Thursday, January 17, 2008

Walk Away or Stay Connected: It’s Not Crystal Clear

Having lived through the 80s in San Francisco, and been here during the most horrible years of the AIDS epidemic, I’ve witnessed some really tough challenges to our gay community, challenges that for the most part we have met, and which have changed our community and our city.

In recent years, widespread crystal meth use and addiction have created a new challenge. And whereas taking care of our friends with AIDS and confronting a complacent government brought our community together, the issues of crystal have created deep divisions. People who use are condemned and vilified—they should know better, use will power, get their lives together. Those who don’t use get to be self-righteous and judgmental and cut off friends using meth “for their own good.”

Although I did my share of experimenting with pot and LSD in college, the handful of club drugs like crystal, K, and GHB have never really appealed to me. I needed to take care of myself, and weekend binges was not part of that. So I thought I didn’t have to worry about the “meth drama,” and how it was ruining so many lives, at least in my own life. So I thought. Boy, was I wrong.

A little over four years ago, my partner of 20 years and I were in couple’s counseling, and it was revealed to me that he was using meth, and using it regularly. I felt totally blindsided. I came to understand that he was self-medicating for his depression. But the crash that followed made the depression hole even worse. Our difficult emotional life had been further damaged by crystal, and my most ardent attempts at caretaking and holding the relationship together were useless while meth was a part of our lives. I moved out of the apartment in which I had lived for 20 years so I could get off the roller coaster and take better care of myself.

The usual advice when dealing with an addicted person is to practice “tough love.” If you don’t, you’re “enabling” or you’re “co-dependent.” But when you turn your back on your friend, who will he turn to? Probably his drugging buddies. Or no one.

But I didn’t want to sever this relationship. It had been 20 years, for God sakes. We continued with counseling. Six months later, he flew to Minnesota for rehab. The good news is that today, four years later, he is clean from meth, and our relationship is greatly changed but strong.

Right after I found out he was using was the toughest time for me. I knew nothing about meth and why it was so addictive. I didn’t know how to respond to his needs. I felt guilty and in part blamed myself for this mess. Why couldn’t I love him or take care of him in the right way to make this stop? He is smart, educated, informed—how could he have gotten us into this mess? I made excuses for his behavior, pulled back from friends, and found myself feeling really isolated. Because I felt such shame, I didn’t have anyone to talk to except my therapist.

There are a number of resources for meth users—New Leaf, Stone-wall Project, Walden House—but I could find no resources or support for “friends and family” of gay users. And that surprised me. There has been so much support created for people with AIDS and their families, but not for gay men battling their loved ones’ meth use.

I discovered that like most things in public health, it’s all about the funding. Just like in HIV prevention, where the CDC has decided that “Prevention with Positives” is to be the focus of services, there is (thank God) funding to treat meth addiction, but not to help the families understand or cope.

My education and healing over these years has involved doing what I can as a community member to advocate for “friends and family.” I organized a town forum sponsored by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Community Initiative (SFGMCI), where many gay men gathered and talked for the first time about the struggles of their lives. Their stories touched me very deeply and I heard similarities to what I had experienced—isolation, making excuses, protecting the partner, massive confusion and guilt. But I could also see that I was very fortunate that I did not have to deal with physical abuse, financial ruin, or compromised health like some of my brothers in that circle.

Several months ago, I got a wonderfully enthusiastic response from the San Francisco STD Prevention Services, who responded to a proposal I had written and is now supporting our “Buddies” program, an afternoon workshop/safe space where friends, buddies and partners of meth users can talk about our lives and find a way to make changes.

I know there are many of us in this city who are worried sick, watching a friend go down on meth. We are separate, isolated, and don’t know how to create support. We feel afraid, angry, and hopeless. And we don’t know if it’s best to slam the door and walk away, or try to stay connected while our friend goes through the hell of meth addiction. Every person’s situation is different; everyone has to make his own decision.

“Community” often seems big and amorphous. But community and family can be strengthened—or diminished—one relationship at a time. I believe that my steadfast connection with my friend and ex-partner was crucial to his recovery. I’m very proud of him, and I know he is grateful to me.
If you have concerns about a friend, buddy or partner who is using meth, or know someone who is struggling with these issues, I invite you to join us in the Buddies program. Visit our website at, or leave a message for me at 415-355-2003.

author: Buzz Bense is the founder and former co-owner of Eros. He has been an active member in SFGMCI for the past several years, and enjoys participating in community theater with Pegasus Theater in Monte Rio, CA. Buzz can be reached at

San Francisco Bay Times

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