8:49PM Dec 21, 2020
And welcome to pozcast, the show that puts the positive in podcasting. Our program is created by and for people living with HIV. And we're here to explore HIV research in ways that matter. We're accurate, but not clinical. We want to hear and tell stories about what new research means for us, for our health, our love lives, and our relationships. We're based in Toronto, but global in outlook and were produced at the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions of St. Michael's Hospital, like Universities Without Walls. We're pozcast, and we're bringing HIV research to life. Today, you'll hear the views and ideas of our pozcast guests and while we respect their expertise, they do not reflect the views of St. Michael's Hospital, or University Without Walls. I'm your host, James Watson, a person living with HIV and a community based research coordinator. I'll be your guide for today's journey into HIV research. It's not often you get to speak from the heart and say what's really on your mind at work. But here at pozcast, I get to do just that. I'm allowed to reflect on important issues and learn along with everyone else from some extraordinary people. And all the pozcasts mean a lot to me. But some strike a more personal chord. And this is one of those topics. The harmful use of crystal meth is taking a heck of a toll on our gay brothers, folks, especially our gay HIV positive brothers. Anyone who knows me knows I'm drug positive, I've had my own experiences with substances and I'm close enough to this issue to be forever impacted. Meth can be like a rocketship to gay sex paradise, at least at first, I get that. But it's often a one way trip, and the landing is rough and the long term consequences, can be devastating. But that's not everyone's experience, right? Some people seem to manage their meth use in ways that works for them. And that's okay. The meth is a tricky one to insidious and it creeps up on you. Mess distorts our sexual desire and plays off so many of our vulnerabilities as gay men. When a friend of mine heard I was doing research for the show, he asked me for some advice on how to approach a loved one he was concerned about. He wasn't sure what to do or say and, and I think there are lots of people who have been or are in similar situations, including myself. I've struggled not knowing how to reach out, or even if I should reach out. While most gay men don't use meth, there's an incredible amount of stigma cast on those that do, and from our own community- it's, well, it's shameful. That makes it so much harder for those seeking recovery to come forward. We don't want people to isolate further. We want people to know that they're loved and supported, that there's a way out- if out, is what they want. Addiction is a disease friends. It's not a moral failing. It became clear to me quickly that I couldn't do this topic justice in a single twenty minute episode, there's just too much to talk about. So we decided to do a three part series to get a bigger picture and focus on solutions. In part one, we discussed the book Lust, Men and Meth: A Gay Man's Guide to Sex and Recovery by David Fawcett. And in part two, we get up close and personal with Crystal Meth Anonymous: The Twelve Step Recovery Program. And in part three, we explore how methamphetamine fits within a harm reduction model. For this second episode of the series on meth use in gay men, I turned to a friend of mine who survived six years of hard meth use, and has now been sober for five and a half years from all substances. He found sobriety in the fellowship of the twelve step program, specifically Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA), and Alcoholics Anonymous, and today is very active in his home AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) group. He works daily and with fellow recovering addicts as a sponsor, and supporting them in their walk through the twelve steps, just as he was supported, and still is, by his own sponsor. The twelve step program is not the only road to recovery, of course, but it's been so successful for so many people—it's a route well worth exploring. I respect my friend's choice to remain anonymous in this interview.
So excited to have you on the show, thank you for coming. Welcome to pozcast.
Thank you very much, I'm excited.
We have known each other and been friends for quite some time. And I remember speaking with you during the time you were using meth, and thinking that you seem to really understand, quite clearly the hold that the drug had over you and the toll it was taking. And you told me straight up that you would stop using, only when you hit bottom. And you hadn't hit bottom yet. So I wonder if you can explain to me and to the audience what bottom looked like for you?
Sure. One of the things about that conversation...I know because I have some previous experience in the program of recovery, that it's an accepted thing that someone who is involved in drug addiction or alcoholism, it's an accepted thing in the recovery circles that I've always been in—that people usually don't try to make a change in their life until things fall apart, which is the bottom out experience or the the change, you know, change experience. Mine, I actually had a few in my life, I had three big ones, all of which resulted in a certain amount of non-drug use. But, you know, today I'm sitting here with five and a half years of sobriety of clean time under my belt. And so when I look back at the previous two- there's a huge qualitative difference, then, now than then. So I would have to say that the the third time I hit bottom was truly the bottoming out experience that we talked about in that conversation. And what it was, was some, I had, had the second psychotic break that I'd had while I was using. I had two during my years of using, and it scared the crap out of me, absolutely terrified me. And my best friend was present at the time as well. And it scared him which actually made it even harder on me seeing how he reacted to it. And the, the psychotic break, which, in meth-using circles is unfortunately not an uncommon thing to talk about, because people have experienced it before. My experience of it both times was, I consciously, I wasn't aware of what was going on. I was functioning in the world, I was in my home, the first psychotic break, apparently, I had a handyman in, who came in and did some some work in my apartment, because when I came out, my guess, you could turn into blackout, but it was, I mean, I've never had an alcoholic blackout. So I don't know how they compare. But I was functioning enough to let somebody to my apartment and explain to them what I wanted done so..wow. And the second psychotic break I had, like I said, my best friend who was present, my best friend at the time, and he was a using buddy of mine as well. I remember that I woke up, I mean, woke up, quote, unquote, because I never really was asleep, I just was checked out...The second one, it was vaguely aware snippets of memory of what was going on. Until I came fully conscious, I was sitting in the bathtub in the bathroom, with the light off, giggling hysterically. And I have a memory of a vision of the universe breaking down into its component parts. And the component parts when they got small enough for all me. Which anybody in twelve step rooms that have a field day with because one of the things we talked about is that we have huge egos, so there you are. So I came out of that and went into one of the bedrooms in the apartment at the time and my best friend was in there. And he had some things that he was storing at my place. And he was busily packing them all up. And he looked at me with this terrified look on his face that I'd never seen before. And he said, I don't know what was going on with you for the last twenty-four hours, but I need to go. And it's scared me because I've never seen that look on his face. And I haven't since.
That was a change moment for you?
Absolutely change moment, big time. And I but I didn't realize that. It scared me enough. So over the next few days, I just kind of hunkered down in my apartment, not sure what to do. Too terrified to get online and hook up, too terrified to use again, terrified to kind of do anything and then within a week or two, I think it was like a week maybe, that best friend also had a psychotic break, which went on for longer than mine. And it was it was far more severe than mine, which scared me even more than mine did.
So what path did you end up following for long-term recovery?
I went into the twelve step program. And the interesting thing is I had been in the program a number of years before when my father hit bottom with alcoholism in the late 80s. So I've been in Alateen and then Al-Anon, so I I had some knowledge of the program. It wasn't intentional. My best friend, again, one day said somebody that we both knew he said he wants to stop using and he doesn't know how so I've said to him, that I would take him. He said to his to our friend, "I'll take you to a crystal meth anonymous meeting". And I said, "oh, well, I've got experience in the twelve step program, I'll come along and give him some support". So I went to a meeting in it was sometime in the fall of 2013. And with these two people, and it was about halfway through the hour long meeting that I realized that I was bad. And it surprised me. I was not expecting that. I realized that crystal meth anonymous which at the time in Toronto only had one group, needed people to be there, needed people to support it, needed people to be active, and the gay community in Toronto needs meth users who are sober, needs meth users or staying clean, and I needed to, I needed to join that. I needed to lend my my story to that. And so I ended up starting back with the twelve step program. I was kind of more shocked than anybody else, I think
So can you explain like the basic premise behind a twelve step program like crystal meth?
Absolutley, yeah, sure. So all the trusted programs are based on the original one, which is Alcoholics Anonymous, started by Bill W. and Dr. Bob, I'm not going to give you a date, because I'll probably give you the wrong one. But you know, before 1915-1934 or something like those years. CMA is a relatively new program in the panoply of twelve step programs, because meth is relatively new on the scene compared to alcohol. But in our community, even compared to like cocaine and gambling or whatever, right. So they're all based on the same premise, the twelve steps, twelve traditions, and the literature is very similar. The, the basis of the program is one addict helping another or one alcoholic helping the other, depending on what program you're in. So it's a peer to peer program, there's no top down kind of thing. Strictly speaking, according to the literature, it's one addict helping another walk through the twelve steps. Literally, the first step says, "admitted we were powerless over crystal meth and our lives have become unmanageable." And that's the only step they say in the program that we have to take 100%, we have to be completely committed to that. And we are if we stopped using. I mean, you know, anybody out there who has ever done anything addictive, knows we don't do it because it doesn't feel good, we do it because it feels good. Or else we wouldn't do it a second time. The second and third step talks about having a sense of something larger than yourself—to create a foundation for what comes next. In the program, it's taught, they talk about God, but it's a spiritual problem, not a religious one. So they talk about the God of your understanding. Step three says, turned our lives over the care of God as we understood God. And so I love some of the acronyms that we use in the program for God, which is like, Good Orderly Direction. So some people like to, you know, focus on spiritual truths, universal truths, my favorite Group Of Trunks. So people who want to use the program as their as their higher power, and then steps four through nine.
I can imagine God would send some people running, right?
Oh, absolutely. Right. Absolutely. And, I mean, the God thing is, in, especially in our community, is one that gets in the way of so much. As a sponsor, what I try to do to people, what I try to do with people and help them is I listen, I understand I, empathize in as much as I can. And then I say, for instance, if they're resisting the God concept, I listen to what they're saying, I validate it, because there's a lot of reason to have trouble with God in our society nowadays. And then I say, I want you to do it anyway. So for instance, when you come in the rooms, when a person comes in the rooms, were told to go to meetings, get a sponsor, work, the steps, do service, work, pray and meditate. So those are the five things we're told to do. And so when it comes to the praying, meditating, the person says, we don't believe in God, I say, that's okay. Do it anyway. They say, but I don't know what I'm praying to. I said, I didn't ask you to know your brain to I said, Pray. You know, and it's like, if you want to pray to the group, that's fine.
Exactly. Right. And the reason I do that is not because I think one should believe in God, I don't really care quite frankly. I just know that my experience and the experience of I don't know how many people tens of millions since AA first started, this has worked for them. When we come to steps four through nine in the program, those are the action steps where we do the actual work of clearing up the wreckage of our past as they call it, and it starts with a personal looking at our own stuff and sharing it with a trusted confidant. And then we transition over the next few steps into looking at relationships that we've had over the past and how to how to heal. A lot of that not necessarily heal the relationship with the other person because sometimes that's dangerous, but to heal whatever it is that inside of us that's holding us back. And then the last three steps, ten through twelve, are about daily maintenance, and then spreading it with others. And the key for me—most important thing about my my program—I have to work with other addicts. I absolutely have to work with other addicts. I have phone calls every morning from people that I sponsor. And it is the thing that keeps me sober more than anything else is helping somebody else with the knowledge and the experience that I've gained from the program.
Okay, interesting. I mean, it's a lot of work.
It is a lot of work. Yeah, it's a lot of work. It's a lot of work and there was a time when I was younger in Alateen/Al-Anon when I thought, "Ugh, I have to go to meetings." Today though, I think it's because, I've often heard it said 100% commitment is essential. 99% commitment is a bitch. And when I was younger, I had 99% commitment, and that 1% bit me in the ass all the time. But today, I have 100% commitment to my recovery and my spiritual journey. And it makes it easy for me, I want to go to these meetings, I do service work in my home group, I picked up a service position just recently, which I'm going to have for four years. I have it for two years, and then I go up to the to another position. So I've committed myself for four years of service to my group, I chair meetings, I sponsor, I am a sponsee. I call my sponsor every day.
So I was about to ask you, what inspires you the most about..
My sponsees. So that's a word that isn't common in society, sponsored people understand, but the one who is sponsored, I don't know if this is a twelve step thing or not, but the one who is sponsored is a sponsee. And my sponsees, getting phone calls from people right before they're making a huge mistake. And then they call ME...it brings me to tears more often than not, because I think to myself, what? This is where my gay is going to show, I think of the sound of music. And I think to myself, I must have had a wicked childhood. But at some point, I must have done something good. Because here I am, you know, supporting people...we're saving lives, we're saving lives.
That's fantastic. So if someone was listening right now, and who is currently struggling with an addiction to meth, and looking to stop, what is the one piece of advice you would give them?
One of the biggest problems that I've seen around addiction in our culture right now is this—it seems, generally our society has an attitude that the problem is the addict. Or the problem is the drug. And something that we need to remember is that those of us who are addicts, we became addicts because we were looking for an answer. And we found one that worked the first time, probably the second time, maybe the third time, by the fourth time it stopped working. But by then it was too late because the substances take over, you become addicted. So we're not addicts, because we're morally deficient. We're addicts, because we have what the twelve step program says, "we're addicts, because we have a disease, a disease of the Spirit." So it needs a cure of the Spirit. Something that I've learned in the program is that my disease, my addiction, is way bigger than I am. So I need something way bigger than I am to help me stay sober and to recover. So my thing to say to everybody that is listening to this is, forgive the soundbite, but "get off your back and get on your team. This is not your fault. This is not your fault." It doesn't matter what society or anybody tells you. But it is your responsibility. Everything you've done, everything you choose to do, and your recovery is all your responsibility. Nobody else is going to do it. Nobody's going to fix the wreckage of your past, you have to do that. But it's not your fault. Very important distinction between the two. Thanks, James.
Thanks for coming on.
I can't thank you enough for sharing your personal story of addiction and recovery. You're an inspiration. Thank you for doing the thoughtful and hard work that you do and for continuing to help others find their way. Your message is clear. It's not your fault, but it is your responsibility. Thanks for listening.
Production services are provided by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network.