Although there has been attention in the UK media on ‘chemsex’, the term is used less in other parts of the world. This doesn’t, of course, mean gay men in other countries don’t run into drug problems.
Mike Rizzo knows this only too well. He runs a crystal meth recovery program at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Although the US is facing a well-publicized and growing opioid problem, he says on the gay scene, crystal (part of the amphetamine family of drugs) remains a bigger problem.
‘Here in the Center, only about 9% of our clients have an opiate diagnosis. Meth is our number one drug: Meth, alcohol, marijuana and nicotine.’
‘I dismantled my life to a point I didn’t recognize it’
Rizzo has vast experience in dealing with crystal meth addiction. This stems partly from the fact he himself used to be an addict. This month, he’s celebrating 20 years of sobriety.
‘Prior to that I had been an Executive at Macy’s, here in Los Angeles. During my crystal meth years I dismantled my life to a point I didn’t recognize it.’
As an addict, he lost that job. Once he got clean, and looking for a new career to pursue, he decided to explore counseling. He’s been with the Center in LA for around ten years. It’s been helping gay and bi men deal with meth addiction since use of the drug began to grow in the 1990s.
‘There’s a lot of reasons why it took such a strong hold,’ says Rizzo. ‘It has a strong sexual component to it; It’s very inexpensive to obtain and use; You can be high on it for long periods of time on just a little bit of the drug. So it’s sort of the perfect gay drug.
‘In terms of lowering inhibitions and feelings of internalized homophobia, it’s an excellent drug for someone who might be struggling with that: enough for them to have sex with someone of the same sex.’
But use can quickly lead to addiction, and if you become addicted, meth takes over your life. It can also have long term health consequences. The Center is the biggest HIV test center in Los Angeles. Rizzo says around 33% of new HIV diagnoses have been linked to crystal meth use.
‘With crystal, you go from experimental to addiction really, really fast’
Rizzo says meth addiction often follows a similar progression.
‘There’s definitely a pattern of crystal meth use. One of the questions we ask when we accept people is when did they start to use. Most people say 2-3 years ago. That’s really fast for a drug, from the first time you use it to realizing it’s some sort of problem in your life, that’s really quick.
‘People don’t normally go through the normal stages of addiction, or if they do, they go through them very quickly: experimental use, social use, recreational use and then addiction.
‘With crystal, you go from experimental to addiction really, really fast.’
Among gay men, he says crystal use is also usually associated with sex: ‘And that in itself is a barrier to people getting sober. They don’t feel sex will be as enjoyable and fulfilling as it had been on crystal meth.’
‘After several people asked me about party and play, one night I just decided I wanted to try it’
Another man who would agree with this template is Rob [not his real name]. He has been in recovery for just over a year after life hit rock bottom
Originally from Auburn, CA, Rob managed to turn his life around and now works for a political consulting firm in Sacramento.
Rob follows the typical, perhaps stereotypical image of a crystal meth addict. He says growing up in a conservative, small-town led to him feeling isolated.
‘Where I chose to go to school wasn’t and still isn’t a very gay-friendly area. So, a lot of the interactions I had with other gay men were focused through apps, even though they were just beginning then. And, Craigslist. And that sort of drug use activity thrives in that environment.
‘There’s no gay bar or gay safe space in that area, and after several people asked me about party and play, one night I just decided I wanted to try it. That’s how it started. I was 22.
‘The guy I tried [crystal meth] with ended up being a teacher at my school, and he was the only person I took it with until I graduated. That was about six months later.’
Rob says his use began smoking and snorting the drug.
‘I graduated, managed to get my bachelors degree and moved to Sacramento and started my internship at the state capital. There I found a gay community of people who were doing drugs.
‘I firmly believe that if they were all doing heroin, that’s what I would have done. If they’d all been drinking 24 hours a day, that’s what I would have done, because I came from an area with no gay people, to an area with a gay community, and I just happened to fall in with the wrong one.
‘That’s what started the daily use, and all the stuff that goes along with that.’
‘I had lost my house, totaled a car, had no job and was homeless living out of a car’
Quite quickly, his meth addiction took over his life.
‘I thought it was under control for a while, and then I knew it wasn’t. I was also not willing to stop doing it because it gave me the ability to not be afraid, and kinda not care. That’s what I now know, through doing some work on myself, is what I had wanted the whole time.
‘Growing up in a non-LGBT friendly area and choosing to go to school somewhere that was the same way, it afforded me the ability to not care what other people thought for the first time in almost a decade.
Rob first asked for help from an ex boyfriend around Thanksgiving 2013. By this time, ‘I had lost my house, totaled a car, had no job and was homeless living out of a car. About a week after that I went home to my parents and asked them to put me in rehab.’
This was the first of four stints in rehab. He’s been clean since June 2016.
At his peak, he admits he would have sex with someone if they promised him drugs or shelter. ‘Yes, absolutely. Shelter, drugs, money. If they had something I wanted, I didn’t care who they were.’
In November 2014, during a period of sobriety between rehab visits, he also learned he had become HIV positive. He says this was a direct result of his drug use.
One of the reasons he is determined to stay clean is he has been warned that previous lapses in taking his medication has led to him carrying strains of HIV now resistant to certain drugs. If he relapses again and forgets to stick to his treatment regime, his HIV may develop further resistance, greatly increasing his chances of falling ill.
‘I was arrested and spent four months in jail’
Another reason is he fears where another relapse might land him.
‘I started engaging in criminal behavior and I was arrested for a strike felony, burglary and a grand theft charge, as a result of the choices I made.
‘At that point I was put in jail for five days; I was bailed out; went to one rehab; relapsed two weeks after that, went to another rehab, and then relapsed after that one, and that was my last relapse.
‘So, then I was arrested on a commitment warrant and spent four months in jail. I’ve done everything I have to do to stay healthy since I’ve been out, and it’s been the longest length of time I’ve ever had. But you gotta do the work on yourself.’ By this he means engaging in recovery programs and undertaking som self-analysis.
‘When it came to meth, it was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.”’
If crystal is so dangerously addictive, why does anyone ever do it? Users say it produces a high quite unlike many other drugs.
When GSN appealed to drug users to tell us their stories as part of our two-week series on gay men and drugs, another California man got in touch to tell us of his own use of crystal meth – which he says he happily uses on a once-a-month basis.
Frankie [not his real name], 49, spent half his life in New York and the second half in Los Angeles. He works in marketing and distribution for film and television.
Looking back at his own drug use he says he’s tried pretty much everything, but has always had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to mind-altering substances, including crystal meth. He thinks the media portrayal of drug use, that one episode of experimentation will inevitably lead to addiction and ruin, is unrealistic and can actually be damaging.
‘I’ve never been a drug or alcohol person and I’ve never understood binge drinking. But I must say, I think meth is wonderful. As someone growing up in New York, and then here, you try everything, and you think, “what’s the big deal?” Why do people get stoned and snort coke? I never got it.
‘But I’ve got to admit, when it came to meth, it was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.” And most of the people I’ve met and known use it on and off, very irregularly for fun, and they’re actually fine.’
‘I saw the documentary, Chemsex. It so pissed me off’
Frankie says he has been using crystal meth for five years. He tries to limit his usage to once a month. He usually uses when having sex, or looking to hook up to have sex. Sex sessions can last up to 10 hours, but he doesn’t like going beyond this. And he stresses that he regularly has sex without crystal meth or other drugs.
‘There are people doing it for 48 hours. I can tell you honestly that two and a half years ago it happened once, and let me tell you, it’s not fun afterwards. It takes like three days to recover.’
He doesn’t like using GHB.
‘I’m not a big fan of G. Actually, GHB scares me. It knocks me out and makes me feel uncomfortable. In many ways, it makes me feel the opposite of why most people take it. With G, I don’t feel like I can control the situation in any way.’
He has a similar objection to injecting.
‘What I don’t like about that is that once it’s in, it’s in and you can’t control it, so if you’ve done too much or you want to stop, you can’t stop.’
‘I saw the documentary, Chemsex. It so pissed me off, because the guy who’s at the center of it, he’s even my age, he went to through the AIDS epidemic, and his heart is in the right place, but again, there’s this hyperbole about what goes on. I was watching it thinking, “This is ridiculous.” This is a person who knows nothing about the reality.
‘People think what happens is you do it once and you go crazy and you’re an addict and your teeth fall out. It’s just not true. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to people. It does. And people should be warned about that. But I think one of the things that angers me is this idea that if you do something once it will ruin you forever.
‘All my friends have done it, and after using once or twice, it certainly didn’t affect them in this way. So they actually got more deeply into it because they thought, “Oh wait a minute, these people are lying to me and this isn’t true,” and then they just ignored the fact of how dangerous it could be. You’ve got to be realistic. It’s not necessarily that you’ll do it once and you’re hooked.’
‘Clearly, there are some people who do just want to get wasted’
Frankie’s once-a-month use of crystal meth is the sort of recreational habit those enslaved to the drug may read about with some envy. At the same time, he doesn’t sound like anyone who’s ever had an addiction problem with anything and mentions the word ‘control’ several times in our conversation.
‘That’s a good point. I think that’s at the heart of the reason why I thought, “Why would anyone want to do this? Or even getting totally drunk – why would you want to lose control and have something horrible happen to you?” Because something horrible can happen.
‘And clearly, there are some people, and I’m sure you’ve met some, who do just want to get wasted, and completely out of it, for whatever reason.
‘Although I would say I’ve met very few people who do that, actually.’
‘Are people going to watch out for each other?’
He believes people will always want to experiment and it’s unrealistic to think they won’t. However, he would caution people if they’ve run into any problems with alcohol or substance abuse in the past.
‘I would say you should experiment and I would ask them the question you asked me, “Have you had problems with other drugs?” Because if you have, then you probably shouldn’t.
‘Also I would say make sure you are careful and vocal, because the people you meet, it’s not like that Chemsex movie. People actually talk about everything, like is it going to be safe or not. Are people going to watch out for each other? Who can get someone home tonight?
‘All of that is usually discussed. So I think what is important is make sure when you do, do it with one or two or three or however many, and all of that is discussed up front.
‘Because one other thing that you hear a lot is people lose their inhibitions and there’s going to be an increase in HIV infections.’
Like Mike and Rob, Frankie is HIV positive, but he dates his infection back almost two decades, well before he started experimenting with crystal.
‘No-one could have told me then I had a problem’
By contrast, Rob’s advice to anyone who thinks they can safely play with meth is more cautionary.
‘I would say, “I remember when that was me”. No-one could have told me then I had a problem. What I would say to them is if it ever becomes an issue, or you have that little voice inside yourself saying, “Maybe this is a problem,” I would urge them to reach out for help.
‘Whether it be treatment, or therapy, or 12-step meetings, there are other people who have suffered, who have been through this, who can to get out of this if they choose to do that.’
Mike Rizzo is also blunt.
‘If you had told me that within 2-3 years of doing that little bit [of meth] I would have ended a ten-year relationship, been fired or demoted from three jobs, blown through my 401K, severely mentally ill or psychotic and on the verge of being homeless, I would have said that’s impossible, that’s not me.
‘There’s a really strong hook to this. I would really caution people not to even experiment with this drug.’