Ecstasy is the most popular street name for the drug methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA and many people mistakenly believe it is a non-addictive, safe, club-drug. These are extremely dangerous misconceptions. The term "harmless club-drug," is itself an oxymoron of gigantic proportions, as all illegal drugs have high-risk potential if only because their ingredients and potency are unknown factors. Studies have shown that ecstasy has many immediate health risks as well as some serious long-term ones and the potential to kill. These are the reasons why The Health Advisory Council and Port Counseling Center joined forces to present the lecture, "Youth Substance Abuse: The Lure of Ecstasy" at Port Washington Public Library on Thursday May, 9.
Rev. Aggie Lasetchuk, director of Port Counseling, opened the meeting by passing round a postcard that showed just 54 of the hundreds of different colored pills which are designer brands of ecstasy. The names, including, Popeye, Kermit, Batman, Superman and Pink Panther, reflect the young market this drug is aimed at. Ecstasy originated in the 1900s as an appetite suppressant and was used in pain management and psychotherapy treatment, until it was outlawed in 1985, when research showed that it interfered with normal brain functions. According to Partnership for a Drug-Free America, ecstasy use among American teens doubled between 1995 and 2000 and jumped another 20 percent last year. One out of every 25 eighth graders has tried ecstasy and while the abuse of other drugs is on the decline, ecstasy use has increased, with use by eighth through twelfth graders significantly increasing last year. A recently launched National Education Campaign hopes to reverse this ecstasy epidemic by ensuring people are aware of the huge risks they are taking. This was achieved with cocaine use, which has decreased nearly 80 percent since the mid -1980s, after a similar campaign.
Apart from the generic risks of taking any illegal drug, ecstasy has its own inherent dangers. It is part amphetamine and part psychedelic, which means it, has a stimulating effect on the central nervous system, whilst producing mild hallucinations and altered perceptions. Ecstasy works by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, a chemical that helps regulate, mood, aggression, sleep and sensitivity to pain. However, as an after-effect, ecstasy destroys the nerve cell that produces serotonin, which can lead to depression, attention deficit and memory loss. The over stimulation of the central nervous system can lead to malignant hypothermia, a massive over heating of the body, kidney failure, heart attack and permanent brain damage. These, as well as suicide attempts and unintentional overdose, can all result in death. In 1993, emergency room cases connected to ecstasy use numbered only 253; by the year 2000 this number had jumped to 4,511.
Whilst alcohol is not served at raves, these vast all-night dance parties for young people, revolve around new ecstasy culture. The youngest dancers are called "Candy Kids" and often wear fancy dress such as angel's wings. An ecstasy "high" is described as "rolling." People who have taken ecstasy increase their buzz by breathing mentholated vapors. Blowing the vapors into another person's eyes is called a "sea breeze." When the increased body heat becomes too much, the dancers can adjourn to a "chill room." Users also carry ice cubes and bottled water to cool down and suck lollipops to avoid the jaw clenching and dry mouth induced by ecstasy. Teams of young people are available at raves to test drugs for content and, in theory, safety. Regardless of what these young "scientists" discover about the drug, it is always returned to the owner to make the dubious decision whether to use it or not.
Thursday's audience was shown a recording of an Oprah Winfrey Show that allowed a scary insight into the world of ecstasy; one all parents should consider showing to their children before they are exposed to these dangers. One young lady who experimented with ecstasy was soon confined to a hospital isolation room because of severe paranoia, brought on through an ecstasy down. After receiving psychiatric and drug rehabilitation treatment, a brain scan showed massive holes in her brain, which the doctor described as resembling "the brain of a person who was 60 - 70 years old and had had multiple strokes." Another clip showed Ralph, who was 15 years old when he started using ecstasy. Within seven months, Ralph's tolerance to the drug was such that he was using 5 - 6 pills at a time. Ralph was filmed in a juvenile detention center where he is often incarcerated due to his ecstasy addiction, he said, "Ecstasy has become more important to me than my freedom." A rather gruesome part of the video showed an 18-year-old boy in his last death throws due to malignant hypothermia. He was in police custody when his body reached 110 degrees; he went into convulsions and died of heart failure. Warning signs that someone may be experimenting with ecstasy include constant motion, sweating profusely, a trance-like state, increased pupil size, inappropriate clothing for the weather and being transfixed on sight or sound.
Michael Astor, M.A., and counselor for adolescents at Port Counseling, explained why people use drugs and how we can prevent it. He said many drugs have the ability to make us feel happier, acceptable and accepted and often more able to speak our minds. He said it is a symptom of our society not functioning well in today's high-pressure conditions that we turn to drugs rather than each other. Whilst peer pressure can play a role in the decision to take drugs, studies show that the stronger the family connections, the less effect peer pressure will have. He said parents and teachers need to be honest in their communications with adolescents and not be judgmental. Even if an adolescent's views differ greatly from ours we must not dismiss them as invalid because this will eventually shut down the passage of communication. This stops the natural emotional outlet for a child who may look for an alternative release in drugs. Astor also pointed to the education system which is geared to achievement at all costs and where performance requirements and stress levels continue to increase.
One of the reasons ecstasy may be so popular with young people is it mimics the type of easy happiness we experience when we are very young. Until the age of about 11 years, serotonin is naturally released into the brain in relatively high levels. Children at this age are very attuned to this feeling and know how to achieve it, which we see when they jump in puddles or spin on the spot. When the release of serotonin levels drop, an adolescent becomes confused as to why they no longer feel happy all the time but are not taught alternatives to achieving this state of happiness. What they do learn, through observing adult behavior with alcohol, anti-depressants and other drugs is that artificial stimulants can provide an easy high. Lasetchuk said, " Several parents feel it is safer to serve drugs, and that includes alcohol, in their home to their own children and other people's which is illegal. When these people call and suggest this as a solution to drugs on the street I find it necessary to keep them on the phone, for however long it takes, to talk them through this faulty logic." Astor pointed out that the drug culture has changed since the sixties and seventies when some of today's parents may have been experimenting themselves. He said, "Marijuana is now 80 percent more potent than it was back then and for some young people "experimenting" involves mixing 10 to 12 designer drugs at a time. Astor presented a couple of techniques, one a breathing exercise, the other a visualization, to demonstrate how simple it can be to control and change our mood and attitude without resorting to drugs.
During a question and answer session Lasetchuk said that today we are under increasing pressure to be many things but when it comes to our children and communicating with them, there is nothing more important than the here and now. She said that while some tasks cannot be put off we must not "make excuses with non-crucial activities" to avoid difficult conversations with our children. One lady asked, "Why isn't this room bursting at the seams? Drugs are so prevalent. Nassau County is in denial." Lasetchuk answered that many parents cannot imagine that their child will experiment with drugs and for others the stigma attached to drug addiction keeps them from attending the meetings. She said that in the past the talk has attracted over 700 people but admitted that Thursday's numbers, possibly less than two-dozen, were very disappointing. As well as advertising the event in local papers, more than 500 fliers had been sent home with children in the local school district and one health education teacher had even offered her students extra credits if they attended the meeting and brought their parents along too. Timing may have had an adverse effect on attendance; it was noted that there was a concert at one of the schools and the inclement weather had not encouraged people to come out. On a positive note, Lasetchuk said that those who had attended, now had more information at their fingertips and said, "You have influence with your family and community. Education is a very powerful tool."
The message conveyed by the meeting was that no one should assume they or their family are immune to the lure of drugs or that a child is too young to be targeted. That it is imperative to be aware of the dangers and make the skills available to children to cope with the stresses of modern-day life before drugs are seen as the only alternative.
As the meeting drew to a close a lady stood and spoke of her own experience as the mother of a child addicted to drugs from 12 years of age. She said "She was using drugs in my house for five years and I did not have a clue until the last six months when the symptoms were in my face." She said it was joining "Tough Love", a support group for parents, that gave her the courage and the tools to cope with her daughter's addiction and handle the situations that arose, in a way that stopped her family being torn apart. She hoped if anyone found him or herself in the same situation, he or she would be able to recognize the signs quickly and would seek help as soon as possible.
For more information Port Counseling Center can be reached at 516-767-1133 and the local Tough Love support group can be reached at 516-621-4557.