The LGBTQ Crystal Meth Epidemic

A Familiar Drug Makes a Comeback

At the turn of the millennia, crystal methamphetamine tore through New York & California's LGBTQ communities, spiking HIV rates and leaving a trail of shattered lives in its wake. In 2004, as the meth epidemic slowly spread through the nation, outcry from leaders in LGBTQ communities led to increases in available addiction treatment and prevention education.

Around this same time the CDC created the National HIV Behavioral Study (NHBS) to survey populations who were deemed high risk for HIV infection; this data included information on gay men's reported meth use. These studies showed that following the work conducted in partnership by both the LGBTQ and recovery communities, there was a 57% drop in meth use by gay men in metropolitan areas in only four years' time.

Over time, addiction education and prevention became less of a community health priority and once again meth has slithered back into nightclubs and after parties. While this steady increase of meth use among gay men nationally shows us that this war is far from over, studies have proven efforts paid off before: that recovery from addiction works and is available for those suffering from a crippling addiction to crystal methamphetamine.

Trajectory of meth use among gay men 2015-16

Crystal methamphetamine often referred to as Tina, T, meth, crystal or Ice, is an extremely powerful stimulant that lowers inhibitions and increases the libido. To compare methamphetamine's potency to similar amphetamines, cocaine releases approximately 350 units of dopamine into the brain while crystal meth releases over 1,100 units.

Unleashing that much dopamine into the system at once causes an extreme "rush" followed by a prolonged sense of euphoria, one that may last for up to 12 hours. The brain also releases high doses of adrenaline, inducing anxiety, hyperactivity and intensely focused behavior. This behavior—referred to as "tweaking"—is where the derogative term "tweaker" for crystal meth addicts is derived.

Continued use of the drug changes the chemistry of the brain, actually melting the hard wiring in the brain's pleasure centers and making it harder and harder to experience any pleasure at all. Although there is research to suggest that the brain can heal itself even after prolonged meth use, there is still the strong likelihood that meth will leave permanent brain damage.

Crystal meth addicts will often experience paranoia, insomnia, delusions, hallucinations and even violent aggression. These effects can even linger into early recovery; it is not uncommon for delusions or paranoia to persist for months if not years after the drug has been put down.

There are many ways an LGBTQ individual can be introduced to crystal. More often than not though, it is through an anonymous sexual encounter. The culture of "hookup apps" has propelled the drug's use. Once only found in seedy sex clubs and hourly hotels, the drug now occupies townhouses and skyscrapers, giving it a respectable sheen. To the untrained eye the coded profiles on dating apps and personal sites appear to be as benign as any other. And without warning, someone may be faced with a drug that can disintegrate their life in only a matter of months.

Patrick P. knows all too well the horrors of meth addiction. Tall, good looking and in his early twenties, it is hard to believe that Patrick is a survivor of crystal meth abuse and a life of prostitution in New York City. Patrick and I sat down over coffee to talk about his experiences. Now 16 months away from his last drink or drug, the memories of a life entwined with "Tina" still haunt him.

It was "sheer terror and genuine paranoia. You have such a one track mind, get high, have sex, get high, have sex, get high, have sex. Everything else falls by the wayside; everything that you once thought was important or cared about." Forced into meth addiction treatment by his parents after a friend of his forwarded them his online escort profile, he was not initially passionate or driven about recovery.

"I felt like I hadn't eaten or slept in weeks. My first thoughts were I will be back in thirty days. Keep the pipe warm for me, followed by this overwhelming sadness that my life had led me to a rehab facility. I think a part of me had to realize that there was nowhere else for me to go. I had reached the end of the line that the only way I was going to be a person again was to listen and to take advantage of this opportunity." I asked him what changed from his first day where recovery seemed impossible. He responded, "Hazelden's ability to transition me from inpatient to outpatient and then into the Hazelden community, helping me to surround myself with supportive people, doing what I was told. I did 90 in 90, I got a sponsor, I worked through the steps and chaired an alumni meeting. I think that it was important for me to understand that the only requirement for membership was a desire to stop using and that desire need only be greater than a desire to use. Because I still have cravings, I still romanticize things. Those things have not fully left me. But the desire to have a real life keeps things in perspective."

This June, we celebrate the 46th annual Gay Pride March in New York City commemorating the Stone Wall Riots, which gave birth to the LGBTIQ rights movement. As we celebrate gay pride month and the strides in human rights we have made in the past decade alone, there are those members of our community who struggle and lay lifeless in meth's unforgiving grip. I asked Patrick what he would say to those still sick and suffering, "I burned all my bridges and I was just alone, I was really searching for just any human connection. There was life before crystal. Give up, stop fighting; it's not you against the world. I would say that you feel lost, scared and like there's no way out. But there is another way." Recovery from meth addiction is possible.

Like our forefather's in 1969, Patrick refused to accept defeat and his hard work has paid off. He says smiling through a wide white grin, "Today I have a life I thought I could never have, I met an amazing man that I will marry in the fall. I have a job, I'm going back to school, life couldn't be better."

If you or someone you know is struggling with crystal meth addiction, please call the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation at 1-866-831-5700.

Clayton Rhodes Morell is an addiction specialist at Hazelden in Naples, Florida. He has worked with New York's crystal meth recovery community since 2013.

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