Meth Infiltrates Gay Community
The house in central St. Petersburg is tidy, functional and rather nondescript. Nine months ago, however, it was entirely different. There was a full SM dungeon in the guest room, replete with cages and all manner of paraphernalia. Strobe lights flashed, techno music blared and TVs flickered porno images virtually around the clock. Empty syringes, pot pipes and crack pipes littered the furniture. Sex toys were strewn all over. Naked men writhed in drug-fueled sextasy, anywhere, everywhere.
"You'd be just as apt to find a dildo in the dishwasher as a plate," says Lloyd, sipping a cup of hot tea with Splenda at the wooden table in his kitchen. He is nine months into recovery from an extended addiction to crystal methamphetamine. Lloyd is among a growing legion of gay men who are falling under the spell of the stimulant -- known as meth, crystal or, most common in the gay community, "tina."
Tina is attractive because it provides long bursts of energy, a sense of euphoria and well being, and it can make you (along with anyone else who is doing it with you) horny as hell. You have to admit, it sounds like fun.
Tina also has the power, in many cases, to take over lives, to drop its users into a cycle of dependence and depravity, to keep them up for days on end, partying and engaging in extreme, often unprotected, sex -- followed by cruel crashes that can leave them deeply depressed, even suicidal.
As portrayed in the mainstream media, crystal meth is a rural drug, "hillbilly crack," cooked in trailers and geeking up low-class white folk. Drug enforcement officials and addiction experts generally agree that methamphetamine has yet to deeply infiltrate Florida's urban areas. Instead, crack cocaine maintains its stronghold on the street.
But meth is making inroads via subcultures. At the moment, it's the party/sex drug of choice among many gay men in Tampa Bay. Local substance abuse professionals and gay activists are reluctant to label meth's surge in popularity an epidemic, yet they fear it might become one. Their counterparts in South Florida, however, don't blink when calling it an epidemic there. Gays in many other cities, mostly on the East and West coasts, say methamphetamine has devastated large swaths of their communities.
Experts worry that meth use will lead to the increased spread of HIV and other STDs because of its association with high-risk sexual behavior. They also see a potential for it to spread to the broader club scene, and then to the population at large. It's a scary possibility, which the Tampa Bay health-care infrastructure is frankly not prepared to deal with.
For a guy nine months from death's door -- which is where Lloyd says he was last May -- he looks pretty good. With his dark hair flecked gray, the waiter looks a bit older than his 36 years. He wears a maroon button-down shirt, jeans and boat shoes with "Joe Boxer" rimming the souls. He's gregarious, even boisterous at times, and by and large looks relaxed and happy. He moved to St. Petersburg from San Francisco in 1993, with a lover more than 20 years his senior. His previous drug use had not reached problem proportions. For quite some time in St. Pete, Lloyd eschewed the gay social scene, choosing instead the domestic life, playing video games and spending time with his straight neighbors. He drank some and smoked a little pot.
He landed a low-paying job in computer services at a large brokerage house. By 2001, he had worked his way up to assistant vice president with an $80,000-a-year salary. He had a house, a Saab, two dogs and two cats, but the relationship with his partner was souring. On a trip to New Orleans for a major gay circuit party, they had a fight. Lloyd hit the clubs alone, dropped a pill that he now figures was Ecstasy, and "pulverized myself on everything. I walked back to the hotel naked in boots, with a jock strap slung over my shoulder."
After returning to St. Pete, Lloyd reconciled with his partner, but started doing GHB and "crank," low-grade methamphetamine. During Christmas 2001, he and his partner split. "I can't watch you destroy yourself," his lover said. This left Lloyd free to do more drugs and rekindle his sexual adventurism. Once a leather boy in San Francisco, he broke out the old duds and started hitting the clubs and bathhouses. Tina became his main drug. He graduated from snorting to "slamming" -- injecting it into his veins. Sleepless weekend binges involving little but sex and meth became commonplace. He had no real friends, only sex-and-drug accomplices.
Lloyd began missing Fridays and Mondays at work. He'd nod off in the middle of conversations. "They fired me for performance," he says, "But they knew I had a problem. I would've fired me too."
Lloyd had $120,000 in a 401K and stock options, but couldn't get at them for several months. So he maxed out his credit cards -- buying stuff and returning it for cash, and other such gambits -- and accumulated $240,000 in debt. Unemployed, he also began selling crystal to a small clientele, a quarter-gram at a time, always charging the max so they wouldn't resell it. As for himself, Lloyd was injecting enormous quantities, as much as an 8-ball (3.5 grams) over the course of a weekend. With no job, he turned his entire week into a sex-and-drugs bacchanal, and his house became orgy central. Friends and strangers (who'd hear about it through the grapevine or the Internet) would stream in and out, get wired on meth, have sex and leave.
The house had a policy: No condoms. HIV-positive since 19, Lloyd discarded any notion of safe sex. He dropped virtually all physical limits. "I put things up there that I didn't know could go up there," he says coyly.
He filed for bankruptcy and was left with his house and $2,000 in personal possessions. At one point, he had no money or drugs in his safe, couldn't pay his bills. "I figured I'd reached the end," he says. "What else was there to experience in life? I took a bunch of downers [to commit suicide], but I woke up."
He weighed 145, down from 200. He fell into the throes of paranoia, heard voices. He started bartending at a gay bar on the beach. The tina buzz was losing its potency, so he'd have to wait six hours just to cleanse his system enough to get high again. He badly wanted to stop. "I was crying that I don't wanna use, but I couldn't not use," he recounts. "I was thinking, 'I don't wanna get high,' while I was shooting up."
Lloyd took frequent trips to Miami, New Orleans or Atlanta "on 10 minutes notice," where he would continue his debauchery in fresh environs. It was in Atlanta that it all came crashing down. Holed up in a motel, using and screwing, he was approached several times by people looking to buy meth. He wouldn't sell. The 8-ball was for his personal use. He and a cohort shot up each other's blood. "We were doing something so wrong, it was like suicide and murder, that it was a thrill," he says. (Lloyd says he contracted Hepatitis C as a "direct result" of his meth use.)
One morning, eight Atlanta cops burst through the door and threw him to the floor. They had been surveiling the place, sending people to make drug buys. Lloyd wasn't even high. He got busted during one of his six-hour down periods.
Lloyd beat the rap. He doesn't really know why. After about a week in Atlanta, a fat, blind lawyer in a leisure suit told him to get in his car and not go over 55 until he hit the state line. He arrived in Florida with a head start on detox. During the Atlanta proceedings, he stayed in a Holiday Inn Express with no drugs, no money and only fruit-flavored Tums to eat.
After returning to St. Pete, his routine included a daily Narcotics Anonymous meeting, a call to his mother in California and, the rest of the time, sleep.
His gay NA group's slogan was "'free to be me,' and that really resonated with me," Lloyd says. "I sat in those meetings, a loser junkie faggot, but I still knew I had some value. I was kind of dead for about 60 days. And then, click. I set up a value system. Spiritual principles were given to me. I truly believe I was granted a miracle in Atlanta. It was a miracle that I was alive. I accepted a loving God, some force that we're all connected to. I have faith that energy will take care of me."
Lloyd shredded his address book and swore off the Internet. He used up all of his 401K and stock options. "It was a godsend," he says. "It let me do recovery for six months without working, which was crucial."
Lloyd sold his home and made plans to move back to San Francisco this month. He hopes that, because the gay community there is so diverse, he'll be able to avoid the party scene. As far as relapse, he says, "I don't feel 100 percent confident. I don't know that I ever will. But I have a stronger sense of who I am. The external world is less impactful on me. If you define yourself through other things, like the status I had by providing drugs and parties, and the sex that came with it, you lose a lot of power, a lot of yourself."
In the last three months of 2003, the Adult Addictions Receiving Facility, an inpatient detox facility in Tampa that's part of the Agency for Community Treatment Services (ACTS), admitted 350 adults. Only 17 had been using meth. There were 10 times more cocaine cases during the same period. ACTS chief operating officer Richard Brown has not seen a notable upswing in meth cases. Joe Kilmer, Florida's Miami-based spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency, says methamphetamine production and usage is growing rapidly, but it's "still a drug primarily consumed in rural America."
Gay men are the exception. The drug's popularity began in California in the early '90s, then spread to New York and Miami around 1998, and then to other East Coast metro areas. Including Tampa Bay. "It's been [a presence] around here for about the last five years," says Anthony Quaglieri, a Tampa psychotherapist with a large gay clientele. "And I hear more people talking about using it casually than even a year ago."
Frank Ledda, a licensed mental health counselor and certified addiction professional, echoes the notion: "It's a growing concern. Over the last six months I've had more people coming to me with meth problems than I ever have."
So why gay men? First, gay activists are quick to point out that the romance with crystal meth is concentrated in the party crowd. "I don't think it's fair to extrapolate that it's a major issue for gay men in general," says Brian Winfield, communications director for the gay/lesbian activist group Equality Florida. "It is a major issue for gay men in the party scene."
Experts point to a number of reasons why tina has emerged as the scene's favored drug. Because meth triggers the release of high levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine, it drastically loosens inhibitions and engenders new feelings of power and wellbeing. Because it's a stimulant, users find it's no problem to dance until dawn and still have plenty of energy for sex.
And the sex, by most accounts, is phenomenal. Tina has such a powerful effect on the libido that it can make a 40-something man have the raw, natural urges of a 17-year-old boy. Ironically enough, meth use can cause impotence, known as "crystal dick," which is countered by taking Viagra.
Although it's hard to find fault with healthy, vigorous sex, crystal tends to make matters unhealthy. Stories abound about meth users "barebacking," having anal intercourse without condoms. In the most extreme cases, tina has created fetish circles where HIV positive men look to conquer willing negatives.
All this adds up to the spread of STDs.
"[Meth use] is directly attributed in many HIV/AIDS diagnoses," says Mark Cohen, president of the United Foundation for AIDS in Miami, "as well as the HIV infection rate and syphilis. Many of those who are being diagnosed positive report usage of crystal. They were exposed [to HIV] due to the behavior that the meth stimulated."
And it's not just about spreading the disease. Meth can wreak havoc on an AIDS-infected person. "It significantly increases the viral load of HIV," Cohen says. "It makes the virus wild in the body -- not to mention the organic effects it has on someone's system, depleting the body, sleep deprivation, extra stress. These are things that HIV thrives on."
Methamphetamine is nothing new. It was first synthesized in Japan in 1919, and eight years later, a British chemist discovered its stimulating properties. The drug was sanctioned by Nazi Germany, Japan and the U.S. during WWII for its energizing and antidepressant effects on troops and workers. The website www.tweaker.org cites three main meth epidemics in the States: during the '50s, late '60s and currently, since the mid '90s. Crystal's primary ingredient is ephedrine, found in over-the-counter cold medicines. It's pressure-cooked with battery acid, industrial solvents, the tips of matches and other stuff that contains hydrochloric acid and red lye. This is a combustible mix, which is why the news regularly reports the explosions of homegrown meth labs in nearby Pasco and Polk counties.
Compared to most other drugs, crystal is cheap. One dose can last several hours, which is why its devotees like to call cocaine, with its shorter buzz, "crystal lite." A sleep-free weekend binge can cost as little as $50 (which buys a quarter gram), although that gets more pricey as addiction worsens and the user needs greater quantities. Lloyd estimates that at the height of his dependency, he spent $1,000 a week.
By any measure, methamphetamine is highly addictive. "I was hooked after the first time," says Chris, a recovering meth addict whom you'll meet later in this story.
Gay men in Tampa Bay looking to kick crystal will find limited treatment options. For one, insurance and managed care companies do not cover inpatient recovery programs for meth use. Facilities that cater to gay men, like the Pride Institute in Ft. Lauderdale, are nonexistent in Tampa Bay. Even so, such programs are extremely expensive. Crystal addicts will more than likely find themselves detoxing in a catchall facility that's often ill-equipped to deal with the specific vagaries of meth withdrawal. One-on-one counseling is a good alternative, but, again, can be expensive.
With no centralized organization like a gay men's health center, meth abusers most often turn to Narcotics Anonymous. Gay-oriented NA meetings are held twice a week in Tampa and once a week in St. Petersburg. Compare that to Ft. Lauderdale, which has specific crystal meth anonymous (CMA) meetings. "We have grown from having one or two CMA meetings a week to one or two meetings a day," says Pride Institute director Allan Dupuis. "And believe me, they are very well-attended."
Approaching 21 days clean, said to be a milestone in recovery, Chris had been edgy the last couple days, beset by bad dreams, worried about relapsing, more frightened by his cravings. This is his first attempt to rehab from substance abuse of any kind, and it's a bitch. He was always a minor recreational drug user, mostly a beer and pot guy, until he swirled down a 10-week meth hole. Spurred by an unhealthy relationship, he succumbed to a life of slamming free tina two or three times a day and having extreme sex. He quit twice, for a few days at a time, but the drug's allure proved too powerful. Friends rescued Chris from the situation in early January and took him to the Veterans Administration hospital at Bay Pines, where he collapsed in the ER waiting room. After deciding that he was in no imminent danger of dying, the VA released Chris and referred him to a detox facility in Pasco County. He lasted one night. Most of the other patients were older vets with alcohol problems, not exactly a 40-ish gay man's ideal roommates. The staff roused their charges early, to get them going. But Chris, sleep-deprived for nearly two-and-a-half months, needed bed rest to regenerate his health, to replenish the brain chemicals he'd decimated during his long binge. So he left. A friend picked him up at a phone booth in Tarpon Springs and whisked him off to an intervention. Chris was pissed at first, but heard the message and decided to clean up.
During his first few days of sobriety, he slept for hours on end, cried a lot, contemplated suicide and talked with friends. On his 13th clean day, Chris sat on the couch of his St. Petersburg bungalow telling his story. His usually bubbly sense of humor seemed forced, as if he was trying to make the visitor think he was OK. At times, his flurries of words lost focus, he became visibly agitated and then after a spell he'd slump down, as if taking a deep breath. He was clearly struggling, at one point saying in a quivery voice, "I don't know, man, I just feel I'm going to do it again."
Chris attended an NA meeting in Tampa the following night, but sat near the door and declined to introduce himself. When his cell phone rang, he bolted outside and didn't come back. He returned to NA the following week, more receptive to the process. "After the meeting, a few of us talked and exchanged numbers," he said. "It was a productive experience. I'm gonna continue going."
In lieu of professional counseling, he has established his own recovery regimen, which mostly involves staying busy on home improvement and free-lance work, and a return to exercise and healthy eating.
Still, at day 21, he was hoping to turn the corner, to get some relief from a recovery process he described as a "living hell."
His determination to put tina behind him seemed to be growing. "I am going to do everything I can to stay away from it," he said. "Honestly, I know if I fail again, I will check myself into a lockdown, even if means selling my house. Anything to get better. I've messed with some things, but never messed with anything close to this strong before."
Two days later, Chris used tina again. He didn't inject it, but he went to a party and took a few bumps. After staying up all of a Friday night and most of Saturday, he was almost back where he was three weeks before: hyperactive expressions of resolve and bravado, mixed with anxiety attacks and bouts of severe depression. A few days later, he got sick -- bad cold, high fever -- and was unable to complete a job a friend had given him.
At least, this time, he didn't try to hide what was happening. He reached out to his siblings, some friends and his newly discovered fellow strugglers in NA, who consoled him.
No one sugarcoated their disappointment or the obvious consequences of his relapse. But they encouraged Chris to learn from his weakness, and to focus on the new day.
They also told him that they loved him.
The names of the methamphetamine users in this story have been changed to protect their privacy. Senior writer Eric Snider can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or at email@example.com.