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Arts and Entertainment Thursday, Jun. 7, 2012 7 years ago

Zombies: Designer Drugs and Morbid Curiosity

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by: Stephen Warne

Zombies are not attacking, and at the moment there doesn’t seem to be a "zombie apocalypse" anywhere but on popular television shows such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead --- okay, and perhaps in the segments from the news industry that many refer to as "sensationalist media." There are no supernatural creatures, crazed by hunger and driven to madness by an insatiable thirst for human blood and brains. People aren’t spontaneously changing into sub-human creatures and attacking our population to sustain themselves and infect others.

Zombies just don’t exist in real life, but the brutal attacks occurring around the country do have one thing in common with supernatural "zombie attacks," it's that they are perpetrated not out of violent malice --- but because of a disease. In the case of the supernatural zombies, the disease is often one of contagion and portrayed as a horrible affliction that erases the personality of the victims and either turns them violent or takes away their ability to control their "animal nature."   With the recent "zombie attacks,"  our society seems to be wrapped up in the similarities between that supernatural mythology and the facts surrounding a real-life disease: addiction --- also known as substance abuse.

Thomas Glaza, LMHC, CAP, and Executive Director of  Tri-County Counseling and Life Skills Center, has a background in sociology, mental health and substance abuse. He currently works with addicts who seek to receive treatment and build life skills. I asked him why people seem so interested in zombies lately.

“People have always been interested in supernatural creatures --- anything that seems unnatural or unusual," Glaza said. "It’s a way to live vicariously through someone else’s actions or via fiction."

It does seem to me that our culture’s fascination with these attacks stems from some type of voyeurism. I even struggled with myself over whether to view the photo of the homeless Miami victim --- I’ll tell you this: I regret looking. There is nothing gained from seeing such brutality, but I wanted to see for myself. On the highway, this phenomenon is known as "rubbernecking," and in many ways it is an example of "morbid curiosity." But is this curiosity going to help the addicts, or can it even harm them?

“It’s just like any other thing we’ve seen in the past: When it's initially brought out that people are using unconventional substances to get high on --- everybody does the exact same thing," said Bill Carter, a case manager with First Step of Sarasota. Carter works with homeless individuals who have been dual-diagnosed with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

"If this is not an issue addressed and made public to each Community-Based Organization (CBO) and addiction treatment facility individually," Carter continued, "then we’re going to end up with an epidemic just like anything else. So, I think education of the community at large, and also education of the individuals that provide substance abuse treatment will help."

When researching this topic, I decided to ask an addiction specialist for the scientific explanation behind addiction and these recent "zombie attacks." I contacted Jeff Anglin, MSW, CAP. Anglin has been active in the substance abuse field for 20 years. With degrees from Denison University and Ohio University, he has worked in non-profit clinics and hospitals, and currently works in a private practice in Sarasota. I have known Anglin for about 10 years, and I have a great respect for his understanding of addiction and mental health. When Jeff speaks, I listen.

“Let’s get down to the question everybody is dying to ask: ‘Will using "bath salts" make me eat my spouse’s face off?’ Yes, but only under some very specific conditions," Anglin said. "You’ve likely combined it with other psychoactive chemicals, you’re already suffering from some preexisting mental illness and your spouse richly deserves it. Kidding aside, the truth is the person most likely to be hospitalized or die from bath salts is you. Symptoms you can expect from ingesting this drug are: hallucinations, agitation, suicidal thoughts, chest pains, high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat.”

Anglin went on to explain, “'Bath salts' is the street name for the latest type of designer drug. It comes in several forms and can be snorted, swallowed or injected. A designer drug is a derivative of an existing psychoactive drug that has been chemically modified with the goal of preserving the mind-altering properties of the original while skirting drug laws. In other words, if I can change a few molecules in the lab, I have a 'legal' drug that I can sell for low cost at high profit anywhere from convenience stores to specialty head shops. Bath salts contain two psychoactive chemicals that are synthetic forms of the Khat plant, which is typically found in East Africa and is illegal here. Why is it called 'bath salts?' Nobody really knows, but my guess is because it trips off the tongue easier than 3,4-Methylenedioxypyrovalerone.”

“I’m just now becoming aware of that one [bath salts], but there are several other easy-to-access materials that people have been using to get high off," Carter told me. "As a matter of fact, that’s one of our primary focuses right now at First Step: being able to provide services such as developing treatment plans for individuals using prescription drugs or becoming addicted to mouthwash with alcohol in it, or other nonconventional street drugs."

“Treatment for addictions are varied,”  said Glaza. “I’m a bit different. I lived in Europe for many years --- I was in the Navy for 24 years --- I see addiction as a choice, and you have to make the decision to stop. It’s about the behaviors, and if you can stop those, you can stop the drug abuse. Very few people I see are physically addicted to the substance of their choice.”

Whether you view drug addiction as a choice or as a disease, what can loved ones do to help the drug abusers in their lives?

“Loved ones have absolutely no power, unless the individuals themselves want to stop using. And then, if the individual wants to stop using, it’s always recommended that they get with one of the local treatment facilities, and first of all see about getting into a detox unit, because absolutely nothing can be done until they first detox off of the substance that they are using," Carter said. "And then after doing that, they should have an opportunity to meet with one of the case managers or professionals at that facility and end up getting some type of treatment plan --- and even longer care treatment if necessary,” he added. “First Step provides services for intervention, prevention and treatment of all substance abuse. Everything from alcohol, straight across the board, to any mind-altering substance.”

Clearly, there are options for treatment in Sarasota, but as Anglin told me: “One of the problems is that the stories we hear about the results of taking designer drugs sound suspiciously like Reefer Madness stereotypes, so young drug users tend to deny or minimize the threat. But those of us who are old enough to remember when the Hell’s Angels made fake Quaaludes laced with strychnine sit up and take notice.

"A complicating factor is that typically people who will try bath salts have already been immersed in the drug culture for some time," Anglin continued.  "Your aunt is not going to walk into 7-11 and say, 'Hey, I think I’ll try bath salts!' They’ve become inured to the legal and social prohibitions of using drugs, and even common sense has taken a hit. So you’re dealing with a population that isn’t going to listen much to warnings about this stuff."

As far as I could tell through my Google searching and research of this topic, there haven’t been any cases of violent drug-induced attacks in our community due to bath salts in particular. So maybe you don’t need to worry about being attacked. But as Jeff Anglin said, “You do really need to be worried about it. Think of the movie Multiplicity: Michael Keaton, a busy suburban dad and husband, makes a copy of himself to take charge of things while he’s at work. It works beautifully, so he makes another clone. And another. With each iteration, though, the copy degrades, with unexpected and calamitous consequences. It’s the same with designer drugs, but without the humor: You never know who made it, how far this version is from the original, the potency and what side effects you can expect. Substance abuse is my field --- I’ve been around long enough that I don’t consider myself an alarmist, but this stuff scares the bejesus out of me. I’ll stick to my current drug of choice: a Starbucks Skinny Vanilla Latte."

- For more information on Zombie Apocalypses, check out my reading list.

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