To people who don’t use meth, “overamp” means uncontrolled adrenaline. The term refers to overdose of stimulants and has come to be understood as a state of agitation, paranoia, psychosis and staying awake for days or weeks. But talk to anyone who actually uses meth, and you’ll likely hear that what happens when you use more than your system can handle is not a surge of manic energy. What happens is you fall asleep.
If this sounds implausible, it’s only because the first kind of overamp is so dangerously overrepresented in the public consciousness. Meth is a convenient scapegoat for almost any societal ill, and a meth-induced state of agitation or aggression—when it happens in public—really lends itself to media outlets looking for clickbait, police departments looking for people to criminalize, and the DEA forever looking to justify its own existence.
Once that narrative is out of the way, the concept of a drug that functions like a stimulant at lower doses and a sedative at higher doses becomes more familiar. Lots of drugs work this way: alcohol; synthetic cannabinoids; GHB; CBD; kratom. In pharmaceutical circles, a medication having the opposite effect it’s expected to—like when Adderall makes you tired—is a well-established outcome called a “paradoxical reaction,” and sometimes associated with the dose being too high or low.
Though I’ve kicked the subject of meth overamps around with a couple of toxicologists and other harm reduction-based academics, I’m describing my understanding of what is happening rather than something doctors have confirmed to me. That said, my understanding comes from talking about the experience at length with other chronic meth users, across different parts of the country over a long period of time, and doctors tend to have a somewhat less nuanced understanding of meth use than meth users do.
An overamp often looks like the nod we associate with opioids.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been with someone acutely agitated from meth, and to the best of my knowledge it’s always been when someone either hadn’t been using it regularly, or injected when they normally smoked. Whereas it’s normal—expected, even—for someone to do a shot or take a hit and then, moments later, simply power down.
Often this looks like the nod we associate with opioids—slowly sinking lower a millimeter at a time, hands still holding whatever they were holding, snapping back to consciousness as soon as you say their name or give them a gentle nudge.
A lot of meth users naturally assume that when the “sleepy meth” kind of overamp happens to them it’s the meth that’s at fault, especially as the escalating drug war means repeatedly losing access to the sellers they trust. But overamps have nothing to do with fentanyl or sedatives being cut into meth. They predate fentanyl entering the illicit drug supply. And in the year and change I’ve had access to drug-checking, the NYC-area meth used by everyone I know in person, including myself, has remained 100-percent meth.
The threshold at which this happens for each person is not constant; it can jump around a lot.
Overamping is not the same thing as falling asleep because meth had kept you up for so long you eventually couldn’t help it. It’s a direct physical response to having just introduced more meth into your system than it can handle, triggering a sort of temporary shutdown. This is not life-threatening in and of itself—some people feel better after—but it’s often inconvenient and at worst unsafe, depending on the setting.
The threshold at which this happens for each person is not constant; it can jump around a lot. Individual tolerance to meth sets the general range, but the thing that determines someone’s overamp threshold at any given moment really seems to be sleep. The more sleep-deprived you are, the less meth it takes.
Usually overamps happen when someone consumes a large quantity of meth all at once. I also think they can be triggered by using smaller quantities frequently enough, without a break, so as to reach a point where the intake comes to the same thing, because that’s what happens to me. Almost everyone I know uses larger amounts at a time than I do, but I also use pretty much hourly and know no one else who does, so my knowledge here is limited to just my own experience and secondhand accounts.
Nationally, rates of meth use have increased substantially in the past few years; I don’t think I’m the only person in this position.
Overamps only started happening to me a little over a year ago. Recently, my tolerance has gone down—by a lot. Right now anything over 0.05 grams at a time—an amount many meth users would consider very teeny, by any method of consumption—means an instant headache and overpowering fatigue. I do sometimes overamp and fall asleep, but because I use little doses continuously it feels sort of like I’m hovering just under my threshold during most waking hours. The biggest issue has been constant brain fog, plus this neat thing where I can start a sentence but not find my way out the other side.
The solution would be to take a break and let some tolerance wear off, but functionally this would be not unlike inducing a coma, and it’s hard to find time in your schedule for something like that. Nationally, rates of meth use have increased substantially in the past few years; I’d guess I’m not the only person in this position.
Rotating with other stimulants, like Adderall, can go a long way if you have the means. Portable oxygen canisters can also help mitigate overamps, and though I haven’t had any luck with them personally, I have seen them be versatile stimulant harm reduction tools for others.
I use meth because without at least a half-gram rolling around in me at all times, I revert back to my natural form: a big ball of depression with an unfortunate immunity to antidepressants. But for more than a decade, stimulants have allowed me to manually override this problem (not perfectly; just in the big-picture sense), and for the past couple of years I’ve used meth to open up the brief windows during which I’m able to go about my day. When I feel the window starting to close again, that used to mean it was time for more meth. These days, it means an annoying Catch-22 wherein doing more meth and not doing more meth produce pretty similar results.
So far, the best approach I’ve come up with is tentatively dosing itty bits at a time—as low as 0.02-ish grams, currently—and feeling out whether my system can absorb a bit more or whether it’s already too late. If I hit the right amount, I get to be myself for a little while. If I go over or under, I end up as myself that way too.
Photograph courtesy of Kastalia Medrano