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Crystal Meth: When Using Just Isn't Fun Anymore

December 2000

Why Is Crystal So Popular?

The sky it was gold, it was rose
I was taking sips of it through my nose
And I wish I could get back there.

Crystal methamphetamine use among gay and bisexual men here has soared in recent years, making Los Angeles a major center for crystal among gay and bisexual men.

Crystal has not only entered our community, it is permeating the gay culture. References to crystal appear in advertising, media, chat lines and community events, and it comes up in conversations at parties. Going places or talking to people who haven't been touched by crystal in some way has become difficult.

The Rise of Crystal

Doing crystal meth
Will lift you up until you break.

There are many reasons that gay and bisexual men use crystal.

Some users claim that crystal is "what cocaine promises but doesn't deliver." The effects of crystal can last up to 12 hours. It is more powerful than cocaine, yet less expensive. Some people use it to work long hours. Others claim it helps them to finish tasks and concentrate on one activity at a time. Many people note that crystal makes them feel more awake, alert, confident and energetic.

Heightening of sexual experiences is probably the biggest reason for crystal's popularity. Crystal users say that use of crystal results in an increased sexual drive, intensification of the senses, and increased energy. As Cathy Reback, Ph.D., notes in "The Social Construction of a Gay Drug: Methamphetamine Use Among Gay and Bisexual Males in Los Angeles," many gay and bi men report that they become less inhibited when they use crystal. They claim that it allows them to do sexual things they ordinarily wouldn't do.

Physical Effects of Crystal

It won't stop
I won't come down . . .

Crystal stimulates the central nervous system. The result is increased alertness, decreased fatigue and reduced appetite. Other effects include increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, chest pain, insomnia, panic states and anxiety.

In the brain, crystal use causes temporary depletion of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters (or natural brain chemicals) are the basis for many of our behaviors, including sex, appetite, sleep, memory and emotions. After even a brief run on crystal, studies have shown that it takes some time, usually weeks, for the brain to build levels back to those before crystal use. In fact, long-term crystal use may change brain neurotransmitter levels permanently.

Among gay and bisexual men living in Los Angeles and other West coast cities, crystal appears to be highly addictive. A crystal addiction starts with sporadic use, often combined with sex. Occasional use, however, can easily become weekend use. As "crashing" often causes people to feel moody, irritable, and depressed, crystal use can creep into the workweek.

For some gay men, the sexual rush fizzles out, and crystal becomes a way to feel normal. And whether the sexual connection continues or not, many gay and bisexual men have extreme difficulties staying off crystal once they decide to stop.

Crystal and HIV

One problem with being high while having sex is forgetting about safer sex.

Many gay/bi men report that they when they are high, they "throw safe sex out the window" along with their condoms. Thus, the risk of HIV infection and re-infection is greater when using crystal than it is when having sex drug-free.

For people infected with HIV, even occasional use of crystal can lead to a lapse in taking HIV medications, weight loss and vitamin depletion.

With crystal, you can stay awake for days. Sleep, however, is essential to maintaining the immune system. Lack of sleep and poor nutrient intake aside, crystal use itself causes a drop in T cells and NK cells, and recent research suggests that crystal takes a major toll on people who are immunocompromised.

The Emotional Toll

And then I bumped up . . .
Then I bumped again
And then I bumped again.

With frequent crystal use, the emotional cost can come fast and with a very high price. "Troubles with cocaine have a way of sneaking up on you, but with crystal they pounce on you," one crystal user explains.

Although gay/bi men maintain that they are using crystal "just" to enhance their sexual experiences, once their crystal days have ended, many gay/bi men come to realize that crystal has served other functions in their lives. Crystal temporarily covers up uncomfortable feelings about having sex with other men, and it allows men to have the kind of sex they ordinarily wouldn't have.

And although many if not most gay/bi men started using crystal because it is part of the social world (it is not uncommon to have the first crystal experience with a trick or boyfriend), crystal use can increase feelings of loneliness.

Ironically, doing crystal to cover feelings or to deal with difficult life situations, or even to enhance sexual experiences, is like getting onto an emotional groove of a broken record. With crystal abuse, underlying problems never get resolved. Difficult experiences do not improve, and in many cases, situations become worse from emotional, social and financial consequences.

Frequent fighting with your boyfriend, getting behind in paying bills and finding yourself in trouble at work are a few examples of these consequences. After several months or a year of using crystal, someone may have lost his boyfriend and job, and still not be able to pay bills. Some gay men have even lost their homes and apartments due to crystal.

These problems, among others, are part of a vicious cycle. They are often symptoms of emotional difficulties that give rise to crystal abuse and create more problems as a result of using crystal on a regular basis.

Treating Crystal Dependence

One obstacle to getting off of crystal is that there are many "triggers" which set up crystal use even though you do not want to use anymore.

A sex club or bathhouse can set off a crystal binge. Some people say that you can't go to a bathhouse or sex club without being offered crystal. Other triggers include stress, sudden losses or disappointments, contacting certain drug-using friends or drug dealers, and having cash available.

Building a support system is one way that you can prevent yourself from slipping back into using crystal.

New and advanced methods for treating gay and bisexual men with crystal problems are available at a growing number of sites. Friends Health Center offers no-cost treatment for gay and bisexual men who are addicted to crystal meth. It is a 16-week outpatient treatment research program that provides 1-hour group sessions three times per week, with two follow-up visits at 26 and 52 weeks.

Clients at Friends Health Center are participants in a nationally recognized research program designed to evaluate the best behavioral method for treating gay/bi men with crystal abuse or dependence. We offer four treatment programs, and the programs are offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. for 16 weeks. The programs are as follows:

  • Relapse prevention group: education and counseling methods to teach you the skills to avoid future crystal use

  • Relapse prevention plus HIV risk reduction skills group: a combination of the relapse prevention group plus an added educational component to reduce high-risk sexual behaviors

  • Contingency management: a program which provides monetary incentives for stopping crystal use (up to $1,277.50 per person for the 16 weeks)

  • A combination of the relapse prevention program and the contingency management program.

Friends La Brea is available for gay and bisexual men who have problems with cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, club drugs and other substances. Long-standing community providers at the Van Ness Recovery House offer intensive treatments for crystal and other LGBT substance abusers. Residential care is also available at the Van Ness Recovery House. 888 KRISTAL, (888) 574-7825, is another program taking a harm reduction approach.

In addition to obtaining treatment, many people enter a recovery program. Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA), (213) 488-4455, and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have chapters for gay and bisexual men. Call NA at (323) 850-1624 or (800) 863-2962. Other 12-step programs are also available. While Friends Health Center is not 12-step-oriented, these options are discussed during treatment. Many gay/bi men also decide to enter therapy as an adjunct to the other options described.

In realizing that crystal use has become a major problem in their lives, many gay men wonder, "How did I get here? How did I let this drug control my life?"

The more important question is "How do I get to the next part of my life without crystal?" Fortunately, there are places to go for help.

Lyrics from "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind

Crystal Addiction Resources in Los Angeles

Friends Health Center
(323) 460-6910

Friends La Brea
(323) 463-7001

Van Ness Recovery House
(323) 463-4266

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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