From White Zombie in 1932 to the smash hit “The Walking Dead,” we have a fascination — dare we say, a hunger — for the undead. But for those who are actually living a nightmare not entirely different from zombiehood — the nightmare of addiction — it can be terrifying to look in the mirror and not recognize the face staring blankly back at you, or to watch helplessly as a loved one deteriorates into a lifeless figure from a horror film.
Do any of these characteristics and signs of drug addiction hit uncomfortably close to home? It may be time to get help.
#1 Deteriorating Physical Condition
We can’t take our eyes off zombies, partly because they look revolting — rotting, discolored flesh, open wounds, hair falling out, nails missing or hanging on by a thread. People who are addicted to drugs, especially meth, may not be too far behind. Look no further than the before-and-after photos in “Faces of Meth” to see how people can become unrecognizably zombie-like, sometimes after just months of abusing meth. Most of the damage is caused by premature aging, skin-picking and scarring because users believe bugs are crawling under their skin, and “meth mouth,” rotting teeth and gums and bad breath caused by teeth grinding, dry mouth and poor oral hygiene.
While meth has the most dramatic effect, other drugs also can leave people looking like they have one foot in the grave. Cocaine, for example, can destroy the cartilage in your nose, causing the bridge to collapse. And heroin abuse can cause abscesses, skin scabs from picking, and weight loss that leaves people looking skeletal. There’s also the Russian “zombie drug” krokodil, a toxic cocktail of paint thinner, gasoline, hydrochloric acid and other ingredients, that eats the body from the inside out, causing scaly skin and sores that can go as deep as the bone.
#2 Impaired Cognitive Function
Zombies aren’t known for their intellect. Even the newer, faster-moving breed of zombie lacks the brain power to delay gratification (“must eat brains now!”), plan as a group, or remember or communicate much of anything.
Many types of drug abuse impair brain function in surprisingly similar ways. Addictive drugs hijack the pleasure center of the brain, flooding it with feel-good chemicals like dopamine, eventually making drugs feel as necessary for survival as breathing (“must get drugs now!”). Alcoholics often experience significant problems with attention, memory and learning due to damage in the frontal lobes and other areas of the brain. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder caused by thiamine deficiency which affects chronic alcoholics, involves a marked decline in memory, confusion and hallucinations, and alcohol-induced dementia is characterized by severe cognitive impairment and impaired memory.
Although stimulants like meth and cocaine make people feel energized and alert, prolonged use can lead to long-lasting attention and memory problems. Researchers believe these drugs and others reduce gray matter in the brain, inhibit the development of new cells in the brain, and reduce chemicals like serotonin and dopamine that are important for memory, decision-making and learning. Sometimes these harmful effects last long after a person stops using the drug; in some cases, they’re permanent.
Police and first responders have used words like “half-dead” to describe users of Spice and other synthetic drugs, some of whom have been wrestled into emergency rooms with advanced delirium (marked by hallucinations and agitation), paranoia, and bizarre and violent behavior. One police chief commenting on a man’s flakka overdose said, “The reaction, the best way I can describe it is, the terms my officers used is that you’re dealing with a bunch of zombies, they’re just completely out of their mind.”
#3 Incomprehensible Speech
Unintelligible groans and howling are about as far as a conversation with a zombie could go. While people with addictions are certainly capable of much more, trying to have a conversation with someone who’s high can feel a lot like talking to a zombie. Whether the person’s using stimulants like cocaine, which speeds up speech, or alcohol or other depressants, which can lead to jumbled or incoherent speech and slurred words, speech problems are common when someone’s under the influence. The damage drugs do to the brain can cause speech impairments, loss of memory and vocabulary, and difficulty controlling muscles used for verbal communication.
#4 Lack of Empathy
Zombies don’t show remorse or feel bad for their victims. Their lack of empathy is why they can do the deplorable things they do. Ask anyone who loves an active addict and you’ll hear a similar story. In the same way zombies are consumed by their hunger for human flesh, loved ones report addicts don’t seem to care about anything but drugs. Confronted with lying, stealing, manipulating and empty apologies, loved ones can’t help but wonder, “Does he even love me anymore? Does she feel anything?”
The person still cares, but their ability to show empathy and other emotions has been taken hostage by addiction. Almost half of alcoholics, for example, struggle to identify and describe their own feelings. Once addicted, people’s brains are reliant on getting and using drugs, and they become consumed by managing drug cravings and staving off withdrawal symptoms. Part of treatment involves re-learning empathy and discovering healthier ways to cope with emotions rather than masking or numbing them with drugs.
#5 Lack of Normal Human Needs Such as Food and Sleep
Based on their portrayals in popular media, zombies are exempt from normal human biological needs like eating and sleeping. Although addicts haven’t left their humanity behind, someone on a drug binge (most notably on drugs like meth or cocaine) may appear to have inhuman qualities. They may stay awake for days at a time, feverishly moving from one task to the next, before crashing. Even when the person stops using drugs, insomnia is a common part of detox and recovery. And most types of drug abuse lead to poor nutrition, either because the person doesn’t eat regularly or eats junk foods that lack essential nutrients.
Much like the classic zombie limps along awkwardly, fumbling to find its next meal, clumsiness is a hallmark of certain types of drug abuse. Alcohol, of course, can impair balance and vision enough to make walking in a straight line a challenge, and studies have found this wobbliness can hang around for years after the person sobers up. Other depressants, such as Xanax and Valium, and opiates like Vicodin, OxyContin and heroin, can also produce the stagger effect.
#7 Aggressive Behavior
Compared to the slow, unintimidating early zombies, modern zombies have become increasingly angry. Likewise, certain drugs can bring on fits of rage in otherwise calm people. In some cases, paranoia, delusions or hallucinations make the person think they’re in danger or out of control, resulting in violent behavior. Bath salts, synthetic marijuana, flakka and drugs like krokodil are most commonly tied to irate outbursts, but chronic abuse of other drugs such as cocaine, meth, PCP (a hallucinogen) and alcohol have also been tied to aggression.
In many ways, addicts resemble the “living dead” in a real-life nightmare, with sometimes devastating results. About 570,000 people die each year from drug use. But unlike zombies, people with addictions have the opportunity to become un-trapped souls and reclaim their lives through treatment. More than 23 million Americans have come back from the brink of death and are now living rewarding lives in recovery — the kind of happy ending you won’t find in a zombie flick.