Late spring semester of my college freshman year, the phone in my dorm rang.
“Can I speak to David?” the gruff voice at the other end implored.
“This is he.”
The voice at the other end then offered to perform oral sex on me. A sexual act that I had been fantasizing about for years, but not knowing how to approach guys, it only lived in my mind… and in the pictures I downloaded to my computer from digital bulletin boards.
I had known for years that I was gay, but the internalized homophobia and self-loathing I felt through my high school years was compounded by the need to be “normal”. And by “normal” I mean straight, or at least being perceived as such. The summer after graduating high school, I had insinuated to my mom one night that I thought she was disappointed in the person I had become. The following morning, I found a two-page handwritten letter on the kitchen counter about how proud she was of me, about what a good person I was, about how I was smart, kind, compassionate, and loving… and how she hadn’t screwed up raising me since I was straight. After all, this was the early 1990s, a scary time before antiretroviral meds when AIDS was still an epidemic. There was no way I was coming out to my parents like I had been planning before college started.
That day in the dorm almost a year later, it seemed like the clouds had parted and a beacon of light was finally shining down on me. I was a gay man. Oh sure, I told the guy I was straight but just curious, because after all, I wanted that experience. But soon, we were meeting regularly in the dorms, in the woods, underneath the railroad tracks. He even put out a booty call the day I was moving back for my sophomore year… with my parents still in the room! I fell in love with the higher education I was receiving.
The summer between my sophomore and junior years, I stayed on campus for a research fellowship. The dorms had recently been upgraded with the latest tech—Ethernet. Being an awkward techno geek misfit, I could not have asked for a more perfect scenario. What I felt uncomfortable doing face to face in the bars and clubs, I could easily do behind the virtual barrier of a computer screen. Cruising the online bulletin boards, I discovered internet relay chat (IRC). My initial intention was to connect with other gay men, become friends and perhaps find a boyfriend. I wanted to experience what it was like to go on a dinner date. It wasn’t very long before I found a guy who I really connected with, who lived fairly close and had a car. We didn’t have webcams yet, so we couldn’t exchange pictures. We went out to dinner, and though the conversation flowed nicely, I didn’t feel any sparks between us. He treated me because I was a “poor college student” and in my mind, that was reason enough to go back to my dorm room to have sex. After all, I had only been with one guy before and life was supposed to be a buffet where I could sample all those fine cuts of meat, right?
But I actually didn’t get to explore that much before I started seeing someone. I guess you could call him my first boyfriend, but he was more like a sugar daddy. He was cute, 34 years old, and a lawyer. He drove a Mercedes. He had a nice apartment and an awesome dog named Roger. He always treated me to dinner and to shows; he even offered to buy me a car repeatedly, but I refused. I spent many nights at his place and we’d lie in bed naked talking after going for the gold. After a few months, he told me he loved me. I told him I felt the same way, but saying those three words made me feel uneasy. I had so much more life to experience. We talked about how after graduation, I would find a job close by and move in with him. Perhaps I kept refusing his offer to buy me a car because I would feel obligated to do just that.
During this time, I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin. I began the process of coming out, first to my good friends. The process was scary, but they were overwhelmingly supportive. In fact, they were more concerned that in my first sexual experiences I wasn’t using protection though I was tested regularly. But their support made me more confident in myself, and my new reserves of inner strength and fortitude made my “boyfriend” jealous. He soon tried to forbid me from seeing my friends; he refused to meet them, even though they wanted to meet him. He wanted to be the only one to validate me; his controlling nature had reared its ugly head. Seeing his true nature gave me the courage to break up with him. My only regret was I also had to leave Roger.
For my senior year, I convinced my parents I had to have a car to work with my lab partners, who lived off-campus. That 10-year-old Camry opened a whole new world! No longer did I have to invite married guys on the down low during their lunch breaks to my cramped little dorm room to bend them over the creaky bed frame. No longer did I only have the chat rooms to talk about what it would be like to sample that smorgasbord. My fantasies could become my reality; I experienced the freedom of being able to hook up with whomever, whenever I wanted. It didn’t matter if it was 10 o’clock at night or 10 o’clock in the morning. If you sounded hot, I would drive to Philly or to Baltimore or even D.C. I got what I wanted, even if I wasn’t that into you. Driving all that way, I could overlook a little issue like that; I would just imagine I was having sex with Kevin Costner or Bruce Willis.
As graduation approached, I started to tire of hooking up. That was quick, right? Despite my “extracurriculars”, I graduated in the top 100 out of a class of about 4000—and second in my engineering class. And I realized I wanted more for myself. I wanted to find love. I felt torn in two: I loved sex and hooking up, but my trysts were leaving me emotionally and spiritually empty. Yet my first attempt at a relationship was dysfunctional at best.
I knew that the journey to find love was fraught with heartbreak and disappointment, so once I started graduate school that fall, I decided to split my efforts. I would decide on whether I wanted sex or a date before I went online. I was pretty successful at keeping my two lives separate, mostly because guys that I dated wouldn’t last more than a couple of months. I was still traveling all over God’s green earth for that ultimate hookup I hoped would turn into the love of a lifetime. But I was also branching out. After coming out to everyone—including my parents—I found I could flirt with and come on to guys out at clubs. I had a really strong connection with one guy I met, Jamie. Our bodies were so in sync, we made love five times the first night. This had to be it! I had found my soulmate. Then he decided to go back to his ex, and I was devastated.
Deciding love was hopelessly out of reach, I threw caution to the wind and stopped playing safe. This was the year that the first retroviral meds were approved, the miracle drugs known as protease inhibitors, and a whole crop of websites and chat rooms popped up where guys were interested in bareback sex. I enthusiastically joined the fray.
Over the next couple of years, I had two objectives: finish up grad school and play raw with reckless abandon with as many guys as possible. My focus turned away from my previous haunts of Philadelphia and suburban Bucks County and toward the infinite possibilities of New York City. Many a Saturday night I spent in the shadowy corridors and back rooms of sex clubs seeking validation to fill the void inside by countless meaningless encounters. Dating and finding a boyfriend were the desperate pipe dreams of the innocent and the naïve; I was becoming wise to the ways of the weathered gay soul, to use and to be used for as long as I could get it. And when I least expected it, along came Michael.
About two months before I finished grad school, I went on a job interview. It started out like many I had gone on before: first I met with human resources, then the hiring manager, and then a few of my potential colleagues. Michael was the last person I talked to. He was handsome, with tousled dark brown hair and sparkling blue-green eyes, and I definitely got a vibe. But surprisingly, it was the eyes that did me, those kind eyes. As he reviewed my résumé, he recognized a nonprofit I had volunteered for was one of the oldest gay rights organizations in the country and mentioned he had attended the annual drag contest the previous fall. The interview quickly evolved into a discussion of my work with the organization along with flirting from both sides. I got his number… but not the job!
Michael and I started dating a couple of weeks later, and within a few months, we got serious. One promise I had made was if I ever was so lucky to find love, I would be completely honest with him. And I was. I told him about my sexual past and he accepted me unconditionally without judgment. He taught me what love was supposed to be—being there for each other through thick and thin, working through the rough patches to make us stronger, and sharing moments we would always hold onto. Still, we took our time to become intimate because we knew that a solid foundation meant we had to be connected in every way, not just physically. I’m not saying we didn’t test those boundaries. We were really attracted to one another, but we held off on having intercourse. We got tested after three months of dating, and again after six months. Both times, we came back negative for everything, and at that point, we were ready. All that waiting made me realize what I had been missing—it was the emotional and spiritual connection to another human being that made being intimate so fulfilling.
About a year and a half into our relationship, Michael suggested we move in together. We started looking for apartments the weekend of my 27th birthday, but a week later, my world was blown apart—literally. When an airplane flew into the building where Michael worked. I was able to reach him after the first plane hit; I told him I had a bad feeling and that he should leave work. He said everyone was told to stay put and not to worry. The last thing I told him was that I loved him.
I had never really been into drugs. A little bit of pot in college and some cocaine during grad school. I only used poppers when I was in the sex clubs for a quickie. When I hooked up, if there were drugs around, I used a bit to enhance the experience, but my primary focus was my partner—or partners—and being sexually adventurous. Trying out something I had never done was always a great aphrodisiac. But after Michael died, I fell back into old patterns of hooking up indiscriminately. But even raw unbridled sex wasn’t enough. I needed something more, something to numb the gnawing pain inside. The wound was too deep this time. I had always heard that sex on crystal meth was unlike anything else. But I was always afraid—I had been warned: One time and you’re hooked. But eight months after Michael’s death, I sought this substance out. And about nine years after my very first sexual experience with a guy, I had my first sexual experience with a guy and crystal meth.
I could go into the details of my story, how crystal meth replaced the indiscriminate hookups to fill the void inside left by Michael’s death. How I quickly realized meth was becoming an issue. How I put the drug before anything else, my job, my apartment, my family and friends, my life. I could go into how after a week of shooting up without sleeping, I got pulled over by the New Jersey State Police on the Turnpike and hallucinated that they were all naked and wanted to have sex with me. How even getting pulled over and sent to outpatient rehab didn’t stop me from using again. But if you’re like me, a crystal meth addict, you probably have similar stories.
I was an expert at compartmentalizing my life into two sides: the “normal”, socially acceptable version and the wild crystal-obsessed sex pig. I promised myself that the two would never meet. That is, until my parents had to come to the police station at 2 o’clock one morning to pick up their mess of a son. Here was their pride and joy, their Ivy League-educated boy with a respectable career who, by all appearances, was a resounding success at life. He had been reduced to a blubbering sleep-deprived mess with track marks up and down his arms. It was the police who told them I was HIV-positive. I spent four days at my mom’s place. I promised I would get the help I needed and that I would stop, promises I made all with good intentions.
I came into the rooms of CMA a little more than a month after my run-in with the police. I had been attending outpatient rehab four nights a week; after each month sober, we were allowed to substitute a Twelve Step meeting for one of our three-hour outpatient sessions. But the end of year was coming up, which meant long hours at the office, and the demands on my time were too much. I dropped out of outpatient rehab, but kept going to CMA meetings whenever I could.
Anyway, I thought I knew better than what I was hearing at the meetings. I never mentioned the stash I had left over from before I was pulled over. I had saved it for the time when I thought I could use again. Before long, I was back where I had started, crashing, depressed, calling out of work. I had thoughts of killing myself. Then I got a text from a fellow, Scott S. He hadn’t seen me for a while and wondered if I was OK. I was about to text back, “Yes, I’m fine.” But I hit backspace a few times and told the truth: “No.” I took the train from my place in Jersey to New York and met him at that Friday beginners’ meeting, where I was broken, ashamed, a complete and utter wreck. The drug had replaced sex as my addiction.
I had several more relapses over the next year and a half before I realized that there might be something to that message of recovery CMA was attempting to convey to me. I found a sponsor who gave me some structure: call every day, meet every week, prove you are serious about this program, and we can start working the Steps after ninety days clean. With him, I got nearly a year clean before I decided to switch to a prior sponsor and start the Steps over. I worked the Steps over a calendar year from January to December and celebrated two years sober during that time.
Working Step Four, I thoroughly examined my motives for my compulsive behaviors and realized that even before I had picked up the phone in my dorm room all those years ago, I was an addict. Crystal and sex were just the manifestations of the true issue, my warped mind and thinking. I had been impulsive as a kid, but looking back at my childhood, I could see other symptoms of the disease, mostly with overeating or indulging my sweet tooth a bit too much. I was an addict then, I am an addict now, and I will always be an addict. But now I have a solution.
Having experienced both indiscriminate anonymous sex and a loving intimate relationship, writing out my sexual ideal was simple. I know I need to feel fulfilled and connected with my partner. I need to be able to bond with them physically, mentally, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. I want intimacy to be an opportunity to communicate what each other needs and desires. Most of all, I want it to be fun; relationships last when you know how to have fun. Michael taught me that, and we always had fun, no matter what we were doing. Being committed to each other was another thing Michael and I had, and though experiencing that again would be wonderful, it isn’t in my sexual ideal today. My ideal includes being able to communicate our wants and needs, and really knowing my partner beyond the surface. The connection and communication is much more important than finding my next boyfriend or husband; that’s my idea of a fulfilling intimate experience.
We’re all human, which means that we’re not perfect. Even though I’m in recovery and have stayed sober for several years, I sometime act out sexually on occasion, maybe once or twice a year. But where I was seeking validation when I hooked up in the past, now it is merely a release of sexual tension. I am trying to date which sometimes leads to awkward silences and frustration when I’m not able to connect. But that is life on life’s terms. Recovery has taught me to let go and to practice the principles of the Steps in all my affairs, which definitely includes dating. When my Higher Power sees fit to put someone in front of me whom I truly connect with, it will happen. A common saying in the rooms is, “The opposite of fear is faith.” That holds true for my recovery from crystal meth, as I put my faith in this fellowship and my program. But when it comes to my sexual ideal, whether or not I find love again is irrelevant. What guides me along my spiritual path for this part of my journey is hope.