No one starts off using crystal thinking that it will hurt them. Gay men use it, as they use other drugs, to have fun, enhance their experiences, and be part of the crowd. Consequently, crystal has become a popular drug in the community, particularly in major cities.
As a former director of a clinic that treats gay men with an addiction to this drug, however, I have seen the harm it can do.
How it begins
Perhaps you tried it because you saw your friends having a great time or heard about it. Others try crystal with a boyfriend or a trick for the first time as a way to enhance sex. Part of the reason for intensified sexual experiences is that with crystal, your skin is more sensitive and you feel more alive. The delay in coming can lead to an exceptionally intense orgasm.
The drug can reduce sexual inhibitions, so you might do things that you otherwise wouldn’t do. Tops become versatile. Vanilla sex becomes a rainbow of sexual delights. Not only is sex better on it, but it’s “the great equalizer.” Many men become less discriminating when they’re looking for sexual partners. If you’re older (and maybe don’t feel you can compete with younger men), you can have sex with young, handsome men, and for the moment you can feel young and beautiful.
It’s easy to get crystal, which is also part of the reason for its popularity. It’s cheap and lasts 8 to 12 hours. It’s also a very social drug. You might like to party while high because you become outgoing and have greater confidence in social settings.
Crystal might have helped you to concentrate for long periods of time. Many men are able to complete projects that they previously couldn’t finish. Although there isn’t any research on crystal’s relationship to Attention Deficit or Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), there’s a lot of anecdotes that people with undiagnosed ADHD use it as a Ritalin substitute (Ritalin helps people to focus). In fact, if you’re using crystal and it’s helping you to concentrate, you should see a doctor to see if maybe you have an undiagnosed condition.
When crystal stops being fun
Even though crystal is a very social drug, you might start feeling isolated after a while. The drug becomes less social partly because your drug friends turn out not to be friends at all, and partly because you might become more suspicious and distrusting of others.
Over time, sex turns out to be problematic. It becomes more difficult to reach an orgasm, but there’s a greater urgency to come. As a result, sex goes from being enjoyable to compulsive. Safer sex often gets thrown out the window, so the risk for HIV, hepatitis, and other STDs increases. Sometimes, men can’t stop having sex, and they turn into insatiable bottoms. There are horrific stories involving extreme sex, bloody cocks, torn rectums, and broken bones, all in the search of the next sexual release.
Sometimes, it’s the activities surrounding sex that’s risky. Specifically, some men do things that put them at risk of being arrested, getting beaten, and losing their partners. For others, it’s already too late, as it’s not unusual for individuals who are addicted to crystal to live under house arrest, do jail time, or become homeless.
Long-term use can cause a host of mental and psychological problems. Difficulties with memory not only happen while you’re using it (high or not), but it gets worse for up to a year after your use has stopped. With enough prolonged use, some memory loss is never recovered.
There are also physical effects. Crystal affects your nervous system, and users develop a series of tics. Hence, the nickname “tweakers.” There’s often a bad crash after, and what’s happening is that neurotransmitters (feel-good chemicals) are depleted. The after-morning depression gets extended. After ongoing use, it can take some time to recover from the crash.
The term “long-term use” is different with this drug than with other drugs. Large numbers of people can use recreational drugs for years before it turns out to be an addiction. For example, it’s not uncommon for some people to use cocaine on an occasional basis for a few years and stop using it before it turns into an addiction. As another example, most gay men drink alcohol socially without it turning into an addiction.
But because it is highly addictive, you can become addicted to it in a short period of time. In fact, a lot of people go into treatment only a year or two after they started using it. Regardless of how long it takes to become addicted, troubles can appear awfully quick. The way one recovering addict describes it, “problems with cocaine have a way of sneaking up on you, but with crystal they pounce on you.”
Bumps on the road to recovery
There are a lot of obstacles to staying clean. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a bad crash. The term “blue Monday” for cocaine doesn’t even approach the depression it can bring. As a result, the drug can be used to alleviate the effects from the crash.
Another obstacle to staying off is that relapse triggers, which are things that can cause you to use, must be managed. Triggers can be external and are unique to each person. Triggers include going to bars or sex clubs, Pride events, seeing former sex partners, or even passing by a pharmacy that sells needles. Other external triggers consist of life events such as losing a friend, being fired, and other life changes. There are also internal triggers, which include negative feelings like anger or sadness (although for some individuals, any feeling can be a trigger), romanticizing the “good old days,” and feeling stressed.
At its worst, it can cause amphetamine psychosis, which mostly takes the form of paranoia. About one in four clients at the clinic I ran felt they were in danger, and they were convinced that they were being followed or they were being looked looking at through their windows. In fact, paranoia was used as a gauge. For example, when some users prefaced their comments by saying something like “I know this sounds crazy, but… (I think I’m being followed, etc.),” it means that they were still somewhat rational and therefore the psychosis was not yet full blown.
When clients came in for treatment at this stage, we were able to explain that their paranoid feelings resulted from crystal use, and they rarely distrusted the staff. However, when users would say, “The neighbors are spying on me,” they could not be convinced that their fear was a result of using crystal. With that much paranoia, it’s almost impossible for many users to stay in treatment long enough so that they trust the people who are trying to help them.
In 12-step programs, participants talk about the need to change people, places, and things in order to stay clean. Some gay men must move to a new apartment, leave drug-using “friends” behind, and avoid the parties, bars, and sex clubs as the only way to stay sober. That’s easier said than done, and therefore not being willing to make these major changes can be a huge barrier to getting clean.
What to consider about treatment
As a result of my work with this addiction, I’ve been able to help some clients successfully get off of crystal with therapy alone. However, some form of group treatment is usually needed in order to get off of it and to stay off.
By the time you decide to enter treatment, it’s possible that you have worn out your support system. Maybe you’ve done something that you regret, and perhaps it’s something sexual. Maybe you even can’t believe what you’ve done and are worried that you acquired HIV or infected your sexual partners.
While there are many options for treating addictions to alcohol and other drugs, there are fewer choices for treating men who are addicted to crystal. In fact, specific treatment for this drug for gay men is still relatively uncommon. So, even among treatment centers that treat crystal addiction, the staff may not be familiar with issues related to gay men and their drug of choice. However, it’s important for the staff to know about coming out, the community, and internalized homophobia. More critical is that they’re knowledgeable about specific triggers, because learning how to avoid relapse by managing triggers is a major aim of treatment.
That’s why it’s critical to be an informed consumer. Ask direct questions to the intake counselor when considering treatment. Important questions include, “Do you have gay-friendly staff?” “Do you have a group for crystal users?” and “How long have you been treating this addiction?”
Outpatient treatment can be just as or more effective than inpatient. Part of the reason is that inpatient treatment is short-term because managed care will only cover short-term treatment and few can afford to be away from work for the three to six months of treatment they need. Outpatient treatment can last for several months or up to a year, and during outpatient treatment you live your everyday life as you learn to stay clean.
Other types of treatment are detox centers, sober living houses, and self-help groups. Larger cities have 12-step groups specifically for gay men who are addicted to it (CM anonymous). Nonetheless, you may prefer to go to AA groups or general Narcotics Anonymous (NA) groups. The main point is to find a group where you feel most comfortable.
Related to comfort, if you feel that 12-step groups are inconsistent with your beliefs, Recovery, Inc., We Agnostics AA, and other support groups can help you stay away from crystal. In a few cities, community centers and mental health agencies offer support groups for crystal addiction. There are also support groups online. Regardless of the type of treatment approach you try, group support is essential for staying clean.
There are two points to remember while getting sober. The first is that getting off of any drug takes time. Although you may stop and never look back, part of getting clean can include relapses. This is because you might fool yourself into thinking that you can do it once in a while, so you might do it again and have to learn the more difficult way (several times) that you can’t stop once you start. Another aspect of staying off of it is to prevent relapses by discovering and avoiding your particular triggers, and often this is done by trial-and-error. Once accomplished, it’s easier to avoid triggers or minimize their potential to cause a relapse.
The other point to remember is that you’re not bad for doing crystal, and the things you’re ashamed about are the result of the drug – not because of who you are. Once the drugs are taken away, you’ll stop doing the things that are inconsistent with your values.
If you’re in the throes of an addiction, you might ask, “How did I get here?” At the beginning of sobriety, a much more useful question is, “How do I get to the next part of my life, the part without crystal?”
After you’ve been in treatment for a while, you should look at the reasons why you started doing drugs. You may think that you started doing them because it was fun, but it’s not until you develop a greater understanding that you’re able to undertstand that it was also to escape painful aspects of your life.