Although he mentioned his drug use in the interview, he did not share that he was struggling with an addiction. I now know that he began talking with a few close friends about it at the same time as he did the interview. Eventually, he checked himself into a drug treatment center for 30 days. In an emotional speech shortly after entering treatment, he came out about his crystal addiction and treatment to the entire Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles (he was the President of Membership). Later, he did not talk about his relapse, although some people were aware. I had no idea he had slipped.
It was tempting to think about it as an AIDS death. But at the bottom line, it was a suicide caused by drug addiction. Family and friends brought this home to us at Steve's memorial service. His roommate from the drug treatment center laid it out for us with a blunt honesty that cut into our hearts. Steve killed himself because of that other epidemic, chemical dependency. Maybe this addiction was exacerbated, or even initiated, because of his AIDS diagnosis. But he died because after a few months of sobriety, he slipped and used again. Apparently, he killed himself in remorse when he crashed from the crystal.
This was a tough blow to all of us in the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. For a year and a half, we'd had a respite from members dying regularly. And suddenly, one of the strongest and healthiest-looking members was dead, a victim of a deadly addiction to crystal.
I took my grief and my questions to my therapist. He told me that in his largely gay male practice, he is seeing what seems to him like an epidemic of addiction to crystal. As Steve told the Chorus, it's the drug of choice for a number of gay men in the circuit party scene. It's killed others besides Steve Smith. I wonder how many others were listed in obituaries as AIDS deaths, when it was really death by addiction. Interesting, isn't it, that there seems to be more stigma attached to drug addiction than to AIDS, at least in the gay community. It's somehow more understandable that someone would kill themselves because of AIDS than because of drug abuse.
There is a clear connection between chemical dependency and HIV transmission. The connection between drug addiction and low self-esteem is obvious to many. Also, barebacking (anal sex without a condom) is a lot easier when a person is under the influence of powerful recreational drugs. Among a number of gay men, the crystal epidemic and the continued rate of HIV transmission are deeply intertwined. For those who are already infected, when drugs wear down a body, it is more difficult to fight infections. Chronic drug abuse can also complicate the treatment of HIV.
Steve left us with so many questions unanswered. What was going on in his head and his heart? In spite of being a writer, he left no note. Was the "untreatable" status of his HIV infection due to his drug addiction? Did his chances for successful treatment improve when he was clean and sober? Did he really intend to kill himself, or was he crying out for help? Was there anything any of us could have done or said that would have made a difference?
Is there anything we can say or do for people who are still living with the same behaviors and addictions?
I framed the original interview with the question, "What is the appropriate pastoral response to individuals involved with the circuit [party scene]?" I left the question open, hoping that it would encourage thinking and talking about the issues. Of course, privately, I had my own answers relating to Steve, which now sound more like excuses than answers. I was not Steve's pastor, nor his therapist. I was a friend, but not a close one. We worked together more than we played together. I didn't think it was my place to try to change his behaviors, beyond engaging him in dialogue about the issues. I did encourage him to read Signorile's Life Outside, which he did, but he dismissed it quite easily, at least before his treatment. I also expressed my willingness to engage him in talking about these issues, and promised to be a good listener. But we never had the chance.
Steve's death was a shocking reminder of the issues we in the gay community continue to face. This individual suicide points us to the issues which, some feel, are destroying a large segment of our community. These challenges include our self-esteem issues, our epidemic of drug and alcohol addiction, and our on-going flirtation with death through unsafe sex practices. How many more of us will have to die before we get it?
I still struggle with my feelings over Steve's death. At first, I was very angry with Steve. How could he do this to himself, and to us? Then I felt guilty. Am I making unfair judgments about a person who was suffering from two life-threatening illnesses? Then I felt deeply sad. What a waste, and what a tragedy! We will all miss Steve so much. Now, I feel an increasing acceptance, although all of the feelings seem to lie heavily in my heart.
I had a conversation with someone who said he couldn't blame Steve, because life is so difficult. Yes, life is hard; but when I think of all the people who wanted to live, but died from the complications of AIDS, I get a different perspective. Yes, life is hard; but life is also precious. It is a gift from God. I continue to believe that God provides us with everything we need to face the challenges of life, even the illness of addiction. Some people just can't believe that, it seems.
I know that faith will help many of us through the process of grieving tragedies like Steve's suicide. Nevertheless, we have so much experience with loss and grief, that it comes as a surprise how deeply a new loss can impact us. Believing in our God of life, we can resolve to redeem the tragic losses and the deep pain of grief through grabbing onto life in all its glory. Through our faith, we can make our lives creative and joyful memorials to those who have gone before, even for those who killed themselves.
We can, as people of faith, resolve to do what we can to heal ourselves and the world. In the gay community in particular, we must continue to confront the issues that can drag us down and sometimes destroy us.
There were many wonderful things about Steve Smith. He was greatly loved and admired by a wide variety of people. His goodness will continue to live in many of our hearts, right alongside our grief and anger over his self-destruction. Although I am still caught up in my anger at Steve over what he did, I also recognize the deep suffering of the illness of addiction which brought him to that point.
When we face another's suicide, God is with us in our struggle to understand, to grieve, and to be compassionate towards everyone involved: to the one who committed suicide, to close family and friends, and to ourselves. God is with us in our continuing efforts to prevent and treat illnesses like chemical dependency that can destroy us. God is the one true God of life.
©1998 by the Rev. A. Stephen Pieters