I Was Addicted To Meth For 7 Years And No One Had Any Idea

"I always made sure to look the part of a smart, together, confident young woman. People who wear glasses and pantyhose don’t do meth, right?"
The author at 23. "This is before I took fen-phen or meth," she says.
Courtesy of Hannah Sward
The author at 23. "This is before I took fen-phen or meth," she says.

Ever since I was a little girl, I never felt enough. Not pretty enough. Not smart enough. Not thin enough.

When I was 24, I began taking a diet drug combination called fen-phen. It not only suppressed my appetite, but it gave me energy and focus. I lost 10 pounds in just a month. A year later, it was ruled unsafe and taken off the market.

I gained the weight back. I became preoccupied with losing it again. Although I was not conscious of it then, I see now that part of my obsession with losing weight stemmed from the core belief that I was not enough. I thought being thin would fix that.

I was “dating” a bad boy at the time. Our relationship only lasted a summer, but we were together long enough for him to introduce me to methamphetamine, which he sold. I hardly drank and had never done any drugs, much less one that was considered so addictive and dangerous. But my boyfriend told me that I wouldn’t have any problems — and that it could help me lose weight. Those were the magic words I wanted to hear. Though I was nervous, I told myself that it would be OK and I could finally be free of those 10 pounds I’d been trying to shed. I wasn’t going to smoke or inject it — I’d just snort a line or two — so how bad could it be?

I’ll never forget the first time I tried it. I crushed it up and cut it into lines with my library card on my yellow Formica kitchen table. I remember the burn up my nose. My heart racing. My blood pulsing through my veins. The rush of adrenaline. I felt alive, smarter, prettier and — within just a few weeks — thinner. I not only lost the 10 pounds, but I felt so good that I decided to go back to college.

My plan was to quit doing meth after my first semester. The first semester turned into the second, the second into the third, and before I knew it, a year had passed. That scared me. I tried to stop, but when I did, the exhaustion, anxiety and depression that rushed up inside of me was so severe that I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t get to class. I convinced myself that I needed the meth to study, to get through college, to pass classes that I wasn’t good at, like math. On meth, I was hyperfocused. When I was taking statistics, for example, I’d stay up all night typing out equations even though the teacher made a point to tell me that it wasn’t necessary. On meth, I couldn’t not type them out.

The author at 33. "This is while I was taking meth," the author writes.
Courtesy of Hannah Sward
The author at 33. "This is while I was taking meth," the author writes.

I worked at a yoga studio while I was in school. When I didn’t have the money to buy meth, I’d steal $50 from the cash box to pay Kasper, a drug dealer I’d met through my ex-boyfriend, in the parking lot behind the studio. Then I’d do lines in the bathroom off the top of the metal toilet paper dispenser while the class meditated.

Bathrooms were my thing. I knew every bathroom — good ones and bad ones — from East to West Los Angeles, and I always kept the tip of a McDonald’s straw in my purse to snort the meth. Nobody ever caught me stealing or using.

After I graduated college, I got a 9-to-5 job at a law school with fluorescent lights and no windows in my workspace. By that time, after using meth for four years, living in “real” time was unbearable. An hour on meth is not the same as an hour without it. When you’re high, all of your senses are aroused, all of your endorphins are pumping, and your adrenaline is running. When I was on meth, whatever I was doing was all-encompassing. Time goes fast — very fast — and you’re completely dialled in when you’re tweaking.

By that point I knew I had a problem, but I wasn’t ready to tell anyone or to ask for help. I tried to quit on my own by calling in sick to work, sleeping for three days, and only getting up to use the bathroom and eat a family pack of Red Vines or a stack of pancakes. But without meth, every minute was excruciating. I had no energy. No endorphins. There was just the heaviness. The dread. The depression.

I always made sure to look the part of a smart, together, confident young woman. I wore Tahari suits from a used-clothing store, stockings and glasses that I didn’t need. People who wear glasses and pantyhose don’t do meth, right? I was a hard worker, and I stayed hours after everyone left work to transcribe the dean’s interviews, do his expenses, and file things that needed to be filed. On meth, I loved doing anything related to organising. I was productive. I was proud of what I was achieving, even if I was scared of how desperately I needed the meth and what happened if I tried to quit it.

When I wasn’t working, I was high at home and spent countless hours scrubbing the tiles on the kitchen floor, arranging the clothes in my closet by color, or taking apart my doorknobs. I would go to Home Depot at 3 a.m. because when I was high, anything to do with home repair was interesting. The lighting and nail aisles were my favourite.

Underneath everything was self-hatred. Shame. Isolation. I remember looking at a photo of myself as a 6-year-old that I kept on the table beside my bed and thinking she would be so disappointed in the woman I’d become. She looked so sad in the photo, and I imagined it was because of what I was doing to myself — to her. I finally had to put her face down in my closet, where we couldn’t see each other.

The author at 6 years old.
Courtesy of Hannah Sward
The author at 6 years old.

I had a boyfriend at that time and I loved him, but sustaining any kind of relationship was impossible. There was too much wedged in between us: the sneakiness, the lies about where I was going when I went to meet my drug dealer, the questions about why I had been up all night. It’s still hard for me to believe that he, my family and the few friends I had didn’t know what I was doing. They knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what. And I don’t think any of them would have guessed I was using meth.

Any colour I had in my face had vanished, and I was left with a dusty gray pallor. My blue eyes were glazed over and turned black — all pupils. I was painfully thin and had what they call “meth mouth”: no saliva, grinding teeth, my jaw constantly clenched. My teeth were eroding. By that time I had been on meth for seven years, and I’d spent thousands and thousands of dollars getting high.

Then, one day, I quit. I don’t know why that day and not any other. All that morning and afternoon, I had been tearing apart the thorny branches of bougainvillea in front of my house. I hadn’t planned on “gardening” — I had simply gone to take the garbage out wearing nothing but an oversize White Castle T-shirt. I remember zeroing in on and pulling off one branch, and then another and then another. I wrestled with the bushes for hours — barehanded, parched and having to go to the bathroom. I didn’t care about anything but the task I had set before myself.

I finally tore myself away after the sun had set. I went inside to pee and to get some water. As I entered the bathroom, I caught my reflection in the mirror and was startled to see that it looked like I’d been attacked in the jungle. My arms, legs and hands were all scratched up. Dehydrated, sleep-deprived and my heart thumping against my chest, I collapsed on the bathroom floor.

That was the last day I did meth. Quitting was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Just like when I had tried to stop before, the exhaustion, the depression, the anxiety — any feeling I had — seemed intolerable. After all, I had been running away from feeling anything for almost a decade. I discovered that a glass of wine offered me some relief.

Having never been a drinker — and having used meth, which I considered infinitely worse for me, for so long — I was not worried about wine. I had no fear that one glass would turn into a bottle and that bottle would turn into two. But that’s what happened, and it happened fast.

Two-Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s became my thing. “Having another party?” the grocery clerks asked. I began to go to different locations to avoid their questions and suspicion.

"This is me nine years sober," the author writes.
Courtesy of Hannah Sward
"This is me nine years sober," the author writes.

Alcohol quickly replaced the meth. That had obviously not been my intention, but I suddenly found myself drinking two bottles a day. At that point I had been working at the law school for three years. Without meth, working became harder and harder. Without meth, my productivity vanished. I dreaded being stuck in that windowless office.

At first, I kept my drinking to after work only. But within two months, I was running off campus at lunch to drink. I hoped the mouthwash and gum I was using hid the smell.

As the dread of facing hour after hour — of facing my life sober — intensified, I drank more and more.

I dropped my workload to three days a week. Even then, I frequently called in sick. Or I called and said my grandmother had died. Then my cousin. Then it was my car — it wouldn’t start. It was one lie after the other until there were no more excuses left — no one left to die. So, I quit my job. I just couldn’t do it.

I thought about doing meth all the time, but the fear of going back to it kept me from relapsing.

By that time, my boyfriend and I had broken up. Though I had somehow kept my meth use hidden from him, he knew I was drinking. We began fighting all of the time, and then it was over.

My family didn’t know how much I was drinking. They believed I was simply going through a hard time and that once I was doing better, I’d drink less.

I tried to stop drinking, but whenever I was sober there was just so much self-hatred. So much despair. So much loneliness. I was drowning in my feelings, and I kept going back to alcohol to numb myself. Without a job, I lived off what little savings I had, but I knew I was quickly going to run out of money. I was terrified.

One afternoon while drunk, I placed a Craigslist ad looking for a sugar daddy. I told myself it wasn’t sex work — that I was just looking for an “exclusive,” mutually beneficial arrangement. I found two eligible men. I met both of them twice a week for the next three months. I drank more and more. I threw myself away over and over again.

"This is me, 11 years sober, at the launch party for my memoir," the author writes.
Courtesy of Hannah Sward
"This is me, 11 years sober, at the launch party for my memoir," the author writes.

I hit a breaking point. I hated myself more than I ever thought possible and finally began to look for help. I was still seeing the sugar daddies when I found a therapist. I went to see her once a week, and for the first month I didn’t drink before the sessions, only after. Then I started drinking before and after. I told her about everything — the meth, the stealing, the lies, the men and how much they paid me. I even told her about the drinking, but I lied about how much. That was my secret — only it wasn’t. Not really.

One day before my session, I had a few drinks. I didn’t think my therapist would know, but she confronted me immediately, saying, “If you keep coming in like this, we can’t do the work.”

I heard her — this beautiful, older woman with her flowing skirt, sandals and turquoise rings. She reminded me of the women I’d see on a Sunday morning at the farmers market buying organic basil and sunflowers. She was the kind of woman I wanted to be.

Staring at my therapist’s feet — her toenails glossed ballerina pink — I thought of the photo of myself as a little girl that I had hidden in my closet. Tears came streaming down my cheeks and I began to shake. I knew I needed help. I’d known for a long time.

My therapist told me about a community of women who also struggled with addiction. The very next day I sat in a circle of women who shared their stories. I hardly heard a word that anyone said, but I sensed I was in a place where it was OK not to be OK. I could not stop crying.

I kept coming back and listening to women talk about their deepest, darkest secrets, and how they eventually turned their lives around. I’ll never forget a woman who pointed one of her long, purple, sparkly nails at me and said in a raspy voice, “Honey, a time will come when you will no longer regret the past or wish to shut the door on it.” I wanted to believe her — to someday have all of the pain that I’d been through be worth something — but I wasn’t sure she was right.

I thought of all of those years I’d spent locked in the bathroom crushing crystals. All of the drinking. The middle-of-the-night trips to Home Depot. Selling my body. The shame. The self-loathing. All of the years when I’d turned away from loved ones. And all of the years I’d turned away from myself — from the little girl I had left face down in the closet. I was petrified that I would always regret my past. I didn’t know if I was brave enough or strong enough to change, but I wanted to try. I wanted it more than anything I’d ever wanted.

The author in 2024.
The author in 2024.

I began to share my story. Women nodded and smiled, saying they understood and had felt the same way. They shared how, by taking estimable actions like making amends to all the people they had harmed, they were able to repair their past and learn to live with dignity and grace. Women shared how they too had stolen money and how, over time, they paid it back. These were the kind of women — like the one with the fancy purse and coiffed hair — I never would have suspected had stolen anything.

As scared as I was, I began following their suggestions. I quit doing sex work. I knew that if I kept doing it, I couldn’t stay sober. I got a sober job — a job that isn’t necessarily a career position, but that allows a person to make money while concentrating on their recovery. I started working at a friend’s pet food and supply store.

It wasn’t easy. There were many times when I wanted to use and drink again, but I would play the tape out in my head: I imagined myself doing that first line or having a glass of wine, and what would happen if I did. I visualised the ripped-up bougainvillea. I pictured the sugar daddies. I didn’t want that life again, and that alone helped me to keep from relapsing, but it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Now, after being sober for 14 years, I’m happy to say that the woman with the long, purple, sparkly nails was right: I no longer regret my past, and I don’t want to slam the door on it. My story has become my greatest asset. It’s what keeps me moving forward and how I help people who are stuck in the place I once dreamed of fleeing. Extending my hand to others — offering them my experiences and listening to theirs — has given me purpose. It’s changed my life and, hopefully, it’s changing other lives too.

A year ago, after a decade of writing and rewriting, I published a book about my addiction. It sits on my bedside table next to the picture of myself that I had kept face down in the closet for all those years. Sunflowers that I bought at the farmers market sit next to them. Now anytime I feel that I’m not enough, I look at that little girl and remind her that she is enough — more than enough. We all are.

Hannah Sward is the daughter of the late poet Robert Sward. She is the award-winning author of “Strip: A Memoir.” The book has received the attention of writers such as Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, Melissa Broder and bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt. Widely published in literary journals in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., her most recent work can be read in the Los Angeles Times. To find out more, visit hannahsward.com.

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