addiction

People Are Taking a Date Rape Drug Recreationally and Getting Addicted

There's no hangover with GHB, so things go off the rails fast.

ByPhilippus Zandstratranslated byJens van de Meulenhof

MikePanic/Getty

This article originally appeared on Tonic Netherlands.

Maryvonne was 20 when she tried GHB for the first time. She felt slightly intoxicated and a bit more self-confident. There were no hangovers—the only thing she found annoying was a tendency to pass out.

She used the drug—which is commonly referred to as a date-rape drug but has been favored by partiers and body builders too—every day for six years straight, taking a dose every couple hours. When did she realize she was addicted? "After the detox," she recalls. "I didn't see the problem at first, although the people around me thought I looked unhealthy."

"[GHB] is a very peculiar drug," says Harmen Beurmanjer, a psychologist and GHB researcher at Novadic-Kentron, a Dutch institution for addiction care. Beurmanjer studies addiction to GHB and relapse among former users. “With alcohol, it can take years before you become addicted, while with GHB you can become addicted within two or three weeks.”

Beurmanjer also points out that GHB users won’t notice any negative side effects. "Unlike getting a hangover from drinking alcohol or experiencing a low after taking Ecstasy, there's no feedback loop with GHB, which means that using the drug can quickly cause a user to go off the rails. The only thing GHB users find annoying is that they pass out," Beurmanjer explains, adding that there are more and more indications that this side effect of the drug is very harmful. "But for GHB users, the problems really start when they stop using [the drug]."


Watch more on Tonic:


Which is what happened to Maryvonne, who decided to quit using GHB in 2012. First she tried to stop at home, using a reduction schedule she created herself, and Diazepam, the generic form of Valium. But her attempts were unsuccessful. "You'll remain addicted, so there's a big temptation to take it even more."

The number of people addicted to GHB in the Netherlands increased rapidly in 2012, which resulted in shortage of specialists and made it difficult for Maryvonne to get help. While a total of 59 GHB users turned to addiction treatment centers in 2007, the total count in 2012 was 761 people (today the number still hovers around 800 in the Netherlands). Little was known about the drug back then, and protocols as we know them today hadn't been established yet. In the area where Maryonne lived, local doctors didn't know how to treat her: "In 2012 there was hardly any knowledge about GHB, so the doctors [released me from their care]."

A private clinic offered Maryvonne a solution for as long as she had the money to fund it, which was three weeks in her case. "I went home clean, but I still didn't know how to deal with life. It went well for three months, but then I relapsed in the summer."

At the end of 2012, she finally went to a detox clinic. There, people overcame their addictions within two or three weeks by using GHB in prescribed doses in a controlled environment, directly assisted by doctors to wean them off the drug itself. "That came as a bit of a shock, because I was so done with GHB," she recalls. "But I still had to use it for a few weeks."

Gradually phasing out the drug is important, Beurmanjer explains. "This way, the [patient's] brain learns to operate without GHB again. Moreover, the withdrawal symptoms are quite intense and can occur within one to six hours after the [user's] last dose. It starts with tremors, which can be followed by heart palpitations. That causes anxiety and intense discomfort, which can ultimately result in delirium [or an] abstinence-induced psychosis." He explicitly advises not to stop cold turkey. "This method in particular can cause delirium."

The rehab clinic where Maryvonne was treated adhered to a strict schedule. She would receive GHB every two hours, and each time the dosage would be decreased. All of this was done under strict supervision from a nurse who would measure her blood pressure every time. "You can't really get anything done," she recalls. "I wanted to exercise, but the moment you changed clothes, you already needed to have your next dose."

Treatments continued during the night. "At home, you'd wake up from the GHB, and your body would start to shake about three hours after the previous dose [had been administered]. In the clinic, the staff would wake you up every two hours. If you have to use at night, you never reach REM sleep, so my head was a mess. What's real, what's true? It drove me mad. I felt like a zombie. If you couldn't fall asleep within half an hour, you'd think, 'fuck it, I'll just wait up for the next dose.' You'd go light a cigarette and walk around the halls."

Maryvonne's detox lasted three weeks, at which point the rehab really started. People who used GHB to suppress their feelings for years suddenly had to process their emotions without the drug. "During the detox stage, you mainly suffer from physical problems," Beurmanjer explains. "But when that stops, you suddenly have to deal with all the feelings. New symptoms like sadness and anxiety [set in]. Some people may even decide to quit their treatment after the detox. I would never recommend this, because controlled quitting is much easier than actually [ceasing use] all at once."

In Maryvonne's case, she stayed at the rehab clinic six months after her detox. A psychological examination showed that she had borderline personality disorder, and her therapist and doctor also assessed which factors—ranging from certain genetic predispositions or social environments—could put her at a greater risk of relapsing.

During this period, she lived with nine other former users. "I became very irritable," she admits. "Everyone in the group had quit drugs or alcohol, which caused huge arguments over things as silly as putting dishes in the dishwasher. All of these people once had to live in isolation because of their addiction, and then the next minute they had to function in a group of ten people. That's hard."

"In addition to the addiction itself, it's also important to treat other psychological symptoms. As additional support, we also bring former users together with experiential experts who were once addicted to GHB. They often connect well [because they can relate] to the phases these people go through," Beurmanjer says.

The period after the detox stage isn't without its physical challenges. For people who were unable to sleep through a full night because they needed to use, their body takes all the sleep it can get. "I started to dream a lot and was super tired," Maryvonne recalls. "That's very annoying when you're in a clinic and they wake you up at breakfast time. [It's like,] 'For Christ's sake, I haven't sleep normally for almost six years. Leave me alone!'"

The body itself will start to function better again. "A week and a half after detoxing, I was able to go to the toilet again," she says. "GHB is like a laxative [so when you stop taking it, your digestive system slows down or even stops]. I was so happy when I left the bathroom that everyone else just gave me a weird look. After five months, I also got my period again. When that happens, you realize how bad your body's been in survival mode for years."

Beurmanjer says this difficult phase carries a high chance of relapse. "More than half of all users who've been in rehab fall back into the old pattern three months after the detox," he explains. "That's pretty high for an addiction. We've been seeing a decline in relapse rates lately, but there's still a lot of work to do."

Maryvonne herself relapsed during this post-detox stage when she was on a weekend leave. "I called my supervisor, [who told me] I could come back immediately. He made a big pot of coffee and we discussed where things had gone wrong. He said he'd seen it coming for a week—I was canceling appointments, for example, which is a sign things could go south." She made a list of signs so that her friends and family members could recognize the moments when a relapse might occur. "When they see one of those signals, they know they have to do something with me. Even just stupid things like going for a walk or watching a movie with me. It stops me."

She also lived in an assisted living home for another year after her clinical phase. "I deliberately opted for this because I had part-time therapy with the group. I pursued therapy [to treat the] borderline personality disorder for four full-time days a week. I didn't fully trust myself 100 percent yet," she says.

Maryvonne has been living independently for three years now, in a different city so as not to run into her old dealer. She has a good job and is in a debt-repayment program that'll last for the next year and a half.. After making her monthly payments, she has to live off 50 euros a week to cover rent, food, and other essentials.

She relapsed once in 2015. "I ended a relationship and was so heartbroken with grief that I snapped. I have a tic: Curling my hair with my finger. When I'm on GHB, I pull [the hairs] out. After the relapse, I saw all the clumps of hair and thought, 'I'm such a junkie.' I flushed everything right down the toilet. If you're used to taking GHB, you know there's always that short-term solution that'll help solve those tears. Nothing works as quickly against grief as GHB. The craving is still there now, but it's getting weaker and weaker."

Today, she can cope with it. When she feels a craving coming on, she'll go exercise. It's a purely natural way of generating dopamine. "After running 10 kilometers, I don't have the craving anymore. It makes me proud. GHB destroys your entire dopamine system, but when I'm exercising the hunger for the drug is completely gone. It's become my main coping mechanism: Working out saved my life."

Read This Next: The Lesser-Known Date Rape Drug Is Making a Comeback

Lede image: MikePanic\u002FGetty

Show more
More From Tonic
 
Accelerated Mobile Page by Relay Media.
See standard version.