The white powder was in two neat lines on the stainless steel toiletpaper holder in a nightclub bathroom.
Denise Walker had never tried hard drugs before, but half a dozen shots of tequila fogged her judgment.
After her older sister handed over the rolled one-dollar bill with a reassuring nod, Walker snorted.
The hit of methamphetamine released a flood of her brain's feel-good chemical, dopamine, causing a euphoric sensation to stream through her body. Her heart rate and blood pressure shot up. She felt energized, sexy, free.
"The minute I tried it, I was hooked," the San Luis Obispo County resident recalls. "I felt so happy."
Walker never went to bed that night -- or the next three nights. Her initial thought after sleeping off her first binge was to get more meth.
After this first encounter, the drug took over Walker's life. She could not have imagined at the time the heartache it would cause her -- relationships destroyed, jobs squandered, health compromised.
She couldn't see that the drug would bring her to the brink of losing all her children, that it would leave her homeless and penniless.
All she knew was her lust for the high.
It was late 1997 in Sacramento, and Walker was a 25-year-old single mother of two. She was a quiet woman who kept mostly to herself. She had auburn hair that fell below her shoulders, and she liked rosy lipstick. She had worked as a cashier at the same grocery store for six years and helped her 6-year-old daughter with Girl Scout activities in her free time.
But being a single mom was tough. Money was always tight, work seemed endless and, still a young woman, she yearned to have fun.
After the episode in the nightclub bathroom, meth would provide that release.
When high, she felt like "supermom," she said. The drug gave her new energy to work her 4 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift and care for her daughter and 3-year-old son.
Meth helped her get through the mundane and dodge depression and loneliness.
When she was growing up, Walker said, her father was physically and emotionally abusive, and her mother was an alcoholic who left when Walker was 13.
In high school, Walker lifted weights at the gym to get a dopamine rush and try to fill the void left by her violent childhood.
Now, she found that a few hits of meth had the same effect as weightlifting and made her feel happy for hours, sometimes days.
But the good feeling lasted only as long as Walker was high, and coming down was miserable. She would go on seven- to 11-day binges, awake the entire time. Then she would crash. She wanted to sleep for days, but her children still needed her. She grew irritable and impatient with them.
"Kids know when you're using drugs," she said. "My daughter would look at me and ask, 'Mommy, are you using drugs? Why do you act so differently?' "
Walker would look into her daughter's innocent brown eyes and lie. She couldn't tell the girl that her mother was a meth addict, that her life was spinning out of control.
"I just lived out of guilt," she said. "It was so unhealthy. It was scary. I didn't know how to take care of them. I didn't feel like a parent, because if I disciplined them I was being a mean mommy."
The drug takes over
After a year and a half of using meth, Walker's addiction consumed her.
In the world of drugs, meth is cheap -- less expensive than cocaine or marijuana-- but Walker started spending $250 a week to maintain a steady stockpile. She spent grocery money on meth. She needed the drug to function and cried in pain when she didn't have enough money to get high.
By this time, meth had physiologically rewired her brain to need the dopamine rush she got from smoking and snorting. Her cravings were no longer voluntary, and her desire to get high overpowered everything else -- even love for her children.
In 1999, Walker's life spun out of control. She became unreliable at work and was fired. She quit paying bills and lost her car and then her apartment.
Homeless, she dragged her children to motels and friends' couches; she did this for more than a year. She left them with semi-strangers while she was out using. The drug clouded her memory, and she forgot to feed herself, let alone her children. She snapped at them for needing her. Walker hated herself for screaming at them, but she couldn't shake the drug's grip.
She did whatever it took to get high. She traded sex for meth. Men floated in and out of her life. When she was high, fear and precaution disappeared. She never used condoms or asked if someone had HIV.
"It was the nightmare of my life," she said. "... It takes away your heart and soul."
A stab at recovery
In late 2000, Walker realized she could no longer care for her children. She asked their dad to take them for a few weeks while she put her life back together. She planned to stay clean.
But she didn't acknowledge to herself that she was addicted and didn't seek help. She didn't stop using.
That winter, Walker slept on the concrete floor of her sister's garage, next to the dogs. She had no money; she only had the dirty clothes she wore.
After a fight Christmas Day, Walker's sister, who was also an addict, kicked her out. Walking alone in the rain toward the homeless shelter that holiday felt like a punch in the gut. Walker realized she had nothing and no one.
She finally believed what everyone told her: "You either go to prison or you die over meth."
One day in late January 2001, she called from Sacramento to her children's father in Paso Robles, and he agreed to come get her. She got high until he arrived. On the drive south while holding her children, she vowed to get clean.
Walker stayed at her children's grandmother's house for five days, but personality conflicts drove her out. She was clean for five days and resolved to change her life when she went to the homeless shelter at the First Baptist Church in Atascadero.
Within hours of her arrival, though, a meth user offered her a hit.
Coming tomorrow: Walker has a third child in San Luis Obispo County. Can she kick her addiction to care for her new baby?