Special Report – A Broken Mind

By JAN HOLLINGSWORTH The Tampa Tribune
Published: Nov. 12, 2006

The young wrestler was sitting on the kitchen floor, his bloody face illuminated by the early-morning light that streamed through a nearby window. In other parts of the world, the shadow of the moon was edging across the rising sun, marking the beginning of a dramatic and well-publicized total eclipse. Will Hollingsworth had talked of little else for the past four days: the last eclipse of the millennium and the apocalypse some believed would follow. He had not slept in more than 100 hours, holed up in his room, paging restlessly through a Bible, his television tuned to news of the eclipse. It was a peculiar obsession for a 20-year-old college student who spent most of his time training to be a world-class athlete.
Will didn’t appear intoxicated. To the contrary, he was alert, engaging and philosophical, though strangely fixated on current events.

Now this.

On any other day, he would have been out the door — running for miles along eastern Hillsborough County’s busiest roads, pumping iron at the gym, working out with his old high school wrestling team.

But on this August morning in 1999, there was only the inexplicable blood and the vacant stare that greeted me when I came to make breakfast. “What happened?” I asked my only son. “I’ve been fighting demons,” he replied.

Demons?

“It’s true,” he insisted, gesturing to his bloody face and filthy shirt. “I’ve been fighting demons all night. And I won.”

I followed his gaze through the window into the back yard. There, the torn sod and blood-stained patio marked the spot where he had pounded his face into the ground as his father and I slept, oblivious to the war we were about to wage with an invisible enemy. Will would battle his demons for the next three years. But he would never exorcise them. GHB already had laid claim to his sanity, and there was no one who could tell us how to retrieve it.

Dying To Win

Trinka Porrata is all too familiar with the phenomenon of young men who speak of mortal conflict with demons — men who pound their heads on concrete as they experience the unique and little-known psychosis that accompanies GHB withdrawal. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about that,” said the retired Los Angeles narcotics detective. “Some of them try to put their heads through plate-glass windows.” Some succeed.

Porrata, founder of Project GHB, has spent seven years throwing a lifeline into cyberspace for addicts desperate to escape the grip of a nutritional supplement promoted as a safe, non-habit-forming sleep aid that claimed to build lean muscle mass. Most have been athletes or bodybuilders, but GHB use cuts across all demographics. “It’s the most unique drug,” she said. “We have a lot of senior citizens hooked on it thinking it’s antiaging. It’s big in the gay community, big in the gym scene, big in the club scene. Yet it’s invisible.”

Porrata said she has had more than 1,800 inquiries from GHB users and their family members since Project GHB went online in December 1999. “We were getting: ‘I thought I was the only person in the world with this problem,’” she said.

Before the debut of Project GHB, anyone looking for information on the chemical discovered a nest of Internet sites featuring glowing testimonials, mail-order supplies and recipes for cooking it at home. Central Florida, with its fitness culture, was a watershed for the craze during the 1990s, before GHB-related products were outlawed.

Tampa had its own cottage industry in the form of Body Life Sciences, a now-defunct company that produced and marketed the supplement under the brand names Revivarant and Revivarant G. GHB seemed to offer something for everyone, depending on the dosage: sedation, exhilaration, sexual stimulation, weight loss and the unsubstantiated promise of massive muscles. It was readily available at health food stores and gyms, where it entered the marketplace as an ostensibly safe, legal alternative to steroids.

In recent years, its ability to induce mild euphoria and amnesia attracted a new kind of customer who employed it as a party drug associated with overdoses and sexual assaults. GHB’s link to “date rapes” and all-night raves quickly overshadowed its widespread use in the athletic community. Yet it is the athletes and bodybuilders, who incorporate it into a daily regimen, who are most at risk of becoming addicted.

“It’s really the frequency of the dose as opposed to the amount of the dose that leads to this very striking psychosis,” said David Kershaw, a psychologist for Hillsborough County’s Mobile Crisis Unit. Kershaw has seen his share of GHB addicts in withdrawal — beginning in late 1999, when the county’s mental health center saw a rash of cases involving muscular young men suffering from hallucinations and paranoia.

One believed he had an invisible tape recorder fastened to his leg. Another saw a swarm of flies covering his body. All were regular users of GHB. “The irony is that despite the fact that they wouldn’t deliberately pollute their bodies like that, they get sucked into using it,” Kershaw said. “The people I see are all athletes, all concerned with being as healthy as they can be.”

One of them was Will.

The Runner Stumbles

Will’s descent into madness was swift and seemingly irreversible.

The first sign that something was amiss came one night in the spring of 1999, when he called to ask his father to come help him change a flat tire. It turned out the tire was flat because Will had drifted off an exit ramp on Interstate 75 and into a tree. Weeks later, another late-night call — this one from an ex-girlfriend, who said she had received an urgent message from Will asking her to pick him up at a gas station near the University of South Florida.

When she arrived, she found the car, with the engine still running, the driver’s door ajar, but no sign of Will. He turned up at another nearby gas station — incoherent, with no memory of how he got there. His father and I were mystified. Will seemed as bewildered as we were. “I keep making mistakes, and I don’t know why,” he said.

He never made the connection between the potion he bought at the local health food store and the bizarre things that happened when he stopped using it. We didn’t know he was using GHB. There were a lot of things we didn’t know.

The Will we knew was exceptionally bright, responsible, hardworking and honest. A good student, a loyal friend and — most striking — a gifted athlete with a passionate dream to be the best of the best — at something.

He was, at one time, the fastest boy in Hillsborough County — sprinting and jumping his way through a medley of track-and-field titles during his middle school years. There was a charisma about the sturdy blond boy whose blistering speed brought stadium crowds to their feet as he entered the homestretch.

When he earned a place on the Brandon High School wrestling team — one of the premiere prep athletic programs in the nation — he told a sports reporter what it meant to soar with the Eagles. “I feel there is no limit to where I can go,” he said in a 1997 newspaper interview. “It is a great team and I don’t think my life will ever be the same.”

Death And Detox

About the time the young wrestler was beginning to unravel in Florida, bodybuilder Mike Scarcella, a former Mr. America, was arrested in Texas, charged with felony possession with intent to distribute GHB.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had banned the supplement in 1990 but left loopholes that allowed its analogues — chemical cousins that turn into GHB after ingestion — to be sold for another decade. By all accounts, including his own, Scarcella had been using the supplement for years — first as a muscle-building nightcap, then as a morning pick-me-up. Eventually he was sipping capfuls throughout the day, a classic pattern among athletic users that can lead to physical dependence in a matter of weeks or months. Scarcella was hooked. His May 1999 arrest, which resulted in 10 years’ probation, was not enough to pry him from the grip of GHB.

The 1992 Mr. America continued to use and sell the drug, even as he tried to kick the habit — first on his own, then in hospitals, where doctors had no experience with the bizarre hallucinations and raging psychosis of GHB withdrawal.

Even with a doctor’s help, withdrawal can be deadly. Stroke, heart attack and suicide are among the consequences for addicts in withdrawal, which can start within one to three hours of a missed dose.

Anxiety, restlessness and insomnia can quickly progress to delirium, muscle tremors and delusions.

“They think they’re on fire. They’re moving, thrashing, screaming,” said Karen Miotto, a University of California-Los Angeles addiction psychiatrist who helped develop a GHB detox protocol. “I think GHB is probably harder to get addicted to than some other drugs,” she added. “But once people get addicted, it is far harder to get off than any drug I’ve seen.”

Scarcella’s battle ended in August 2003, when the 39-year-old bodybuilder was admitted to a Texas hospital feeling the first effects of GHB withdrawal. By the 10th day, he had become delusional and suffered what the medical examiner termed “sudden cardiac death.”

Doctors and psychiatrists have been slow to recognize GHB withdrawal. Most know little beyond its reputation as a date-rape or club drug with the potential to deliver a swift, deadly knockout punch. Emergency room physicians have become familiar with the unconscious overdose patients — generally youthful partiers — who are often treated and released.

But they rarely consider GHB use in the muscular, hallucinating patients who are delivered in four-point restraints. “ER doctors don’t really know what to look for,” Kershaw said. Most physicians and mental health professionals also fail to recognize the early stages of withdrawal, when careful detoxification using the right medications might head off a spiral into psychosis. “It really means that the only time they’re going to get help is when they’ve reached the state of hallucinating,” said San Francisco addiction specialist Alex Stalcup. By then, their condition may be far less treatable.
“It’s just heartbreaking.”

Jesus’ Son

The angels appeared in September 1999, shortly after the eclipse that marked the end of life as we knew it.
These were not benevolent guardians, but mute, shadowy creatures only Will could see. What was their purpose? I asked him. “They’re here to watch us,” he said. Not as protectors but observers. They were neither dangerous nor benign. They just WERE, he said. Six weeks had passed since the morning of Will’s bloody battle with the backyard demons.

His father and I had spent the first week taking turns staying home from work with him as he slept round-the-clock, sedated by a physician.

The sleep deprivation that preceded the incident was enough to cause hallucinations, according to a psychologist friend. Perhaps sleep would bring him out of it, she suggested. We knew by this time that GHB had played some role. Will had acknowledged taking the supplement in the week before the eclipse. But he had stopped about three days before, he insisted. When Will finally woke up by week’s end, the crisis seemed to have passed.

He returned to his part-time job as a waiter at a Brandon restaurant and began his junior year at USF. With his sights set on the Olympics since high school, he resumed his regular workouts — and, according to his off-campus roommates, resumed his GHB use. “It takes you to a place you never want to come back from,” Will said.

On Labor Day, he was back home, reading the Bible around the clock. He stopped attending classes, didn’t report for work and did not return to the apartment he shared with three other students. He had stopped taking GHB.
He also had ceased his workouts and stopped eating. He claimed he was going to fast for two weeks — “like Jesus.”

Once again, his father and I took turns working from home, watching, waiting. He was, by law, an adult and could not be forced into an evaluation unless he proved to be a danger to himself or others. He didn’t meet that criterion — not yet. His father took his car keys, just in case. Sept. 17, 1999. It was my turn to watch over Will.

I worked on a news story from my laptop on the dining room table, just outside his bedroom. Each time I checked on him, he was sitting on his couch, reading his Bible. He had not eaten since Sept. 6. Shortly before 6 p.m., Will wandered out of his room and pulled up a chair across from me. My fingers froze on the keyboard as I met his gaze. “What are you working on?” he asked. I knew he couldn’t possibly be interested, but it was the first time in weeks he had made any effort to engage in conversation. I began to explain the story I was writing. Then I saw it, so plainly that for a moment I thought I was the one losing touch with reality.

Will’s gray-green eyes, the windows to his troubled soul, suddenly transformed into black pools of blazing madness. And for the first time, I understood the concept of possession. I was still answering his question when he cut me off in midsentence. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with, do you?” hissed the suddenly dark, dangerous creature.

“No,” I replied, cautiously. “Who AM I dealing with?” He rose from his chair and took a step toward me, his fist clenched, his face contorted with rage. “I am the Lord Jesus Christ, and I want my car keys.” I glanced at the clock. His father was due home any time now.

Will’s lips smiled, but his eyes still glittered with that dark madness. “He’s not going to save you,” he said, as though he had read my mind. The phone rang. Will answered. “Yeah, Dad. She’s right here,” he said, handing me the phone, still smiling that frightening smile. Whatever I had seen in Will’s eyes, his father heard in his voice. “Can you talk?” he asked me. “No.”

“Something is wrong?”

“Yes.”

“Get out of the house,” Will’s father told me. “Get out NOW.” Clearly the time for watching and waiting was over. His father dialed 9-1-1.

That night, the angels made their first appearance as Kershaw and his mobile crisis unit came to commit Will for 72 hours of psychiatric observation under Florida’s Baker Act — the first of nearly a dozen hospitalizations over the next 30 months. It wasn’t a tough call. Will was in “florid psychosis” and claimed alternately to be God, Jesus and Jesus’ son.

Then there were the angels, who would, in time, become Will’s constant companions. Kershaw was among the few professionals we encountered over three years who took serious note when we told him of the GHB link.

“Will’s case prompted me to educate myself on this,” he said. “If I have someone who’s got psychotic symptoms, and they’ve got a history of being a fairly well-functioning athlete with no history of mental illness, one of the first things I think of now is GHB.”

Spontaneous Combustion

GHB was the last thing David Johnson thought of as he searched the Internet for information about “Enliven,” a supplement his 28-year-old son, Tyler, purchased at a health food store near his home in Beebe, Ark.

Tyler, who had graduated weeks before from the University of Arkansas, became restless and “fidgety” on the night of July 15, 2000. His pulse raced, and he began to say things that didn’t make sense, Johnson said. Unknown to Johnson, the young bodybuilder had been taking Enliven for about a year. Now, engaged to be married and about to begin law school, Tyler had decided to stop taking it. That night, he showed his father a bottle of the supplement, labeled as a “100% Pure Cellular Recovery System” that “Renews the Body Naturally.”

What it didn’t say was the active ingredient — 1,4 butanediol, better known as BD — is a solvent that converts into GHB once ingested.

GETTING OFF ‘G’
Withdrawal from GHB is among the most prolonged and severe of any drug and should not be undertaken without medical supervision.

Cardiovascular distress is significant, posing the risk of stroke or heart attack. Spikes in blood pressure from repeated bouts of withdrawal can result in arterial damage and an enlarged heart. Withdrawal grows more severe with each subsequent attempt, “kindling” the nervous system to the point of inducing delirium or seizures.

Patients treated before they reach this stage stand a better chance of successful recovery. Detox begun in early stages of withdrawal, with onset of restlessness and anxiety, works best. Detox generally takes at least two weeks, often requiring heavy doses of sedatives, accompanied by monitoring of blood oxygen levels. David Johnson didn’t know it, but Tyler was in GHB withdrawal.

“I wanted to take him to the hospital, but he told me he was all right and he went to bed,” Johnson said.

The next morning, shortly after dawn, a neighbor discovered Tyler’s body on the Johnsons’ front lawn. He had shot himself in the head. Suicide is an all-too-common outcome in cases of GHB addiction, though the true numbers will never be known. Porrata has seen it over and over.

“It’s like spontaneous combustion, not like they pondered it. They just shoot themselves in the head,” she said.
Detox from GHB can take at least two weeks.

“I think one of the most dangerous periods is after detox, where they are suffering depression, anxiety, and it becomes this protracted withdrawal state,” Miotto said. GHB anxiety is malignant — the frightening dreams at night, the terror during the day as the central nervous system tries to deal with the legacy of a little-understood chemical assault on the brain, Stalcup said. “If I had to go through what I see people going through, I don’t know if I could do it,” he said.

Perhaps the harshest irony, Porrata said, is the people who become addicted to GHB in the pursuit of health and fitness and end up turning to street drugs to counter the effects of withdrawal. Black-market Xanax, Valium and similar drugs tend to be the ones of choice. Alcohol, cocaine, Ecstasy and even crystal methamphetamine aren’t far behind.

Of Dreams And Nightmares

In the weeks and months that followed Will’s first Baker Act, life took on a rhythm of sorts — but not the sort we envisioned.

By day, Will continued to run, lift weights, wrestle and pursue his athletic dreams. By night, he battled the demons that invaded his sleep. The boy who once was a designated driver for friends retreated to his room, alone, to drown the delusions in rum and vodka.His circle of friends shifted from students and athletes to dropouts and drug dealers who could ensure a steady supply of sedatives and anything else that might quiet the voices and visions.

I purchased a dreamcatcher and hung it beside his bed, hoping the mystical Indian legend would offer some comfort.

But nothing could banish the nightmarish images that appeared when he closed his eyes. “You can’t imagine what is happening in the world,” he told me. “Yes, I can.” I had to look no further than the gaping hole in his soul.

Laced with antipsychotics prescribed by his doctors, supplemented by a pharmacopia of his own invention, Will struggled to hold down a job and tried, unsuccessfully, to complete his junior year.

He teetered for months on the brink of madness, alternately stabilizing, then disintegrating into a series of forced hospital stays. We didn’t know whether he continued to use GHB or whether the drug had permanently rewired his brain.

“With Will, when I saw him again and again, I wasn’t sure if the GHB had triggered more of a chronic process with him,” Kershaw said. Each time Will was committed, we asked the nurses and doctors to flag his chart to reflect his GHB use — a request that often was received with blank stares and dismissive waves. Will continued to slip from our grasp, trapped in a world inhabited by demons and angels, a world defined by the absence of light or joy.

We wondered how long he could survive in such a dark and hopeless place. It didn’t help that he had come to believe he possessed the gift of prophesy and claimed to have seen his own death many times. He wouldn’t tell us when this was to occur. All he would say was that it involved fire.

Drowning In Cases

In the beginning, the addicts who flocked to Project GHB for help tended to be young men in their late teens and early 20s. Today, Porrata is seeing older men who have been using for five to 10 years. Most are 30 to 55 years old.
“It’s not the party kids,” she said. “It’s the man in midlife crisis who starts going to the gym and wants to lose a few pounds, look a little better, rekindle things — and someone introduces him to ‘G.’”

But still it is the athletes who concern her the most. “Any place you see steroids, GHB is right in the shadows,” she said. “The sports world won’t admit this drug. It’s like their secret drug, and they won’t give it up.”

Unlike steroids, there is no evidence GHB enhances physique or performance. Still, users subscribe to the myth.

“What makes GHB so attractive to athletes is it’s very difficult to detect. They pass all the routine urine drug screens that you do,” said Tampa addiction specialist David Myers.

One of Myers’ patients — a Major League Baseball player — sipped GHB from a small mouthwash bottle during his games. He told Myers and his team managers that GHB use was widespread in pro sports, including among his teammates.

“He relapsed,” Myers said. “There was no support from team management, and it was clear they were not interested in tackling GHB issues.”

There is some speculation that stepped-up enforcement has limited the drug’s availability. But despite a major Drug Enforcement Administration sting that netted 115 Internet distributors in 84 North American cities in 2002, followed by a $7 million bust this year in Scotland, there is plenty of GHB to go around. With Project GHB and other Internet sources supplying information that wasn’t available to addicts six years ago, many users are taking matters into their own hands, Porrata said. “They’ll die from other drugs,” she said. “And we’ve had so many suicides — so many.”

The Three Demons

Will’s final Baker Act took place Jan. 18, 2002. His slide into psychosis began as it always did: He stopped eating.

This time he said he planned to fast until Easter. When he entered Memorial Hospital’s psychiatric unit that day, he had been fasting for two weeks and had lost nearly 30 pounds. A public defender assigned to Will’s case blocked every effort to give him intravenous fluids and nutrients. If he wanted to starve himself, it wasn’t our business, or his doctor’s, she said. By February, Will was still fasting and began walking into walls. He fell and hit his head.

Then something remarkable happened: After three years of inexplicable madness, someone finally decided to take a look at Will’s brain. A nurse requested a CT scan. It was then that we finally met his demons. There were three of them: inoperable brain lesions whose nature and origin doctor’s couldn’t even guess at. Will was transferred to the medical floor, and for the first time in nearly two months, he received IV fluids and nutrients. Too late.

The neurological collapse began with involuntary flickering of his eyelids, which grew more pronounced each day. His hearing began to fail. He started to lose the use of the right side of his body. Still he would not eat. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” “All you have to do is start eating, and they’ll let you out of here,” I pleaded. “Isn’t there someplace you’d rather be?” “Heaven,” he said. On Easter, Will broke his fast with a Cadbury egg. He was transferred to a physical therapy unit, then sent home.

The brain scan was sent to Johns Hopkins University in an attempt to identify the lesions. The young wrestler, once the fastest boy in Hillsborough County, could not get from the bedroom to the bathroom without a walker. His balance was gone, his hearing severely impaired. And his flickering eyes couldn’t focus on a television screen, much less a Bible.
But he could kneel, and he could pray. And that is what Will did each day. “Everything will be fine,” he kept saying. “I’ve seen the future, and I’ll be wrestling.”

One of the saddest things about GHB, Miotto said, is the way the drug affects the mind. “They don’t grasp the level of their impairment,” she said. But the saddest thing about Will’s experience was his ability to grasp just that.

Despite his irretrievably broken mind, he knew what he had lost. He knew it all along. Will had always felt a particular affinity for the homeless. In the years he struggled with GHB psychosis, he actively sought them out to give them money as they picked through garbage bins. “That could be me someday,” he said. Despite his intermittent delusions of grandeur, his goals were humble. “What do you want from life?” I asked him shortly before that last Baker Act.

“I just want to be able to take care of myself,” he said. “To drive a car. To have a place of my own.”
Weeks after Will’s release from the hospital, his doctor evaluated him. He checked his eyes, his ears, his balance. This, he told him, was as good as it was going to get. As for the three still-unidentified brain lesions — things could get worse, he added.

Four days later, on June 3, 2002, my son took a gas can from the garage to the back yard. He doused himself and lit a match. A young man approached me after the memorial service. He said his name was Brandon and that Will had persuaded him to seek treatment for cocaine addiction.

“I’m two years clean and sober now,” he said. “Will saved my life, and I just wanted you to know.”

Source: Researcher Mike Messano contributed to this project. Reporter Jan Hollingsworth can be reached at (813) 865-4436 or jhollingsworthtampatrib.com.

PRODUCT NAMES

Blue Nitro
Renewtrient
Revivarant
Remforce
Firewater
Enliven
Serenity
Revitalize Plus
Thunder Nectar
Rejoov
Flower Power
Dream On
Weight Belt Cleaner

Source: Project GHB

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