On the surface, Debra Breuklander was a hard-working mother of three, a nurse, with an immaculate home in a middle-class, Midwestern suburb. But she had a secret.
That secret — an addiction to the cheap and easily obtained drug methamphetamine — cost Breuklander everything, and it earned her a bunk for 35 years in Iowa's Mitchellville Correctional Facility.
"It takes ahold of you and no matter what kind of super mom you want to be it will take you over," Breuklander told Good Morning America.
Sheigla Murphy, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Studies at the Institute for Scientific Analysis in San Francisco, says that methamphetamine — often called "meth" for short — is the drug du jour for some super moms who are trying to have it all.
"When they begin to use methamphetamine, they feel more energy, they feel more mastery, they feel like they can get it all done," Murphy said. "They can take care of their kids, they can do their job, sometimes two jobs. They can meet what is for many women today, an almost impossible ideal."
Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that can be smoked, snorted or injected. Some women mix it with coffee, calling it "biker coffee." The drug produces a euphoria similar to cocaine, but lasts longer, and is made from common household ingredients. Studies have shown that it damages brain cells, and that the damage persists even months after people stop using it.
Also known by the names crank, ice, speed or crystal meth, it is a drug more commonly associated with teens at rave clubs. But in 1999, adult women using meth made up 47 percent of patients in substance abuse programs.
A Woman’s Drug?
A woman's role of taking care of the children and working puts them at particular risk for trying the drug, Murphy said.
"Speed [one of the drug's nicknames] is a drug that people get into for functional utility," said Dr. Drew Pinsky, a substance abuse expert and an ABCNEWS' contributor. "Women today have unique circumstances. They're expected to be all things, all the time, and that's unrealistic. Not only are they juggling job and kids, but they are supposed to look good, and keep the weight off."
That was the case for 35-year-old Cindy Nichols, a divorced mom with two children. She is now a recovering methamphetamine addict who has been clean for seven years, and is working as a full-time counselor at a California recovery center.
Nichols, who had used meth in high school, really began using it in earnest after she got married and became a mother. It made her feel good, "like she could do or be anything," Nichols said. In addition, she was thin without ever having to work out because the drug kills hunger.
Now, Nichols looks back in horror at the things she would do while on the drug, believing that it actually made her a better, more focused and energetic mom. She worked at a family fitness center, and would baby-sit her own and other children while she was high, Nichols said. She also drove a car with her children as passengers while she was high on the drug.
Five years after the heavy use of meth started, Nichols was at the bottom of a long decline. She was divorced, on welfare, living with her two children in a single bedroom house, with a car that barely ran. Drug use was the main factor in her divorce. On Mother's Day, 1995, she finally woke up and decided, "I can't do this anymore," and that was when she decided to quit the habit, Nichols said.
The Price of Having It All
In Iowa, where Breuklander is incarcerated, 43 percent of women entering the prison system this year said meth was their drug of choice, compared to just 29 percent of men.
"You're supposed to have it all," Murphy said. "You're supposed to work at a job and take care of your family. And initially, women feel that methamphetamine helps them to achieve this."
Breuklander, a former nurse who was on disability because of back problems, said she got started on meth because of her financial troubles, and because her boyfriend was selling it. But no one would have known she was an addict by looking at her.
"I was continuing to function, which made me a functioning addict which to me made it even worse because I didn't see that I had a problem," Breuklander said.
Now she has turned her problem around, is clean and serves as a mentor to the nearly 100 women in the Iowa prison who have "been there, done that," and are paying for it.
Pinksy said that family and friends can look for various signs of methamphetamine addiction.
A key one is paranoia, a preoccupation with people close to them, such as family members or co-workers. Other signs include irritability, long periods of sleeplessness and increased motor activity (they can't sit still).
Methamphetamine can cause chest pain, high blood pressure and hypertension, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Some experts have linked use of the drug by pregnant women to a host of problems, including stillbirths, premature births, cardiac defects and persistent cognitive and behavior problems.
Recovery from meth addiction or any other type can't be forced, and can only occur when the person is ready, Pinsky said. But staying clean is relatively easy for meth addicts, because it doesn't have withdrawal symptoms, other than for women craving the return to what they think is perfectionism.