Here is one thing you need to know about me: I am an addict. Too much is never enough for me. Another thing is that I watched many of my friends and my lover die horribly when I was in my twenties and thirties. I don’t know if I knew what the word “hope” really meant before that happened, but afterward the idea of “hope” was a cruel joke.

I mean . . . I was a hopeful little kid. I grew up in the consistent love of my family. I really didn’t have much idea about really bad things happening. My Dad seems to have had bad things happen, and I think he thought he could keep me from sadness. Or maybe it’s just he was a very optimistic guy. Mom does for everybody else without focusing much on her own needs. I learned I could trust the people I relied on. No. The thought of trust never occurred to me. I guess I didn’t really need hope or faith either. Yet.

In school I didn’t feel different, but they let me know I was different. I was double-promoted and studied by people sent from the capital city. I was traumatized. I just wanted to belong. I didn’t want to be different, but I could not talk with the other kids. They couldn’t understand me. I had to translate everything from how I would say it to something simpler before I said it. I stumbled on the words and they didn’t have the patience to listen.

Later, there were names for me on the playground. I didn’t know what they meant, but I knew they were NOT OK. I was not going to be OK unless I changed who I was. And quickly. So I became the “man” I was “supposed” to be. I had to move my body differently, speak differently, say different things. I was funny. I was everybody’s pal. I hid my ability in school while I continued to do very well. This was difficult.

[And now, this is the part where I start when I share at a meeting.]

Later when there were drugs, using could make me one of the gang, accepted as just another drug user. I had a girlfriend because I was too young to drive out to the bar. Also, I could hide who I really was. I could not trust anyone with knowing the real me. I had no hope that anything would ever change about all of this. Without hope, it was meaningless to have faith, to start down a road to somewhere better.

But I did get out of West Virginia, to college where it was OK to be smart. Encouraged even! But gay? Not so much! I found my tribe among a gang of architecture students who smoked pot and listened to jazz and worked on creative projects all night.

I took this calculus class. I never went to the class except to take the tests, and by the finals, I did not know what was happening. I got a tab of “cross-top” speed from a guy on the hall. I read the book in a night and aced the final. It was not a good lesson to learn about life. I already thought I did not have to follow the rules. That was for everybody else. With the right drugs, I could have it all.

I became open about my sexuality at exactly the same time as I heard about GRID, soon to be called AIDS and eventually HIV. Fear for my life and the lives of those I loved was inseparable from discovering that love. The men I met taught me what I was feeling was OK. Actually better than OK! In those times, being gay in public meant being in a bar. So I drank. A lot. And I didn’t seem to get very drunk. I could drink and do many drugs and still deal with my responsibilities. After all, I had gotten three degrees while being high much of the time. Another bad lesson.

Then I met Keith. Keith was an impressive man, strong, charismatic. Everybody got a fuzzy feeling in his presence – men, women, children, little animals. He made everybody around him better, including me. He loved me, so I knew I was OK – actually, much, much better than OK! Everything was perfect. For now.

Keith began to get sick. Then his ex tested positive. He had gotten tested in the military, and it was the first time I heard of testing “positive”. The doctor told us Keith had AIDS and they didn’t know anything to do about it. The situation was hopeless. I stayed to care for him of course. This young, strong man was transformed before my eyes into skin and bones and hopeless, staring eyes. He died, and I felt I couldn’t move or even breathe for a long time.

After that, there were many empty years. It took until long after getting clean to know exactly how many. Tom died and then Tommy, then Steve, just to mention those closest to me. It was like in a war, anybody could die quickly. There was the guy I had sex with just last week. He was certainly very healthy then. Wasn’t he? Soon it would surely be me. But I couldn’t think of that when there were hospital visits most nights and memorial services most weekends. Afterwards, there would be drinking and using anything I could get my hands on.

I had begun to use crystal. It seemed like such a good idea. I could excel in academics and dance all night at the clubs. I could have a hot young boyfriend and have all the after-parties at my house. So convenient! I rationalized my use. Using crystal was cheap. I didn’t spend money on alcohol or cocaine or even food! I loved staying up for days, spinning in my head. I wasn’t worried about dying. That will come when it comes. It felt like hope, but it wasn’t. I lived for only the current moment, as long as I had enough. Then there was not enough. Then I sold meth so there would be enough. I was my own customer. Then I was my best customer. Then I was my only customer. I spent all of every day and night trying to get as high as I could and all day trying not to seem tweaked. That was hard.

I did not want to be around other people. My academic career crashed and burned while I “worked” so hard to keep it. I was ashamed, so I ran as far as I could – to California, where maybe I would stop. I seemed to be telling myself, “They don’t have meth in Oakland.” I knew better, but I tried to fool myself. I lost faith that the world would let me live or even let me make a living. I spent all day working on preparing to ask for a job. The truth was I could have gotten a job with any firm I asked, but I couldn’t show up high and dazed from a sleepless week. So, I didn’t ask. I only spoke to my dealer, then huddled at home, using, in my bubble.

I lost the ability to trust anyone. I lost hope and I didn’t have the faith to do anything about it. I knew I would use until the day I died, and I did not care when that was. Finally, there was a day that I would have to make a decision – go to rehab or lose everything. I was driving and trying to keep it together, tweaking so hard. I kept taking wrong turns and finally I saw I would have to go over the Golden Gate Bridge or enter the parking lot on the San Francisco side. I was shaking. I stayed in that parked car for hours. I had to decide whether I cared if I lived or died, there at the Golden Gate Bridge. I used the last of my bag. It was March 8, 2000 and I didn’t know it but that would be the last drug I would do. Hopefully, forever. I started the car and drove back into the City. I’m not sure that this was hope but I was afraid. And I wanted to live.

I had used every day for about eight years. My teeth were breaking off, I was 6’-0” and 135, I had scabs on my face and arms, and I was psychotic. I bought four grocery bags of snacks and laid on a mattress on the floor. I spent a week on that mattress. At times I couldn’t will my limbs to move, even to get to the bathroom. I “slept” day after day. Then, after more than a week of that limbo, it was time. I caught a cab and went to rehab – seven groups a day and lots of carbs at meals. I hated it and wanted to leave, but I didn’t. The other addicts told me I would not make it. They were experts; they had been in rehab seven, eight times. I resented their judging me. I just wanted to be accepted. I cried and told them that I had been so alone for so long. After the “spin-dry” cycle, I was told I had to attend a Twelve Step or other recovery meeting every week and test clean for a year if I wanted to graduate. I’d show them!

I went to a Men’s Meeting. The first thing I told them was that I was gay and smart. This was always enough to get me outcast before. But it didn’t work. They hugged me and said, “Keep coming back.” In my second month, I tested positive for HIV on my first try. (After all, why bother finding out, when I was going to die soon like everyone else.) In my meeting they hugged me and said they would help me. They seemed to think that they could have a life worth living, and so could I. But why just get clean to die clean? Still I came back. I was too afraid to leave the house for anything but my meetings.

At one year clean, I went to the rehab’s graduation ready to put my success in everyone’s face. But no one else was there from the 70 or so that were in rehab with me. I was so sad for them. I got scared and I got real. I got a sponsor and worked the Steps. By this time, I could say, “I’m an addict.” Honesty. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I had no control, and no amount of management would make things OK. Step One.

At my first meeting, someone said to me, “White Boy, we need a coffee maker and you are it. Have coffee ready when the meeting starts, and this is how to do it right.” So I did. Later, they wanted ME to keep the money. They seemed to care if I was there. I went to another meeting. It has been my home group for the last 16 years. They wanted me to be the Secretary! I never said “God” at the start of the Serenity Prayer. But I realized that if I didn’t say “God” as the Secretary, then no one would start the Prayer, so I said it and the meeting began. They told me I was only clean because I accepted the same gift that they had been given, but that I couldn’t keep it unless I gave it away. These people were powers greater than me. Their Group Conscience was too. My brain chemicals stabilized. I began to feel sane. Step Two.

I had started using in order to belong, so I wouldn’t have to be alone. Then I felt belonging in the gay bars and clubs and with the men I loved. Then they left me – Keith, Tom, Tommy, Steve, nearly everybody. I was alone with only meth to comfort me. Then it turned on me and attacked me. I stayed with meth until it too left. It didn’t help me anymore, and it had hurt me. Badly. I had no way to practice hope. But my meetings and other addicts showed me how to hope. The members showed me by example. I found hope in the literature and the fellowship and service. But especially I found it in the Steps. I could practice faith. With that faith, I could turn my will and my life over to my Program of Recovery. I did that. Step Three.

I need to remember to turn it over many times every day. I know that I am not alone. I will be cared for. Now, I can be honest and have hope and faith. Other steps have required me to practice courage and humility and many other principles for the first time in a deep way. How can the hopeless learn to hope? How can I be honest if I can’t even be honest with myself? Why would I even start off on a journey without faith, when I don’t know where I will end up, and when I am afraid? I learned to practice these things by being with other addicts in recovery as they were trying to practice them too.

When I was a Boy Scout we learned to make a fire by friction. You rub wood together, never stopping until there is a spark. Then you blow on the ember slowly and carefully, hardly stopping to take a breath. Then the kindling bursts into flame. We addicts are the wood, the Program is the friction, the breath is our Higher Power, the ember is hope and the flame is the spiritual awakening we experience as a result of taking these Steps and practicing these principles.