In September, an eight-month investigation by BuzzFeed News and Channel 4 Dispatches found an "epidemic" of drug-fueled gay sex in Britain. The epidemic came with an array of harmful consequences: addiction, violence, sexual violence, overdose, death and suicide.
But it's not just a British problem. The combination of sex, crystal meth and GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate, sometimes just known as "G"), which has been called "chemsex," is intensely addictive. Users are consumed by soaring highs and then swallowed by the darkest lows. Crystal meth use is itself a growing epidemic across the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reports that the rate of meth overdose deaths more than tripled from 2011 to 2016.
But the combining of crystal meth, G and gay sex, however, has been stoked in recent years by the rise of gay dating apps such as Grindr, which provide easy and seemingly safe access to gay sex partners. On hookup sites, the initialism PNP (party and play) is often used to identify men with like-minded desires.
Grindr is like Postmates for chemsex: Open the app, order what you want and it's delivered to your door. Or you can go and pick it up. It's that convenient — simply put a cloud or diamond emoji on your app, signaling that you're looking for crystal and someone to do it with. You don't have to track down a drug dealer and figure out what and how much. It's a one-stop shop.
I was one of those gay men arranging to PNP, lost and sometimes barely conscious for days at a time, unsure where I was — and not really caring — as long as I was high. For three months, it was a remote cabin in Guerneville, California, known as the Gay Riviera, but more often than not, it was in Hollywood, where I had arrived with so many others to make it as an actor. Then, three years ago, I regained consciousness after a binge alone in a motel on Ventura Boulevard. I had no one to call; all my resources, family and friends were exhausted. I got sober.
But I still see myself as I drive down Sunset Boulevard to work: the young men like me doing the walk of shame at 7 a.m.
I was fortunate. I found help and sobriety when I had nothing but the clothes — barely — on my back. But I know I could have lost my life. I was desperate to blot out what I saw as my failures with meth and older men I didn't know.
Now, in recovery, I live with my boyfriend and bulldog only blocks away in West Hollywood from where the Democratic fund-raiser and LGBTQ activist Ed Buck is alleged to have lured young men with drugs. Buck, 65, is facing felony counts of battery causing serious injury, administering methamphetamine and maintaining a drug house. But several men had to die before Buck was charged. And I've come across dozens of similar men in years of dark and anonymous places.
The gay men I met when I was battling crystal meth are often seduced by the promise of not having to hide who they are. It is a community, albeit a broken one. I used my sexuality for money or drugs, which masqueraded as love and temporarily mitigated the trauma of coming out. I'd bargain my sexuality for validation and the feeling of being OK.
But the lifestyle got dangerous quickly. With meth came paranoia, and I put myself in dangerous situations, often with men I didn't know. A man I had been with for months saw that I wasn't eating or sleeping and was living for the meth — I was in bad shape — yet he did nothing. I feared being attacked or even killed by someone I was with more than I feared overdosing. Drug addicts justify their abuse differently. Meth was dirty and cheap, but I wasn't a crackhead, I thought. After all, I was a white guy from the suburbs.
I had no humility.
"It's not a Hollywood script, Nick! Tell the truth about your last 24 hours of drinking and using." That's what Kathy Watt, the executive director of the Van Ness Recovery House, told me during a group session in rehab almost four years ago. I told Watt about the circumstances leading up to the night I hit rock bottom. I literally tweeted "help me," and some friends called the cops. When the police did arrive, I told them I was sad — which was true, although just scratching the surface.
Alejandra, a transgender Latina woman in the recovery house with me at the time, interrupted my story. "Nico, stop being cute. That won't save you. Your best thinking got you here. I went from being a prostitute to a dishwasher, and this is my third time in the house. My thinking is messed up. I need to trust in a power greater than myself if I want to live another day."
It took me four long months of treatment, of talking to others who struggle daily with sobriety, to understand what she meant.
Drug-driven sex relieved me of my shame over being gay and my fears that I wasn't worthy of being an actor. The chemsex cocktail gave me the illusion that I fit in, that I was powerful and seductive and that I belonged. But I was only fooling myself. They were like a costume I wore to camouflage my true self.
"Every gay man that I've worked with in therapy that has used meth, GHB or both has reported that they were first introduced to using in the context of sex," Craig Sloane, a New York City-based psychotherapist who has treated gay men in his practice for 18 years, told me last year. "I've often had clients tell me that when they experienced sex on meth, GHB or both for the first time that all the negative voices in their heads about shame, not being good enough, not fitting in and other traumas disappeared, albeit temporarily."
Sloane said chemsex decreases sexual inhibitions, making gay men feel sexually empowered and sexually free — in some cases for the first time in their lives. "These are the experiences I have referred to as 'the perfect storm' for gay men," he said.
Indeed, when I finally made it to the Van Ness Recovery House in Hollywood, I found many other LGBTQ addicts just like me, addicted not just to meth and other party drugs, such as GHB, but also to the sexual behavior attached to it. In rehab, we had to deconstruct our sexual identities and even wrote down drug-free sexual fantasies as an exercise for recovery.
At its most dangerous, chemsex alters users' relationships with intimacy and pleasure. It becomes an obsession almost stronger than the drug itself.
I'm fortunate to have found in Los Angeles a strong recovery fellowship, but many other LGBTQ addicts continue to struggle. The gay community continues its fight to be seen as equals in broader culture, but the fight is made more difficult when we ourselves haven't fully healed from whatever personal attacks or trauma we're holding on to related to our sexual identity.
Shame is powerful. And I and others in recovery gather weekly — daily — to make sure we don't retreat back into the shadows of that shame. Instead, we must celebrate the shaky but authentic people we are without the drugs. We stand, empowered, by our faith in ourselves and the help and support of one another.