Allyson Stewart with her daughters Jade and Serenity after graduating from the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope.

The night of Nov. 14, 2013 is forever seared in Allyson Stewart’s brain: police officers searching her Garden Grove apartment, her infant son being taken away, her junkie boyfriend locked in a bedroom, lines of methamphetamine on a mirror and enough illegal drugs and paraphernalia to fill a suitcase tagged for evidence. Charged with possession of a controlled substance and child endangerment, she was handcuffed and loaded into the back of a patrol car and transported to the Central Jail in Santa Ana.

As she was moving through the “loop”, a series of cells that new intimates pass through while they’re getting processed, Allyson was in shock and denial. “I never thought I’d go to jail and never thought my son would be taken away,” she recalls. The apartment raid and jail time signaled what should have been the end of Allyson’s wild ride—an entire decade fueled by a well-hidden methamphetamine addiction. But it wasn’t over yet.

As heroin and prescription opiates grab national headlines – methamphetamine has been pushed off the radar. But it’s still a problem and only getting worse, according to drug enforcement officials.

Allyson grew up with three sisters in a middle class family in Huntington Beach. She was an average student until she entered junior high school when “her social life became more important than her academic life,” says her mother Susan Leadley. There were other problems: she showed symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder early in life. “I’d start rambling about everything and anything,” Allyson says.

Allyson’s older sister Holly Bausch said she noticed it as early as elementary school. “The only thing Allyson ever seemed to be able to focus on was video games and television. She had endless energy too.”

ADHD is a behavioral disorder and the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in childhood. If left untreated, it can diminish academic and occupational achievement and it increases the risk of substance abuse and other risky behaviors, according to Boston Children’s Developmental Medicine Center.

While researchers continue to study the exact cause of ADHD, “it is thought at least in part to be caused by problems with dopamine levels or the efficiency of dopamine receptors in the brain,” writes Emily Deans, M.D., a board certified adult psychiatrist, in Psychology Today. “Medications that help symptoms of ADHD such as stimulants modulate the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. Methylphenidate [Ritalin], for example, is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor that keeps more dopamine in the synapse.”

Allyson struggled to stay focused in class. The only subject that held her attention was math otherwise she would drift off. In order to graduate on time, she needed to complete an English class and make up several credits after school.

As to why she was never medically diagnosed and treated for the disorder, Leadley said she didn’t agree with the drugs that were being prescribed. “I didn’t think Ritalin would help,” she says. “I saw other kids who were taking it, and I didn’t like what it was doing to them. I feared the drug would squash her personality.” Prior to graduating in 2003, Allyson, who stands almost 6 feet tall and at one point weighed over 200 pounds, suffered from self-esteem issues. She smoked marijuana, drank alcohol and hung out with a tougher, predominately Hispanic crowd. She’d heard about methamphetamine and the high it provided but waited until a New Year’s Eve party before smoking it for the first time.

“It’s always been hard for me to focus,” she says. “But when I was high I could zoom in on something and get it done.”

“This may seem effective in the short term—more reason for them to keep using— but meth does long-term damage to the brain systems implicated in ADHD impairment, including decision making, reward processing, motivation attention control, working memory and emotion regulation,” says Catherine Fassbender, a researcher at UC Davis’ MIND Institute and a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

For readers who missed the television series “Breaking Bad”, Methamphetamine is a synthetic mix of pseudoephedrine or it’s cousin ephedrine cooked over high heat and distilled into a potent, highly toxic and addictive powder or rock. The entire process can involve more than 30 chemicals.

Crystal meth, the purer form which is commonly sold on the street, looks like pieces of broken glass and comes in different colors and flavors with names such as puda, ice, glass, shizzo, shards, crank, tweak and the magic dragon. When taken (snorted, smoked, injected or ingested orally) the stimulant releases high levels of dopamine into the brain.

Allyson floated into 2004 with her new friend: a glass pipe full of meth and no path for the future. At a party on the south side of Huntington Beach, she met Smoke Dog. He was short with a shaved head and covered in tattoos. Allyson was chasing the high and Smoke Dog was selling the crystal. He needed a driver and she fit the bill – a big tall white girl— with street smarts who could run numbers in her head and party until sunrise. They conducted business in a white Toyota Camry, which Allyson’s father had given to her after graduation.

They’d pick up two to three ounces of high-quality meth in Costa Mesa in the morning, weigh it out and break it into small quantities then burn up the phone lines setting up sales. “A lot of people came to us. We operated primarily in Orange County, crashing at low-budget motels. It was about keeping the game going,” she says. After expenses, they netted about $600 a day. But the game ended two years later when Allyson found out she was pregnant.

“I had to concentrate on having a baby,” she says. “I didn’t want to use. I tried hard; I did it occasionally while I was pregnant, but I wasn’t using heavily.”

When her grandfather died, the Stewarts moved into his single-story home in Lakewood. Her parents allowed Allyson and her boyfriend to live there albeit in separate rooms. Their daughter Jade was born in February 2006.

Allyson’s attempt to enter the workforce and live a normal life showed promising signs initially. She researched areas of the healthcare market and enrolled in Bryman College (a system of for-profit colleges, which has since gone out of business) to learn medical billing and coding. She completed the course and interned at a medical warehouse where she was eventually hired fulltime as a receptionist. Because of Jade’s asthma condition, however, she was forced to take time off from work. So much time in fact that Allyson’s employer let her go. It was a blow to her self-esteem, a trigger event the derailed her positive momentum. Soon after becoming unemployed, she broke up with Jade’s father and filed for child support. Unable to find another position, Allyson reverted back to smoking meth. When she was in business with Smoke Dog, she kept a close on eye on profits, a portion of which paid for her personal supply. Now she was living on monthly child support and had to find other ways to support her habit, which accelerated quickly.

“Sometimes we’d rent a U-Haul truck and park it on a campground and not pay. It was a group effort, anywhere from five to 10 people. We started stealing copper and metal from construction sites—anything we knew we could sell for dope. That’s all I cared about anymore. And I dragged Jade along for all the adventures. She went with me everywhere.”

For the next eight years, her life was a roller coaster of busted relationships, poor decision-making, the birth of two more children, heavy methamphetamine use and a potpourri of criminal activity.

A year after her son was born, Allyson’s life went into a major tailspin. The stress caused from the breakup with the child’s father, whom she says she was hopelessly in love with, combined with a complicated custody arrangement, the responsibilities of raising children in a small apartment and trying to hold on to her job took its toll.

Instead of seeking professional help, she got involved with yet another man named Johnny who was a heroin addict. He moved in with Allyson, her mother and the two kids in a second-floor apartment.

“My soon-to-be husband was at the apartment recovering from heart surgery,” Susan remembers. “Allyson was still working and leaving little Marciano with Johnny during the day. He saw things—the way Johnny was treating the child and said ‘there’s something wrong.’ That’s when we moved out.”

To help her escape further, Allyson added whiskey into the mix – a bottle was always in the freezer. It took the edge off after snorting and smoking meth up to 10 times per day.

Desperate for money, Allyson and Johnny started selling drugs—anything and everything to pay the bills.

“Some of his friends, who were also heroin addicts, moved in to help us with the rent. One person didn’t want to pay and disappeared right before the first of the month. He called the cops, saying we were selling drugs and kids were living there,” Allyson remembers.

Because the officers suspected a child was in danger, they conducted a welfare check, allowing them to enter without a warrant. Inside they saw Allyson’s infant son Marciano, Jr. and lines of meth on the mirror. They were about to take her son away, but Allyson pleaded with a female officer to call her mother to come and pick him up.

She was placed in a two-person cell area called the modules or “mods” where officers monitor inmates from behind a large bubble of tinted, one-way glass built in the middle of the floor.

“Some of the inmates would talk to you through your cell door. One woman told me she chained her kids to a bed so she could get high all day. Another told me she put her son’s arms on a lighted burner because he refused to obey her and wasn’t even sorry about it—the sickest stuff you’ve ever heard,” she says.

Her father bailed her out a week later. “I was wondering how she was going to put her life back together. I didn’t have the answers. I just knew there was a lot of trouble and didn’t know what tomorrow would bring,” Steve says.

While the time behind bars assisted in her detox, Allyson needed to enter a rehabilitation program immediately to continue the recovery process, but that didn’t happen.

“She was desperate to get things back together, but flakey and inconsistent,” says her sister Holly. “She would spend two to three weeks at my house and then she’d leave and come back. She was only giving us small bits and pieces so we never had the full picture.”

Six months later, Allyson was pulled over by the Fountain Valley Police for a traffic violation. Because she was on probation, the officers were required to search her car. While one was conducting the search, the other started talking to Allyson. “I don’t remember why the officer brought it up, but he told me about this program—the Village of Hope—that his sister had gone through. He said that if I needed help it was a great place to go, and I could have my kids with me.”

As clear as the opportunity seemed, it didn’t register in her meth-poisoned mind. Eight days later she was arrested again, this time on several charges including drug possession, theft and traffic violations.

As she sat on a cold cement block in the Santa Ana jail’s drunk tank for five hours, Allyson thought about what she was facing if the Santa Ana Police called her probation officer. What would she say to her family and how much time would she have to serve? She flashed back on a decade of disappointment and failure.

Her last hit of meth had long since worn off and her adrenalin, which kept her alert since the arrest, was dropping off too. She could feel herself starting to detox. Then she heard her name being called and snapped back to the present. She was getting out, but far from free. It was 7 a.m.

When she checked in with her probation officer Sarah Flynn, Allyson told her about the Santa Ana incident. Flynn, according to Allyson, said the minute the new charges were filed she’d be heading back to jail, which meant the clock was ticking and she better get her house in order.

Back in HB, Allyson and her sisters attended church regularly. They went to Bible school on Sundays and mid-week Bible studies depending on what grade they were in. Even in her darkest, drug-crazed criminal days Allyson never lost her faith. Now it was time to reconnect. More importantly she remembered what the officer said about the Village of Hope.

Located on the former site of the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope is a 192-bed transitional housing program for homeless men, women and children. Opened in 2008, the goal is to rehabilitate people by providing an environment equipped with resources that will enable them to succeed.

Allyson realized it was much more than a drug rehabilitation program, which a judge would most likely mandate as part of her sentence.

She interviewed with Doug Hellman, the admissions manager, who told her she would be a good fit for the program, but there were no beds available at the time— priority went to the homeless and since she was sleeping on her father’s couch, Allyson didn’t fit the definition. Even so, she pursued it with a vengeance. “It got to the point where Doug told me: ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you,’” she says.

About 55 percent of the approximately 1,000 people who applied to enter VOH in 2015 were accepted, according to President Jim Palmer.

A month later, Allyson was blindsided by more news: she was pregnant for the third time. “I couldn’t have an abortion,” she says. “I was okay with taking on another child because I was ready to rebuild my life at that point no mater whose it was or where I delivered it.”

On August 8, 2014, charges from the April 27 arrest were finally entered. The following Monday she was back in front of a judge facing a lengthy jail sentence. Behind the scenes, Flynn communicated regularly with the Mission trying to secure a bed for Allyson.

The judge, according to Allyson, believed that sending her to VOH was setting her up for failure, considering how long she would have to be there—about 18 months. But Flynn went to bat for Allyson, explaining how she had seen major improvements since her last arrest. More importantly Flynn told the judge that she was in communication with VOH that morning and a bed would be available in two weeks. Based on Flynn’s recommendation, the judge gave Allyson a lighter sentence—about three weeks with a free weekend before entering VOH.

“When I was in jail, I wasn’t stressed and I wasn’t worried…I was at peace,” she says. “This was God’s way of telling me that this was my punishment for what I had done. I accepted it.”

Mentally broken, emotionally wounded and five months pregnant, Allyson’s drive to get into the program didn’t waiver once she arrived.

“She was very cooperative, motivated and determined to get her life back on track,” says Case Manager Andrea McCartney. “Of course there were things that were challenging to her. She had to learn how to manage her problems differently, confront her past and heal from addiction.”

The Village of Hope requires its students to work onsite and Allyson worked her way from janitorial assignments into the children’s center and then became manager of the tutoring center. She took parenting classes, learned life skills, received therapy and joined recovery groups. Using every resource available, she figured out how to expunge her criminal record, find a job, attend all the required counseling sessions and kept up with her Bible studies. Even with time off to give birth to Serenity, she completed the program in 14 months.

Steve was unable to attend her daughter’s graduation, but watched the video on YouTube. “I was happy that she took advantage of the opportunity, but just like any parent would be, I’m still scared. You realize what your kid’s capable of doing and you just hope they’ve learned their lesson.”

Allyson moved into an apartment in Buena Park earlier this year (February ‘16). She has shared custody of daughters Jade and Serenity and is reworking a custody arrangement to see her son Marciano, Jr. more often.

As of this writing, she has been clean and sober. The percentage of children in the U.S. ages 4-17 diagnosed with ADHD by a health care provider, as reported by parents, increased 42 percent between 2003 and 2011, according to the Center for Disease Control.

In the June 2014 issue of the ADHD Report, two leading researchers Erin N. Schoenfelder, Ph.D., and Scott H. Kollins, Ph.D., reported that “…individuals with ADHD were 1.5 times more likely than people without ADHD to develop any type of substance use disorder, regardless of age, gender or race.”

OC’s Meth Problem

In the 1990s, Meth-related emergency room visits in Orange County and surrounding SoCal areas spiked to unprecedented levels. Labs were being seized in record numbers and the majority of arrests made by street narcotic teams focused on meth.
According to a 1997 county coroner’s report, meth-related fatalities surpassed traffic fatalities, homicides and suicides. It got so bad that an Orange County Methamphetamine Task Force was created.

While the majority of the domestic labs have been shut down, thanks to regulations that now tightly control the sale of the drug’s key ingredients, the situation has only gotten worse, says Tony Chrysanthis, who manages the Los Angeles Field Division (including Orange County) of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Agency. Unlike other drugs the Mexican cartels distribute in the U.S. where they have to depend on a supplier or middleman, Chrysanthis says they now have exclusive control over meth production and distribution. “To put it into perspective, twenty years ago mom and pop labs cooking out of a bathroom would take a few days and produce a couple of pounds. Today, the super labs in Mexico are producing hundreds of pounds per day and if one shipment gets busted, there’s another one ready to go,” he said.

What’s made the problem worse he said is that the price per pound has dropped from $16,000 five years ago to roughly $2,400 today and there’s still plenty of demand for what is considered the most dangerous drug in America.