Huffing: A cheap thrill that wrecks lives

December 28, 2013 

Aaron D. Draper doesn't remember standing in a field off Overland Road last summer, surrounded by dozens of cans of compressed air he'd just stolen from Wal-Mart.

He doesn't remember sticking those 42 cans in his mouth and breathing in the aerosol fumes over and over.

All he remembers of July 19 is waking up at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center that night.

"I've tried to block out that day, " said Draper, dressed in his inmate's uniform at the Ada County Jail last week. "I remember the police officer told me he wanted me to stay at Saint Al's (instead of going to jail), because I did so much damage to my (heart)."

Draper is addicted to "huffing, " a practice in which people breathe in the propellants found in household spray cans to get high. Huffers even abuse something as seemingly benign as a can of compressed air.

The buzz occurs because of hypoxia, when oxygen is denied to the brain. Effects include lung damage and poisoning by the chemical propellants, which can even lead to fatal conditions like heart arrhythmia in rare cases.

Draper looks older than his 28 years. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army who says he served as a flight medic on Black Hawk helicopters and later at military hospitals in the mid-2000s, a career choice that he said led to his huffing addiction.

He has been through VA rehab at least twice and will enter again when he finishes his jail time for theft this winter.

"It's hard to explain, " he said. "I know the dangers of it. ... I like to think of myself as a fairly intelligent person. I was more embarrassed than anything for asking for help."

Draper knows he has done permanent damage to his health.

"If I do this again, " he said, "it's probably going to end up killing me."

Huffing in the military

It's hard to tell how widespread huffing has become for soldiers in Iraq, but various reports over the past several years indicate it's a problem that has gotten the military's attention.

A 2008 story that ran in "Knowledge, " which calls itself the official safety magazine of the U.S. Army, reported that 47 members of the U.S. armed forces had died of inhalant use since 1998, more than half of them soldiers. The Department of Defense issued a release in October 2010 warning soldiers about huffing.

Draper says he suffered a traumatic brain injury - TBI in Army nomenclature - in a 2005 IED attack in Iraq and has post-traumatic stress disorder from his time there. He sustained minor shrapnel wounds, but the real damage was to his brain. Draper suffered migraines and memory loss. He felt lousy. The 800-milligram Motrin pills the military prescribed for his headaches weren't working.

That's when a fellow soldier and friend gave him a can of compressed air and said it might help with the headaches.

"It takes everything off your mind, " Draper said. "It was very prevalent in the military. It's readily available, and there is no drug test for it. It's so fast-acting, it doesn't leave a trace in your blood and urine.

"It's a cheap thrill. It kind of makes you black out. You can't differentiate time."

Draper started it for help with his headaches but also admitted he did it to get high. He did it for a couple of weeks, then read about its effects on the Internet. "So I cut it out, " Draper said.

Unfortunately, he wasn't able to cut it out forever.

Couldn't kick the habit

Draper left the Army in 2007 and moved back to Tacoma, Wash. He got married and had a baby the next year but said his marriage was strained. He started having nightmares, night sweats and intrusive thoughts, which he suspects are a legacy of his brain injury and PTSD.

After one of those nightmares, Draper said, he found a can of compressed air in his home. He got high, and that got him huffing again.

He stopped for a second time after his wife threatened to kick him out. Draper said he got outpatient treatment through the VA and was clean for a while. But he began again when he got divorced.

Huffing in Boise

Draper's parents wanted to help him get clean, so they set him up with inpatient drug treatment at the VA hospital in Boise. That brought Draper to the Treasure Valley in early 2011.

The treatment ended, and Draper got a job as a server at a Boise sports bar. He began huffing again, buying cans of air several times a week.

Police charged Draper with misdemeanor intoxication by inhalation of a toxic substance eight times between April and May, according to court records. Draper said he doesn't remember much about those tickets and didn't go to the courthouse to find out what to do.

That led to jail time on a charge of failure to appear in court. He lost his job and a chance to get back into a VA rehab program, he said.

That's when he found himself stealing cans of air and binging outside Wal-Mart on July 19.

Back to jail

He got out of the hospital and went to back to Washington state to get treatment for PTSD. While there, Ada County prosecutors issued an arrest warrant on a felony charge for the July 19 burglary. Draper turned himself in, eventually pleading guilty to the lesser charge of misdemeanor petit theft - with the condition that he enter drug treatment as soon as he gets out of jail.

Draper hopes this next stint in rehab is more successful than the previous two. He feels he has a story to tell teens: Don't try inhalants. Ever.

"I want to be done with it, " he said. "(Huffing) ruined my marriage, it ruined a lot of my friendships. It's almost ruined my relationship with my parents."

The most dangerous part about huffing addiction is that spray cans are available everywhere, he said.

"It's not like alcohol, where if you don't want to buy alcohol, you don't go to liquor stores, " Draper said. "This stuff, you walk into a corner store, and it's there."

Draper's grandfather was an alcoholic, and addiction runs in the family, says his dad, Delbert Draper. None of that, however, excuses his son's behavior.

A 30-year Army veteran who also served in Iraq, Draper doesn't doubt that his son suffers from PTSD. But he says his son has to take control if he wants to lead the happy, healthy life he's capable of.

"Ultimately, he has to be the one to not go into a store and buy a can or steal a can, " Delbert Draper said. "It has to be up to him."

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