Household drug abuse: Inhalants
Michael could always explain everything. The glue in his room was being used for a school science project. The spray paint cans were left over from recent work in his tree-house.
“I was like most parents. I wanted to believe him,” says Debbie, mother of the then-14-year-old. “I’d ask him, ‘What’s this glue in this little baggie?’ And he’d tell me that the glue had a little leak in it, and he put it in there to keep it from dripping everywhere.”
Michael was struggling in school, and the question of substance abuse had certainly occurred to his mother. What never occurred to her, however, was that her son could do irreparable damage to himself without ever spending a dime or even leaving the home.
What never occurred to her was inhalants.
“Silicone glue — they call it goop — that was one of the first inhalants I tried,” Michael says. “From then on, I took it up all the time.
“Those things are a lot easier to get than other drugs, and it’s cheaper.”
Glue. Paint thinner. Nail polish. Spray paint. Gasoline. Felt-tip marker fluid. Propane. Whipping cream aerosols. Office correction fluid. Hair sprays.
All are breathable chemical vapors that can produce mind-altering effects. All sitting there in your kitchen or garage, quite reachable for kids as young as fifth or sixth grade.
Here at the outset of Red Ribbon Week — when schools and communities across the country take a stand for drug-free lifestyles — some things are fairly apparent about the teen drug scene. Marijuana is still king, tobacco and alcohol the long-standing gateways, Ecstasy and club drugs the devastating, high-visibility newcomers.
But seeping very quietly around them all are the vapors of cheap highs and often-catastrophic lows. A 2000 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicated that 17.9 percent of eighth-graders had tried inhalants, and 9.4 percent of them had used inhalants in the past year.
The substances are legal, easily available, and capable of doing more serious damage to the body than many of the seemingly “bigger” drugs.
“You know, you can’t (overdose) on marijuana,” says Dellena Hoyer-Johnson, outreach coordinator for The Effort, a downtown Sacramento drug and alcohol treatment facility. “But if you sniff paint enough, it can kill you. … I’ve seen a 17-year-old kid who sniffed paint, and that kid could not even function because his brain was so fried.”
Hoyer-Johnson understands the lure well. Years ago, as a fifth-grader, she began a long substance-abuse odyssey herself by sniffing fingernail polish. She has been clean for 11 years now, but she still sees the seductive effects that inhalants have on pre-adolescents in particular.
“This stuff is so accessible for children,” she says. “You don’t have to have somebody go to the store and buy it for you. And of course, it’s a gateway for many of them. They usually go on to (abuse) something different.”
Two factors make “huffing” particularly menacing to a family: Parents don’t often think of everyday household products as a substance-abuse threat, and youngsters tend to categorize inhalants as a lightweight, generally harmless kind of buzz.
Both perceptions are far from the truth. Huffing highly concentrated amounts of inhalants can result in heart failure and death. It can also cause suffocation, with the vapors displacing oxygen in the lungs and causing breathing to stop.
“Inhalants are some of the most dangerous drugs you can use,” says Jon Daily, an alcohol and drug counselor for New Directions Counseling Associates in Fair Oaks. “It’s what’s called Sudden-Sniff Syndrome, and it does a lot of brain damage because of the way it affects the nerves.”
For young Michael, the cumulative effects were plenty scary. He had frequent nosebleeds, frequent blackouts and increasing loss of short-term memory.
“One morning he passed out in the shower,” his mother said. “His sister started screaming, and I went in there and he was completely passed out, blood everywhere, squirting from his nose. I was scared to death.”
Michael’s destructive path finally ended when a friend came to his mother and laid out the truth about his substance abuse. Debbie thought about the glue, the baggies, the spray paint and Michael’s unexplainable behaviors, and knew in an instant that it all added up.
Today is Michael’s clean and sober birthday, marking two years since the 16-year-old last got high on anything. His nostrils, he says, have been cauterized four times, so destroyed are all of the tissues within.
“Honestly, I knew of the risks,” Michael says. “I just didn’t know the extent of them.”
And neither do most parents — a trend that has to change, say drug treatment experts.