Hiding in Plain Sight: The Rise of Meth Addiction in the Gay Community

In our culture, there is a common myth that certain types of drug addictions only happen to certain types of people. While cocaine addiction amongst the wealthy fits into a pre-existing sociocultural stereotype, a banker injecting crack is starkly at odds with our understanding of who uses which types of drugs. So when Tim Pursell, a former professor with a Ph. D. in history, introduces himself as a chronic methamphetamine user, many are taken aback. With his tidy appearance, multiple degrees, and articulate manner, Pursell is incongruent with the image most have of meth addiction. And yet, he has been using for almost 20 years, making sure to keep his injection sites hidden from view. “I am the face of crystal meth use today,” he says, “I look good, don’t I?” And he does.

Pursell represents the experiences of some professionals within San Francisco’s gay community, where meth addiction is simultaneously becoming more common and more hidden as the city increasingly fills with educated, well-groomed men who can afford the notoriously high cost of living. In a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he says, meth addicts “are not the people you expect. Most of the guys I was with weren’t toothless scumbags. They were really good-looking guys with money.” The veneer of success is a far cry from the stereotypical image of the scraggly, low-income tweaker with missing teeth and pockmarked skin, and allows meth use to flourish; without obvious visible signs of damage in your fellow users or yourself, it is easy to believe meth is manageable, creating an illusion of safety.

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Increasing Prevalence, Increasing Danger

Methamphetamine’s ability to produce not only euphoria and confidence, but sexual desire and enhanced sexual performance, has made it an integral part of the gay sex scene in many urban areas for years, allowing men to intensify their sexual experiences and quell unwanted emotions. David Fawcett, a psychotherapist and expert on the gay men’s health movement, explains why meth may be particularly attractive to gay men who struggle with the effects of homophobia, sexual anxieties, and psychological distress:

There’s something called cognitive escapism; it’s the numbing out of uncomfortable feelings. Meth comes along and neutralizes a lot of feelings and energizes these people. Initially meth makes them feel attractive, makes them not care what other people think.

For many, the tight linkage of meth’s emotional impact with the physical pleasures of sex makes it uniquely seductive. By the late 1990s, meth had become the single “most widely used illicit drug among urban gay and bisexual men.” In 2006, the International Antiviral Society-USA reported that 13% of gay men in San Francisco and 11% of gay men in Los Angeles had used meth within the past 6 months, and urban gay men were 5 to 10 times more likely to use than the general population. Today, meth use is so common in the gay community that some are calling it an epidemic. And prevalence isn’t the only danger; the high-potency meth currently overtaking the market is stronger than ever before, fortifying addiction and increasing risk of overdose. Simultaneously, even new users are increasingly moving away from smoking or snorting the drug in favor of injecting. Fawcett says, “[Injecting] used to be a last resort. Now it’s much more common to start by injecting. It’s really scary, and there is much more risk of an overdose.”

Meth Use and HIV in the Gay Community

While methamphetamine carries serious health risks for all users, its role in the sexual experiences of many gay men presents unique and amplified dangers. By lowering inhibitions and creating a sense of invulnerability, meth can drastically reduce the likelihood of engaging in safe sex practices, dramatically heightening risk of HIV transmission. Simultaneously, needle-sharing increases HIV risk even further. If you have HIV, continued meth use can create further damage by hindering treatment efforts and reducing medication compliance. A study released last year by researchers at the University of San Diego revealed that HIV-positive men who used crystal meth “have a higher risk of cognitive impairment and faster progression to AIDS” than those who use other forms of recreational drugs. Meth users exhibited lower t-cell counts and significantly higher HIV shedding in semen. As such, meth use may raise the likelihood that you will transmit HIV to a partner.

When Danny Pinteuro, the Stanford-educated star of Who’s the Boss, came out as HIV-positive last year, he directly attributed his HIV diagnosis to his crystal meth use. “Crystal meth takes away your inhibitions. You have no limits. And if you want to explore that adventurous side, taking the drug is going to put you there,” he told Oprah in an interview last fall. It was during one of those drug-fuelled adventures that he contracted HIV. Pinteuro’s story, while unusually public, is far too common, and he hopes that by candidly sharing his experience he can bring awareness to the dangerous relationship between meth and HIV transmission in the gay community. He says, “I want to be the example of what can happen if you get into drugs; if you’re being promiscuous; if you’re not taking care of yourself; if you’re not being checked.”

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Recovering from Meth Addiction, Healing Yourself

Recognizing that you have developed a meth addiction can be difficult and painful, not only due to the prospect of withdrawal and difficulties of treatment, but because for many gay men, crystal meth has become intimately tied to their sexual identities. As Todd Connaughty, director of clinical services at the Pride Institute in Minnesota, says:

The two issues are intertwined and hard to separate. We have to look at the underlying issues, the validation they get, the sense of intimacy, the increased confidence, and then look at how to create that without the use of methamphetamines and sexual activity.

As such, holistic treatment that addresses the root causes of your addictive drive is critical to the recovery process. For many who struggle with meth addiction, residential addiction treatment offers the best chance of healing by providing the time, space, and guidance to focus on the complex issues informing your addiction, allowing you to make meaningful and sustainable changes that fortify not only your recovery, but your sense of self.

Located minutes from San Francisco, Alta Mira offers the highest standard of addiction treatment in a serene, inviting setting. With comprehensive services that include medically supervised detox, in-depth psychological testing, individual and group therapies, and extensive continuing care planning, we have the resources to support you through the early recovery process and lay the foundation for ongoing sobriety and psychological wellness. With the guidance of our experienced clinicians, you can explore the underlying emotions and experiences that drive your meth addiction and develop the insight and skills to make meaningful changes. Here, you can begin to heal from psychological distress, gain confidence, fortify your self-awareness, and enhance your ability to experience true intimacy without resorting to methamphetamine use. Immersed in our welcoming therapeutic community, you are given the opportunity to start your journey toward recovery without the stresses of your everyday environment, allowing you to access and nurture your authentic self.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive addiction treatment for those suffering from meth addiction. Our innovative program combines the most modern, evidence-based therapies with a holistic approach to care to create the best outcomes and extraordinary treatment experiences. Contact us to learn more about our program and how we can help you or your loved one break free from addiction.