Netflix’s docuseries Tiger King offers a front row seat to (attempted) murder, mayhem and madness. It garnered 34 million viewers in just 10 days and became the subject of memes everywhere. Now, there’s talk of a movie, however real or imagined that may be, and, although not the main plot line, meth addiction clearly plays a strong supporting role.
Meth addiction figured largely in the lives of two of Exotic’s husbands, John Finlay and Travis Maldonado – both of whom Exotic met when they were just 19 years old.
Let’s take a look at the top five things Tiger King teaches us about meth addiction.
1. Meth Will Ruin Your Smile
“One thing that meth does, somehow or another, it concentrates in your teeth.”
–Sheriff Rhodes, Garvin County, Oklahoma
Among other deleterious effects, meth decimates your dental health. Teeth can literally rot in your mouth, leading to a blackened appearance. They can also crumble and fall apart. Eventually, the ability to chew food can be lost. The condition is commonly called “meth mouth.”
In a study of over 500 meth users researchers found that:1
- Nearly all, or 96% had cavities
- More than half (58%) had untreated tooth decay
- Almost a third (31%) had six or more missing teeth
The more meth that was used, the worse the tooth decay.
The American Dental Association cites several reasons why this happens, as meth use can cause:2
- A lack and attention to the teeth (brushing, flossing) while high (which can last up to 12 hours at a time)
- Dry mouth
- Cravings for beverages high in sugar
- Teeth grinding
John Finlay’s missing teeth are prominent while he is speaking. Although never directly stated, his missing teeth could have very well been due to extended meth use.
There isn’t an exact time frame around the duration of Finlay’s meth use. Finlay spent 11 years at the G.W. Zoo with Joe Exotic, and Finlay admitted in the series that meth was one of the “main things” he and Exotic did. Another way to look at it is that Finlay is now 35 or 36 (as he was born in 1984), met Exotic at age 19, and has been clean for nearly five years.
Either way, it still looks like over a decade of methamphetamine. That’s a long span of time to be doing meth.
Thankfully, meth users are able to get their teeth fixed… something they usually aren’t concerned with until they overcome meth addiction.
You can see the stunning transformation this can make in a person’s appearance in the photo to the right. This is how Finlay appeared this year, in the recently-filmed eighth episode of the show.
2. Meth Addiction Will Make You Do Things You Never Thought You Would
“I guess Joe was smart enough. When he saw a young boy [he would say], ‘Hey, he’s on meth. Come here [gestured with his hands], I’ll provide your meth. I’ll give you everything if you come over here and marry me.’ You know, so I guess that’s how Joe did it.”
– Tim Stark, Wildlife in Need
Drug use changes the brain so that, eventually, nothing is as important as getting that next fix. Addicts will lie, cheat, steal, and do things they never thought they would, all because getting the drug is the only thing that matters… period.
According to certain cast members, neither Maldonado nor Finlay were gay, yet both ended up in a “throuple” marriage with Exotic.
Rick Kirkman, producer of Joe Exotic TV shares in the series that Maldonado was “banging every girl in the park.”
Another cast member, James Garretson (identified as a “businessman” in the series), said that Maldonado told him that on several occasions that he wasn’t gay, and would “always say that he wanted to go to the strip bar with us, but he said Joe [Exotic] would freak out if he left the property.”
For his part, Finlay confided that he dated girls all throughout his school years: “From kindergarten to the time I graduated, I had girlfriends. Every time.” In fact, he slept with a woman at the park and impregnated her – leading to his permanent departure from the zoo.
Dial also confirmed that neither Maldonado or Finlay were gay, and that Exotic admitted to him that he was aware of it. In fact, Exotic is shown on camera laughing with an unidentified man, telling him that “[he] fell in love with straight guys… I guess there aren’t that many gay guys in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.”
Several Tiger King cast members made statements supporting the assertion that meth is a major reason why Finlay and Maldonado began their relationships with Exotic.
This assertion is most eloquently stated by Joshua Dial, Exotic’s campaign manager for a failed 2018 bid for Oklahoma Mayor:
“There are people out there, they will look at a person who is in desperate, dire, need of something – and in Travis’s [Maldonado’s] case, he was addicted to meth – and they take that need and they fulfill it until they become the only person that can fulfill that need, and in exchange, that person gives them whatever sexual, or any other favors, they want. That’s the relationship Joe [Exotic] had with Travis [Maldonado].”
– Joshua Dial
Human relationships are complicated, and there can be multiple reasons why people couple and uncouple.
What we do know for certain is that several studies have shown that meth use is associated with trading sex for drugs.
A 2012 study put the number at 43% of male users who have sex with other men trading sex for meth in the preceding two months.3 Of a sample of participants who were heterosexual, HIV-negative, and enrolled in a San Diego sexual risk reduction invention, one in four (26%) reported trading sex for meth in the previous two months.4
Another study found that 3.5% of adolescents reported having exchanged sex for drugs or money, and two-thirds of those were boys.5
3. Meth Can Lead to Premature Death
“When Travis came around, Travis would smoke his meth.”
– John Finlay
Tragically, Maldonado was just 23 years old when he lost his life by accidentally shooting himself with a gun.
There are two reasons why meth addiction could have played a role in his death: Using meth makes you more likely to suffer from an accident, including gunshots. Not only that, but meth use can cause recklessness and a higher likelihood of participating in dangerous stunts.
Maldonado’s death is doubly unfortunate because, just by following two foundational rules of gun safety, he wouldn’t have lost his life that fateful day.
From what is shown in the series, Maldonado seemed to have an easy familiarity with guns. He is shown firing a gun in at least one Tiger King scene – and pointing guns at the camera in many others.
Yet one of the first things taught when learning how to handle a weapon is to treat every gun as if it were loaded and never point a gun at something you don’t intend to shoot.
Even if you know a gun is unloaded, you still treat it as such. (Who knows? A bullet could be stuck in the chamber).
Poignantly, Dial describes the horrific moment in which Maldonado shoots himself, to which he and a rolling camera were the only witnesses. The footage appears with no audio in the fifth episode of the series:
“He [Maldonado] always pointed guns all the time at people out there at the park. Sometimes he’d wake you up pointing a gun at you. He’d done that to me, on multiple occasions. So, he had done that to me again in that office that morning, and said, ‘Freeze, mother*****,’ which is just what he did. And I said ‘Dude, you know not to point guns,’ because I’ve told him before, ‘Don’t point a gun at me.’ He said, ‘Oh man, this is a Ruger, there’s no clip in it. You know a Ruger won’t fire without a clip.’ I was sitting in a chair looking at him when he put a gun to his head. It’s not like on the movies. I knew he was dead the second he pulled the trigger. At the same time, I didn’t. I thought it was a joke. Because you know, Travis was a jokester, a prankster, he liked to play pranks on people.”
– Joshua Dial
In the lower left-hand corner of the screen, you can see a figure jump up and quickly move out of view. Moments later, a flash of light shoots across the screen as the bullet is fired, and then the top of Maldonado’s head comes into view for just a split second before it appears to fall back. From the moment the bullet is fired, Dial has his hands to his face and appears frozen in fear.
It was that in-the-moment decision to hop up and demonstrate how he thought the gun wouldn’t fire that was Maldonado’s downfall. If he hadn’t felt it necessary to show Dial that the gun supposedly wouldn’t fire – or if only he had pointed it at a safe target instead of at his head – this tragedy could have been avoided.
While the particulars are unique to this instance, accidents among meth users are unfortunately not. One study of ER patients found a “significant” association between meth use and trauma injuries, from motor vehicle accidents to gunshot wounds and more.6
Several studies show that risk-taking behavior and fearlessness are associated with meth use, and in a Swedish study, accidents and suicide were found to be the most common cause of death for 15-to-24-year-old drug users, especially among those using stimulants such as meth.7
Would Maldonado have disregarded the risk of impulsively pointing the gun to his head and pulling the trigger if he hadn’t been using meth? Sadly, we’ll never know the answer to that question.
4. You Can Overcome Meth Addiction
“When my daughter was born, I decided to never touch another drug ever again.”
– John Finlay
The story has a better ending for John Finlay. He is now engaged, has a daughter, new teeth and a new life as well.
In the final episode, he shares that he was disappointed with what he thought was his portrayal as a “drugged-out hillbilly” on the show. He was quick to emphasize that he has now been clean for over four years, going on five… ever since the birth of his daughter.
This is certainly good news, as the vast majority of meth addicts (88%) relapse within three years of seeking treatment according to an Australian study.8
So that means that Finlay has beaten the odds – demonstrating that it is possible to recover from meth addiction.
How did he do it?
From what we can see of his life through Tiger King, Finlay did several things right in his bid to overcome addiction.
First, he removed himself from a drug-fueled environment. Although it may not have been the reason he left the G.W. Zoo, it is very true that being around drug use and users can lead to your own drug use. The attitude toward drug use of those around you can influence your own use. If your friends accept it, and are doing it, you are more likely to as well.9
Second, Finlay had a compelling reason to get clean – his daughter.
Having something to lose has been shown to be a powerful motivator to get and stay clean.10, 11, 12 Addicts will often cite their children as the reason they started on the path to abstinence from drugs. Now, there are plenty of others who lose their children because of their drug use. Thankfully, Finlay decided to take a different route.
Third, an initial commitment to completely stopping drugs also is more effective than trying to “cut down.”13 Finlay’s comment that he vowed to “never touch drugs again” reflects that attitude.
5. Many People Who Overcome Addiction Go Into the Recovery Field
“I want to work with the youth about drugs and abuse… It’s time for me to take a negative and turn it into a positive.”
– John Finlay, People Interview14
In the beginning, many addiction treatment centers were founded and operated by recovering addicts.
Since that time, others have joined the field. Yet it remains an industry that largely attracts those in recovery.
Estimates from studies on this topic have found the percentage of addiction counselors in recovery still ranges from 37%15 to 57%.16 This doesn’t count those on the administrative side or in business development.
These passionate, caring people have been walked in their clients’ shoes and want to devote their lives to helping others come out of the other side of addiction. Studies have shown that addiction counselors in recovery are more committed to the profession than those who aren’t.17
Not only that, but helping others stay clean and sober helps you stay clean and sober.18 It’s certainly a positive direction to move in. The feeling of coming full circle – to the point where you can help others – is extremely fulfilling.
Which Path Will You Take?
Although certainly unintended, Finlay and Maldonado illustrated two diverging paths where addiction leads.
Simply put, addicts can either keep using until they pass away or make the decision to get clean.
Tiger King’s Finlay is but one example that it can happen – you can overcome meth addiction.
If you are struggling with meth or any other substance addiction, know that help is available. You simply have to reach out for it. A team of people is waiting to assist you in walking the path to sobriety.
Make today the day you commit to stopping the madness of addiction, once and for all.
Find a powerful reason for doing so, in your children, your parents, yourself. You are worth it, and everyone’s rooting for you.
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1 “Meth Mouth: How Methamphetamine Use Affects Dental Health.” Mouth HealthyTM. American Dental Association, Web, 27 April 2020. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topicsm/m/meth-mouth
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4 Semple SJ, Strathdee SA, Zians J, Patterson TL. (2011). Correlates of trading xex for methampehtamine in a sample of negative heterosexual methamphetamin users. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Apr-June, 43(2): 79-88.
5 Edwards, J. M., Iritani, B. J., & Hallfors, D. D. (2006). Prevalence and correlates of exchanging sex for drugs or money among adolescents in the United States. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 82(5), 354–358. https://doi.org/10.1136/sti.2006.020693.
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