Gymnast Cassie Dixon loved the floor routine. At one meet, she took first place with a 9.75.
“She was making every move perfect, and I was in awe, and so was the audience,” said Julie Dixon, Cassie’s mom.
Cassie Dixon was very accomplished. A table lined with gymnastics medals sits in the dining of her family’s home in Utah.
But there was one thing Cassie could not conquer. Last June, at age 26, she relapsed from an addiction to air duster, compressed chemicals used to clean computer equipment. She’d been struggling with the addiction for years.
“She says, ‘Mommy, I love you,'” said Julie Dixon.
Those would be the last words Julie Dixon would ever hear from her daughter. On June 27, 2016, Cassie Dixon died of asphyxiation from difluoroethane toxicity.
“She never fell in love. She’s never going to have a wedding, she’s never going to have children,” Julie Dixon said.
Air duster causes an intense high that’s short-lived. Inhalant abuse, or huffing, is more common than you might think. The National Institutes of Drug Abuse estimates 20 percent of junior high kids have tried huffing. And it’s deadly.
“Very deadly,” said Misty McIntyre-Goodsell, LCSW, director of research and development at Odyssey House. She said huffing air duster can cause heart failure the first time someone uses it.
“Because you’re not getting oxygen, you’re not getting oxygen to your brain. People can have seizures, they can go into comas, they can asphyxiate,” she said.
22 percent of inhalant abusers who died from it had no history of inhalant abuse — they were first time users, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.
Part of the problem is accessibility. Air duster is easy to find at most big box stores and doesn’t require an ID. Also, McIntyre-Goodsell said an underlying mental illness is common with addiction and can run the gamut from minor to severe. Cassie Dixon was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and Dixon believes her daughter may have been self-medicating when she started huffing when she was 23.
“A person may be starting to have symptoms and just looking for some relief,” said McIntyre-Goodsell. “Addiction is really about a person struggling with their thoughts and feelings and not knowing how to cope.”
She cautions parents to look for the signs.
“The person may have slurred speech, they may be losing weight, withdrawing from friends and family and activities,” McIntyre-Goodsell said. “If they’re keeping the canisters or you’re finding them in places that don’t make sense: in their purses or back packs or next to their bed, even in places like under the bathroom sink.”
Also, be aware if you’re going through cans faster than usual, or finding a chemical smell on their clothes.
Julie Dixon wishes there had been more help available for her daughter. Now she’s speaking out in hopes of saving others.
“It’s a horrible thing to go through for a mother to try to save her child,” Julie Dixon said.