The Crystal Conundrum

Illustration by Tra Selthrow
If I were to ask a psychologist

why crystal methamphetamine has a stranglehold on scores of gay men, she might say that we battle a prevalence of depression 17 percent higher than the national average. A physician will tell me meth is the most addictive drug ever to hit the gay party tableau, and because it releases a flood of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, its allure to our bacchanal tendencies is especially strong. A sociologist will say that gay men, being men, are conditioned by society to be sexual aggressors and that the introduction of a powerful “sex drug” has, not surprisingly, ejaculated through our neighborhoods like a hormonal teen. And a civil rights activist might shake his head, dismayed, worried that the bigoted Right will use the much touted link between meth use and the rise in HIV infections as fodder against us to take away AIDS funding and undo pro-gay legislation unpopular with Republican theocrats.

I, an HIV-positive gay man who has experienced both the bliss and the peril of crystal meth, am here to report that while each of those critiques is valid, none gets it exactly right. Our crystal problem is much larger than a drug, even one that measures the gay Zeitgeist as cynically as meth. “Tina” has, more precisely, emerged as a dark metaphor for all that gay men have been through and still struggle to overcome.

Over the past few months, I have attended several community forums in West Hollywood on crystal abuse by gay men where everyone from medical and mental-health professionals to sex workers offered a piece of this intractable puzzle. Too stumped to see the whole picture, they instead grasped at social solutions: making meth “uncool,” making meth unnecessary, promoting sobriety and gay sober locales. All were daunted by exactly how to do this, and no wonder: If you believe, as I do, that drug use is an escape, for better or worse, then you understand that the grim state of affairs that queer communities find themselves in can only elevate crystal’s popularity. At these heartening and productive forums — two sponsored by the city of West Hollywood and another by the West Hollywood synagogue Congregation Kol Ami — I couldn’t help feeling like we were missing the point.

At a forum called “Sex+/Meth-” held at West Hollywood Park, in an auditorium that looked exactly like those of our elementary school years — with hardwood floors and a stage decorated with an American flag — a beefy and wholesome-looking party promoter in his 30s sat on the panel, moderated by WeHo Mayor John Duran. The event felt familiar, like a hundred other political forums I’ve attended, but this one distinctively gay in its lineup of handsome panelists, an audience of men in snug T-shirts with shaved heads and tattooed arms, and a smattering of young women who looked like students researching a paper for a UCLA sociology course. Over 200 of us sat anxiously, obediently, hoping by virtue of attending that we would be part of the solution that eluded us.

The party promoter's name was Ken, and he had been sober exactly a year. His boyfriend, a Latino DJ famous on the circuit, with pristine facial features, watched his lover with an expression I wouldn’t call empathetic. Ken described what happened a year ago: “I got online to obtain what I needed. I went missing for five days. For the first time ever, I suffered blackouts while high . . . The experience was like walking through a transparent wall, and on the other side was a black, burnt-out forest.”

In my mind’s eye, I illuminated Ken’s blackouts with scenes from my own past uses of crystal: torching the glass pipe in front of the computer till the shards of meth liquefied and rose in white smoke, inhaling deeply, awaking tiny ghosts to come and erase the day. Then the unending jolt of vitality, fixating intensely on the hundreds upon hundreds of men’s naked pictures and profiles online, for hours, till the sun came up and then fell and rose again, and in the midst, sex in a bedroom, in a living room, at a bathhouse. And always, in the bulldozing moment, it was as if one’s history never existed and future is postponed by this supersonic present tense. What is this unmitigated erasure we crave? I wondered as Ken revealed that he is not able to drink alcohol because it leads him to crystal meth.

For many years I lived contentedly and with unending curiosity in the underbelly cultures of gay men — a brief stint at porn, a bona fide career as call boy, an ebullient partaker of club and drug cultures — this with an inclination toward artists, activists, and anyone interested in fashioning a life of invention and un-convention. In this world there exists a startling honesty around sex, about its multitudes, its infinite psychologies, its private anatomies, and also how sex feels under which drugs, or combination of drugs. To earn a living in this world made it easy to feel whole and not compartmentalized like other queers, who lock up their ids and alter egos until weekends or special times of the year. It was a unique time in my life. I was a student of pleasure, of giving and receiving it. I learned to honor pleasure as fundamental to us all.

But I came to learn there was an additional category of pleasure, one contorted and glassy-eyed and, I think, relevant to the crystal-meth moment we find ourselves in. This pleasure, obtained through unfettered desire, ultimately inverts itself into a state of anesthetized routine, and slowly but definitely leads to the death of pleasure altogether. Too many of us, I began to think, were crossing this slippery pleasure divide, landing in our own “black, burnt-out forests.”

And this is how crystal meth is different from other drugs that have taken center stage in the recreational lives of gay men, such as Ecstasy, ketamine and even messy GHB: Nobody who has escaped its thrall ever wants to admit how good it felt. As I listened to dozens of meth narratives at these forums, by men of every race, young and old, I was struck by what seemed a tacit agreement to not ever discuss enjoying the drug. Feeling great on Tina was only perfunctorily mentioned, then quickly denounced as pathology, and with understandable reason, since many of these speakers had ruined their lives through addiction. Yet in this personal censure, with discussion of the drug’s thrills eclipsed completely by talk of one’s fall to it, we are surely leaving out some valuable part of the conversation — a part that may bring us closer to the solutions we seek.

I would like to propose another town hall, one dedicated to crystal’s special kind of bliss. For an hour and a half, we would speak only about crystal’s dazzling high. Not about the coming down, which we agree is treacherous; not about the disquieted gaze into the abyss, that staring into the face of the great dark oblivion that Tina can eventually take us to. Not about the abject misery of meth addiction that is the latest scourge of our community. I want to talk about that space in time, the exhilarating, depth-defying free fall when crystal promises and delivers exalted and ceaseless sexual gratification. I imagine that discussion happening like the others, in the same auditorium at WeHo Park, but with the audience members sitting in concentric circles facing one another. And the only requirement would be that one would have to have had an experience on Tina and would agree to speak of the sublime, astral escape that is crystal — the quality of the drug that kept (or keeps) him going back for more.

Let me take a stab at crystal candor.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve done meth dozens of times, and those experiences ranged from


to miserable, usually a combination of both. One climbs Tina’s radiant high knowing that a comparably agonizing low awaits. If I were to speak at my imagined community forum, I might say this: Many of my experiences catapulted lust to another dimension, allowed me to explore sex with such abandon that it reduced me to repetitive psychosexual acts — taking triple-X-rated photos of myself to post online; requesting detached, anonymous role-playing scenes with multiple strangers; or seeking to be fucked unlimitedly. Sober, I would have been too self-conscious, sore or exhausted to accomplish what I did on crystal. Often, crystal made these experiences fervidly carnal in a way no other drug could.

Some of my “top” friends have told me that getting fucked while on crystal, without the pressure or pain that, for them, usually accompanies taking it anally, puts them in touch with a primal masculinity only queer men know. Others say that to feel absolutely uninhibited sexually gives great confidence, and allows for the practice and celebration of explicit fantasies otherwise rarely ventured. I have also heard men describe a surge of romantic emotion while at the pinnacle of their high. As one psychologist friend told me, crystal produces whatever effect we’re most inclined to desire.

I think this talk, whether we have it with friends in private, or at a public event as described, would be revelatory. At this point in the community dialogues, as participants spoke of their scintillating, fearless and guiltless fucking, sucking and so much more, it would become apparent that, on crystal, we seek what we wish sex could be — unbridled, uncomplicated, utopian — but is not. Too often, the flip side of crystal’s pleasures leaves gay men’s historical injuries writhing like worms on a hook — sexual repression and shame, perennial dread of HIV, profound and irreconcilable loss from AIDS — punctuating all that ails the gay psyche as no drug has ever shown us before. I am not saying that transcendent expressions of sex, even on drugs, are rooted in a damaged psychology. I’m saying that if one


getting fucked up in order to keep from thinking about the way he loves to get fucked, there’s a problem.

On the “Sex+/Meth-” panel, Kathy Watt, executive director of Van Ness Recovery House, concluded that “we need to talk about sex,” after chronicling the growth of meth at her agency over the past decade. “Because until somebody knows they can have a fulfilling sexual life without the crystal, they are not going to let go of it. We’re part of a community that is dealing with a lot of crap. There’s a lot we don’t talk about.”

Often during these forums, I felt compelled to transform crystal meth, the drug, into crystal meth, the metaphor, standing for the many deep-rooted syndromes born from gay misfortune. When a drug is taken primarily for sex, and sex is the fulcrum of our beleaguered history, then that drug is steeped in the dangerous paradox of reparation while we experience its high. Meth is not just another party drug, but an elixir that temporarily assuages a long record of affliction. For this reason, it is the perfect gay drug.

Sex is epic in our lives, from its vigorous repression in our youth, to its focused proliferation in our adulthood. What if we are so wounded by our past that the realization of a healthy, “fulfilling sexual life,” without an artificial buttress, is even harder to achieve than we are able to comprehend? With a sexually transmitted disease killing as many Americans as died in the Second World War — and with most of those deaths gay men — sex for us became imbued with the added dimensions of terror, valor and the fallen soldier. The AIDS epidemic is often referred to as “our war.” Having sex with other men is a hard-won liberty with an unfortunate liability. It has never been “just sex” for us.

But crystal makes it so.

The first time I did meth was 1995, about six months after testing HIV-positive. My boyfriend at the time did it. He was also positive. Over the years I did crystal occasionally, as a simple and powerful escape. I never did it every day or even every month. But I did it in binges, something the drug is highly conducive to, and always for sex, having learned quickly that it helped me to cross erotic boundaries I found, well, incredibly hot. More frequently I did Ecstasy and ketamine with my friends at clubs and circuit parties. I was in my 20s, and my drug experiences then — mostly meditative, celebratory, bonding — were running parallel to figuring out my life infected with HIV.

Even though 1996

came and the advent of protease inhibitors changed everything, its promise only slightly altered my belief that my time on this planet was bonded to a terminal disease in limbo, uncured but at bay, and that I needed to make the most of the present. I felt both impervious to tragedy — because the generation previous to mine taught me I could persevere through any calamity — but also acutely aware of tragedy, of the possibility of it at any time. My friends and I would revel in being hellions about town, cognizant that we were not wasting our youth on being young, and I would make myself imagine losing them — to AIDS, in an accident — because it happens. It happened all the time. I read Monette, Wojnarowicz, Rofes, watched documentaries like

Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt

and the harrowing

Silverlake Life.

I forced myself to ruminate on my mortality, pressed the idea of death deep into my chest and held it there until it began to feel familiar. I listed all my curiosities and went about intending to fulfill them. Time never seemed wasted. I was healthy, but healthy people got sick. Maybe I had 10 years; maybe 50. One never knew. I began to think of God as existing and prayed often, for meaning. And life itself became more tactile, its colors more resplendent, everything more relevant and connected.

This intensified aliveness overwhelmed me, inevitably, because the crisis that was its catalyst, HIV, though suspended, was not cured. It was still forever poised to wreak havoc. To be “in the moment” — a mantra of the culture of HIV — year after year, when an epidemic doesn’t end but only retreats (temporarily, we are reminded again and again), is not a sustainable way to live. We are not meant to “cherish” life every single day. That sentiment is a Lifetime movie of the week. It is not normal or possible without this heightened, searing appreciation collapsing into itself, like the unbounded pleasure I spoke of, into a numbing weariness that fuses life and death into the quotidian. We are


to take life for granted from time to time. It is healthy and desirable, and I pined for it. Long-term planning, careful attention to career, to relationships, and a genuine belief that one will likely grow old, because most people grow old, happen in a mind free of crisis and of the melancholic politics of my community.

Ours is a culture of death beautified. Our organizations’ boardrooms and community fund-raisers are rife with professional mourners eliciting the gay plague with every new predicament we face. It takes a strong will to believe in longevity, even in defiance of the HIV that may run through your veins. It takes a discerning mind to filter the bombardment of frightful messages concerning our sexual choices; a mind that resists the perpetual reminders from many of our activists, our health organizations, that peril is everywhere. The “Sex+/Meth-” town hall took place in March, one month after the spectacular New York City Department of Health announcement of a multi-drug-resistant, fast-progressing strain of HIV in one man with a serious crystal addiction — news some panelists and most audience members took as fact, not as a rare case to pay attention to, but as evidence that HIV has been Supersized. And maybe it has, and this paradigm of terror always looming over our intimate lives is an inescapable reality. But it is worth noting that in the gay community, the sky is always falling — because it did once, because we fear it might again, and so we shouldn’t be shocked when an alarming number of us respond to endemic fatalism by practicing nihilism by rote.

One doesn’t have to have a problem with drugs or be infected with HIV to feel the painful legacy of AIDS or to know the slow suffocation of homophobia. These cataclysms reside beneath the surface of our skins and come up as boils every time another state writes anti-gay discrimination into its ­constitution, another school board erases us from textbooks, or more parents teach their children to revile us. The future of drug addiction is all but guaranteed in a ­population of gay kids growing up in today’s savagely anti-gay, Constitution-hating age of hyperbole.

At another of the WeHo panels, Cesar Cadabes, of APLA’s Commercial Sex Venue Initiative, held his head down when asked to pose a solution to the “crystal pandemic,” as one panelist called it. For a moment, I thought he was about to cry. Finally, he looked up and said, “I’m not sure what the answers are. One of the things I’m a little concerned about is, our response needs to be more progressive and not part of what we’re seeing as a conservative climate of finger wagging, of abstinence only.” He pointed out that if 10 percent to 20 percent of gay men are doing crystal meth, 80 percent to 90 percent are not. “You see a lot of profiles online that say ‘NO PNP’ or ‘I don’t bareback.’ ”

If we are going to address this problem, we must agree not to demonize, moralize or sensationalize. The impulse is strong to do all three, but none has ever worked as a public-health strategy among savvy gay men. What might work is our continuing to foster safe and serious places in which to speak truthfully, to figure ourselves out by our own particulars, to rid ourselves of taboo labels and judgment in order to stare nakedly at our ills and joys alike and acknowledge the painful legacy that has brought us to this place. Someday I imagine a great collective cleansing of the tribulations we wear like soot that mute our features, those hard-earned lines in our faces that suggest stamina and survival and the most fundamental details of our humanity.

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