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Addiction: The Disease More Likely to Kill Me

By Mark S. King

November 29, 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?

Rest Area Sign

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.

Rest Area Sign

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.

Econolodge

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.

Waffle House

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.

Louisiana Welcome Sign

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)



Dec. 13, 2011 -- Update from Mark: The original posting of this entry managed to break traffic records on my blog, generate amazingly supportive comments, and also became its own source of concern among some of my fellows in recovery. As a few of the comments suggested, my drug relapse was a serious event that even I may not fully appreciate just yet, much less be able to distill its lessons to my readers. Some felt that writing about it so soon after the fact seemed cavalier. I'd like to say that my actual recovery process -- the work I do on a daily basis to rebuild and maintain a clean and sober life -- involves many things that are completely unrelated to my writing. It is ongoing and intimate and I take it very seriously. I considered withholding the relapse from my blog, but it just felt dishonest not to talk about it. My point is, there is work ahead for me that I hold dear and will keep to myself, my sponsor and my God. As Tony Kushner writes in the last line of Angels in America, "the great work continues."

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See Also
More Viewpoints Related to HIV/AIDS Among Gay Men

Reader Comments:

Comment by: rigo (mexico) Fri., Jun. 7, 2013 at 5:49 am EDT
wow, the form of your text, the words you use, the thoughts you think, all come forward so fast, so good, so sad, so clear, so triumphant. Hope u do all right.
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Comment by: Ron C. (Orlando, FL) Thu., Jan. 5, 2012 at 8:03 am EST
Mark, I know those highways all too well, literally and figuratively. Bless you for sharing your journey. That's all that really matters. I'm a spiritual person, not religious, so keep that in mind as I say, "There but for the grace of God..."
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Comment by: David D (San Francisco, CA) Thu., Dec. 29, 2011 at 8:13 pm EST
I'm in recovery almost 11 years from crystal meth addiction, and reading your recounting of your relapse reminded me that the same madness and despair would be there waiting for me if I were to use again. And you're absolutely right: at this stage of the game, the disease more likely to kill us is our addiction, not our HIV. I recall a dear friend, who ended up in the hospital after yet another relapse, whose doctor told him "It's such a shame, we've worked so hard to keep you alive from your HIV for 20 years, only to have your addiction be the thing that kills you." Redouble your efforts and your program of recovery; long-term recovery from crystal meth addiction *IS* possible. Thankfully, you lived to tell the story. Thanks for sharing it with us.
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Comment by: Kirk (Dallas, TX) Thu., Dec. 29, 2011 at 5:53 pm EST
I am a recovering addict of all kinds or should I say poly-addict (sex, drugs). I am in a 12 step group and have 6 years sobriety in SAA and less than a year in my Meth group. I find 12 step programs helpful but not an end-all for recovery. I am grateful to you for the honesty and "recovery-road" you have returned. Thanks for helping set another free with truth.
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Comment by: Peter (Canada : Ontario : Toronto) Thu., Dec. 22, 2011 at 6:36 pm EST
Hey Mark... I was a bit surprised to read this after viewing the recent happy family video clip you posted. This revisit to all things meth centered (the sex, the depression, the self pity...) brings up the truth about addiction. Although we continue in sobriety using tools which allow us to achieve new goals - we are not immune to emotions which can snowball us back to using - surprising the hell out of ourselves. And then there is the shame and brutal disappointment one has to deal with all over again. Not an easy place to walk out of especially after all the supportive insight you have shared with us - sometimes in the most entertaining ways.
Glad you have the support from family - especially your brother and mother. Thanks for your honesty on this recent turn of events - it takes a real gentleman to admit this in public. Enjoy your Christmas.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Mark S.King (Shreveport, LA) Thu., Dec. 22, 2011 at 7:59 pm EST
Thanks, Peter, and yes, I'm sure the news of this relapse must seem jarring after the holiday video. But I'm happy to report that the relapse actually occurred just before I left Ft Lauderdale, but the editorial calendar here at TheBody wanted to feature the holiday video first. So the joy that is so apparent in the holiday video is, in fact, the joy of being accepted not only as a gay man with HIV, but as a recovering addict who recently experienced a frightening relapse. All the more reason I was so happy to show you in the holiday video that I am happy and well!


Comment by: John-Manuel Andriote (Norwich, CT) Thu., Dec. 22, 2011 at 3:18 pm EST
Thank you for your honesty, Mark. I know it's cathartic and it's also useful for the rest of us to know what our friends who have dealt with meth and other highly addictive drugs have been through. I loved your image of your mom and her casual, affectionate greeting that let you know you were home, and safe, and will continue to be.
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Comment by: Jason (Austin, TX) Wed., Dec. 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm EST
Good luck in your recovery. You mentioned a program, not sure if you specified what it was - but if it's 12-step you may want to reconsider. The failure rate for that program is staggering, people mostly flock to it because it's the only thing they know. It's also the only thing that counselors and doctors seem to know about, and they refer people to it out of ignorance, but the truth is that it's a terrible terrible program. Do some research about it, and find alternatives that are much better. I did, and have been off meth for over 10 years now. I don't wake up every day and tell myself I'm sick and think about my meth days lest I revert back to them. That's a myth that keeps people miserable and down on themselves and the power that they have within them, not some mythical higher power - but their OWN power. People actually grow, and move past that entire way of thinking. Don't take my word for it, check it out yourself.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Peter (Canada : Ontario : Toronto) Thu., Dec. 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm EST
I went to one 12 step meeting and chose not to attend anymore. I utilized a local drug therapy counselor and then followed up with regular visits with a psychotherapist. I am sober five years. I hardly ever think of my meth days anymore yet I am aware of certain off days which remind me of the triggers which eventually took me down the road to meth addiction.
I wouldn't discount a 12 step program for someone if that works for them. Your tone is extremely and pompously condescending. I seriously question your "good luck" to Mark when the rest of your comment is a diatribe against 12 step programs. Obviously it wasn't for you. It wasn't for me either. If you were sincere about helping out you might have dropped some hints of the alternatives.... maybe Scientology?
Comment by: Vickie (Tampa) Fri., Dec. 30, 2011 at 11:39 am EST
I have been in a 12-step group for more than 6 years and I also know a great deal about research and addiction. Treatment works when someone is ready for it to work.

Once we put down the drugs the 12-steps helps us to look at other behaviors in our lives; the 12-steps can help you change ANY thing about yourself you do not like. They help you grow spiritually. They are a tool but not the only tool. They work for some, but do not work for all. I actually personally know 100's of people the 12-steps have worked for; amazing wonderful people! I also utilized in-patient treatment, a therapist and personal introspection.

The 12-steps may not be for everyone but if you ever have an opportunity to go to a 12-step World Convention you will see that it works for thousands of people all over the world.


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VIDEO BLOG:
My Fabulous Disease


Mark S. King has been an active AIDS activist, writer and community organization leader since the early 1980s in Los Angeles. He has been an outspoken advocate for prevention education and for issues important to those living with HIV.

Diagnosed in 1985, Mark has held positions with the Los Angeles Shanti Foundation, AID Atlanta and AIDS Survival Project, and is an award-winning writer. He continues his volunteer work as an AIDS educator and speaker for conferences and events.

Speaking engagements: Mark King is available to speak to groups. Contact Mark about speaking at your organization or event!


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A Place Like This by Mark King

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Interviews With Mark:

Mark King Looks Back at the AIDS Epidemic's Darkest Hour in the U.S. (May 14, 2008)

This Month in HIV: Crystal Methamphetamine and HIV (August 2007)


Articles by Mark:

Meth Burial (May 2008)

Outliving My Father (May 22, 2001)
Mark recounts how years of caring for friends dying of AIDS prepared him for taking care of his dying father
From The Advocate

AIDS Always Benefits from What We Don't Talk About (April 2001)


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