Carl remembers sitting at his home computer one fateful evening obsessively trolling internet sex sites for a hook-up. What he can’t recall is how long he was perched there. Eight hours…10…12? The problem is time has little meaning when you’re strung out on crystal meth and chasing your next sexual encounter.
More to the point, nothing is of any consequence except the hunt; it is all-consuming. Carl received a stark, painful reminder of this fact that night.
“My dog, Stella, had been sleeping at my feet the entire time,” he recounts. “I remember that I called her name and she didn’t respond. So, I reached down to wake her up and that’s when I realized she was dead. I was online all that time cruising for sex and she had died at my feet and I didn’t even know it.”
He adds through welling tears, “That’s when I finally knew I had to make a change.”
Carl had been abusing crystal meth for nine years by the time Stella died. Today, at 53, he has been methamphetamine-free almost three years. It’s a herculean accomplishment given that meth is clinically proven to be more addictive than heroin or crack cocaine and is considered the most difficult drug to kick. Substance abuse experts place the relapse rate for meth addicts at a staggering 94 percent.
The news is particularly dire for the gay community, where “Tina,” as meth is often called in slang, disproportionally affects gay and bisexual men.
According to a report published by the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, gay and bi men are 10 to 20 times more likely than the general public to use the drug based on a variety of cultural factors, including low self-esteem due to social rejection and ostracism. National estimates of crystal meth use among gay and bisexual men range between 11 and 28 percent.
Meth is a cheap yet powerful stimulant that jump-starts the fight-or-flight response in the body and sustains it over a long period of time. This high is known as “tweaking.” Abusers of the drug commonly relate that their initial use produced the most euphoric state they’d ever experienced. Some report feeling addicted from their very first encounter.
A key component of meth’s allure, particularly among gay and bi men, is the hypersexual feelings it invokes. Because of this effect the drug is used to “party and play” (often referenced in sex ads as “PNP”), a euphemism for mixing sex and meth, sometimes in marathon sessions that last for days. In a cruel twist, an appreciable percentage of men who use meth develop “crystal dick” — a drug-induced inability to achieve or maintain an erection.
Meth creates the perfect storm for transmitting HIV because it all-but-erases users’ inhibitions and decision-making abilities while pushing them to participate in sex acts or accept sexual roles they very likely might otherwise refuse.
A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in collaboration with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, found that, compared to non-users, crystal meth users were more than twice as likely to be HIV infected.
In the beginning, Carl says, he used meth to alleviate feelings of worthlessness, of not being good enough or good-looking enough. The drug replaced those doubts with an insatiable lust that made any sexual activity acceptable.
“It made me feel like a sex machine,” he says. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to have every inch of their body sexualized? But, at the same time, when I look back now at some of the things I’ve done…” Carl’s voice trails off, then after a moment he quietly adds, “I just hope nobody ever videoed any of that stuff.”
Carl credits his sobriety to his participation in Crystal Clear, a meth-specific 12-step program modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous that meets weekly in Charlotte.
“I couldn’t have done this without the group,” he says resolutely. “Feeling all the love and support at that first meeting — coming from people who were struggling just as much as I was — gave me the strength I didn’t have otherwise.”
Loud and clear
William is one of the founders of Crystal Clear. He will mark seven years sober this month. It’s been a long journey back from the brink of utter destruction.
In his early 30s, William says he was outwardly living the American Dream, with a wife, a good job, a suburban home and a Volvo in the driveway. The issue was his growing inability to deny that he was gay. Embracing this fact once and for all led to a divorce for William at 33 and ushered in a new life of bars, strange beds and binge drinking.
His harrowing struggle with crystal meth addiction began later, during a trip to Atlanta. He says he was “well buzzed” in a nightclub one evening when a hot guy picked him up for sex.
“Two hours into the rendezvous, Mr. It extended his hand for me to join him in a quick experience: ‘Something that is beyond your dreams.’ That is when I met ‘Tina.’ One hit, the size of a #2 pencil eraser, and I became an instant addict, and that one-time hit sent me into a five-day binge that began my descent into hell.”
The changes in William’s life were immediate, he says. “Nothing else mattered. I did not care if I had to be home, if I had to work, if I had responsibility towards my animals. I did and said whatever it took to get out of my responsibilities so that I could use. What seemed like 10 minutes translated into 10, 15 and 20 hours of nonstop tweaking and nonstop unprotected sex with multiples of individuals and groups.”
Within a year William’s mind was in tatters and he was tortured by delusions that “the feds” were plotting to kill him. “I was taken to Presbyterian Hospital tweaking beyond comprehension. I marched into the ER petrified because the agents had followed us and were waiting on me there. My god, do you know this happened not once, not twice, but five times. Insanity!”
The drug had taken an extreme toll on William’s body as well. His weight had plummeted from 172 to 133; his nose — completely raw from snorting meth — was painful and bled often. Worst of all, his kidneys were now barely functioning.
He was also suffering from a severe response to the noxious additives used to make meth. These toxic substances include Drano, brake fluid, rat poison and battery acid.
“Puss- and mucous-filled blisters began to form on my chest and around my nipples as well as on my arms and neck,” William recalls. “My [meth-using] ‘friends’ told me it was just due to excessive sweating from hours of nonstop sex or just stopped-up sweat glands. Glandular! Actually, it was the battery acid or Drano that’s used in mixing crystal being voided by my body. Pure poison being forced out.”
In the face of all these horrors, William says he finally “broke.”
“I remember vividly lying on the floor of my bathroom, screaming and holding my head. I cried and cried and cried. With arms extended out and willing to do anything, I asked for help. ‘I cannot do this anymore.’”
William started attending AA because there weren’t any Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) groups meeting in Charlotte. With the aid of a local therapist and through networking with other recovering meth addicts, he helped establish Crystal Clear three years later.
“The 12-step program has taught me how to live,” William says, his face decorated with a hard-won smile. “It has given me a second chance and helped me to accept life on life’s terms.”
Not everyone believes the praise is warranted, however. There are detractors who dismiss 12-step programs out of hand, arguing that they are a vast cult preying on those whose wills and minds have been weakened.
Carl douses this incendiary criticism by accepting it. “If it’s a cult, it’s a cult,” he says bluntly. “I don’t think it is, but really that doesn’t even matter to me. All I know is that the only people I have seen get off this drug are the ones who have stayed in the group. That’s what matters to me.” : :
— If you or someone you know has a problem with crystal meth or any other substance, contact SupportWorks for more information on Crystal Clear and other recovery programs. Call them at 704-331-9500 or visit www.supportworks.org.
Meth is: Crystal methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant, or upper, that induces a chemical fight-or-flight response and sustains it over a long period of time. The color of meth varies widely depending on its purity. In its cheapest and less-processed form, called crank, the drug is usually shades of greasy-brown, sometimes with black flecks. Crystal meth gets its name from the appearance of its most sought after form, which appears as a clear-to-white crystalline substance that resembles long, thin shards of broken glass.
Commonly called: Meth has many different street names, including Crystal, Tina, T, Crissy, Crank, Speed, Shards, Glass, Ice, Go, Whizz and Dope
How it’s taken: Meth crystals can be swallowed or smoked as is, crushed into a powder for snorting or dissolved in a liquid for swallowing, injecting or booty bumping (dosing through the rectum).
Physical effects: After using meth, your heart rate goes up, increasing your blood pressure; the pupils in your eyes open up wide; you feel more alert and as though you have more stamina; you get a sense of physical motivation; and, you have increased verbal activity (even though what you’re saying might not make sense to other people). Meanwhile, other functions decrease, like the sense of hunger and thirst or the need for sleep – things that will get in the way of the fight-or-flight response.
Dangers: Meth use can lead to a variety of health problems, including paranoia, anxiety and psychosis; increased risk of strokes; tooth decay and loss; heart arrhythmia, increased blood pressure; blockage of blood vessels in the lungs; malnutrition and severe weight loss; kidney and bladder infections; and, increased risk of HIV exposure and infection.
This article appears in the March 20-April 2 print edition.