Meth sounded like an escape to Steve after he lost his girlfriend, got caught driving drunk and ended up on New Year's Eve looking for something to ease the pain.

But within a day of taking it, the drug flipped his life in bucolic Spring Valley, Minn., upside down.

"The first day I started smoking meth, a gentleman taught me how to make it," said Steve, who with another former meth user agreed to talk to the Star Tribune to help explain the meth epidemic but asked that their last names be withheld.

Before long, he was manufacturing it and selling to friends. Soon he was mixing chemicals with armed men who wore ski masks. One simply called himself "Snake."

"I saw it as a quick fix, easy cash," Steve said. To make it, he mixed things like acid, Coleman fuel, lithium from batteries and anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer common in rural Minnesota.

He and an accomplice stole the chemicals. That was how it all ended one night: "He dropped me off. I ran over to the anhydrous tank. About 30 seconds after he picked me up we saw those [police lights] in the window."

Steve was arrested and sent to treatment. He relapsed before going sober and finding God. He's been clean for four years.

More people in the Twin Cities sought treatment for meth addiction last year than the year before. That number had been falling since peaking in 2005, according to state officials. Still it's a small number compared with all drug users; about six out of every 100 who seek treatment say they're addicted to meth. Cocaine and marijuana are more common.

Meth was the second most common drug seized in the metro area last year, accounting for 28 percent of seizures, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Users are predominantly white (86 percent among treatment patients), and more are men. The average age of the first-time user is 21.

"I was out of my mind when I was using," said Jessica, a former meth addict from another part of rural Minnesota. Now 38 and sober since 2002, she works with Teen Challenge to help others avoid the drug.

She was 16 when she first used meth or "crank," then spiraled into partying and using at least four days a week. Some friends were arrested, some became ill or died, but she carried on through a divorce, the loss of her job at an elementary school, and the onset of paranoia. She thought people were in her attic, outside her house. "It made me a lunatic," she said.

An emergency intervention by her parents finally got her off drugs in 2001. "It's better on this side," she said. "I have sanity.

"For me, looking back, I think of it as a horrifying event. It was demoralizing. It was catastrophic. There are areas of my life that I still need healing from."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329