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24 JANUARY 2001
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Ecstasy and our youth

So we’re sick of reading about drugs. Tough. The newspapers try to shock us with gruesome takes of ecstasy deaths – but the side-effects of 'E' can be equally scary.

In August 1998 17-year-old Rebecca Holton cheated death after taking two ecstasy tablets. Her lungs collapsed and she was put on a ventilator, but she pulled through. Fitness instructor Julia Dawes, 18, wasn’t so lucky. She took two ecstasy tablets while celebrating a friend's birthday just weeks earlier. Two days later she was dead. Her life-support machine was turned off when her parents were told there was no hope of her recovering from her coma.

Both stories brought back haunting memories of Leah Betts's death on her 18th birthday three years ago. Back then, her parents released pictures of their daughter’s comatose body to the media with the aim of shocking young people out of using ecstasy. For some, the harrowing photos did their job, and no doubt Julia's death and Rebecca's near-miss will have a similar effect. But it obviously isn’t enough to change the minds of the millions of teenagers taking E every week, who believe it could never happen to them.

Risky business
Experts believe ecstasy kills at least 20 Britons a year – most of them under 30. Compare this to the 33,000 alcohol related deaths a year in Britain, and it would seem that the papers are exaggerating the dangers of ecstasy, so what’s all the fuss about, and why all the hype? John Ramsey is head of the toxicology unit at St George’s Hospital Medical School in London, where information on drugs and their effects is collected. He told J17, “The problem with the publicity surrounding ecstasy is that it is misplaced. The media focuses on the sensational aspect “the deaths it causes “instead of the far more likely risk of long-term damage to the brain, the liver and the kidneys." The truth is, a few deaths might not frighten the life out of you, but the damage to the rest of your body could be hitting thousands of users because they’re not fully informed of the risks involved. Even scientists can’t be sure of the exact risks, but what they do know is that the chemicals in ecstasy alter a chemical in the brain, one which deals with moods and depression.

Mr Ramsey also warns that buying ecstasy is a lottery. “The drugs are made in places like garages and illicit warehouses all around the world," he says. “There’s no quality control whatsoever, so users have no idea what’s in them."

But it’s not just the experts who are warning about the dangers of ecstasy. Madison and Allison, two teenage girls who've used the drug, are well aware how it can seriously mess up your life. Luckily they both survived to tell their tales.

Allison's story
Allison started taking speed when she was 15 and worked her way through cocaine and on to ecstasy. By the time she was 17 she was taking up to six Es a night – sometimes four nights a week. “I started because I hung around with a bad crowd who were a lot older than me. Then my mum and dad split up and I had a lot of family problems, so I took even more as a way of getting attention."

"My first E took me some place in my head I’d never been before. I wanted to go there again but my tolerance levels built up, so I took more and more to get the same effect. Sometimes my mates and I would just sit in my bedroom, take E and trip out watching TV."

Allison had no idea of the possible side effects. It wasn’t until she was 18 and took a bad E that she found out the hard way. “I bought an E from a different dealer at a friend's barbecue “half an hour later it blew my mind. I was eating some fish and it suddenly seemed to come alive on the plate. I looked around and everyone was disjointed. I watched as a girl's head imploded, then exploded."

Half an hour later Allison was on the floor having convulsions and fits. “I was terrified. A few of my friends took me home and stayed with me all night. Nobody wanted to take me to hospital because they were scared of being done for possession of drugs. I was violently sick all night and kept having convulsions. All the time I was tripping like crazy. The street lights seemed to turn into dinosaurs and the stubble on my legs turned into spikes. I’ve always had a phobia of having a limb amputated and really believed I had no legs. I was absolutely petrified."

After this experience, Allison knew she would never take drugs again. Unfortunately, coping with the after-effects of her decision wasn’t as easy as she thought. For six months she hardly slept, she had bad panic attacks when she went to work or out with friends, she was depressed, had violent mood swings and couldn’t eat.

"My whole life fell apart. I couldn’t do anything. I was so paranoid I thought everyone hated me, and everything “even watching TV “frightened me. I felt like I was going completely loopy."

Allison's doctor put her on tranquillisers and anti-depressants and arranged for her to see a psychiatrist. In a couple of weeks her mood swings had calmed and she was able to sleep for up to five hours. The psychiatrist also taught her how to cope with her panic attacks by imagining calm surroundings and doing deep breathing. Three months later Allison was able to watch TV, although she still wasn’t relaxed enough to sit down, and she could go out for a couple of hours at a time.

She’s now 19, is into keep-fit and has a regular job. “I didn’t notice at the time, but while I was doing drugs I was an unhealthy, extremely moody person and only ever thought of myself. Now I’m much more considerate, I’m healthy and have a love for life."

She still suffers from bouts of paranoia though, and is unable to cope with any kind of confrontation. “I never watch violent movies because they turn me into a nervous wreck. And I never watch the news or read papers because I can’t cope with bad news. People reading this will probably think it will never happen to them but I reckon anyone who takes E is a human guinea pig."

... And kids at risk?

We asked Peter Powis, formerly on the editorial board of the journal Child and Youth Care and Director of Stepping Stones Addiction Treatment Centre to add any information of interest to our readers.

It is important to remember that E, like all drugs, affects different people in different ways. Some people may use E occasionally without wanting to use more and without developing a psychological addiction or harmful side-effects.

Children and young adults most at risk are those who have grown up in traumatic home environments and who are less emotionally stable; those with one or more parents who are addicts or alcoholics, and those with certain medical conditions such as epilepsy or heart disease. Kids who are going through emotionally unstable stages in their lives are more likely to want to use drugs to escape, but are also more likely to have negative experiences using E. Especially vulnerable are kids who have experienced a trauma such as a rape.

It is crucial to remember that unless one is involved in the manufacturing of the drug, one does not know what it contains. Sometimes the adulterants which are mixed with the drug combine with the MDMA to cause very disturbing experiences. Ketamine is one such adulterant which often causes experiences of extreme disorientation and sometimes fear and panic.

Madison's story
Friends introduced Madison to recreational drugs when she was 15. Two years later, when her boyfriend Jimi dumped her, her habit snowballed into regular weekend benders of clubbing coupled with cocktails of alcohol and Es. “I was so depressed I wanted to hurt myself," she says. “I knew taking up to four Es a night was dangerous but I didn’t care. I just wanted Jimi to take notice of me."

One day Madison was suddenly rushed to hospital after contracting Hepatitis A, a contagious disease which attacks the liver, causing jaundice and sickness. Catching it had nothing to do with taking ecstasy, but being in hospital gave her a life-saving opportunity to change her lifestyle.

Madison didn’t realise that ecstasy had altered levels of chemicals in her brain, causing hypomania, a condition which triggers severe mood swings, paranoia and depression. “I felt like I was going mad. My brain felt like a computer that was running too fast and I couldn’t find the “off” switch. My sentences were all jumbled up and I was rambling."

She was given tranquillisers to calm her down and anti-depressants. For the first week she was under 24-hour care in case she attempted suicide. “I only stayed in the hospital because I know I couldn’t cope with life outside. E had screwed me up so much I’d basically had a mental breakdown."

But Madison went through therapy and was discharged two days before she turned 18. “I’d gone from seven to nine-and-a-half stone, my hair was shiny and my skin looked healthy. I still had bouts of depression, but I wasn’t suicidal any more." Madison eventually hopes to one day become a counsellor herself and help other people who have drug problems.

Thrills with pills?
So is ecstasy a deadly killer? We know there have been about 60 deaths in the UK as a result of the drug, but if that’s not serious enough for you, experts say the real problems are long-term physical and mental ones. While millions of people gamble with their health and their lives every weekend, we leave it for you to decide if you’re willing to take the risk.

Some Ecstasy Facts

Ecstasy is a Class A drug and if you are caught using it or dealing, in most countries you risk a serious legal consequence. Other names for Ecstasy include “E", XTC, doves, disco biscuits, echoes, hug drug, eccies, burgers and fantasy – among other local names in many countries. Its chemical name is MDMA.

It is widely believed by users that Ecstasy is a relatively safe stimulant. In fact, the opposite is true: it speeds up the heart and blocks the communication between the brain and the major organs, so that the user does not receive the warning signals which the body needs to slow down “a dangerous situation which can lead to heat stroke, blood clots and brain haemorrhages in the short term. Its use has been linked to liver and kidney problems and depression, anxiety, panic attacks and nervous breakdowns.

Dancing tor a long time increases the user’s chances of overheating and dehydration. Drinking water prevents dehydration, but drinking too much can trigger a fatal brain swelling which is what happened to Leah Betts. Anyone who takes E should make sure they chill out regularly and sip about a pint of a non-alcoholic fluid such as fruit juice, isotonic sports drink or water every hour.

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