By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
January 22, 1990, was the day Olivia died. She was sitting in an idling Nissan Sentra at a traffic light, next to her toddler son. A car hit her going 80. It crushed her ribs and pierced her lungs. "Dead," the medics said. Even so, the doctors cracked open her chest and massaged her heart. They kneaded all of her back to life -- except for her memory, which stayed dead. Everything before the accident was erased. Olivia was freed from her old life the day the new one began.
From the start, it was a bigger, flashier, better life. After the accident, the small-town single mom grabbed her son, Seth, and headed for Houston, where she found a job at Anthony's restaurant, a haven for vogue socialites. The pretty, redheaded reservationist met Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and an affable wine dealer, whom she married in the Napa Valley in 1996 wearing a dress designed by Vera Wang. Houston Chronicle gossip columnist Maxine Mesinger mentioned it twice.
Two years later, Olivia gave birth to Scout. She could have become a full-time mom, but she wanted a career. She earned a real estate license and began selling $400,000 houses. "I worked with big-time socialites," she says, "big snooty women who were in the Junior League and stuff." She wanted to be in the Junior League, too.
But her family life was falling apart. Her wine-dealing husband swilled bottles at work and often chugged another two at home, passing out on the floor of her son's playroom. Although she was still in love with him, she moved out in 2002 and in with a friend. A gay man invited her one night to a party. She smoked something out of a glass pipe and felt an intense, euphoric rush, couldn't sit still and was a little paranoid. "And I was up for a couple of days after that," says Olivia, whose name has been changed, along with others in this story. "And I was like, 'What is this stuff?' "
" 'That's crystal, girl.' "
All of a sudden, Olivia couldn't get enough of it. She and four-year-old Scout moved that summer into the gay man's apartment, where she smoked crystal meth with him constantly, rarely slept and hit every after-party she could find, wearing a Prada backpack full of drugs. "I lost myself," she says. Care of Scout fell to whoever was around: friends, family, sometimes near-strangers. Methamphetamine erased her thoughts and worries. For the second time in her life, she felt like she was starting fresh.
Three years later, Olivia is leaning over a table at a Montrose cafe, her hair prematurely gray, her hands twitchy. She stopped using meth less than three months ago and ran headlong into a past that hadn't gone away, that had instead sprouted into a two-headed monster. Seth, her 17-year-old elder son, recently told her that he's a meth addict, too. He wants to move to Beaumont and go on a drug binge. Olivia fears she'll relapse if she struggles too hard to keep him at home. So she's left the job of swaying Seth up to his drug counseling group, which is meeting with him right now a few blocks away.
"Hopefully they're going to talk him out of going back to Beaumont," she says, "because I can't do anything."
Only a few years ago, meth was a scary drug injected by burly, tattooed men in motorcycle gangs. Truckers called it speed and crank and downed it on red-eyed coast-to-coast hauls. They still do, but the typical meth user is now almost as likely to be a soccer mom. Beginning in California, the meth trend has swept eastward. And it's increasingly wreaking havoc on regular families and their children.
"It's just everywhere," says Investigator Robert DiMambro of the Houston Police Department's Methamphetamine Initiative Group. "And I think the mind-set of the public now is that they're not scared of it. They are not scared at all."
In fact, busy moms often feel like meth makes them sexier wives and better parents. It suppresses their appetites and helps them stay up for weeks. They can party at night and focus with tireless obsession during the day on whatever chore comes to mind. "There's nothing you couldn't do," says Sarah, a New Caney mother of three. She once stayed up three days straight on meth, making uniforms for her son's Little League team.
But just as easily, meth moms slip up. Sarah lay down for a quick nap just before the game, slept ten hours and left the team stranded. Meth users can crash for days, forcing their kids to fend for themselves. Paranoid, irritable and ultimately obsessed with getting a fix, they can forget to make meals or fly into a sudden, abusive rage. "Meth addicts don't care about their children," says Rusty Smith, manager of the Montgomery County Drug Court, where meth abusers dominate the rolls. "They don't care about anything. They just care about meth."
In a recent survey by the National Association of Counties, two in five child caseworkers reported that meth had led to a rise in the number of children taken from homes. Maria Mejorado, a Montgomery County Child Protective Services officer, has visited meth houses where parents long ago stopped paying for electricity, gas or water. Dishes are piled high in the sink. She estimates that 30 percent of the children she takes in come from families wracked by meth.
Meth worms into families remarkably quickly. A month after Olivia started using the drug, she began employing her sales skills to peddle crystal. Seth moved in with his grandfather. Olivia neglected her real estate job to work at a Montrose clothing boutique -- a drug front -- where she once sold a solid pound for $18,000. It was a good value. Compared to crack, meth's high lasts ten times as long.
But it's not always a blissed-out rush. Olivia's meth-fueled life quickly became an intricate web of paranoia. She and Scout moved into a hotel that she called Sketchland with a drug dealer named Chris and another she called Skanthony. She grew convinced that they were being monitored by the hotel's pigeons, which were really robots equipped with video cameras. Once, when she hadn't eaten or slept for days, Skanthony took her through a Jack in the Box drive-thru. They fell asleep at the pickup window. Olivia woke up and saw a blinking woman holding her food. "And then I look to the right," she says, "and there's a pigeon!"
Through all of this, Olivia says, she remembered to feed Scout. In return, Scout, who chose his own name for this story, earned his moniker. His young eyes were adept at scouting for certain makes and models of cars that Olivia believed to be tailing her. Sometimes she would drive all the way to Brenham and back, just to make sure she'd shaken them. Or she would abandon the car entirely and call someone to pick her up.
That's not to say she was cautious. By mid-July, she hadn't slept for two weeks. She strapped a bag of meth to her crotch, flew to San Diego for the gay pride parade and partied at the Warwick Hotel. She logged a full month without sleep and dropped 20 pounds. "I would just sort of keep bumping it," she says, "a little at a time, a 20-bag."
Even through the haze of debauchery, however, Olivia sometimes thought of uniting with her elder son. "That was my total dream," she says, "for us to be in a home together."
But there were more pressing concerns. Summer ended and school began. Scout suddenly had a schedule. Olivia still didn't. Driving to pick him up one afternoon, she blacked out at the wheel. Her Suburban barreled across Shepherd, crumpled into two parked cars and was totaled.
Meth first took off in places where traffic was thin and roads were scarce. In the 1980s, dealers used volatile chemicals to produce the drug themselves in rural barns, trailers and shacks, which often exploded. Modern labs are equally combustible, but much more compact. Set up by amateur chemists in bathrooms and kitchens, they yield meth at a fraction of its street cost. Montgomery County cops have busted hundreds of them. "These small labs are done in the place where you live," says Lieutenant DiMambro. "You can be cooking in a beer bottle on a stove while your kid is sitting nearby eating corn flakes."
"Meth users and cooks are not the cleanest or most aware people," says Jenny Gomez, a child counselor in Irving who founded the Texas Alliance for Drug Endangered Children. Gomez has seen the toxic legacy of meth ingredients that are left strewn around homes. This spring, a girl in Dallas swigged from a Mountain Dew bottle filled with the toxic meth precursor acetone. It scalded her esophagus. In June, a small boy in Wichita Falls drank from the wrong coffee carafe. Doctors found his stomach was filled with sulfuric acid, anhydrous ammonia and lithium.
Many kids are exposed to meth without even touching it. Smoke and vapors from labs permeate entire houses and are absorbed through the lungs and skin. Children removed from such homes often test positive for the drug. A Texas law enacted in this session subjects any parents who keep kids near meth labs to possible charges of child endangerment.
The labs are so dangerous that DiMambro and other cops enter them wearing gas masks and plastic hazmat suits. Acids soaked into carpets and bathtubs can fry the skin. Caches of ammonia can destroy the lungs. Pots of lithium can explode. And yet all of these meth precursors can be purchased over the counter -- in common cold medicines, camera batteries, fertilizers and the strike plates of matchboxes. "They are going to Wal-Mart, they are going to Walgreens, they are going to Home Depot," DiMambro says. "They get high for a while, and then they go collect again."
The ease of producing meth has fueled its spread from the country to the far suburbs. Sarah, the New Caney meth mom, cooked in suburban motels. A hose came off a jar one day and set fire to her room in a Super 8 in Cleveland. She and her boyfriend fled. Rusty Smith, the Montgomery County Drug Court coordinator, says most people who come through the program are on meth. And the drug is making inroads into Houston. About 10 percent of Mary Covington's Harris County Drug Court cases are now meth-related, the program manager estimates. In the metro Houston area last year, cops seized 200 pounds of the drug, 20 percent more than three years ago.
In some suburban enclaves, meth has produced virtual orphans. A meth-addicted neighbor in Sarah's New Caney town-house community locked her five-year-old daughter out of the house every day so she could get high. One day, the child wandered into Sarah's house, where she fished a slice of stale bread out of the trash can. Sarah twice found her asleep in an upstairs closet. Such problems are harder to detect in semirural areas, where cops and caseworkers are scarce. Mejorado, one of 17 CPS workers in all of Montgomery and Waller counties, finds that many parents stay on drugs because they don't have access to detox centers. "It's pretty frustrating," she says.
Meth users may not care about their children, but they keep popping them out. In 2002, the five-year-old's mother became pregnant. Her friends pooled their money and gave her $600 for an abortion. She spent the money on meth instead and had the child. Pregnant again nine months later, she shot meth on the way to give birth at the hospital. CPS confiscated the infant for a month because it tested positive for the drug. Studies of meth babies have found they are, on average, more likely to be stillborn, have lower IQs and exhibit behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, aggression and inability to focus.
Still, kids are often the last barrier between their mothers and the rock bottom of addiction. When Sarah finally gave up her children, she stopped just smoking meth and took it through more potent injections. The veins in her arm collapsed, so she shot it into her neck and head. "The guilt that I have from losing my children is just unbearable," she says, "so it's easy to turn to dope; it's easy to say, 'Hey, I'm getting high, that's why I don't have my kids.' "
Antidrug advocates in Texas hope a new law that went into effect last month will cut down on meth abuse. It limits over-the-counter sales of cough medicines that contain the meth ingredient pseudoephedrine. A more stringent law enacted in Oklahoma last year resulted in a 15 percent reduction in the number of kids taken from meth labs. Even so, child-care workers in the state say the decline was overcome by an increase in children found not in the labs but with meth-using families.
The clampdown on meth labs in Texas will at best simply shift production across the border to "superlabs" run by Mexican cartels, many drug enforcement officials say. The Drug Enforcement Administration in Texas already reports local increases in the supply of potent Mexican meth, known as ice or glass. DiMambro says there are too many different ways to smuggle and cook meth to ever eradicate the drug. "I'm gonna be dead, you will be dead, and my kids will be dead," he says, "and there will be meth here."
In late 2002, Olivia was riding in an Acura Legend with Chris, the meth dealer, heading down Graustark to pick up Scout from Poe Elementary. Cops pulled them over, saying they looked suspicious. Olivia convinced the officers to let her walk to Poe to get her son. A few minutes after she left, they opened a safe in Chris's trunk and found meth. He went to jail indefinitely. Olivia worried the cops would track her down.
She pulled out a phone book and called the Watershed, a rehab program in Florida. Scout stayed with Skanthony while she went through a monthlong detox. Chris, now free, picked her up from the airport at the end of the month and drove her straight to Sketchland. She almost immediately took a hit.
Meth is incredibly hard to kick. According to a University of California study, 94 percent of meth addicts relapse. "I'm still dealing with the same people I was dealing with 26 years ago," DiMambro says. "If they haven't died."
The drug house was also a magnet for Scout, but in a different way: It was a fun place to play. Chris, who was gay, longed for a real family. He joined Olivia and her son for dinner every week. He called it family night. Chris and Scout played with dolls and held tea parties at Sketchland with stuffed animals. "I liked Chris's because there's Barbies," Scout says. "There's food."
Thinking back on the kind of men who passed through Scout's life, Olivia worries that he could have been molested. Meth floods the brains of users with the pleasure-triggering hormone dopamine, often making them sexualized to the point of obsession. Starting in the gay community, it has been a popular fuel for orgies. "Unfortunately, you can paint a picture of Dad's high as a kite, or boyfriend, Mom is passed out -- she's crashed -- and 12-year-old female is sitting on the couch," says Gomez, the child counselor. "That happens a lot, where kids are actually victimized by members of their own family."
Drug counselors have said Scout shows no signs of having been sexually abused, though Olivia can think of plenty of times when he could have been. "I did the best I could," she says. She tells herself that often.
Olivia moved out of Sketchland in early 2003 and into an apartment, where she struggled to stay clean. Without her income from dealing, she relied on food stamps. Without a car, she walked Scout to school every day. And without meth to sustain her high, she fell to lows of depression. Olivia suffers from bipolar and attention deficit disorders. Off the drug, her mind jumped around and she thought about killing herself.
So Olivia took more meth. Unable to pay rent, she quickly lost her apartment. Money also came due on a storage garage full of her life's possessions. She and Scout watched them hit the auction block. Scout lost his bed from IKEA. Olivia lost a tea set handed down from her Bavarian ancestors, an antique highboy chest and a ship in a bottle that her blind grandfather had built by hand.
Her heirlooms weren't the only things being lost. She grudgingly agreed to let her father keep Seth for another year. And her health was also slipping away. A year of hot-railing meth -- torching it through a Pyrex pipe straight into her nose -- had permanently damaged her septum. Asleep in the house where she and Scout now lived with another dealer, she sounded like a chirping bird. She gave up smoking for shooting. "I was a sketchy little girl," she says. "Just crazy I was once again just filling that pain and that hole with getting high."
Olivia needed a fairy godmother. And she knew who. Peter, a prominent River Oaks hairdresser, was recovering from a relapse. She called him. He hired her as his personal assistant. And she and Scout moved in with him. Olivia organized his life. And Peter kept her off meth and functioning. He drove Olivia and Scout around Montrose with stuffed animals buckled into the backseat of his Mercedes. When she was too depressed to get up, he literally pulled her out of bed. He joked that she was being a "bratty cat."
By spring of last year, Olivia's life was looking up. Her drug counseling group sent her on a monthlong scholarship to the Menninger Clinic, a top drug recovery institute. She emerged nearly cured of her depression. Her father bought her a car. She landed a job managing and leasing an apartment complex, and moved into a discounted, $900-a-month flat there with a slate floor and double crown molding. One day, she was driving with her mom to Brenham. "I lost everything just two years ago," Olivia told her, "and I'm accumulating everything back now. I've got a job and a home, and I'm doing it all on my own."
Her mom cried.
A few months later, her father called from Deweyville, outside Beaumont. Seth was missing. He had been wide awake for days and erratically in and out of the house -- she knew the behavior. She sped to Seth's school with the local sheriff and traced him to a drug house in nearby Orange County. Seth pulled up with friends just as she arrived. The sheriff told him he could go to his grandfather's house, his mom's house or jail. Seth chose jail.
In jail, Seth confessed to taking meth. And Olivia leveled with him. She told him that she had sold Tupperwares full of it. That its lingering effects were why her hands now twitched uncontrollably. That she had smoked an eight-ball of it a day, enough to knock him cold, and still craved more. She begged him to enter a drug treatment program. But he said a fucking drug dealer had no right to tell him what to do. "You know what," Olivia said, "if you don't want help, I'm out of here, I'm leaving."
She drove back to Houston, wracked with guilt. "I felt like I had done this to him," she says. So despite everything that had been going right for her, that night she went back to shooting meth.
Meth runs in the family. Whether deep in the Piney Woods or deep in The Woodlands, it comes back for seconds and thirds. "I've done whole families," DiMambro says. "I work on Daddy, Mama, kids, and then I work on their kids."
Parents sometimes do nothing to keep their children off the drug; some are even their pushers. Maggie, who was 14 at the time, was sitting in her family's travel trailer in Buffalo, Texas, when her stepdad walked in. "He was like, 'Hey, Maggie, want to try some speed?' "
Soon, she was joining her parents every morning for breakfast and a hit. "They'd shoot up or whatever and I would smoke half a gram off foil," she says. "And we'd just sit there and have breakfast and then go on about our day. Or if we were in a hurry, I'd put, like, a quarter-gram in a paper towel or in a piece of bread or a pill and swallow it."
Meth helped her study, made her a more energetic cheerleader and loosened her teeth, allowing her braces to straighten them faster. "It seemed like to me it was a positive in every direction," she says.
Emphasizing the drug's negatives isn't always a deterrent, either. Olivia has done her best to drive home meth's ill effects for Scout, whom she involves in her drug counseling sessions. But even if children know drugs are bad, experts say, they often will resort to using them in their adult lives at the first sign of stress, simply because drugs are familiar. Eight-year-old Scout, for example, is a dictionary of meth terms and sometimes calls Olivia "tweaker girl."
He is also remarkably sociable. Sitting with a visitor, he busts dance moves to music from his mom's cell phone, picks it up when it rings and admonishes callers from her drug counseling group. Riffing on a familiar tune, he sings: "We are gay-amily!" Family for many meth kids is often haphazard, making it hard for them to know whom to heed or trust. "Just saying you only need to go with safe people, they don't know what that means," Gomez says, "because the person in their lives who was supposed to be the safest never was."
Yet as far as Seth was concerned, Olivia was his safest option. Released from jail, and then a detox program, he finally drove to Houston early this summer. Olivia was clean again and ready to help him. Soon after he moved into her apartment, he left a seven-page letter on her pillow detailing his life on drugs. She found a job for him in the Galleria at Abercrombie Kids. Her dream of wrapping her arms around both Seth and Scout had come true.
One night in July, Seth told her a story about a teenage friend in Houston. A gay man invited the teenager and a group of young guys to his house. The man gave them meth and encouraged them to have sex with one another. The man took pictures. The straight guys could bang a prostitute who lived there. Olivia said, "Really?" Seth enrolled in her drug treatment group a few days later. He told her that evening that the teenager had been him. And the gay photographer knew her. He'd been part of her scene.
About a week later, Olivia attended her last rehab meeting. She'd been clean 65 days and was graduating that night. Everybody in the program stood in a circle, passed around a keychain and told her something inspirational. At the end of the circle, the keychain came to Seth. He gave it to her. "You've shown me the way," he said. "You've shown me that people can change."
But Seth was going down a different path. He came home late at night, breaking Olivia's curfew. "I knew immediately that he had started doing crystal," she says. It was late July. She confronted him. And he threatened to move out.
After his own rehab meeting about a week later, Olivia says, her son's mind was made up. He would drive south with her sister and walk out into life on his own. He would stay with no one in particular. He would wander. "I live my life moment by moment," he told her. "I really don't know where I'm going."
Olivia said she would hold on to his stuff. That he could always call her. That she loved him very much. That she'd be here for him when he was ready to come home.
And she let him go.
Sitting beneath a tree in Hermann Park, Olivia clutches a towel and speaks firmly. "I know he will make the right decision," she says. "And he just needs to hit rock bottom. He's not ready to get clean and sober. I think he thought he was, but he's not. He's 17 years old."
Olivia and Scout squeeze into a front row at Lakewood Church and sit with ten gay men, most of them recovering meth addicts. They're here early. The stage lights are still dark. Background singers in the shadows slip in sound checks. "We've got the glory," they sing tentatively.
Olivia is also testing out her faith, feeling out the idea that her life is destiny. During her drug rehab, counselors had brought her back to that day her life faded to black. She and Seth were in the mangled car. Her heart was frozen. Olivia doesn't think God saved it just to break it again. He wanted to make it stronger.
And so Olivia swallows her sadness. She will help the people who want her help. "I'm here for a reason," she says of her life on meth, "and I totally believe it's to reach out to people about this stuff."
The stage comes to life, purple, white and yellow. Olivia swings her hands to the music in wide claps. The pastor says he believes sick minds can be healed. Bodies can be replenished. "We believe that when we leave here," he says, "we'll be better than when we came in."
Scout is standing among the trunks of legs, struggling to see through the crowd. He trips and falls. Bending down, Olivia brings him toward her and tightly hugs him to her chest.