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Joe Putignano Headshot

Reflecting a Dark Future in the Crystal Ball

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In 1996 I fell under the spell of the rising rave culture. I remember how watching a room full of people dancing under hypnotic lights and pulsating dance music made me feel as if Heaven had crashed into the Earth. It wasn't the drugs that initially pulled me in but the music. The pounding drum beat morphed with my heartbeat, and even though I loved that music, the drugs soon became the only song I wanted to sing. We used ecstasy, ketamine, LSD, and crystal meth. Years later I ended up a heroin addict, while most of my friends continued to use crystal.

I used to think I once walked the darkest and longest path of addiction because heroin was considered the drug for the hopeless and damned, but now I'm not so sure anymore. During one of my rehab stints, the nurse who took my assessment asked what drug I was using. I said, "Heroin." I was embarrassed as she gave me that all-too-familiar look to which I had grown accustomed. Her pity was clear as her eyes said, "You poor guy; you are never going to recover from heroin." Now, many years later in recovery, I see a different drug taking possession of the minds and bodies of many sufferers: crystal meth.

Crystal meth has become a worldwide epidemic and a problem in places like Japan, Germany, eastern China, Afghanistan, and other countries because it is a cheap drug to make and has a potent and powerful high. Crystal has never been a stranger to gay culture, and current research suggests that it is on the rise again. Why does it appear to be such a powerful drug in the gay community?

As a gay man I've had many gay allies identify with the same emotions I have. I grew up with a tremendous amount of shame, and nothing I did could change the way I felt, because I'd grown up in a world that told me I was wrong, disgusting, and sick. My accomplishments, education, or friends could not alter that pain at the bottom of my soul. I felt socially awkward and embarrassed and was constantly picked on at school because of my perceived differences. Of course, this doesn't mean that every gay person grows up feeling this way, and even if they had, they don't necessarily take drugs to subdue their emotions. But for me, heroin, in particular, quieted the torment and allowed me to breathe in my skin. I felt human.

I believe crystal meth fits in like the missing puzzle piece in the gay community because its effects seem to eradicate feelings of shame, terminal uniqueness, and a broken sense of self. Instead, the user feels attractive, euphoric, powerful, and sexually confident. A close friend of mine says, "Meth made me feel like the most beautiful person on Earth, and all those feelings I held on to washed away." I can identify with that because heron did the same for me, and even though I used crystal in the '90s, I chose heroin because I felt safer when I was asleep.

I've never judged anyone for using drugs. How could I? I find it oddly intelligent for people to gravitate to those things that make them feel whole; however, as with most drugs, meth becomes a prison made of molecules, locking the user in.

I live in New York City and see countless people who have changed over the years from the use of meth. Beautiful people who once walked the streets with pride and healthy self-esteem have become shadows reabsorbing all the light they once emitted. What kills me the most is seeing talented, creative people get taken down by the enemy they once called friend. These are people I love and admire, and though they enjoy bouts of recovery, too often they fall back into the underworld they now wished they had never traveled to. I have the utmost compassion for them, because even though I haven't touched a mood- or mind-altering substance in years, I am them.

To the nobodies, forgotten, heartbroken, and bent, I feel your pain. I know what keeps you up at night, why you shudder in your skin, and how you can't rid yourself of the sleepless demon that lives off your sanity as it demands, "Just one more time." I know the evil reflection you see in the crystal ball, but it's time we shatter that spherical illusion that we will never recover. What I want to say with all my heart is that recovery is possible. I can't tell you how, because everyone's path is different, but there is a way if you never give up. Each attempt at recovery could be the action that will change not only your life but every life you come into contact with, for our most powerful weapons are authenticity, honesty, unity, compassion, and, dare I say it, faith.

There are many different roads to recovery: 12-step groups, psychotherapy, and sometimes medication. I'm not advocating any of them in particular. For many years I denied the helping hand by choking the love that reached for me. It wasn't until I surrendered to the possibility that I too could change that I smashed the negative, insidious belief that I would never get better. Today I don't have to open up a vein to let the sunshine in.

I know that as friends and family, boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, it's devastating to watch a loved one rot from this cunning disease. I hope someday there will be more advances to bring back the beautiful people we once knew, but for now, compassion, which means "to suffer with," helps me refrain from judging others for the horrors they've bestowed and endured.