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June 20th, 2011

The Dirty Little Secret of Gay Men and Meth

How addiction to crystal methamphetamine is threatening the gay community’s long struggle to turn a corner on the AIDS epidemic.

I really shouldn’t be trusted. That’s the problem with drug addicts like me. We’ve protected our addiction through a myriad of lies and manipulations for so long that being truly honest again is like learning a foreign language from scratch. So when, at long last, my recovery has convinced me that honesty is the only thing that can save my life, I shouldn’t be surprised that my friends are reluctant to believe me.

newsweek_logo JPGTheir skepticism is well founded. My drug addiction perverted every value I hold dear, and truthfulness was the first to be abandoned. But becoming a habitual liar was only the beginning. As a gay man I worked tirelessly through the 1980’s directing AIDS agencies and advocating HIV education. Despair was a daily companion, and I witnessed the death of friends in manners too gruesome to be described. When I became HIV positive during those early years, every loss of a friend, every visit to intensive care, was like watching my own morbid future.

But once my addiction to crystal methamphetamine took hold by the late 1990’s, caring for my community or even myself had become unaffordable luxuries. The drug, a common presence on the dance floors I once enjoyed, had tightened its hold on me. I was no longer satisfied with occasional weekend use and pursued meth with a vigor unmatched by my devotion to AIDS causes.

This onetime HIV educator became a selfish addict who engaged in perilous drug deals and even riskier sex. The sad irony escaped me, however, as I continued down my destructive path, even contracting Hepatitis C through needles and enduring chemotherapy to treat it. All the while, my addiction raged on.

My experience isn’t unique and widespread meth abuse has been brewing in other populations for some time. But something about its peculiar grip on gay men feels all too familiar, like a dreadful echo of what we suffered a generation ago. And the implications have me worried.

Most of my peers remember what it was like in the early 1980’s, when friends stopped calling or simply died over the weekend. The nightclubs were cloaked in sadness and had a vaguely sinister vibe. Empty desks at work meant someone was mysteriously sick again. During those years of “gay cancer,” we were too petrified to acknowledge the coming storm.

Binder5Today those ominous signs have returned, along with the helpless wish that things will improve if only we don’t speak too loudly about it. But rather than AIDS picking off my friends with random cruelty, meth addiction is the culprit. And this time, it is unlikely our community emergency will have ribbons and walk-a-thons or attract research dollars. Society’s sympathy for men dying from drugs is quantitatively less than dying of a sexually transmitted disease. This really is a plague of our own design.

Recovery centers are teeming with gay men battling meth addiction, and the drug has a very tight, culturally specific hold on them. It has surpassed other illegal substances as the drug of choice among gay users. There is something about the drug’s mystique as a sexual liberator that appeals to men who are so often judged by their sexuality. Just as I once did, countless men are abandoning their relationships, their careers and their personal dignity in pursuit of the insidious thrill the drug promises and never delivers.

And meth appears to be mocking my community’s long struggle to turn a corner on the AIDS epidemic. HIV testing sites claim that meth users are five times more likely to test positive for the virus than non-users.

How to combat the growing threat has this activist at a loss. Gay men know we had compelling prevention campaigns for HIV in the early days. They were called funerals. But changing an addict’s behavior is a much more ambitious challenge than changing basic sexual practices.

It was my goal to bring attention to this crisis when I agreed to appear in a recent documentary about gay men and methamphetamine (Todd Ahlberg’s startling “Meth”). In the film, I represent the voice of reason, the recovering addict remarking on what a sad scourge the drug has become. Only after the documentary was produced did I admit to anyone that I had relapsed prior to filming and had stopped using meth only hours before the camera crew arrived. Once again, my actions trumped my ideals.

It has been baffling to find myself literally saying one thing and doing another. The facts don’t lie: I have been working towards recovery for five years and my last relapse was only four months ago. The eight years I spend addicted to meth will leave scars. Thank God for the recovering addicts I have met along the way, who have shown me that long term success is possible if I will just “get honest” and hold myself accountable. My personal survival is the job at hand.

That’s tough for a former community leader to accept. I want to sound the alarm, organize a response, and join the growing chorus of gay men shedding light on our shameful secret. But how can I urge others to practice honesty when it has eluded me again and again? And what did the AIDS crisis teach me, what did the promises to honor the lives of so many dead friends mean, when I rewarded my miraculous survival by sticking needles in my arm?

I better sit this one out. The preciousness of life itself, and my own in particular, is a lesson I should have learned while caring for my friends dying of AIDS. It has taken a battle with an equally cunning adversary for that lesson to finally sink in.

(This piece appeared on Newsweek.com on November 28, 2007. — Mark)

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7 Responses to “The Dirty Little Secret of Gay Men and Meth”

  1. Terry Comer Says:

    July 12th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    The challenge of dealing with this drug is much more difficult than the living hell of AIDS in the beginning years of the epidemic. It is very difficult to provide care and support to individuals that fight against you with the help of a drug that deceives and destroys all of the naive souls in its path. My thanks and appreciation to the gifted and accurate writings of one who has experienced the devastation of these two destructive forces. My positive thoughts and wishes are with you during this difficult time of recovery.

  2. Terry Comer Says:

    July 13th, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Very cool. For some reason I thought that you were early in recovery. Stay strong.
    Question; Have you ever considered a career in writing. This article was impressive. You have the gift – I suggest that you keep writing.

  3. Douglas C. Says:

    October 14th, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Hey Mark,
    Dean suggested I look you up and I found this among other things on the web. I am so glad I did. It was like hearing you share and an AA or NA meeting. Such honesty. Thank you.

    My path is VERY similar to yours. I almost lost everything (especially dignity) to my Meth, porn and sex addiction. What I got out of my addiction is living with HIV and Hep C.

    It’s one thing to be gay, Hiv+, Hep C+, or even a drug user but to survive all of them together takes a certain acceptance and hope that only comes by being as honest as you and it does turn lives around.

    Thank God I am four and a half years sober and active in maintaining my sobriety. Please keep it up! You are an inspiration to us all.

  4. Claudia Center Says:

    August 21st, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    The documentary Meth was rerunning this past week, and I recorded it and watched it last night. Wow. (And then I totally thought I saw you on MUNI (San Francisco) this morning, but probably just imagining.) I wish you all the best.

  5. Ray Says:

    December 18th, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Mark,
    thanks so much for sharing. i too am suffering from this drug and am having issues dealing with it. i do not want to lose everything that i have worked so hard for. although i dont use it frequently i see myself wanting to. i have a great job and am currently in a 6 year relationship that i do not want to lose. i struggle daily with the want of this “death” drug. thank you for sharing your story. i know i am not alone in my struggles.

    (Anyone going through this should know that help is available and you don’t have to live like this. My experience is that addiction is progressive and will eventually trump everything else — including jobs and relationships — unless you allow yourself to receive the help of either treatment of a 12-step program, which saved my life. Please look in your area for Narcotics Anonymous or Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings. There are people there you haven’ met that already understand you and can help. — Mark)

  6. WKent Says:

    July 2nd, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Last night my roommate and I had to ask my partner of 2.5 years to leave my house. We asked him to stop using meth a while back and he responded by secretly increasing its use, which I figured out by quizzing him on symptoms. We could see it was either us or his new way of life.Then I found his list of 6 drug dealers…which was the last straw. He is so sweet and naive and two months ago he started using meth and then he turned into somebody else. He told me that he loved meth better than food. He was the love of my life, i wanted to marry him and now he is gone.

  7. Cyril albertinio fishburn Says:

    August 19th, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    Hi, you are a very inspirational guy, i am currently addicted to crystal which i inject daily into my scrotum. my addiction has left me with nothing but an empty wallet, a vacant heart and an arse like a wizards sleeve, you are a true inspiration to all other tortured souls in this nightmare, fortunately i have my beloved collection of “thalidomide stumps” which help ease the immense pain i feel..

    best regards Cyril..

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