Meth and Recovery
Friday, September 28th, 2012
There is a folder, tucked within a folder, buried deep in my computer files. I shouldn’t be looking at its contents, yet I can’t bring myself to delete it altogether. It is labeled MARCUS, and inside the folder is my disease.
During my years of crystal meth addiction I went by the name of Marcus, at least to dealers and tricks and fellow addicts. It helped me determine who was calling my cell phone — those calling for Mark or Marcus usually had very different agendas — and Marcus even became an alternate persona as my drug addiction progressed.
When partying as Marcus, I felt confident and aloof. I took awful chances. I never met a strobe light I didn’t like or a box on a dance floor I wouldn’t jump on. A steroid-crazed gym regimen and the dehydration of drug abuse transformed my body into the low fat, pumped up gay ideal.
Photographs of that body, in full, preening strut, are the contents of the MARCUS folder. The pictures were my calling card for online sex-and-drug pursuits. They suggest nudity but are cropped modestly — although God knows that much more damning images of me surely exist in the dark corners of cyberspace.
In one of the few pictures showing my face, I stand under a running shower — a pitiful Playgirl pose, spray nozzle in hand — with a blank face and shipwrecked eyes. The only emotion on display, just around the edges, is a dull fear.
My life was precisely as pictured. It wouldn’t be long before my drug use trumped my gym schedule, and my status in online chat rooms devolved from intriguing hottie to that crazy mess that doesn’t look like his pictures.
Since then, my recovery from drug addiction has helped me understand that the Gay Strut is key to my disease. It is a sly porthole back to raging insanity.
Explaining all this feels idiotic. What vanity I possess, asking you to gaze upon my former, overwrought beauty as I complain about the consequences. It feels like an invitation to tell me how much healthier I look now, or that recovery is “an inside job.” I know this. I’m just sharing the curious road that got me here.
My recovery depends on healing my mind, body and spirit. At the moment I’m two out of three.
My spirit is happy today. My smiles are joyful and plentiful. My mind is clear, although I don’t kid myself, there are remnants of a brain pickled in methamphetamine for many years. But healing is underway, and my mind and spirit are enjoying the process.
Only my body lags behind, injured, resentful, and suspicious of the path to well being. I’m sedentary and stubborn. I relate being physically fit with something traumatic that once hounded and eventually ruined me.
I want to be healthier, and to control my weight and rising cholesterol. I need to fix this, I tell myself, but I’m afraid to fix this. There’s the potential that I’ll go back to a lifestyle more horrible than my expanding waistline.
It’s good to get in shape again, I tell myself with sincere intentions. The treadmill is really taking off the pounds and I should start weight lifting again and hot damn, that muscle recall really works just look at my arms and I should buy new tank tops and work out even harder and get steroids prescribed again and what’s wrong with hanging out at a bar shirtless and shooting pool and sure I’ll do one hit of that, thanks, and man this body of mine would look damn hot at a sex party right now and who’s your dealer and do you have needles…?
Getting back in shape is an easy call. Except my mind puts physical fitness on the same crazy train as my drug addiction.
There is a solution. There always is. And I’m working on it. The fact I acknowledge my insanity is a good start. Now I can begin the process of teaching my body new tricks.
There are traps on the road to recovery, as anyone getting clean and sober will tell you. I’m much better at seeing them clearly than I used to be. But the vigilance it requires is a full time job.
I get afraid that a dangerous choice might look perfectly innocent. Or be a reasonable part of life. It could be a healthy choice, even, at least for you.
But sometimes, my very reckoning can look as pretty as a picture.
This piece originally appeared on my blog last year, and is featured in Trevor Hoppe’s upcoming book, Beyond Masculinity. I felt obliged to show some of the Marcus photos, but have cropped and altered them into something less decadent. Any similarity to pictures you may have seen in online chat rooms is purely coincidental. This topic is also something I’ve done my best to separate from my series of fitness videos with expert Nelson Vergel. Why burden the guy with my insanity? — Mark
Tuesday, July 31st, 2012
AIDS2012 was exactly as I had hoped: an enormous “summer camp” for advocates from around the globe, and I had a blast bringing their stories to you. Let others cover the medical updates and the big name speakers. I wanted to give you a sense of the people who are doing the work on the front lines – with a few bigwig interviews along the way.
Every day I sought out stories I thought would interest you and took a ton of footage (with the help of my talented camera person and schlepper Tina Robles). After a bite of free food from whatever reception was happening, I tried to make it to at least one evening event. And then back to my hotel, where I reviewed the footage, did my best to conceive a theme for the day, and then started editing. I’m quick at the editing part, but it still took 4-5 hours, into the wee hours of the morning. Then I’d sleep for a couple hours and start again. I’ll need the two years between now and AIDS2014 just to catch up!
Here are links and a review of each of the six video blogs I produced during the week. Simply click the title to see the posting and watch the video.
Since less than 5% of the programming for AIDS 2012 is targeting to MSMs (Men who have Sex with Men), a special one-day pre-conference is held the day AIDS 2012 convenes to address the needs and issues of this population.
My report includes a chat with United States Rep. Barbara Lee (right), who has just introduced comprehensive HIV prevention and anti-stigma legislation; the advocates fighting laws that criminalize people with HIV (like Sean Strub and Edwin Bernard), a little social research on Grindr (the gay man’s cruise phone app), a chat with Positive Frontiers editor Alex Garner about getting rejected (and rejected others) during the dating process, and a visit to an AIDS2012 Reunion poz social event.
In this brief video episode from the first official day of AIDS2012 the party is rolling, with an outdoor concert (steps away from the AIDS quilt) featuring Weyclef Sean and Cornel West (!), dancing dignitaries, and a somewhat surprise ending!
The fact is, Day One was a light day, the calm before the storm, as people poured into DC and braced themselves for the busy week ahead. And it was my last chance to get a decent night’s sleep.
I spent some time in the exhibit hall critiquing the fashions (and the issues) of various attendees with fashion maven Jack Mackenroth (poz and proud veteran of “Project Runway”), started a YouTube rivalry with inspirational singer Jamar Rogers (“The Voice,” right), and learned about HIV and aging from an expert with the Terrence Higgins Trust. I also had the chance to speak with the head of the CDC’s HIV/AIDS Division about their new “Let’s Stop HIV Together” campaign, in which Jamar and myself both participate.
And, with all the talk at the conference about the devastating effects of HIV stigma, I found validation of my own HIV status in the unlikeliest of places: the Gallery Place subway station.
Several contingents marched and protested separately throughout the city – marching for housing, and civil rights, and in protest of the pharmaceutical industry’s “intellectual property” policies – and then convened in front of the White House. Whereas the march and rally at AIDS2010 in Vienna was a peaceful affair, our proximity to the White House, the aggressive crowd and the police on horseback all lent an air of old time activism circa 1987.
The people included in the video can speak for themselves, and quite eloquently. Maybe it was the emotions of the event — anger, nervousness, pride — but it was an exhausting day. I felt the residue of grief for lost friends in a way I haven’t experienced in years.
This is my favorite, no doubt, and I’m proud of the visual and audio techniques I employed to give some historical context to the event.
It was time for a tour of the heart and soul of AIDS2012: The Global Village. This massive hall is the only part of the conference open to the public, and it has a grass-roots feel, crafted from the love and devotion of hundreds of community groups who are doing “the work on the ground” in cities and small towns throughout the world.
Thank God I’m a video blogger, because words escape me when trying to describe the colors and displays and most importantly, the committed people behind it all. You’re about to meet drag queens who make their living handing out condoms, sex workers demanding an end to criminalization, young prevention workers from far-flung corners of the planet, a stunning photo exhibit from the Ukraine… the list goes on.
Our little summer camp for global AIDS advocates (and physicians, and commercial interests) had come to a close, and there are images that will be knocking around in my head for weeks to come (and some, forever).
I begin this video with the astonishingly talented performance poet Mary Bowman, a young woman with HIV showing us her heart and soul on stage. It’s a jumping off point for this final, brief video, in which I pay tribute to the people on the front lines who are the very essence of this conference. They are the ones with the “star power.”
This opportunity to share my experiences at AIDS2012 was a distinct honor and privilege, my friends. My deepest thanks to you all for the many cross-postings and shares and tweets. This was a week I will never forget.
Enjoy the videos, and please be well.
Tags: Aging, aids, barebacking, criminalization, culture, drag, gay, gratitude, help others, hiv, physician, politics, recovery, Recreation, research, Sexuality, testing
Posted in All Other Video Postings, Books and Writings, Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 5 Comments »
Friday, June 8th, 2012
I knew it. I felt it. It was as clear as the incessant call of crystal meth itself, on those nights when a seductive phantom of the drug cozies up to me in bed and brings its knitting.
In a Huffington Post news article on accused killer Luka Rocco Magnotta, buried in the story pages deep, a former lover says that the alleged murderer used methamphetamine, the drug popular among gay men that has claimed years of my life and left countless men in utter wreckage.
The story of the Canadian “low budget porn actor” has horrified the public with its harrowing details of torture, cannibalism, and necrophilia. The young man has been accused of killing a student, cutting him to pieces, and then mailing body parts to various locations. He allegedly consumed some of his victim and performed sexual acts with the body. He is also accused of uploading a video recording of the crime onto the internet.
Horrific, yes. But the sheer madness of the crimes, and the killer’s insane determination to make it as shocking as possible, was sickeningly familiar to a recovering methamphetamine addict like me. There is no evidence yet that crystal meth played a role in these crimes, but allow me to explain why the mix of porn, insanity and meth use struck a disturbing chord with me.
Among gay men who use recreational drugs, crystal meth abuse remains epidemic, sought for its fabled power to heighten sexual desire. In the last ten years, “crystal” has emptied nightclubs and sentenced friends to the isolation of online porn or to the emotional wasteland of “party and play” orgies frequented by fellow addicts, where syringes are common and condoms are not, and which feature exhausted, drug-driven sexual compulsives. The events have all the charm of dead bodies having sex.
Just as the drug demands more in its pursuit of the thrill of that first transformative rush, so does the sexual psyche. Before long, typical sexual behavior isn’t enough in the life of a crystal addict, and more extreme components are brought into play, such as risk and location, props and posturing, all as users experience a darkening of the sexual landscape that would cause your very soul to shudder.
In my experience, finding sexual fantasies to stimulate the weathered sexuality of meth abuse means exploring alien territory, where nothing is off-limits and the darker, the better. It becomes a perverse game of one-upmanship between addicts on the depths each will plummet for the sexual shock needed. You think about violence, one might ask the other. Fine, but have you ever thought about this? That’s hot, says the other, but what I really think about doing… is this.
Never mind that the images they are conjuring have never occurred to either of them prior to their addiction. They are mining something much darker than their authentic sexuality has ever known, all in the service of an insatiable sexual craving poisoned by a drug made with ingredients like ether, Drano and brake fluid. And so their perverse tales build and accelerate, tossed back and forth like playing volleyball with a severed head.
This is why the exploits of Mr. Magnotta set off my meth addict radar. The very outrageousness of his vile acts felt, to me, like an addict who had explored the depths of his imagination and come up short, for whom the depravity couldn’t be satisfied any longer without being made flesh. Whether his pre-existing insanity carried him across a mortal line or crystal meth pushed him over it, we don’t yet know. But meth addicts like me were shaking their heads at the accounts of Magnotta’s heinous acts and wondering why the rest of the world hadn’t suspected the connection, and why news reports hardly mentioned his crystal use as if it weren’t particularly relevant.
There are horrors that don’t arise from childhood abuse, or sociopathology or even garden variety insanity. They come from a white crystallized substance that promises everything and delivers nothing, that rewires your brain and twists your most human instincts into something that repulses even you.
Do meth addicts regularly commit murder? Of course not. But I have spent a few sleepless nights since the Magnotta story surfaced, haunted by fantasies I shared with other addicts that I had hoped to never face again.
I received a gift that too many addicts do not, the gift of finding help and taking it. Without my personal fortitude, without the trip to rehab or hitting bottom or the grace of God himself, my meth-soaked daydreams might have eventually hungered for something more intense, and beyond the safety of simple fantasy.
Instead, I have been saved, today, from what lies behind the darkest curtain. But make no mistake, I carry the burden of regrets, and they include those with a very human toll.
During the bleary days and nights of my last crystal meth relapse, I happened across a friend with whom I had been acquainted in a mutual program of drug addiction recovery. We didn’t speak of it during our few hours together, satisfied to smoke and inject meth without the intrusion of cleaner days. But being in his company vexed me. I had always ignored and denied my relapses to others in recovery and this occasion would be no different. If you didn’t see me do it, it didn’t happen. But this friend had seen, had known, and could later finger me as a liar.
If he came back into recovery, that is. And so, when considering this chance meeting of two meth users adrift, I had only one thought. One selfish, depraved and evil thought.
Maybe he won’t come back. Then no one will know about my lies.
For this addict in recovery, those who don’t come back from an extended relapse usually have met one of several possible fates, most of them dire. They may have been arrested and now face time in our horrendous penal system, or they are strapped to a gurney somewhere with serious bodily injury or a broken mind, or maybe they’re dead. To secretly hope anyone doesn’t come back from a relapse feels downright sociopathic.
What is the difference, I might ask, between taking a life outright and hoping another suffering addict continues sticking toxic needles in his arm, sentencing him to serious if not mortal consequences?
That man with whom I shared part of my relapse deserves to be in recovery – and I actually wished he wouldn’t find it. To call him my friend is a disgrace.
I might as well have cut him up into little pieces.
AIDS2012, the international AIDS conference held every two years, is next month in Washington, DC, and I’m going to make sure you don’t miss all the most colorful and inspiring parts! As I did at AIDS2010 in Vienna, I will be posting videos every day from the event. I keep the scientific reporting to the experts and instead focus on the stories of the people who make up this remarkable and massive conference. If you haven’t signed up for my email updates (above right), NOW is the time to get on board so you don’t miss the sights, sounds and personal stories that make this a truly unique event.
Thursday, March 15th, 2012
When I was nine years old, I took my parents’ album of the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” and memorized every syllable of Gwen Verdon’s show stopper, “Who’s Got the Pain When They Do the Mambo?” Once I was satisfied with my lip-synching and choreography (I decided that a mambo was a dance in which young boys gyrated and flung themselves on and off the living room sofa), the number was ready for public display.
The premiere was a simple affair, exclusive and unannounced. Mrs. May from across the street had stopped in for afternoon coffee, and opportunity knocked when Mother busied herself in the kitchen for a few minutes.
Not a smart move, Mother, leaving Mark alone with the company.
“Mrs. May, would you like to see me do a song?” The unsuspecting woman gave a polite “yes, that sounds nice” and before Mother could run interference I had turned on the stereo and dropped the needle at the precise moment where Gwen breaks into song.
Mrs. May stared and stared, her hands folded neatly in her lap, as I brought out every sashay, twist and thrust in my dancing arsenal. My moves may have been imperfect but I vocalized brilliantly, thanks to Gwen. As I struck my final pose, arms reaching for the heavens, frozen and triumphant, I saw mother standing in the doorway, holding a plate of cookies and breathing heavily through her nostrils.
Future performances would be limited to my bedroom, where I could conjure an audience cheering with acclamation and mothers wouldn’t put you on restriction.
It is that boy, the cheerful but feminine performer, that I always feared would creep out of me as I navigated young adulthood as a gay man. I worked to shed his characteristics, to replace every soft gesture with a wooden one, to embrace the gym and tank tops and Levi jeans with the same fervor I once had for my beloved Broadway musicals, with mixed success.
And then, a lifetime later, as I worked for an AIDS agency in Atlanta in the 90’s, destiny called. An upcoming drag contest to benefit our agency was suffering from poor participation, and my boss asked if I would consider entering.
Being a drag queen, even for a night, terrified and delighted me. But the performer in me won out, wouldn’t you know, and Anita Mann was born. I created an interactive video rendition of Donna Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” (even then, long before this blog, I was toying with the possibilities of video) and won the contest.
Soon I was performing with “the camp drag queens of the south,” The Armorettes, who hosted a Sunday night show to raise funds for AIDS organizations. Over the years they have raised over $1 million dollars, and their show was a sellout every week. But my own phobic notions lingered.
I didn’t want to be known as a drag queen (“It’s comedy! I’m a performer!” I would insist). I never appeared anywhere in drag but on that stage – I would always get dressed at the show, and was often out of drag for the final curtain call, in a bid to display whatever masculine credentials I had to offer.
I would hear other gay men make disparaging remarks about drag and I withered, unable to admit I was playing to a packed room every Sunday.
The nexus of shame and shamelessness is a complicated one. Each week I put on full display the very things about myself that I had worked so hard to reject – my femininity, my silly pursuit of acceptance through laughter and applause. And just as I gained confidence in what I was doing and why, I would lose a potential boyfriend when he learned of my weekend talents.
As a growing drug addiction encroached on my free time, I abandoned Anita Mann to its demands. For many years thereafter, Anita’s dress and wig would be relegated to a duffel bag hidden in the back of the hallway closet. I had found a vocation in drugs that offered twice the shame and every bit of the need to keep quiet about it.
It took a few years in recovery from my addiction before Anita would make her comeback. Armed with a TV set and a sense of the absurd, Anita performed at a benefit for those of us in recovery, in what may have been her finest hour. Her rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” grows more insane by the moment, and perfectly embodied my interest in multi-media performance.
And yes, I am aware that I speak of her in the third person. Maybe it is because I view her as a character I have created, and perhaps it is the remnants of shame, and of my need to keep her at a distance.
It’s strange, how those things about which we have drawn the most shame are also able to liberate us, not to mention help others. My HIV status. My drug addiction. My drag personality. As I have embraced each of these, I’ve found self-acceptance and a way to carry a message of hope, and even joy, to others.
Anita Mann limits her performances these days to recovery related engagements. It seems fitting that these two aspects of my life, both once secretive, have found their place together. Anita has a voice now as well, doing a sort of recovery stand-up and even singing live when the occasion permits. Anyone in recovery might enjoy watching the highlights of her recent stint at the Crystal Meth Anonymous conference in Atlanta, which includes her bittersweet rendition of “Happiness is…”
Meanwhile, I still struggle with the need to project as much masculinity as I can muster. I swagger more than I sashay. I sport a beard when possible. And I work to maintain a strict gym regimen.
It’s important for me to stay in shape if I expect to fit in that dress.
The HIV Cruise Retreat is going to be sold out early this year, because the cruise ship, unlike previous years, is taking back unsold cabins from the cruise organizer that are not sold within the next week. In years past, cabins for our group could be sold much closer to departure. This is probably due to the popularity of the Halloween voyage, and it means you must act now to get a spot. I love this event. Contact Paul Stalbuam at 888-640-7447 or visit www.HIVCruise.com.
Tags: acting, culture, drag, gay, help others, hiv, meth, recovery, Recreation
Posted in Anita Mann and Acting Gigs, Family and Friends, Gay Life, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 9 Comments »
Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
The image in my mind has never left me, even after many years of trying, of applying layers of wallpaper to that corner of my mind. I am in someone’s bedroom — it could have been anyone, really — and I am offered a syringe to inject crystal meth. The syringe has been used. I take it. I consider the consequences for a brief moment, but I am cavalier. And very, very high. I use the syringe.
It wasn’t the threat of HIV that gave me pause. It was hepatitis C, which I knew was serious… and that’s about it. But I can tell you this, now, my friends: More U.S. residents are now dying of hepatitis C complications than HIV-related illnesses, as reported recently by Tim Horn in Hepatitis News.
Within days of using that syringe, maybe two weeks, I become horrifically ill. The acute infection swept through me like a freight train, exhausting me, turning my urine brown, making it impossible to perform routine tasks. Doctors diagnosed it quickly, and then gave me the grave treatment plan: 11 months of interferon, coupled with ribavirin. The interferon, a ferocious chemotherapy, would cause mood swings, deep depression, and would be administered, ironically, by injecting myself with it each week.
Depression is so severe among interferon patients that they do not allow pilots to fly who are being treated with it, for fear they will deliberately crash the plane.
The months I endured with hepatitis C and the treatment protocol remains the worst period of health in my life. The mental side effects were as devastating as the illness. Everything hurt. Everything made me angry. Or want to cry. Or convinced me you were against me. Those eleven months crawled by without mercy.
The good news, thank God, is that the treatment plan worked, and I cleared hepatitis C from my body. There has been no recurrence.
I’ve said that the disease most likely to kill me is addiction, not HIV, and hepatitis C was a terrible by-product of my addiction.
While I am drug-free today and maintaining good health, the report that hepatitis C has overtaken HIV as a cause of death brought up some strong emotions. It reminded me of the insanity of the interferon treatment, and then, of course, the insanity of my drug addiction. And it made me wonder how many of those who are dying of hepatitis C acquired it the same way I did.
My life is filled with unlikely rescues. To have lived with HIV for thirty years and to be here typing on my laptop is amazing. To have thumbed my nose at that fact, and reward my good fortune by sticking needles in my arm, well, that is as alarming and sad to me as it must be to you. It’s tough to feel worthy of the grace that has saved me, again and again. So I’ll simply be grateful to be clean and alive today.
Get tested for hepatitis and get the vaccine for A and B if you have not already been exposed. And should you be an injection drug user, bring your own clean needles where ever you use. You and I both know that, when the choice is a used needle or getting high, all of our good fortune can disappear in a flash.
p.s. May I sneak back on my HIV criminalization soap box for a moment? (My face-off between a poz man and the sex partner accusing him of not revealing his status has garnered some interesting comments, and the attention of advocates worldwide.) If 26 U.S. States have laws criminalizing the potential exposure of HIV to another person, than why don’t they have laws against exposing someone to hepatitis C, which is now officially more deadly than HIV? Thank you. That will be all.
On a ridiculously different note, may I say with some pleasure that I always win the Oscar pool. If you are headed to an Oscar party this weekend, by all means, listen up! Here are my predictions. I am including the “little” categories because that is how you rack up points! If you must vary from my experienced guesses, be forewarned: you never win the Oscar pool by going with your passions. This is a game of politics and timing.
BEST PICTURE: The Artist. The Descendants had great momentum earlier this year until this adorable gem appeared. The statue has already been engraved.
BEST DIRECTOR: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist). Your first lesson: when in doubt, choose whatever nominee is attached to the clear Best Picture winner.
BEST ACTOR: George Clooney (The Descendants). George has a supporting statuette already, but the Academy loves the man, and so do I. He will edge out the leading actor from The Artist, who’s name I don’t feel like looking up and spelling out.
BEST ACTRESS: Viola Davis (The Help). Even Meryl wants her to win, for God’s sake.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christopher Plummer (The Beginners). Mr. Plummer, in a cozy role in a slight film, benefits from the George Burns rule: give it to the old guy with a long history. And he made a nice acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, which Academy voters see as auditions.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Octavia Spencer (The Help). This early favorite of a film will sweep the actress categories. Good for them.
BEST SCREENPLAY: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris). The more he demurs, the more they love him.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Alexander Payne (The Descendants). A terrific film and a deserving win.
BEST SOUND EDITING: War Horse
BEST SOUND MIXING: Hugo
BEST MAKEUP: The Iron Lady (closely followed by Albert Nobbs).
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Saving Face
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Pina
BEST ANIMATED SHORT: La Luna (Pixar gets its first short-form Oscar in over a decade).
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT: The Shore. I actually saw these nominees, and would strongly favor Raju from India, but The Shore has bigger names (and influence) attached.
ANIMATED FEATURE: Rango. Surely the most bizarre film to win an Oscar this year. Johnny Depp is smiling.
ART DIRECTION: Hugo
CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, the mysterious and cultish director, started as a camera man and his shots still make the Academy swoon.
COSTUMES: Hugo (which will rack up some of these techy categories since it won’t win anything big).
EDITING: The Artist
FOREIGN FILM: A Separation. A brooding, surprising domestic thriller.
SCORE: The Artist
SONG: The Muppets
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Enjoy the show! Good luck, Billy!
Tuesday, November 29th, 2011
Florida highways have lovely rest stops. You would expect that from the Turnpike, where toll booths charge a premium every so often, but the manicured picnic areas continue even as you drive further north and onto I-75.
I’m on a cement bench in a concession area, chomping down corn chips and a Mountain Dew, away from the dog walkers and the families gathered at picnic tables, when I notice that my jeans are gathered sloppily around my waistline, cinched so much tighter than before. How much smaller has my waist become in such short a time? I wonder. One inch? Two?
People sometimes stroll near me on their way to the restrooms, and I keep my eyes down, afraid I might look too disheveled for their comfort, or worse, that my shame might be clearly written across my face. That they might see what I’ve done, and return a glance of judgment or pull their children closer.
The self pitying tone of these words doesn’t suit me. Pity is such a useless emotion at a time like this. Let me start again.
The drug relapse came over me like a sickness, as if I was coming down with something, slowly, over weeks. The breakup with my former partner last month in Ft Lauderdale had been cordial, and he and I continued living together while I made plans to relocate back to Atlanta. First, though, Thanksgiving would be spent with his family, as a final goodbye and a chance to show our unity — and of what remained of our broken love — during this trying time.
But my disease of addiction had already begun rearranging my thoughts, shuffling my priorities in a bid for dominance over the vigilant recovery I had practiced, proudly and successfully, for nearly three years. Small changes crept into my behavior, not about drugs precisely, but other, vaguely related habits that had once accompanied my drug use.
A return to the gym and a shallow fixation on my body. Smoking, a habit broken for two years, returned in secretive fits and starts. A feeling of entitlement — to do as I pleased, to eat junk or get laid — swept over me like a declaration of freedom that hid its true intentions in the fine print.
And then the clarion call became more explicit, as involuntary images of using drugs bombarded me, plaguing my sleep and my daydreams. But while my memories of life as an active addict had previously been reduced, finally, to dark and sinister snapshots of a pitiful existence, these new images were more seductive, promising euphoria, fast sex and most of all, a lurid escape from my own feelings.
When my former partner left town on business the week before Thanksgiving, the drug addict inside me made a break for it.
It’s startling, really, the speed at which a recovered crystal meth addict, filled with a sense of purpose and a devotion to helping others dealing with this disease, can be transformed into a selfish liar. About as long as it takes the first, transformative rush of the drug to enter your body.
But the images that promised everything delivered nothing. Or that is, they delivered the usual package of misery that I should have expected, from my own past experiences and the many, many stories of woe I have heard from other addicts.
Those images — the real ones I witnessed during my relapse rather than the counterfeit promises with which my disease had baited me — haunt me now. I don’t want to conjure them, the lesson has been received, but they roll on. Images of desperation, of blood and jeopardy and strangers with my fate in their hands.
The street crack dealer, with whom I am pleading to please return the keys he has taken from my pocket, who tells me he is going to “rent” my car for errands, who threatens me through a manic grin and all the while I am trying to convince him to please, please just give back the
You don’t need to hear this. This is mine to endure and overcome. Let me start again.
There are many motels sprinkled along the exits in Orlando, and I scouted out several before choosing one that allowed me to park directly in front of my room. With the car piled high with my belongings, I had to be sure no one would steal it. Despite the exhaustion of the previous week I slept fitfully, waking to peer out the window and survey any disturbance, fearful that my despair could multiply. The rolling stone of misfortune can gather plenty.
This long drive was unplanned, of course, the consequence of my relapse, when after days of not being where I was supposed to be and phone calls piled high with deceit, my former partner pegged my insanity and sent me a text from his business trip, asking me to leave before he returned. My disregard for our home, the dogs, and my personal safety was simply too much. A mutual friend arrived to care for the house. I would pack and leave within a day, to sit out the holidays with family in Shreveport, Louisiana, a thousand miles from Ft Lauderdale.
Even before his discovery, the awful realization of what I had done, how I had taken our gracious final days together and twisted them into something horrific, had actually spurred my relapse further, as I sought escape from my own wreckage. By the time his text appeared on my phone, the smoke was clearing, the fever had broken, but it was far too late.
The comfortable highways of Florida eventually gave way to the ruined roads of Alabama and Mississippi, badly spackled with tar, and my car rumbled with the thumpa-THUMPA-thumpa of their scarred surfaces. I wondered if the framed pictures in the trunk might break, if the towels I had wrapped them in might not be enough to
The towels. The guest room towels. They didn’t really belong to me. It set off another round of worry, and I wondered if a new label might be added to my sadly recycled identity.
Drug addict. Liar. Thief.
I had turned back once already, when I had first driven onto the freeway before realizing I had his watch on my wrist, a watch I had always worn but wasn’t mine. I drove back to return it, and in the hour or so I had been gone, the quiet house had abandoned any welcome for me. I placed the watch on a table and locked up again. It felt like trespassing.
In Mobile, Alabama, I stopped again for the night and this time managed a full twelve hours of dreamless sleep. In the morning at the Waffle House, I ordered steak, eggs and hash browns, smothered and covered, and dismissed thoughts of what my trainer might think about my diet on the road.
Explaining my relapse is beyond me, beyond logic, and yet here I sit, trying to understand and explain. It maddens me, the choices I have made, and reminds me that the disease most capable of killing me isn’t HIV, it is drug addiction.
But this chronicle reeks of defeat, and I am not feeling defeated today. Let me start again.
The miles upon miles of endless highway give way to Louisiana, and Shreveport finally appears on a freeway sign. I relax into the anticipated embrace of family.
My tired car pulls into Mom’s driveway, and my brother — also gay and also an addict in recovery for more than a decade — greets me with an extended hug, and we begin the business of unloading the car immediately, as if to shoo away the evidence of my drive and the depressing reason for it. A guest room has been prepared, a closet cleared. For the next month, as I deal honestly with my tender wounds, this will be home.
Mother arrives from the hair salon, and her cheerful And how is my favorite redhead doing..? tells me that everything is going to be fine. She knows why I’ve come home, and she doesn’t require a single detail.
I’ve already begun the business of rededicating myself to my program of recovery, and there is pride in that. There is joy, in fact, once the truth has been told and the work to rebuild can begin. Not regretting the past, even the recent past, is a difficult job, but too much time spent looking in the rear view mirror hardly bolsters me for the road ahead.
I am grateful, to have regained my footing after a few terrible days, to have survived it, to have my freedom to make better choices. And I am filled with gratitude for the friends and family who have given me a precious gift.
They let me start again.
(My best wishes and deepest gratitude go out to you, my friends. Thank you for your encouragement and your many kind comments. If you know someone who might benefit from this posting, who might think there isn’t a solution, then please share it. Love, Mark)
I always have strange emotions about World AIDS Day, the annual commemoration on December 1st. It makes me feel a little like a professional drag queen having to contend with Halloween. Such a torrent of voices and contributors on “my” turf! But of course, that may be the point: to be re-energized and inspired by the many voices and news stories of others who might not be speaking up otherwise, and for me to realize that HIV isn’t mine alone, not by a long shot. The challenges it presents affects all of us, and calls out for the best in science, the best in our sense of community, the best of humanity itself. You’ll surely find many things online that resonate with you this World AIDS Day, so let me show you something you might miss. Love Light Romania provides support to people with HIV/AIDS in one of the toughest places on earth, but they have somehow found something beautiful in the tragic story of Alex, one of their clients who shares his life in a four minutes video filled with gorgeous photography of his journey. The simplicity of this video and his matter-of-fact telling of his story captures a beautiful sadness, and I hope you’ll take a look.
Thursday, November 3rd, 2011
This is a rather personal blog video, there’s no doubt about that. I’m even a little apprehensive because it doesn’t offer the usual helpful tips or the “entertainment value” of my other videos. But one of my problems has always been trying to be the life of the party when I’m not feeling it. So please allow me to offer you a different Mark than you might be used to, unplugged and exposed.
The last few weeks have been tough, I won’t lie to you. My nine-year relationship came to an end, and I’ve found myself feeling some self pity and fear ” that is, when I slow down long enough to catch up with my own emotions.
My schedule has been fast and furious, and now things are even busier as I make plans related to the breakup. In January, I will return to my beloved Atlanta, where a strong support network of friends awaits me with open arms.
Until then, I’m lucky to have friends like David Fawcett (seated at right, in our silly video opening), who also happens to be a therapist. Everyone should have a friend who’s a mental health counselor, if you ask me. David serves as one of the panel of experts at TheBody.com, as well as writing his own blog with helpful messages related to our emotional well being.
In this, the newest video episode of My Fabulous Disease, David and I sit down for a very candid talk about my fears and even some of my unhealthy thought patterns, some of which have been with me for a very long time.
Thanks for watching, my friends, and please be well.
Can someone be a self-described “sex addict” porn star and also a role model? Well, I won’t be nominating Mason Wyler for a GLAAD award this year, but I do appreciate the fact that he is candidly discussing his sex life as a man living with HIV. In an interview on PositiveLite.com by Bob Leahy, Wyler is casual about his newly acquired HIV status, and doesn’t believe there’s any connection between watching bareback porn and actually doing it (excluding, well, himself I suppose, since he admittedly likes “nasty bareback sex”). “Porn is a form of entertainment,” says Wyler. “It doesn’t and shouldn’t have any more influence on someone’s actions than say… music, movies, or video games. I think most guys participate in bareback sex in some capacity regardless of what porn they watch. We’re only human.”
Frank remarks like that one have won over some people. Writer Michael Burtch, in a July 2011 opinion piece, said this about the porn actor. “Mason Wyler has quickly become one of my favorite, openly HIV+ porn stars. When he writes ‘I don’t need someone to talk to, I need someone to fuck me’ on his blog or summons up the complexities of HIV by succinctly stating ‘it sucks.’ I totally get where he’s coming from and toast his post-AIDS sensibility.”
Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
“I’m not in love with you anymore.”
He said this at the dinner table as he made the first cut of his steak, a beautiful ribeye he had grilled to perfection. I put down my own knife and fork and stared at him.
“This isn’t new, or else you haven’t been listening,” he said, a bit wary of my gaze. “You knew I wasn’t happy a year ago. And we’ve just ignored it.” He took a bite and I hated him for it, for having the digestion for this.
I had dropped the butter, that’s how this started. I had been setting the table and I dropped the butter and it made a mess and the dogs were licking it up and he got mad. But it was an accident so I got mad too because he always seemed angry and I told him so and then I provided a litany of complaints about his moodiness and then he sat down to start eating his steak and
and if I hadn’t dropped the butter we wouldn’t be having this conversation and I could keep pretending we were still in love with one another.
“Mark. I care about you. You know that. But this isn’t working.”
Twice, I wanted to say. Twice this hasn’t worked. In our nine years together, we had tried this twice. The first breakup was the result of my disastrous drug abuse. During our first four years together, I became an increasingly deceitful, outrageous mess. When at long last my pitiful lies were exposed and I checked myself into a drug treatment program, he ended it.
That time, that was the bang. This steak and baked potato dinner was the whimper.
I could feel the emotion swelling inside me and didn’t feel like being the first to cry, so I left the table for the bedroom. As I began heaving deep, guttural sobs I realized I was watching myself, from a distance, like a performance. I saw the way I held my body, arms wrapped tightly in a hug, knees bent from the force of the sobs. What’s my motivation? I found myself wondering, still in the midst of it. Why am I crying? How do I really feel about this?
No sooner had I asked myself these questions, tears streaming, that I posed another. And it was far more manipulative.
How should I play this, exactly?
There were so many options. The shocked and devoted lover. The vindictive injured party. The delicate, recovering addict, shaken to the core by the breakup.
I indulged in this sick game of posturing for only a moment, but it was long enough for me to spot my disease on display. It was my drug addict mindset, always looking for an angle, always trying to deflect blame or skirt responsibility or come out ahead. Despite three years of sobriety, that mindset still enjoys hijacking my emotions.
Mark, I muttered, my face wet with tears, stop it. You crazy fuck.
After the first breakup, he and I didn’t talk much. I moved back to Atlanta and, after some false starts, I finally got a foothold on my recovery. Life opened up again. I created My Fabulous Disease. I rediscovered my joy.
We began speaking tentatively to one another, then more often, and as I approached my first year of sobriety we finally admitted we still loved each other. It was such an unexpected turn of events, and so achingly romantic, that we both followed our hearts completely. I returned to Florida and we resumed our life together, minus my drug use and the dramatic sideshow that went with it.
And yet. And yet.
Within a year, we knew. We tried counseling, which only reopened old wounds and created new resentments. Something unspoken told us to stop the sessions, to not reach the finish line with so much misplaced anger. Instead, we coasted silently for another year, and we looked away.
The postscript had been written, like a paper holding an obituary for a movie star that will probably die soon. They’re just waiting to print it.
And now, despite my philosophical approach to this, my faith in my sobriety and my gratitude for my friends, I have moments when I am crushed with fear. Being alone. Starting over. Dating. And then there’s the HIV.
HIV likes giving a certain zing to relationships. It makes starting one rather tricky, what with the disclosure and the sexual negotiations and the vague fearfulness on either side. It loves ending them as well, but not always in the way you might think.
When HIV treatment drastically improved fifteen years ago, there were people celebrating the world over about their sudden renewed health and vitality. And they often marked the occasion with surprising pronouncements. “I’m going to live another thirty years,” one would muse to the partner across the breakfast table, “and not with you”
Thankfully, my HIV status had no role in the breakup. But it will surely become an issue as I navigate whatever romantic life awaits me.
I dried my face and walked from the bedroom to face him again. I knew what was true, and I held on to it tightly, unwilling to play this scene for effect or advantage. And I finally grasped what an amazing, unlikely gift had been offered to me.
We should have broken up like this the first time, I realized. It should have been this way, and now it can be.
This time, I can do this gracefully.
He was sitting at the sofa and looked up to me, sadly, hopefully, and I sat down across from him. There was a moment of mutual assessment, and we saw the truce in each other’s eyes. Some of the stress melted.
And we began to talk.
Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
During the first year of producing my blog videos back in early 2009, it occurred to me how much of my health and happiness was the result of having a solid support network. I wanted to find a way of showing this through my blog, and the result would be two video episodes that remain a true highlight of My Fabulous Disease.
What might it be like, I wondered, if I invited some friends living with HIV over to my place and the video chronicled our evening together? Was there value in showing our support and friendship? My cinema verite experiment could be inspiringâ€¦ or a complete bore.
I needn’t have worried. When Craig, Eric, James and Antron arrived for dinner, they plunged into the evening with startling honesty and affection for one another. While my BFF Charles worked the camera (the man is a saint; he didn’t eat at the table with us so it wouldn’t intrude on the filming), the five of us let down our guards and shared on a variety of topics.
We talked about our mothers, and how and when we disclosed to family and friends. We talked about dating, and loneliness, and what we tell people who have just tested positive.
When “You Gotta Have Friends” was posted on TheBody.com on April 22, 2009, it became my most popular episode to date and received a flurry of comments from across the globe. So many people loved seeing a group of men with HIV supporting one another and having that level of honesty. For many viewers, simply seeing friends with HIV living happily was an inspiration.
They loved doe-eyed Antron, the 23 year old with the heartbreaking story of his mother’s reaction to learning his status. They left comments about the tattooed, sexy James, and his candid stories of sex and disclosure. Viewers loved the philosophical Craig, and his moving description of his mother’s face the moment he revealed his status, and equally, how Eric created his “HIV Team” of physicians and family to combat his disease.
As for me, I look back at this episode and wish my video editing skills were as honed as they are now, and I regret filming when my face was swollen from my initial facial filler treatment (I look like I’m welcoming you to Munchkin land). But I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the response to the video and knew that I would have to produce another episode with this amazing group.
That would happen a year later, when “The Real Poz Guys of Atlanta” was posted on TheBody.com on February 23, 2010. This time we skipped dinner and went directly to dessert, as I taught my friends how to bake my legendary brownies. Then we sat by the fire for a conversation even more intense than our last, sharing about partners lost to AIDS, our sex lives and what constituted “acting out,” and even a round of show and tell, as each of us brought something of meaning to our lives with HIV.
There’s no doubt that I will do another episode with my friends again sometime (UPDATE: Episode III is here), but I wanted to update you on their lives as they are today.
Eric, who famously declined to discuss his status with most people because “I’m Southern. We don’t talk about such things,” reports that his life is getting even healthier. “I quit smoking after 32 years on tobacco, I joined a gym, I got a trainer, and I have a new consciousness on eating,” he says. “At this rate, I’m going to live forever.”
Eric is also glad that his Mom remains one of his biggest supporters. But that wasn’t meant to be for Craig, who has lost the mother he so lovingly described in our first episode. “I am still recovering from that ongoing blow and the indescribable loss” Craig told me. “She was one of my best friends and it is still hard to really accept life without her in it.” Craig continues his work as a leading voice for gay men of color and HIV prevention.
The grief is something Eric can relate to, considering the loss of his partner Maxwell, about whom he shared in the second episode. “I don’t want to forget him,” Eric says now. “It’s not really sadness, but more a sense of him that stays with me.”
Antron has stopped writing in the black journals he brought to show and tell, and uses his laptop these days. That will come in handy for the young writer, who has a new project consisting of poems, short stories and rumination entitled Ayo: Lost and Found.
The advice that Craig had for Antron to carefully consider “who he lets into his life, and into his bedroom” hasn’t been lost on Antron, who tells me, “I have a deeper responsibility to value myself more and form a beautiful relationship with me first before pursuing any one.” He is planning to move to New York in January, and maintains a blog for his writing.
The dating life that James was negotiating in both video episodes has slowed, and for some challenging reasons. “I seem to have developed a fear of discussing my HIV and HepB status with potential dates,” he says. “I’m back on interferon for another 48 week treatment.”
The grueling treatment hasn’t affected his work as a massage therapist so far, but James is vigilant about the potential effect on his recovery from drug addiction. “Friends are so important right now, making sure I don’t isolate and relapse like I did during the last interferon treatment. I am blessed to have some really great friends.”
And that sentiment is really what this project was about for me. The healing grace of our friends, and how that support comes in handy during trying times.
Do you have a strong circle of friends who know your status or otherwise have your back? I’d love to hear some of your experiences and what you might advise someone who is considering whether or not to disclose their status to their social circle.
In the meantime, my dear friends, please be well.
UPDATE: See episode III of “The Real POZ Guys of Atlanta” when the men discuss addiction, hepatitis, tops & bottoms, and the mysteries of the female condom (and who loves them).
Tags: culture, family, gay, help others, hiv, physician, recovery, Recreation, Sexuality
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 5 Comments »
Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
According to family lore, my arrival at birth with a full head of orange hair was met with shock and awe. My five older siblings ran the gamut from blond to dark brown, but they otherwise lacked my peculiar genetic mutation. Although the hospital nursery staff was abuzz with delight, my own family debated whether the color would last while they double checked the identification tags.
It lasted. In fact, the color bloomed like a Van Gogh painting. Before long I would learn the price of being different — and how intense childhood ridicule can be.
Look, it’s Freckle Face Strawberry! Howdy Doody. Bozo. Opie. I didn’t know whether to chop off my hair or hide underneath it. Only little old ladies and a few teachers seemed to appreciate it, but their cooing and stroking — they always needed to touch it, like a lucky charm — never endeared me to the bullies at school.
When puberty hit and the startling orange hue crept further down my torso I was beyond mortified. How could my body play such a cruel joke? Did this adolescent sissy really need another reason to be kicked and taunted? I actually made it through two years of junior high gym class without once taking a shower, usually by fiddling around at my locker — folding and arranging my clothes, feigning trouble with my combination lock — until it was safe to get dressed.
When I came bursting from the closet while in high school, I managed to finally celebrate my red hair along with my sexuality, and reveled in both. I mastered every hair product known to man, blow drying and spraying my head into a Farrah Fawcett extravaganza before a night out at the local gay bar. I discovered the men who loved redheads, and at last, I’d found the ideal purpose for the trait that once humiliated me.
It even became crucial to my vocation, during a brief stint in my twenties in television commercials. Casting directors saw dollar signs on my head, and I became the freckled pitchman for everything from McDonalds to Popeye’s to Barq’s root beer. I treated my hair as a gay Samson might, with the latest gels and shampoos and conditioners, and in return it made me money and got me laid.
Whatever I became through the years, this single aspect of my identity pre-dated everything. Before the writer, before the AIDS activist and the drug addict and the actor and the childhood sissy, I was a redhead. From the very womb.
And then, not quite. Sometime in my thirties, the color began to slowly drain from my scalp. The orange and reds eventually surrendered to a strawberry blond, and even those tones became weaker, like watering down a pitcher of Kool-Aid, as my fiftieth year approached.
It must sound ridiculous, but I felt the loss deeply. We had been through so much together, my red hair and I.
I tried to take heart in having, whatever the color, a full, thick head of healthy hair, guaranteed for life by the family gene pool. That is, until a few months ago, when I stood in the shower and felt strands of hair sliding down my face, in a massive march from my head to the drain. After decades taking HIV medications, I had begun a new treatment regimen and its woeful side effects were ruthless and immediate. Within weeks my hair was thinner, dulled and brittle to the touch.
One of my private, most selfish fears has been realized. I have AIDS Hair.
But while removing clumps from the shower drain is a jolt to my vanity, it isn’t the trauma it might have been. After living with HIV for nearly thirty years, I’ve witnessed how creative it can be in its cruelty, down to the slightest of indignities. The sudden damage to my hair has been worrisome, I’ll admit, but part of me knows that it had long since served its purpose. There is something correct, even poetic, in this twilight of the redhead.
Years ago, as I began rebuilding my life after years of drug addiction, my therapist made a withering observation. “You’ve got no second act, Mark,” he said after one of my self-absorbed ramblings. “You make a nice first impression. But then what? Not much.”
The work that I’ve done in the years since his pronouncement have taught me the value of more important traits, of lending a hand or paying attention to friends or standing up for our community. And this evolution appears to have swept away one of my most stubborn sources of willful pride.
The last decade has given me the gift of other, more meaningful assets. They lie beneath, away from the gaze of strangers and first impressions.
My best features are now visible only to those who really know me. And they are just beautiful.
Sometimes I blurt out a blog posting that belies my supposed serenity and enlightenment, like the rant I posted on The Bilerico Project (“For God’s Sake, Put Your Shirt On”) about gay guys who can’t seem to keep their clothes on when posting pictures on mainstream social media sites like Facebook. Pecs and traps and biceps? On glorious display. The friends who are beside them in the photo? Cropped out. Guys will even chop off their own faces, as not to distract from the wonder that is their abs (and, as we all know, it’s not the friends you keep, but the abs you maintain). Anyway, I had some fun calling them out about it, and the comments have been kind. Well, except for the twenty-something that claimed I was just jealous I wasn’t sleeping with young hotties. Umm, ouch.
My favorite HIV/AIDS online resource, TheBody.com, has just opened a brand new section on the importance of drug adherence and tips on maintaining your regimen. As part of it, I was asked to produce some short “Day in the Life” videos of people living with HIV and how they fit their pills into their schedule. It was terrific to produce a video about Damaries Cruz of south Florida (right), who shares her misgivings about starting therapy at all, and her collaborative relationship with her physician. And the story of Tree Alexander is an inspiration, as he works to maintain his treatment regimen even during a period of homelessness. The reaction of his large family to his HIV diagnosis was wonderful and astounding: they threw him a “stay healthy” party!
Tags: acting, Aging, culture, family, gay, gratitude, help others, hiv, meth, recovery
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease | 12 Comments »