'I was in a bad, bad way'

Former meth addict Malea Gowins believes drug bust saved her life

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Malea Gowins had just injected half a gram of meth into her veins when she was arrested in Crestone for manufacturing methamphetamine.

She had her 11-year-old daughter with her. She was driving to the county jail to pick up her boyfriend, who she discovered had set her up.

She is not angry, saying the bust saved her life. It took the blinders off of a lifetime of drug abuse that began when she started using marijuana in grade school, popped pharmaceutical speed in junior high, and took her first snort of meth in high school.

Gowins spent a year in Craig. After serving six months in a Saguache County jail awaiting a disposition, she was sent to prison for eight months. She came to Craig to live at the Correctional Alternative Placement Services halfway house. She developed a support network of friends and found a 12-step program that has helped her stay clean. She intended to make Craig her home, but the local community corrections board has a policy that won't allow felons from other jurisdictions to remain here after their stay at CAPS.

Gowins says she misses Craig, the place where she started the road to recovery from a life plagued by drug abuse.

Lifelong problem

Drugs were always a part of Gowins' life. Her mother was busy holding down numerous jobs and used speed to stay awake, to work long hours and to get high.

Gowins said her mother had a "connect" at a nearby hospital who supplied the pharmaceutical speed her mother sold. As a young girl, it was Gowins' job to separate the "black beauties" into bags containing 100 pills each. After watching her mother and others pop the pills, Gowins decided to pilfer a few here and there. She swallowed her first pill in school one day when she was in seventh grade.

Gowins spent more than 20 years in the grip of numerous chemical addictions. She said she sometimes marvels that she is still alive.

"The amount of drugs that I was inserting into my system right before I went to prison is just baffling to me," Gowins said. "I was doing more than an eight ball (of methamphetamine) a day by myself ... which is three and a half grams. And that's just the speed. I was probably doing five or six 80-milligram OxyContins a day. I was a mess. I was in a bad, bad way."

Oxycontin is the trade name for the pain-relieving narcotic, oxycodone.

Gowins still has all her teeth, unusual for a person who poured so much methamphetamine into her body. She rarely ate, she said, but was diligent about popping vitamins each day.

When you're an addict, "you don't care about eating, clean clothes, bathing, as long as you're getting high."

She has gained 120 pounds since her arrest in 2002. Perhaps it's her body's reaction to going for years without regular meals. "I lived on SweeTarts and Gatorade," Gowins said.

She has a faint scar in the crook of her arm where she injected methamphetamine.

She used meth intravenously for eight years, but she was religious about swabbing her arm with alcohol and using clean needles.

For the most part though, she's starting from scratch.

She lost two daughters to meth. Gowins' brother adopted one, and the other lives with her biological father in Oregon. Gowins is a convicted felon, so she has to explain her past to employers who will even look at her resume. She's barred from certain professions. But she says she's happier than ever.

One of the best things is living without the constant obsession to get high, she said.

She enjoys watching DVD movies and reading books "without having to think about how I'm going to get high. That's one of the best things is not having to worry about where I'm going to get my next fix. Or if I'm going to have enough money to get an eight ball."

Consuming her life

During her 20s, methamphetamine consumed nearly every moment of Gowins' life. When she began using, it was tied to other activities. She and her mom would get "spun" and go rock hunting.

"I'm a huge rock hound," Gowins said.

Once, she and her mother got high on meth and went to a dump in search of lost treasure. They found a hole in the ground with hand-blown marbles buried inside. For hours, they dug for marbles. And when it began to rain, they kept digging with speed-induced zeal.

In the beginning, meth was tied to her social life. But as the addiction progressed, Gowins said meth became all that there was.

"I didn't take a day off of it for eight months before I got arrested. I was high every day; constantly, every day," Gowins said. "There were periods when I slept for a couple hours, but other than that I was up and going. I was totally insane."

Since her arrest, Gowins has talked to a friend who admitted being concerned.

"I saw her probably two weeks before I got arrested," Gowins recalls. "She said that she was really worried about me because I was twitching ... talking in clicks and snaps. I was bad off," she said.

She stayed up for days on end.

"I stayed up for three weeks one time," she said. "I almost killed my ex. I got totally paranoid, thinking the whole world was out to get me."

After that experience, she decided to try to manage her addiction. She still routinely stayed awake for as many as seven days in a row, but even in her dazed state she knew the human body has limits. She resolved to try to get at least one hour of sleep every day.

"I thought I was a functional junkie," Gowins said.

To a large extent, she was. She held down several jobs, mostly in the service industry. She worked seasonally for a rafting company.

And she worked high.

"Not everyone around me knew how much I was messed up," Gowins said. "Lots of times in my life I talked to officers high, and they never knew. I was good at hiding it."

She even got off meth for more than a year, when she was pregnant with her second daughter.

"I quit using two weeks before my second pregnancy."

She said she was clean through her pregnancy and months afterward.

But she had a violent relationship with her boyfriend. After one domestic violence incident in which she hit her boyfriend, the Department of Social Services took her daughter. Gowins was required to wear an arm patch that monitors a person for drug use. She insists she wasn't using when the arm patch came up positive for meth. Social Services took her daughter away. Gowins' brother later adopted the girl.

Downward spiral

Gowins is adamant that she wasn't using drugs when Social Services took her child. But the incident sent her into a downward spiral, she said.

'"Let's see how high I can get.' Gowins said she thought. "That's when I went on the mission to learn how to cook speed. I had like a mental breakdown. For a long time, I blamed it on Social Services. I blamed it on anyone else that I could. But it was because of my own addiction and my unwillingness to deal with my addiction that things snowballed like they did."

She learned the "red phosphorous" method of manufacturing methamphetamine from friends in Colorado Springs. Later, a man showed her a new recipe, called the "Nazi method," which is quicker. The Nazi method requires anhydrous ammonia.

"Lots of the materials you need to cook speed are illegal to buy in bulk," Gowins said. She needed anhydrous, which Gowins refers to as "andy."

"As long as I had my tank of andy in the back of my car, I was OK," Gowins said.

She used to drive to eastern Colorado at night to steal andy from stockyards of anhydrous ammonia tanks. She liked to pack her whole lab in the trunk of her car, along with several empty propane bottles, some fittings and hoses. She wore a gas mask. She would creep up to the tanks, fill her propane bottles and be on her way.

Safety risks

The very first time she cooked meth using the "Nazi method," she nearly went up in flames.

"I was on fire. There was battery acid and paint thinner all over me. I was literally on fire. My coat was on fire and stuff."

She was out in the middle of a field and something went wrong with the reaction. Luckily, she had a bottle of water and baking soda, which she carried to neutralize the chemicals she worked with.

"I just dumped it over my head and just tore my clothes off. I'm out in this cornfield, of course, stripping down, on fire. That was awful," Gowins said.

Most of the time, she was a careful cook. She used some safety measures, like the baking soda. Also, she knew enough to change out the brass fittings on the propane tanks with steel ones. Anhydrous ammonia can erode brass fittings. When the fittings fail, the pressurized gas inside can explode.

At a methamphetamine awareness seminar held in Craig, a drug task force officer showed shocking photos of that very situation. The photos showed a man whose lungs had been dissolved when anhydrous ammonia shot into his face.

Gowins became an expert cook, routinely cooking batches of four or five ounces of meth at a time -- a batch worth more than $6,000 on the street.

Sometimes she became inpatient or sloppy. Especially when she "was out of dope."

One night, three weeks before her arrest, Gowins caught herself on fire again. It was one of numerous close calls she had.

At one point in the process, she poured water into a mixture of anhydrous ammonia and lithium strips she had pulled out of lithium batteries.

"The lithium wasn't done cooking," Gowins said.

When water and lithium combine, it creates fire. When the fire hit the toluene, which held the solution of ephedrine she had pulled from over-the-counter decongestion tablets, it erupted.

Gowins was holding the mixture at arm's length. She was working outside, and the fiery toluene splashed onto the snow that was covering the ground at her Crestone home. She put the fire out and started the six-hour process over.

"I couldn't go to sleep at that point," Gowins said.

Getting arrested

Within weeks, she was arrested for manufacturing methamphetamine. While out on bond, she decided to run.

"I went and got everything to cook meth within three days of getting out of jail," Gowins said.

She headed for Cañon City. There, in a motel room, she was bubbling out another batch. But when a bond agent showed up to arrest her, the game was up for good. Gowins said she hasn't had meth since that night.

Not that she hasn't wanted it.

The last time the addiction hit her hard was the Fourth of July. It was a crazy time at work.

There was little help. She was stressed.

On the way home one night, she was power dragging a cigarette. As she blew the cloud of smoke against the windshield, it reminded her of smoking meth and she felt an intense desire to get high.

"I could do a bong hit and be good for three days," Gowins thought.

Had it not been for jail, Gowins insists she would be on her way to an early grave from using drugs.

"I knew where that road was leading," Gowins said.

Rebuilding her life

Gowins is trying to turn things around.

She attends regular 12-step meetings.

She moved up the ranks at Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and is now the assistant manager at a restaurant in Grand Junction. Although she's upset about being forced to leave Craig, she said she's adjusting to it and trying to grow from it.

"I see it as one big test."

She said she stayed clean despite the move. Twelve-step meetings have become her primary social outlet.

While Gowins builds a new life, the nightmares of the past still weigh on her mind. She thinks about the tanks of anhydrous ammonia she hid in the hills around Crestone and she deals with feelings of guilt about her life as a drug dealer.

"I feel terrible about it," Gowins said. "I hurt a lot of people. I did a lot of bad things. I still wonder about the place I was living and cooking all that dope. I know people live there and I have a lot of guilt over that."

Gowins has since learned about the effects meth labs can have on future occupants, who may be contaminated by the chemical residues that remain in walls, carpets, curtains and furniture long after the lab is removed.

Gowins also has noticed the growing mention of meth in the press, although she said attitudes about the scope of the problem are rife with underestimations.

"(The press isn't) blowing it out of proportion," Gowins said. "Meth is rampant. It's evil. It's insidious. Most people don't have a clue (how far it has gone).

"I wish the whole world would be able to know and understand this plague that is on America right now."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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