On February 6 of this year, Kaylee Muthart, a pretty young 20-year-old from Anderson, South Carolina, ripped out her own eyes while high on methamphetamine. What she thought was a religious sacrifice was in fact a delusion brought on by an episode of drug-induced psychosis. Now blinded for life, Kaylee is speaking up about her descent into drug addiction in the hopes of helping others avoid similar tragedies.
“Get your loved one the help they need. Our substance use disorder program accepts many health insurance plans, this is our residential program.”
Once upon a Time – A Life before Drugs
“I had been a straight-A student in Anderson, South Carolina—I was even in the National Honor Society…” ~ Kaylee Muthart At 17, Kaylee was an honor student with dreams of one day becoming a marine biologist. But due to frequent absences, she dropped out of high school during her junior year. Originally, her plan was just to take some time off before returning for a fresh start. But by age 18, she was already drinking and smoking marijuana regularly. Later came Xanax, Ecstasy, and eventually, methamphetamine. She spiraled down into an addiction-driven lifestyle—mental illness, unemployment, and homelessness. In those regards, Kaylee was not alone:
- Among unemployed people, 17% are addicted to drugs or alcohol—almost DOUBLE the rate for full-time workers.
- 38% of homeless people are alcohol-dependent and 26% abuse drugs.
- For comparison, less than 11% of the general population reports past-month drug use.
- About half of all people with emotional or mental disorders also struggle with substance abuse.
Methamphetamines: A Quick Primer
“Meth is such a nasty drug. It’s so hard to break out of, we just need people to not try it at all.” ~ Captain Chad Brooks, Sheriff’s Department, Pickens County, South Carolina Kaylee lives in Anderson County, located in the northwest tip of South Carolina. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-recent drug threat assessment, released in 2016, South Carolina has the second-highest number of meth labs in the country. Local law enforcement reports that meth fuels the majority of drug and property crimes in the upstate area. Even worse, small-scale local meth labs have been eclipsed by production from superlabs in Mexico. Right now, prices are very near an all-time low while the supply is at an all-time high. Made from toxic household chemicals such as drain cleaner, battery acid, match heads, and cold medicine, methamphetamine is an extremely powerful and addictive stimulant. While users take the drug to elevate their mood, increase their energy, and enhance their sexual desire and performance, heavy or long-term abuse can lead to:
- Unhealthy weight loss and malnutrition
- Muscle breakdown
- Bleeding in the brain
Genetics and Other Risk Factors
“By age 18, I was drinking alcohol socially and smoking pot often…I suspected I was prone to addiction, so I actively avoided what I considered more serious drugs.” ~ K.M. Significantly, Kaylee drank and used marijuana. According to a study of twins conducted by the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, a teenager’s likelihood of using addictive substances is most-strongly influenced by their social environment. In other words, being exposed to alcoholism or drug use as a young child or adolescent may be an even greater risk factor. Another major risk factor for addiction is a person’s personal behaviors. If someone is genetically predisposed to problematic substance use, and are exposed as a child or adolescent to the addiction of someone, they must be especially careful to avoid habit-forming substances. Drugs are addictive because use triggers a massive surge in the body’s production of dopamine – the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reward, learning, and motivation. Kaylee’s main drug of choice was methamphetamine – one of the most-addictive substances on the planet. How addictive is meth? Let’s say that in a non-addicted person, their dopamine levels are at 100%. But:
- During sexual activity, dopamine levels jump by 200%.
- Meth use spikes dopamine by up to 4000%!
Childhood exposure and methamphetamines – a damning combination for Kaylee.
“We treat both addiction and co-occurring disorders and accept many health insurance plans. Take a look at our inpatient program.”
Experimentation Leads to Harder Drugs and Addiction
“I want people to know they shouldn’t use drugs. It manipulates your thought process. Marijuana is a gateway drug. I used to think it wasn’t, but it is.” ~ K.M. Like many other teenagers, Kaylee started out by “experimenting” with alcohol and marijuana. She herself says that she avoided “more serious drugs”. But what she didn’t realize was that her experimenting was setting the stage for future addiction. Because all drugs of abuse activate the same reward pathways of the brain – to varying degrees – the frequent use of so-called “soft” drugs such as alcohol and/or marijuana “primes” the person’s brain for continued substance use. Specifically, marijuana has been found to make users more responsive to the effects of methamphetamine by initiating physical and chemical changes within the nucleus accumbens. Of special relevance, cannabis reinforces the reinstatement of drug-seeking behaviors. This matters because Kaylee tried to stop using meth on multiple occasions, even going so far as to carry it around in her pocket just to prove to herself that she was in control. Yet all the while, she was still smoking pot and dabbling in other drugs. Not surprisingly, she always went back to meth.
Drug Use as a Coping Method
“I didn’t have a job and my relationship with my boyfriend of two years began to deteriorate. To cope, I kept smoking pot and drinking alcohol and started taking Xanax recreationally.” ~ K.M. Kaylee’s drug use caused her problems in several areas of her life:
- Family relationships – She moved out of her mother’s home at 17 and eventually stopped speaking to her because she didn’t want to listen to any criticisms about her drug use.
- Friendships – When a “friend” gave her pot laced with either cocaine or methamphetamine without her knowledge, Kaylee felt betrayed and ended the friendship.
- Romantic partners – During a rocky point in her relationship with her boyfriend, Kaylee’s substance use escalated. This only hastened their breakup.
- Education – Specifically because of her dysfunctional drug friendships, Kaylee never went back to school after dropping out.
- Employment – Kaylee’s drug use caused her to miss work so often that she was fired.
- Stability – With no income or family support, Kaylee didn’t even have a place to live. Ever since she had left home, she just crashed at the homes of different acquaintances. Sometimes, she was forced to sleep outdoors.
- Appearance – Meth caused Kaylee to pick at her face until she was too embarrassed to be seen in public.
Here’s the thing – these issues didn’t happen all at once. Each was only an indicator of the growing chaos resulting from her worsening substance abuse. But every time Kaylee suffered some new difficulty or setback because of her drug use, she numbed her feelings the only way she knew how – by doing more drugs. Obviously, this didn’t solve her problems. In fact, it only added to the difficulties she faced. Like many other people with addictive disorders, she was locked in a self-perpetuating downward spiral.
Self-Medicating to Deal with Mental Illness
“…I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It made sense, since when I felt happy, I felt super happy, and when I felt down, I felt deeply depressed.” ~ K.M. After being hospitalized for her injuries, Kaylee was transferred to a residential psychiatric facility. There, she finally received an official diagnosis – bipolar disorder. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising. 48% of patients with a bipolar disorder diagnosis will abuse substances at some point in their life. They drink excessively and abuse drugs to numb the pain of their constantly-unpredictable emotional roller coaster. Of special relevance, marijuana was one of Kaylee’s earliest drugs of choice. According to 2015 research, there is a “significant link” between cannabis use and worsening bipolar symptoms. In other words, her drug use was fueling her mental illness. Better late than never, Kaylee now receives the treatment she has needed for so long, including proper medication to stabilize her moods.
The Slippery Slope of Meth Addiction
“So, after Thanksgiving, when I was feeling particularly lonely, I smoked meth with a friend. Within two months, I progressed to snorting it, then shooting it as often as I could by myself or with friends. I was surrounded by heavy drug users.” ~ K.M. Kaylee never intended to become a meth addict – no one ever does. In fact, early in her drug habit, Kaylee consciously stayed away from methamphetamines and other “serious” drugs. But during an emotionally-low point, Kaylee remembered how that earlier laced joint had made her feel higher than she ever had before. In her own words, she had felt “particularly close to God”. She wanted to feel that way again. In August 2017, Kaylee consciously chose to smoke methamphetamine for the first time. Afterwards, she stayed awake for almost 3 days, hallucinating. The experience scared her so much that she avoided meth for months. She began taking ecstasy, believing it to be a “safer” choice. Still searching for something, Kaylee began studying the Bible while high on ecstasy. Again recalling her previous experience, she began wondering if meth could bring God even closer. Feeling especially lonely after Thanksgiving, Kaylee gave meth another try. But she soon developed a drug tolerance – she needed more and more of the drug to get high. When smoking meth stopped being enough, she started snorting it. Soon, she was shooting it intravenously as often as she could. Her life began to revolve around her meth addiction. This all happened within about a two-month period.
Drug -Induced Personality Changes
“When I sobered up, I watched a video I’d filmed when I was high, and it totally freaked me out — the girl I saw, who kept talking and talking, seemed so different from the real me.” ~ K.M. When Kaylee watched a recording of herself while high, she couldn’t recognize herself. This is what drug addiction does. As the substance abuser’s brain is hijacked, they undergo profound changes – to their emotions, thoughts, and even personality. In fact, chronic meth abuse can lead to severe impairments in:
- Cognitive ability
- Motor coordination
“…I stayed up for nearly three days and experienced hallucinations I wasn’t expecting — when I looked in the mirror, I thought I saw blackheads coming out of my face and I spent an hour picking at my skin until I drew blood.” ~ K.M. The very first time that Kaylee chose to use methamphetamines, she hallucinated for nearly 3 days. She imagined she saw blackheads coming out of her face, so she picked at her skin until it was bleeding. The visible welts were so bad that she was too embarrassed to go to work that night. Psychosis – a disconnection from reality – is a common problem for methamphetamine addicts. As evidence of this, a study of different psychiatric emergency departments determined that 44% of patients presenting with at least one psychotic symptom suffered from substance-induced, rather than primary, psychosis. Significantly, methamphetamine-associated psychosis can manifest after just a few months of heavy abuse. Symptoms include:
- Visual – seen things that aren’t there
- Auditory – hearing voices or commands
- Olfactory – smelling nonexistent odors
- Tactile – feeling the crawling sensation of invisible “meth bugs”
- Gustatory – tasting strange or unexplained flavors
- Feelings of persecution
- Delusions of grandeur or exaggerated self-importance
- Imagining conspiratorial connections everywhere
- Thoughts of being controlled by unseen outside forces
- Somatic delusions that one’s body is changing or morphing into something else
Worried Family Members
“My mom realized I was struggling with mental-health issues and drug abuse but later said she felt helpless; I wouldn’t commit to going to a drug rehab or a psychiatric facility, and without proof that I was a danger to myself, she couldn’t have me committed.” ~ K.M. It was obvious to Katy Tompkins, Kaylee’s mother, that in addition to the drinking and drug use, her daughter was also struggling with mental illness. But without concrete proof that Kaylee was a danger to herself or others, there was very little that Katy could do. As an adult, Kaylee was “free” to make her own decisions, for better or worse. Concerned, Katy even took to recording their conversations, hoping desperately to find some proof that she could use to get Kaylee committed to a facility that could help her. In fact, on the day that Kaylee ripped her eyes out, her mother was on the way to the courthouse with recordings to get her daughter legally committed. Unfortunately, she was one day too late. About her daughter’s ordeal, Katy says, “This is something you never think is going to happen to you, but it did… I still haven’t grasped it yet. I can hardly look at her pictures right now, and I can’t think of her not being able to see… that poor thing will always be in the dark.”
The Day Kaylee’s Life Changed Forever
“I remember thinking that someone had to sacrifice something important to right the world, and that person was me. I thought everything would end abruptly, and everyone would die, if I didn’t tear out my eyes immediately.” ~ K.M. The day before her mother’s birthday, Kaylee agreed to go to meth rehab centers the following week. But the next day, Kaylee took a larger dose of meth than she ever had before. Thinking back, Kaylee believes that she received tainted meth that was laced with something else. The next day, Kaylee was still high and hallucinating. While walking along a railroad track to church, Kaylee saw everything as dark and gloomy, even though it was only mid-morning. Trees were curling down menacingly, and it looked as if a storm was gathering. The only exception was a brightly-shining light post. In her delusional state, she imagined the light post was turning into a white dove. It was the last thing she ever saw. Kaylee suddenly became convinced that the world was about to end and that everyone would die if she didn’t sacrifice something important. She immediately came to the conclusion that tearing out her eyes was the key to saving the world. To her, it was the only rational choice. She pushed her thumb, index, and middle finger into each eye, gripping, twisting, and pulling until it popped out of the socket. She was so high that she didn’t even feel pain. All the while, she was screaming, “I want to see the light!” It took eight men, including the church’s pastor to restrain her until emergency services could respond.
The Long Road of Physical Recovery
“When I stub my toe or my knee, I think, ‘Well, it probably saved me from walking into a wall and hitting my face.’” ~ K.M. Kaylee was heavily sedated and unconscious for two days and then spent a week in a medical hospital before being transferred to a residential psychiatric facility. During this time, doctors surgically removed what was left of her eyes, leaving only the red of muscle tissue and the white of the end of her optic nerves. Eventually, Kaylee hopes to get optic prosthetics that are the same green color as her own eyes used to be. Even though she experienced terrible nerve pain and headaches for about a month after her injuries, Kaylee tried as much as possible to avoid any habit-forming opioid painkillers, opting instead to manage her pain with Tylenol. Today, Kaylee is once again living with her mother, re-learning how to get around without her sight. She practices walking around and touching everything to improve her sense of her surroundings. She has started to study Braille and has received physical therapy training to use a cane. When Kaylee raises enough money, she hopes to get a seeing-eye dog. Encouragingly, Kaylee has rediscovered her interest in returning to school for marine biology.
The Longer Road of Recovery from Addiction
“I was transferred to a psychiatric in-patient treatment facility. I was scared shitless about how I would be treated, but the facility turned out to be amazing, with group-, music-, and animal therapy, plus a really supportive staff…Through therapy, I learned to start accepting my new reality.” ~ K.M. Having hit such an unimaginable rock-bottom, Kaylee seems to be embracing a new life of sobriety and recovery. In addition to outpatient psychiatric treatment, she also attends 12-Step support meetings. She is determined to attend the “90 meetings in 90 days” recommended by proponents of Narcotics Anonymous. Kaylee also is making the lifestyle changes necessary to support her rediscovered sobriety. For example, she’s even found a new church, so she can more easily avoid her old drug buddies that she knew at her last one. All of this is important, because in addition to the challenges associated with her blindness, recovery from methamphetamine addiction is a lifetime commitment that she will truly need to take one day at a time. For example, methamphetamine-induced cognitive problems can last for over a year. And although Kaylee says that she hasn’t experienced any drug withdrawal symptoms, it is not uncommon for meth addicts to still feel strong psychological cravings for up to three years. And while alcoholics and opioid addicts can rely on prescription medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and help with cravings, there is no approved pharmacological remedy for methamphetamine addiction. This means that Kaylee is going to need a tremendous amount of support as she rebuilds her life. This can take many forms, including:
- Residential medically-supervised drug rehab
- Intensive outpatient rehab
- Individual behavioral counseling
- Peer group therapy
- 12-Step meetings
- Trauma processing
- Specialized care for any diagnosed co-occurring mental illnesses:
- Bipolar disorder
“We accept many health insurance plans. Get your life back in order, take a look at our residential program.”
Moving Forward: Learning from Addiction
“It took me to get my eyes out of my head to see anything good happening to me.” ~ K.M. Although Kaylee has a long way to go, the important thing is that her sober journey has begun, and she seems to have the right mindset for the road ahead. Obviously, she cannot change what has already happened, but she CAN work at learning to accept it. And by speaking out about what happened to her, she may end up the saving the lives of other young people who are struggling with substance abuse right now. About the message she wants to convey, Kaylee Muthart says, “Drugs make that void seem filled, but you don’t know what’s true. It distracts from real life. I want to let people know not to use drugs.”