By Bill Daley @ Chicago Tribune
Crystal meth first came into Jon Hartman’s life when he was out one night with friends. It was just one of a number of party drugs at hand. Yet, within a year, it became his substance of choice.
“From day one, I was using it in conjunction with other drugs. It gave me a feeling of invincibility: ‘I can do anything. I am good looking, charming, I can do whatever I want,’ ” recalled Hartman, 53, a gay man who was then in his early 30s.
“It makes people feel like they’re on top of the world,” says Stacy Agosto, who as program manager for substance abuse services at Howard Brown Health oversees the Chicago-based organization’s Recovering With Pride program. “People wouldn’t use it if it didn’t achieve some kind of an effect. It increases sex drive, decreases inhibitions, makes you feel more confident.”
“Increases sex drive” — it’s that sexual component of crystal meth use that can have deep consequences, especially for gay men living in a culture seen stereotypically as highly sexualized.
“There’s such a focus of gay men on sex and sexuality,” said Kurt Mohning, a Chicago-based clinical social worker whose clients are primarily gay men.
Both Mohning and Agosto say gay men can feel pressured to be fit, attractive and young.
“If you are feeling ashamed of your identity, if you’re not feeling confident, if you are not looking how you believe you feel you should look or as young as you want to feel, and you pair that with crystal meth, and you feel great and can get anyone you want, and you can have sex for longer,” Agosto said, “it’s sort of a perfect storm.”
“The Perfect Storm: Gay Men, Crystal Meth and Sex” was the title of a 2014 presentation by Craig Sloane, a New York City-based clinical social worker, at an addiction conference in Seattle. In it, he outlined how crystal meth came to be seen as a “good fit” by gay men, and noted such shared life experiences as family disapproval and homophobia, and such touchstones of gay culture as ’70s disco, the AIDS crisis, marriage equality, the internet and dating apps.
“I think it’s fairly embedded in the culture of the urban gay community,” said Sloane, who in his 2014 presentation reported that crystal meth had become the most widely used illicit drug among gay and bisexual men by the late 1990s and early 2000s.
A 2015 national survey on drug use by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that gay, lesbian and bisexual people were more likely to have used illegal drugs over the past year than heterosexuals. For gay men over age 18, 4.1 percent reported meth use over the past year compared with 0.9 percent of straight men, according to the administration’s 2016 report on the findings.
When Hartman started using crystal meth, he was living in New York City with a good career in advertising and an active social life.
“I didn’t have enough perspective on the dangers of crystal meth,” he said. Meth use can cause “memory loss, aggression, psychotic behavior, damage to the cardiovascular system, malnutrition, and severe dental problems,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “I was trying other substances with friends. … It seemed fun. It didn’t seem more dangerous or less dangerous.”
Hartman said it took almost two years before he realized crystal meth was causing problems in his life. He grew distant from friends and family. He changed jobs several times. Since he kept denying drugs and alcohol were to blame, it took a few years more before Hartman was willing to reach out for help. But he found he couldn’t make the changes needed for recovery. He kept trying and trying without success.
“I felt a lot of hopelessness,” he said.
“Sexuality and experimentation and drug use became intertwined. For me, it was one of the biggest issues in getting sober,” he said. “Sex is a big trigger. I had to take a close look at my relationship with sex. For me, I had to change my sexual practice pretty dramatically.”
And that can be a real challenge for meth users seeking recovery.
“What fires together, fuses together,” said Sloane of meth and sex, noting that relapse often occurs in the context of sexual activity. “A big part of recovery is how to deal with triggers.”
Clayton Rhodes Morell, an addiction specialist with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Naples, Fla., said meth users have to learn how to build a healthy sex life. While each person has to decide what that means, he said there are some suggestions to avoid triggers that can lead to using, such as hookup apps.
“Give yourself some time to chill out a little bit,” he said.
For Hartman, it would be the seventh try at recovery. He moved from New York to Minnesota for treatment. It was there he heard another addict tell his story — and it clicked.
“There were so many parallels,” he recalled. In particular, he listened as the man explained how he had been able to disconnect sex and crystal meth use. That story gave Hartman the hope and the motivation he needed to get sober.
Hartman has been sober now for more than 11 years. He left advertising, got a master’s degree in addiction studies and is now day treatment supervisor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the addiction treatment center, in St. Paul, Minn.
Not everyone is willing or able to commit to total abstinence from crystal meth. Encouraging users to “play safe” is a goal of Re-Charge, which describes itself as an “open, sex-positive, safe-space to learn about safer crystal meth use.”
“If you’re going to use, do so without putting yourself or others at risk,” said Alex Valentine, managing director of substance abuse services for GMHC, an HIV/AIDS services provider that sponsors Re-Charge.
Valentine rejects the notion that harm reduction efforts like Re-Charge enable the meth user. Turning people away because they can’t stop completely would be a lost opportunity to help someone moderate usage, which she noted might lead to abstinence, or learn about the risks of intravenous drug use, or how to have safer sex, among other issues.
“Drug use and addiction doesn’t occur overnight, and neither does recovery,” she said.
But Agosto said it’s important to know recovery is possible from crystal meth addiction.
“People feel hopeless sometimes because it can wreak havoc, but we’ve helped people recover,” she said. “People have come through and stopped using and made a lot of change in their lives.”