Pain Meets Poison
The true story of how one teen huffed her way to rock bottom and almost died
Until she was 12, Megan Hakeman had a simple life in Watertown, South Dakota, a small town with one mall and one movie theater. She described herself as a "regular, happy kid" who hung out with friends and watched TV. The only real suffering she'd known was losing her grandfather, but she said she accepted that as "part of life."
Megan Hakeman, 16 / Former inhalant abuser
Then, things got complicated. Megan was sexually abused by a trusted friend.
"I thought about it [the attack] a lot and I didn't know what to do. I wanted it to go away," she says.
Too afraid to tell her parents and unsure of how else to cope with her feelings, Megan decided to try to escape her pain. A friend showed her how to get high using inhalants.
Inhalants are, to put it simply, poisons. Most of them are common household products, like spray paints, air fresheners, paint thinner, correction fluid, and lighter fluid. All give off toxic fumes.
Megan and a group of friends began "huffing" together often. They joined the 15.2% of their peers who have experimented with inhalants by the time they're in 8th grade.
But Megan's friends soon learned something terrifying: Huffing can kill you. So, they wisely quit. Despite this scary news, Megan kept huffing alone. Her whole sense of self-worth was out of whack after the sexual abuse. "I figured why not hurt myself, if he [the attacker] hurt me," she told Scholastic.
And she was indeed hurting herself and risking many medical consequences. Dr. David Shurtleff, the Acting Director of Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at NIDA, says that inhalants can affect your ability to think, talk, remember, hear, and even walk. "Really what you're doing is destroying nerve fibers throughout the brain," he says.
It wasn't just Megan's brain cells that were in danger. She ignored her schoolwork. Her best friend dumped her because of the drug use. And she lashed out at her mom.
"I always hit my mom when I was using," says Megan. "I feel really bad because I should have never hit my mom. That's something that nobody should ever do."
These violent outbursts may have been an effect of the inhalants. According to Dr. Shurtleff, huffing can cause agitation, irritability, and even violent behavior.
Embarrassment to the Family
Megan hit rock bottom one night. High on inhalants and other drugs, she rode on top of a friend's car, fell off, and got a concussion.
Then, rock bottom got even lower. The next night, she fought with her brother. He said she was an embarrassment to the family.
That struck a chord with Megan. "I knew it was true, but I didn't want to hear it," she says. She was so upset that she attempted suicide. Luckily, she was rushed to the hospital in time. After her trip to the ER, Megan finally got into treatment at a facility called Our Home, Inc., in Heron, South Dakota. Today, she's 16, and she's been inhalant free for almost two years.
A New Life
On the day we spoke to her, Megan had plans to make "play-doh" with her friends. Why would a teenager want to do something so childish? Because for Megan, smiling over something silly is what her new life is all about.
But things are not as simple as they once were. Megan still suffers from some of the effects of her inhalant abuse. "I can't really remember a lot of things," she told us. "When I'm talking I'll forget what I just said two seconds ago. It frustrates me a lot."
Whether or not her memory is restored, Megan will never be the same. She says she now appreciates every day because she knows that she is one of the lucky ones. She survived, and she easily could have died.
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