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 virus 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.
Addiction is progressive and fatal.
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.
How did I get to that point, and why wasn't that the end of my addictive behavior? 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. 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 rescheduling a meeting here or there to create a long weekend, or maybe just doing a little less meth on a two-day weekend so that I could be sure to eat before Monday. Or maybe using on the occasional weeknight, but taking 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.
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. OK, 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 OK, 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 was cured of any other addictions. 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 was 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. The reality is that I neglected and abused my body, not wanting to eat, unable to sleep for days at a time. I lost weight and exposed myself to other sexually transmitted diseases. I so weakened my immune system that I developed Kaposi's sarcoma. 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 worthlessness. I was caught in the vicious cycle of addiction.
If you think you may have a problem with crystal meth, you probably do have a problem with crystal meth.
Deep into my addiction, a former party buddy ran up to me one day 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.
To talk with someone who can help, please call the Georgia CMA Help Line at (404) 454-3637. This 24-hour help line is staffed by volunteers who are in recovery. If you get voice mail, please leave a message and someone will return your call as quickly as possible. Note that this line offers the support of one addict helping another and cannot answer your medical or legal questions. If you are infected with or affected by HIV, a "Positively No Speeding" recovery group meets every Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at the AIDS Survival Project offices. Call the help line or visit www.atlantacma.org for more information.
Eddie Young is a board member and immediate past president of AIDS Survival Project.