Ice and Addiction: Risk and Recovery
What is ice?
– The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, all too human.1
‘Ice’ (also known as ‘crystal meth’ and by many other names) is a common name given to the crystal form of the drug known as methamphetamine. Ice can be smoked or injected. Other forms of methamphetamine are known as ‘speed’ and ‘base’.
Methamphetamine was first synthesised in Japan in 1893. During World War II, it was widely distributed to American, German and Japanese soldiers in order to increase their alertness and stave off fatigue. In recent decades, methamphetamine was sold as over-the-counter or prescription medicine used to treat various disorders; today it is still sometimes used as a prescription drug to treat ADHD, narcolepsy and obesity. It has been a popular recreational drug in many countries since the 1970s.
Ice use is a growing problem. Tens of millions of people worldwide use some kind of methamphetamine.2,3,4
Ice can be highly addictive and have a destructive impact on the user’s physical and mental health, and on their personal, social and work life. It can also lead to serious conditions including psychotic episodes, depression, heart disease, stroke and even death.
Ice can be made in a relatively simple laboratory. Since it does not need plant-based components (unlike cocaine, heroin or marijuana), it is hard to prevent its manufacture and distribution.
People start using ice for a variety of reasons, including:
- To have more energy, enhance performance and concentration, and to overcome fatigue in daily life;
- Lifestyle reasons and peer pressure;
- As a form of experimentation;
- To enhance sexual experiences;
- To lose weight, and;
- To gain temporary relief from difficult life circumstances such as mental illness, abuse, poverty or ongoing distress.
Methamphetamine, and especially ice, is stronger and longer lasting than many other drugs. The effects of ice can last for many hours – which also increases its potential to cause brain damage.
Ice acts on chemicals in the brain, causing short-term and long-term effects.
Methamphetamine increases the levels of chemicals such as dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin in the brain and body. The rush of dopamine and serotonin gives the user an intense feeling of pleasure and wellbeing, while adrenaline activates the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, making the user more active, alert and aggressive.
Taking ice can cause:
- A ‘high’ – the user feels happy, confident, alert, energetic, restless and more aggressive. These feelings normally last for eight to 24 hours;
- Increase in sexual drive (libido);
- Loss of appetite;
- User is more talkative and sociable;
- Sweating, a high body temperature;
- Quick or irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure;
- Fast breathing;
- A dry mouth;
- Stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and;
- Blurry vision.
Once the effect of ice is over, the user ‘comes down’. Because the reserves of dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin are depleted, the user will feel the reverse of what they felt when high – very tired and hungry, and a significant drop in energy and mood. The user can feel depressed, sad, guilty and withdrawn. These feelings can last for days as the body replenishes its chemical stores, but may extend for much longer periods in heavy or regular users (see ‘withdrawal’ below).
To avoid the lows of coming down, many users will then take another ‘hit’ in order to sustain the high, leading to a pattern of use wherein the user goes on a binge that can last several days, taking repeated hits until they run out of ice and/or no further highs are felt. After such a prolonged binge, the user will normally collapse and sleep for an extended time – often one to three days at a stretch.
Some people using ice, especially heavy users and/or people who have taken a high dose of the drug, can act aggressively, even violently, towards others. They can experience psychotic episodes with paranoia, hallucinations and delusions.
With repeated use, the user can develop an addiction and will have strong cravings for the drug. Over time, the body builds up a tolerance to methamphetamine, meaning that the user’s body now needs the drug in order to function properly, and that larger and larger doses will be needed to achieve a high. Repeated ice use can cause brain damage, some of which can be permanent.
Effects of long-term methamphetamine use can include:
Behaviour and mood
- Anxiety and irritability;
- Problems with memory, concentration and decision-making;
- Sleep problems, and;
- Psychosis (hallucinations, delusions), especially when taking larger doses of the drug or for younger users.
- Coordination problems;
- Seizures or repetitive, involuntary movements of the limbs;
- Dental problems (known as ‘meth mouth’);
- Skin lesions;
- A sensation of insects biting or crawling over your skin (known as ‘meth mites’);
- Punding – making repetitive actions for extended times, such as searching through your purse for hours;
- Chest pain, heart problems, increased chance of heart attack and stroke;
- Increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease in the long-term, and;
- Increased risk of infections such as HIV and hepatitis C, through sharing needles.
Regular use of ice can have a serious effect on your family, social and work life. The mood changes that ice induces can create problems with your ability to work, study and manage personal relationships. It can also put a strain on your finances and get you in trouble with the law.
Ice and pregnancy
Newborn babies born to mothers using ice can suffer from:
- Ice withdrawal symptoms in the weeks after birth;
- Lower birth weight and smaller head size;
- Poor growth, and;
- Poor cognitive, behavioural and social skills later in life.
You may not always notice when someone you know is using ice. Some warning signs to look out for include:
- Behavioural and mood changes, as noted above;
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed;
- More aggressive behaviour;
- Problems at work or school;
- Being more easily confused and distracted;
- Interacting less with family and friends, and;
- Problems with money and unexplained disappearance of valuables from the household.
Behavioural changes due to ice use can have a destructive effect on your family and work relationships.
Treatment for ice addiction
At present, the most successful treatments are providing rehabilitation and support aimed at helping the user overcome their need for the drug.
Withdrawal from use is the first step on the road to rehabilitation. Withdrawing from regular methamphetamine use is not easy; the user’s body has grown accustomed to the drug, so stopping it causes a ‘crash’, which can include8:
- Feeling exhausted;
- Depression, apathy, being unable to enjoy anything;
- Anxiety, irritability and forgetfulness;
- Hot and cold flushes;
- Vivid dreams;
- Difficulty sleeping;
- Stomach cramps;
- Increase in appetite, and;
- Strong cravings for the drug.
These feelings normally peak during the first two days and can last for two weeks. Heavy users are more likely to experience intense and longer duration of withdrawal symptoms than less frequent users. Medical support can help to manage these symptoms.
There are currently no medications that can help to prevent the withdrawals; however, some of the psychotic symptoms can be treated with antipsychotic medications. Depression and anxiety can similarly be managed with antidepressant medications in the short-term. New approaches to counteract the effects of methamphetamine on the brain are currently in clinical trials.
Physical withdrawal is only one aspect of ‘kicking’ a drug addiction. Even after the user has become ‘clean’, they are likely to revert to using it again if the reasons and circumstances that encouraged their drug use are not addressed.
For this reason, seeking medical support is very important for rehabilitation and recovery.
Some treatments to help overcome addiction include:
Cognitive behaviour therapy
This is a type of ‘talking therapy’ that aims to teach people how to change their thinking and behaviour to gain control over their cravings and moods. This form of therapy has been most extensively evaluated and proven to be beneficial for a range of problems relating to ice usage, including depression and anxiety.
These focus on helping the user avoid habits, situations and people that may tempt the user to use ice again.
This type of psychotherapy uses the power of a person’s life story to shape their behaviour.
This approach involves treating the user for an extended period in a safe home-like setting. It can help structure a recovering user’s life, treat any underlying problems that may have led to ice use, and keep them away from harmful environments. It is usually offered to people with limited options and resources and difficult personal circumstances.
Family and group support
Having the support of close family and friends, or attending a support group with other people who are also fighting drug addiction, may also help people manage their condition.
Since addiction affects more people than just the user, support for ice rehabilitation can also extend to counselling and supporting the family members of users.
For support or more information
Your doctor or counsellor can help provide you with support or more information. You can also use the folllowing resources:
Counselling Online – a free online counselling service about alcohol and drug related concerns that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Kids Help Line or call 1800 55 1800 – a counselling service for children and young people aged 5–25 that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Reach Out – a website with information about drugs, where to seek help, how to help a friend, and many other youth related issues.
eheadspace or call 1800 650 890 – a free, confidential telephone and web-based support service for young people between the ages of 12 and 25 years.
Lifeline or call 13 11 14 – a 24-hour phone and online counselling service designed to help anyone through all problems.
Family Drug Support or call 1300 368 186 – for families and friends of people who use drugs or alcohol.
National Drug and Alcohol Service Directory – an online directory that allows you to search for treatment and support services. The directory also allows you to search for services that are free of charge.
Last Reviewed: 03/10/2018