Former addict counsels youth

After nearly three decades of methamphetamine use, Dena Harper has the battle scars to prove it.

"I've got a messed up heart, I've got hepatitis C and I've got chronic lung disease because I smoke," Harper said recently at her Craig home. "It's been a long haul and it ain't been easy."

Harper was only 7 years old when she started smoking marijuana. That led to harder drugs and popping prescription pills which soon gave way a habit that would last for much of her adult life. Harper spent 27 years injecting methamphetamine into her body.

"I wasn't no weekend user," said Harper who is 45 and reports being clean for nearly 5 years.

Harper moved to Craig 14 years ago in the hope of providing a good place to raise her two sons.

She's lived in other towns that have been overrun meth and cringes to see a culture of meth use descend upon Craig.

"We're never going get rid of it," she said. "All we can do is raise public awareness and not turn a blind eye to it. When you live in a town this small, the odds are high that kids are experimenting with meth."

With an insider's perspective, Harper can understand the drug's popularity. It's relatively easy to manufacture and inexpensive to buy. The drugs' highly pleasurable effects will keep people coming back for more, she said.

"You'll have kids who have never who have never even thought about using drugs before try it," she said.

"Usually how you get hooked is you're out partying with your friends and you might have had a really bad week at school or at home. It's an upper. It perks you up."

Harper said she informally counsels some youth about their meth addictions. She knows some who are hooked "hardcore" and tries to communicate the drug's long-term effects. Parents sometimes turn to her for help.

"I have mothers of kids who say, 'Dena, what can I do?'" Harper said. "I talk to as many as I can."

Harper aims to start a support group geared toward youth. She's appalled by the lack of options for youth struggling with drug addictions, apart from the legal system.

Harper recalled the difficulty in breaking away from the drug. It entailed losing most of her friends who were drug users. After years of using meth, she spent a year and a half in withdrawals. The experience left her feeling physically unable to move.

"Sometimes even getting from the bed to the couch was a struggle," she said.

During one of her darker moments, Harper purchased a pin that read, "This is not what I want to be when I grow up."

These days, it's the trend of youths injecting meth that worries her most. Harper knows the struggle that ensues when one tries to escape meth's grip.

"You've got to be tough with it," she said as advice to parents who suspect their children are using the drug. "You need to talk to your kid and really listen to what they have to say."

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