her vehicle after pumping her fuel because someone was inside the back of her SUV.

“I had to go get her,” Chris related. “She was standing there outside her vehicle at the gas station looking at her own reflection, thinking someone was in her back seat. As she would lean forward, the reflection would lean forward, and she was scared to get inside. Imagine what that would look like to someone if they saw her out there, leaning right and left, watching her own reflection move as she moved. The police could have been called. Then, what if they asked where she got the drugs and she led them back to me? No, I had to go get her.”

Chris said there are signs that could indicate someone is abusing methamphetamine.

“You will start to notice things like houses in the neighborhood where they party a lot and the parties stop just being on Friday and Saturday nights. You notice the lights are never turned off in the house. You notice the yard quits being mowed. Water starts getting turned off, things like that. For me, there were several times I had my lights turned off. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the money. I just didn’t think about it. You may think something minute is the most important thing in the world right now, and that is all that matters. It could be anything, like washing your car … for five days. It could be remodeling your house six times, or tearing your house apart thinking you are going to remodel it, but you never put it back together.”

Chris said due to his erratic behavior and the signs he mentioned, his family was suspicious something was going on with him, but he forced them to keep their distance.

“For the longest time, I just didn’t care,” Chris related. “I would do whatever, whenever. The more chaos there was in my life, the better. My family, they didn’t want to say anything because I would lash out at them. My friends, they were doing meth with me. I dragged every single one of them into my web that I possibly could.”

After approximately one and half years after veering onto the wayward path of methamphetamines, Chris’ manufacturing days came to an abrupt end. It was Feb. 23, 2005. He was cooking meth in his garage when he had a chemical leak. Anhydrous ammonia, a toxic chemical used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, was leaking in his garage, and the strong odor permeated his highly populated neighborhood in the West End of Beaumont.

“I remember walking into my house, and I knew I had a problem. I had spilled some of the precursor chemical, ammonia, in the garage, and it was strong. I mean you could smell it. I knew I might have a problem, but I didn’t care. I thought I would just finish doing what I wanted to do, you know? I remember walking back to my bedroom and I saw a car slam on their brakes real hard in front of my house. I thought, ‘I bet that was the cops.’ I kept doing what I was doing, and for about 30 to 45 minutes, nothing happened. Then, I heard a knock at my door.

“I asked who was there, and they told me it was the police and someone had thrown a brick through the back windshield of my car. They asked me to step outside to take care of it. So, I opened the door. As soon as I opened the door and saw how many police officers were on my front porch, I knew they knew what was going on. They were going to come in the house, and there was nothing I could do about it. I told them before they came inside they needed to stay out of the garage. I told them I had a problem with a chemical release and if they were not careful, they could get hurt. At that time, they started asking questions about why I had the chemicals. I told them I had been cooking methamphetamine in the house.”

Chris said he knew he was caught and did not want any of the officers to breathe in the toxic fumes emanating from the leaking chemical tank.

“The truth of the matter is, they were not out to get me,” Chris said regarding the officers who came to his door. “It was not personal. They were doing their jobs. It wouldn’t be right to hurt these people, these people who have families, and are just doing their jobs.”

Chris was arrested and taken outside. He said the extent of the trouble he was in was just hitting home.

“It was just overwhelming,” he said. “Fire rescue came out there, and they had a big chemical extraction team. You would have thought E.T. was in the house. They made me take off all my clothes and put them in a bag. Then, they put me in a jumpsuit. It was about that time that I fell to my knees. One of the officers was like, ‘Give him a minute. He’s having a come to Jesus moment.’ It was wild.”

According to Chris’ plea agreement released by former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas Matthew Orwig on May 16, 2005, officers discovered a 150-pound tank of anhydrous ammonia and numerous pieces of equipment and chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine. Chris pleaded guilty and received an 87-month sentence to federal prison.

Chris said he was “scared to death” on his first day in federal prison. He had run-ins with the law before and had even been arrested, but prison was different. Once he established a routine, though, Chris said all he had to do was wait … and wait. He said prison was more difficult for his loved ones than for him.

“Anybody can do prison,” Chris said. “What gets to you is what it does to your family. It’s not fair to them. It’s selfish and self-centered. You leave your family and opportunities behind. They worry. It’s just not fair.”

Chris was released in 2011 after serving 76 months. He said he relapsed after his release and was told he had to change or be sent back. He decided to change. He said he still struggles, but he is seeing a psychiatrist, taking anti-depressants and going regularly to a local support group.

Chris said he thinks his story made front page and television news in 2005 because everyone was so surprised someone like him living where he lived had a meth lab in his garage.

“This was so out of the ordinary,” Chris related. “It wasn’t a trailer park. I didn’t fit the stereotypes. I was a young, urban professional who owned a nice house in the West End of Beaumont. There were school kids and all types of people around, and here I was cooking methamphetamine in this neighborhood. It could have killed everyone. I am a prime example of how this can happen to anyone.”

The road to recovery can be difficult to traverse, according to Chris. He blames his methamphetamine abuse for ruining his marriage, creating strained relationships with his children and family and the loss of his career. He now works as an industrial painter rather than an electrical engineer. He said since his release, he applied for one engineering job, but when they asked about the gap in his employment, his honest answer may have cost him the opportunity. However, he said he is happy where he is right now and believes that in the future, when he feels ready, he may once again pursue his chosen career path. In the meantime, he is taking things one day at a time.

“I have a disease,” said Chris. “When I say I am an addict, I am serious. I am a drug addict. There is no question about it. Right now, I feel pretty good as far as my recovery goes, but it’s scary. It’s really scary.”