It was either lose their drug habit or their children.

WEARING loose sweatpants and sneakers, mothers Samantha Roberts and Beatrice Rodrigues kicked and pranced to a 30-minute kick-boxing video, struggling to keep up with the perfectly toned bodies of the fitness instructors on the television screen in front of them.

It wasn’t just fitness or a slimmer figure that motivated their sweaty workout. This is their last chance to keep their children after repeated failures to quit drugs.

When House on the Hill opened 15 years ago to help young mothers overcome drug and alcohol addictions, counsellors employed traditional psychological therapies. But an uptick in methamphetamine abuse by young women has forced a change in the center’s approach.

Many young women turn to methamphetamine in part because it suppresses appetite and helps them keep a slim figure. The workouts offer an alternative.

“I had a big, emotional reason for coming here,” said Rodrigues, 32, who lives at House on the Hill with the youngest of her five kids. “My kids were almost taken away from me.”

When Santa Clara County health officials recently looked into the drugs of choice of young mothers accepted for outpatient treatment for addiction, 57% named methamphetamine. Not even alcohol, marijuana or heroine came close in popularity.

The survey from 2011 to 2014 looked at women 20 to 30 years old during pregnancy or around birth.

Terrie Miller, the center’s clinical supervisor, said she noticed the troubling change in their clientele about four years ago, with young mothers showing up oddly underweight.

“The girls we were getting were skinny,” Miller said. “Some of them wore size one or zero.”

But there are serious health dangers for those abusing the drug.

House on the Hill executive director Debbie Miranda said appetite loss and poor diets are common signs of “meth” abuse, as well as deterioration of the gums and teeth known as “meth mouth.”

“If they were eating anything at all, it was fast food and garbage,” Miranda said. “A lot of the girls already have bad teeth when they come here.”

Methamphetamine is a chemical drug that can be smoked, swallowed or injected. It often induces a sense of euphoria, increased energy and concentration.

Cheryl Berman of the Santa Clara County Department of Drug and Alcohol Services said methamphetamine emerged five or six years ago in the county.

“It’s a problem in certain pockets around the country,” Berman, “and we are one of those pockets.”

Rodrigues was only 15 when she first took meth to deal with a sister’s death, and used the drug on and off right through her last pregnancy only two months ago. Because she had failed to see a doctor leading up to the delivery, the hospital asked for a blood test. The baby boy tested positive for meth.

“I guess I let them test the baby because I knew, deep down, that I couldn’t keep going on like that.”

Young mothers admitted to House on the Hill, which is almost always full and claims a recovery rate of 65%, stay from four to six months. Their daily routines include personal therapy sessions with counselors and group sessions on how to control anger, stay off drugs and raise children in a healthy way. The women can leave the center only for medical, court or other approved appointments. Cellphones and junk foods are not allowed.

To meet the meth challenge, the center moved the aerobic workouts to a multi-purpose room in a new residential building funded by San Jose businessman Joe Parisi.

The young mothers don’t seem to mind pushing couches out of the way or exercising on a carpet meant more for toddler play than kick-boxing. Most of them are exercising regularly for the first time since grade school.

Samantha Roberts didn’t have much of a choice.

She is on her second visit to House on the Hill after relapsing once and nearly losing custody of her two children.

“I was 56-58kg on meth,” said Roberts, who now weighs 72kg and got hooked on meth when she was only 12. “I thought I looked good. It makes you more outgoing. It gives you energy, makes you more likable. It’s the drug that does the most, especially for young girls.”

Supervisor Miller said the toughest challenge is getting meth-addicted mothers to realise that the thin bodies, energy and euphoria they enjoyed on meth were not normal. In fact, Miller said, the drug tricked them into thinking they were prettier, stronger and better mothers than they really were.

“In reality, they were creating a big mess by failing to complete every chore or responsibility, from cleaning house to showing up for post-natal care,” Miller said, .

House on the Hill counsellors hope the young mothers will leave the centre with a better understanding of the science behind their approach. In basic terms, the synthetic drug works its magic by triggering hormones and nervous system mechanisms that control emotions. But prolonged use eventually diminishes or destroys the body’s natural ability to do the same. What’s left is a depressed woman inside a skinny body.

The problem is that boyfriends remember and prefer the thinner girlfriends they knew on meth.

“Weight and relationships are relapse triggers,” Miller said. “If they leave here bigger, there’s a possibility that the boyfriends won’t want them anymore.” – San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service