Living With[out] Crystal Meth
Addicts were "those" people, not me
Alter the chemical make-up of ephedrine, add just the right amount of drain cleaner, battery acid, and antifreeze, toss in assorted other easy-bake compounds, and you have the recipe for crystal meth. Bon appétit.
I had heard rumors about the ingredients, but didn't care. It looked clear and pure enough, especially after the first hit. I had also heard (from another addict) that an Australian study had shown that regular crystal use would lower the amount of HIV in the body. It's amazing how much an addict-no matter how educated-is willing to suspend disbelief to indulge his habit. Though I knew it wasn't true, the excuse was convenient and compelling. But some things were absolutely certain: crystal made me feel good, made sex fabulous, and put me on somebody's A-list. All it took was a harmless bump up my nose ... at first.
I tested HIV-positive in November 1992, after waking up one morning blind in one eye. What few people know is that I had been using cocaine for about three years at that time and was just coming off a binge. Full-blown AIDS, shingles, presumptive toxoplasmosis, and optic neuropathy were diagnosed in a matter of days. I was put on a separate drug regimen for each of those conditions, which meant at least a couple of handfuls of pills a couple of times a day. I was farmed out to an eye specialist and was poked and prodded by an assortment of other interested doctors, becoming a guinea pig of sorts. Apparently, mine was the first presentation of toxo so affecting the optic nerve in the Atlanta area, and created quite the buzz. The names of all of the prescribed meds are gone from memory, but the panic, fear, and sense of impending death are very much with me today. On the up side, I stabilized with treatment, began attending HIV support group meetings and, in partnership with my physician, chose to stop the antiretroviral meds until circumstances dictated otherwise.
I also stopped using cocaine cold turkey-for about three months. The consequences of using were such that I thought I would never want to use again. But addicts are great forgetters. True to form, I quickly forgot those consequences, and began to romanticize the drugged-out past. The party started again at the 1993 March on Washington for LGBT Equality. I ended up missing most of the March, but made it to many of the parties. So much for gay pride. Cocaine never took complete hold again, but I certainly gave myself permission to binge occasionally, and to dive headfirst back into alcohol, which had been my first drug of choice.
How did I get to that point, and why wasn't that initial AIDS diagnosis the end of my addictive behavior? I had, after all, been given a sort of second chance at life. Complete answers are too complex for this article, implicating everything from a dysfunctional family and childhood, to homophobia, to internalized shame about being HIV-positive (if not my own shame, then the shame that others projected onto me), to my own physiology. Perhaps, in twisted thoughts of death, I just wanted to go out with a bang. But the distilled answer is this: I felt lonely, I wanted to escape, and I desperately needed to feel that I belonged-somewhere, anywhere. Add to that the drive of my inner addict-the obsession to use, and the compulsion to use more. After I took that first drug or drink, I had to have another and another. The nature of addiction is that one is too many and a thousand never enough.
Early on, I refused to consider that I had a problem, much less that I was an addict. Addicts were "those" people, not me. They are not board presidents and band leaders, law school graduates and community activists. I had only missed a few committee meetings over the years, didn't lose my house or car and kept a healthy amount of money in the bank. I was only a binge user-getting high only after finding and blocking off a long weekend on my calendar. Or, maybe I'd reschedule a meeting here or there to create a long weekend, or maybe I'd just do a little less meth on a two-day weekend so that I could be sure to eat before Monday. Or maybe I would use on the occasional weeknight, but take a sleeping pill to make sure I got enough rest. I couldn't see a problem. Addicts use every day, I told myself. Anyway, meth was a relatively recent phenomenon for me. I had abused alcohol since college days in the early 80's, and then added cocaine at the end of that decade. With time, though, I moved on to sample X and the other letters of the drug alphabet, finally adding crystal in early 2002.
The reality was that as my addiction progressed, I was online almost every day, hunting for party-and-play (PnP) men. I would plan trips out of town just so that I would not use on a given weekend. Looking back, it's clear that I wanted out; I just didn't know how to get out. A close friend accused me of being a tweaker. He said that I had changed, that I never called him. He told me that I no longer spent time with him and that I was short-tempered, even belligerent, on the phone.
I was indignant and denied every word of this truth. Okay, so maybe I chose the escape route of alcohol and drugs when my former partner was diagnosed with cancer. Maybe I never made it across the street to a friend's pool after 16 invitations one summer because I was busy, busy, busy cruising online, snorting and smoking meth. And maybe I had convinced myself to sell my house and move to a condo because I just didn't have time to mow the lawn. And maybe I was hanging out at my dealer's place several nights a week, spending more money on meth than I was on food, and driving my car when high, and allowing groups of strangers into my home and into my bed. And maybe I engaged in other acts of incomprehensible demoralization that I now find difficult to even consider. And yes, maybe nothing came before the supply run to the dealer, as I always prudently planned ahead so that I would have enough for the next binge. And okay, so I stopped looking people in the eye. Who would want to look at me, anyway? Given another day or so of using, I would have slammed crystal into my veins with a needle. I had already planned it. The real horror is that this all seemed normal.
After that first bump of meth, during an online hookup, I never wanted to go back. Crystal made me confident, even fearless-something alcohol and cocaine could never do. I felt validated through meth-infused sex. A few hours of illusory intimacy were better than days of emptiness. Instead of always being the best little boy in the world, I could run, if only for a few hours at a time, with the fast crowd-the fabulous people.
But none of that was real. Quickly after that first bump, I began to neglect and abuse my body, not wanting to eat, unable to sleep for days at a time. I so weakened my immune system that I simultaneously developed Kaposi's sarcoma as this latest addiction took hold. I lost weight and exposed myself to other sexually transmitted diseases, including hep B and, eventually, syphilis-which brought with it the personal humiliation of partner notification. Remember that shortly after my 1992 HIV diagnosis and before finding meth-a span of 10 years-I had not been on any HIV medications. But the KS diagnosis was the writing on the wall. I immediately started on HAART [highly active antiretroviral therapy], enduring severe anemia before finding the right drug combo. The treatment cured the KS, but I remain on an ever-evolving drug cocktail. I've yet to achieve an undetectable viral load. And the scar on my stomach from the KS biopsy will never disappear. Still, I didn't enter recovery for more than two years after first using crystal. In the meantime, I tried to stick to my dosing schedule, but inevitably at the end of a month some bottles would have a few more pills than others. The worst moments were when, within minutes of taking a dose, I could not remember whether I had in fact taken that dose. Under-dosing and over-dosing were common. My doctor always asked about adherence and I always lied. Life was still an unbroken circle of using and denial.
I often wonder whether anything would have been different had I disclosed my addiction to my doctor while still using. The real question is whether, as an active user, I was capable of that kind of honesty when I otherwise lived in a world replete with denial. In a "could have, should have" sense, disclosure might have meant avoiding KS, STIs [sexually transmitted infections], and the need to begin antiretroviral therapy. For me, though, honesty could only come when the pain became great enough.
If you think you may have a problem with crystal meth, you probably do have a problem with crystal meth.
Deep into my addiction, I became paranoid, skeptical, mistrustful and isolated. I felt hopeless and full of despair, and came to rely more on meth to escape feelings of not belonging, of shame, and of worthlessness. I was caught in the vicious cycle of addiction. I was also at my personal bottom-that point which all addicts hope to reach, before dying, when we're ready to try something different. In March 2004, a former party buddy ran up to me and whispered in my ear that he had entered recovery and had been clean for a few months. He planted a new seed in my mind. I saw him a couple of weeks later and knew that I had to find the courage to ask about his new life. As a wise man once said, "Courage is the first of human qualities, because it is the quality that guarantees all the others." My friend said that with a little bit of willingness and an open mind, I, too, could find hope for a different way of living. I considered the possibility that I may have a problem.
We drove together to my first 12-step meeting, where I found recovering crystal meth addicts talking about what using did to their minds, bodies, careers and relationships. They talked about how they got and stayed clean and how they are living their lives today. I realize now that I am not the eternally unique outsider as I had so selfishly believed. I now know that I am more like other people than different. I've also learned that I am only as sick as my secrets. To stay sober, I must let people know who I am, warts and all. As people get to know me, I no longer feel lonely and want to escape. The vicious cycle is broken. Crystal meth addiction is progressive and fatal, but today I know that there is a solution. Today, I carry the message and not the mess.
Eddie Young is a board member and immediate past president of AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta, Georgia. He expanded this perspective from his article published in the March/April 2005 issue of AIDS Survival Project's newsletter, Survival News.
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