Last night was CMA’s annual holiday party on Washington Square. And, wow—what a night! Hundreds of happy guys and gals eating, singing, dancing, and generally carrying on. Everybody getting their holiday groove on, everybody pitching in in some way, small or large. Will and Bruce manning the boffo buffet. Jono tinkling the ivories. Karen cutting up the dance floor, even with her leg in a brace. Sam bringing the house down with “Frosty the Crackhead.” And nobody in the place was high or drunk. That’s my idea of a happy holiday.

Eighteen years ago, I hated parties. I’d never have gone to something like that. Oh, I “partied”—but there was nothing festive or fun about it. Crystal meth offered a tantalizing fantasy of immediate, intense connection, but it was an empty promise. The reality was total isolation and profound despair. When Friday came around, I’d find another drug addict to take hostage and hide away from a world that judged and despised me. It took years of abstinence, healthy fellowship, and step work for me to realize the world didn’t hate me—I hated myself.

And in 1999, I had every reason to. Things had totally unraveled for me, starting six years before, when the love of my life had broken my heart. I felt totally abandoned—when he’d see me on the street, he’d cross to the other side. I took to spending my nights self-medicating in the bars of the East Village, seeking comfort from basically whoever was next to me at last call.

My decision-making was poor, to say the least, and within a year, at 25, I tested positive for HIV. Panicked, I made an “adult” choice and left behind my dream to be an actor—though, honestly, my drinking and drugging had pretty much stalled that plan already. Desperate to get health and life insurance, I took a dull job I quickly grew to hate. This all happened a few years before the antiretroviral cocktails came out; it was a terrifying time to have HIV. The self-loathing tape I started listening to then played on long after the medication miracle of ’97 and ’98. I was a pariah.

Sometimes, I think I would have killed myself without alcohol and drugs, particularly coke and meth, which I did almost every weekend. They were the antidote to my despair and isolation, taking me to a parallel world where the shades were always drawn. Guys in that underground city loved me—well, they loved my body, the only part of me that wasn’t twisted out of shape. No one cared what my status was. No one cared about my shattered dreams. I couldn’t see it, but in fact, no one cared about me at all.

If you’re reading this book, you can probably fill in the rest of this story. The fantasy fell apart. Within a few years my methematical solution had failed me, and I was on the brink of actual suicide. Staring at myself in the mirror at 5 a.m. one dark night, I said, “This wasn’t supposed to happen to me.”

The journey back to life—back to the real party—started right there. With the help of my few remaining friends, I found my way to a psychiatric hospital on May 21, 2000. I never intended to quit using, and certainly never imagined I’d go to those icky meetings in church basements, but that’s just what happened. Miraculously, I haven’t had a drink or drug since.

After five days in the psych ward, I went to a rehab in Pennsylvania for several weeks. The night before I came home to the city, the counselors told me that, if I wanted to stay clean, I’d need to get to meetings every day. I only knew a couple sober people in New York—one of them, my buddy Tim, gave me a rundown of all the queer-friendly groups: “Mondays you have Cocaine Anonymous on West 4th. Thursday there’s a great NA meeting, mostly lesbian heroin addicts. Amazing. Friday is AA at the seminary on 9th Avenue. There’s always Perry Street AA. And, if you’re brave, on Tuesdays there’s Crystal Meth Anonymous…”

When I walked into that tiny room at the LGBT Center and took my seat—an old, bent-up, orange metal chair—I didn’t feel especially brave. I was terrified of going back to crystal. I’d been told to do whatever it took to stay sober, and I was doing my best to follow that instruction. Don’t pick up, no matter what, and go to a meeting every day. So here I was.

Let me tell you about early CMA in New York: Tim was right—it really was different. For the first six months I came, there were never more than six or seven of us. I saw the same four guys almost every week: Bob M, Eric M, John T, and Michel B, who all had a year or two at that point. They hadn’t fled gay AA—most of them I’d see on the other nights of the week at the other fellowships—but they believed tweakers needed a room of our own where we could tell our story without any fear.

We didn’t follow a set format. Fellows today would be horrified, but there was a lot of crosstalk. It wasn’t so much a Twelve Step meeting as it was a group therapy session. Without a counselor. Well, not exactly—Bob was our reluctant shepherd. I later learned that he’d been there from the beginning: He and Enrique M had held meetings in their apartments for a few months in 1998; the next year, when Eric brought CMA back to New York after a trip to L.A., Bob helped him find a room at the Center.

Bob was a teacher, so taking us fledglings under his wing came naturally to him. He was gentle, honest, never doctrinaire. When I got 90 days, he gave me some juggling balls. “You need to learn new hobbies,” he told me.

Somehow, our little club stayed clean. But even though crystal was sweeping through New York, our numbers didn’t change. The drug had this dark reputation, and that applied to CMA, too. No one in gay recovery took us seriously. Finally, we adopted the attitude of “if we build it, they will come,” and decided to make things a bit more formal. We borrowed the format from my other home group, the Monday Cocaine Anonymous meeting. We introduced set readings, including the Steps. We offered a few concrete suggestions and encouraged people to attend other fellowships—this would also horrify a lot of people today!—giving out a list of all the gay AA, CA, and NA meetings in town. We had speakers. Certain things stayed the same. We kept going to Jerry’s BBQ on 8th Avenue after the meeting. And we stayed honest. Brutally and beautifully honest.

Before long, we had a dozen or so regulars. People who’d been scared off by the casual bull session began to come back. So we started a second meeting, on Fridays at GMHC. The first few weeks, three of us met in a closet. But that meeting grew quickly—it was Friday night, after all. Next came a Step meeting on Sundays. We were all working the Steps in the other fellowships; why not do them in CMA? By the time the Center moved back to 13th Street from its temporary home on Little West 12th, our Tuesday group was almost 20 people. They put us in a room on the fourth floor where we still meet today. Rapunzel’s tower I call it, because you can really let down your hair.

By the time I had two years, we had meetings almost every night of the week. We had guys who didn’t do other programs at all—their friends, fellows, and sponsors were all in CMA. Our first, best allies turned up about that time: Roy Y, from 9th Avenue AA; Joe S, from CA.; and one night, at Joe’s invitation, Ava L. They were instant old-timers, if you will, who lent us a bit of a cred.

Eventually, a few of us decided we needed an Intergroup. So, in consultation with Los Angeles, we started one. We established a public information officer, built a website, wrote pamphlets. We kicked off Share-a-Day in 2004, inviting Don N, one of CMA’s founding members, to be our first speaker. “Quit doing drugs,” he told a hundred or so of us, “and stop being an asshole.”

They say we’re always walking one way or the other, toward relapse or recovery. My journey into sobriety started after I hit bottom, in the moment I first asked for help. A few people, friends and therapists, suggested I stop using for a week or two. That was it—one simple, straightforward suggestion. I said OK, yes. I’d try.

But one suggestion leads to another. They’re kind of like dominoes—if you really give one of them a go, it sets up the next one, and the next, and so on. When I stopped using, I suddenly had time to fill—well, people suggested, go to meetings! There, of course, more dominoes fell into place: Get phone numbers. Watch out for people, places, and things. Pay attention to HALT. Was I lonely after the meeting? People suggested I get over myself and go to fellowship. There I heard about getting a sponsor, so I did. He told me about the Steps, and they led me to a higher power and the inventory process. I kept saying yes.

In terms of the Steps, it went like this: I admitted my way wasn’t working (Step One), learned about your way (Step Two), and decided to give it a try (Step Three). I took a long look at my screwed-up interactions with people (Steps Four and Five) and tried a healthier approach (Steps Six and Seven). Finally on sounder footing, I cleaned up the wreckage of my past (Steps Eight and Nine). All grown up for the first time in life, I could take care of myself inside and out (Steps Ten and Eleven) and even begin to help others (Step Twelve).

That last bit is key for me. Pretty quickly, life got full and complicated again, with boys, work, and a whole host of other successes and failures. Making time for other people’s problems, people suggested—doing service, maybe even being someone’s sponsor—was the best way to really get out of myself. It’s an inside-out journey, if we’re lucky, and I’ve been very lucky.

Thank God I said yes. Today I find myself at the center of a beautiful mosaic—all these suggestions. At any time, I can reset the dominoes and start knocking them down all over again.

Back to parties. Living on that basis, they seem like a great idea! In the past 18 years, I’ve reconnected with my family, becoming a dependable son again. I’ve had several boyfriends. And when those relationships ran their course, we became friends. My exes don’t cross the street anymore when they see me. I went back to acting and worked solidly for a decade in the theater. Auditions and agents and all that are a lot easier when you can show up for stuff day by day. Eventually I returned to writing, an even older dream, and stopped acting. In the last few years, I’ve become an activist-organizer, working on causes important to me.

The common denominator in all of this is people. For the most part, they don’t scare me. And when I do feel fear, I remember something my long-term sponsee and dear friend Andre likes to say: “Fear is excitement without the breath. So take a breath, and get excited!”

Thanks to CMA, I came back to the party. Why would I ever leave?