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Meth: 'a plunge into insanity'

An ex-addict and a new documentary describe the destructive swath crystal meth is cutting through the subculture of gay men.

Published October 8, 2006

John Sumlin may go to the movies Tuesday night. He'd like to see a documentary playing at the Tampa Theatre and St. Petersburg's Baywalk because it mirrors his life.

But he worries. Maybe it's too soon. Maybe familiar images on a flickering screen could trigger old impulses and drag him back to the dark, seductive place that nearly killed him.

Sumlin, 33, is a recovering addict. For years, the Tampa waiter smoked, snorted and injected crystal meth "because I would feel like I was about to die if I couldn't get any more."

Like men featured in the movie Meth, Sumlin embraced the drug because urban, gay partiers often use it as an intoxicant and aphrodisiac of choice.

Methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant, can treat obesity in small doses. Truckers sometimes ingest it to stay awake. Larger, addictive doses in crystalline form have plagued rural America for years.

Now crystal meth is cutting a destructive swath through another subculture: Gay men drawn to sex with casual, multiple partners.

In San Francisco, almost one gay man in five used meth during sex in 2001, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prevalence in the Tampa Bay gay party circuit is at least that high, former users say.

Meth stimulates the brain's pleasure centers, creates bursts of energy, increases libido and lowers inhibitions. When users are high, they feel attractive and powerful. Sexual encounters can stretch out for days, they say.

Meth also fries the brain's ability to create pleasure naturally, says Nancy Hamilton, chief executive of Operation PAR, a Pinellas rehab agency. Users need larger and larger doses to keep from crashing into despair. They lose jobs, ruin loving relationships, die of drug-induced heart attacks and commit suicide .

In the gay community, meth users also spread disease.

Since the late 1990s, HIV infection has risen among white and Hispanic gay men while staying flat or dropping among other groups.

Meth is the culprit, says Tom Liberti, HIV/AIDS chief for the Florida Health Department.

"Men addicted to crystal meth tell story after story of starting on meth on Thursday or Friday and continuing through the weekend," Liberti says. "It keeps you awake, having multiple partners, looking for partners on the Internet ... doing things you would not normally do."

Meth supplanted cocaine and ecstasy on the dance floors and bathhouses of San Francisco and Los Angeles more than a decade ago.

It showed up in South Florida about five years ago, Liberti says, and "about two years ago, we started hearing about it in Orlando and Tampa Bay."

Statewide usage may have peaked in 2005, because the new HIV cases show a dip among gay men.

"The good news is maybe about 80 percent of gay men still haven't experimented with this," Liberti says. "Those who have, their lives have spiraled down in a very serious way. It's very addictive."

Sumlin figured he could handle the drug when he first tried it a decade ago in Utah. Soon his habit cost $400 to $600 a week even though meth was one of the cheapest drugs around.

"I just wanted as much as I could get," he says.

He saved on food bills because meth suppresses appetite. "I made it a point to eat on Tuesdays and Thursdays," he says. "It sounds insane because it is. It's a plunge into insanity."

Sumlin stopped using for a few years during a stint in the Army, but moved to Florida after his discharge and relapsed almost immediately among friends who were smoking meth and injecting it into their veins.

"It's incredibly rampant" in the Tampa Bay gay cruising scene, he says. "It's in every club and every bar."

Sumlin says he grew up in a religious Texas family that considered homosexuality a sin, a belief he has shaken only in the last two years.

"I was immoral. I was going to hell," he says. "When I was on drugs, or drinking and partying, that removed all that for me. That was part of its appeal. I felt so superior and so connected. The moment I was not using, all that stuff would come back up."

Hospitalizations for heart palpitations couldn't make him stop. Dental problems from grinding his teeth couldn't make him stop. But a year ago March, Sumlin heard a voice in his head.

Paranoia is a common symptom of heavy use, experts say, but Sumlin's voice changed his life.

"It said, 'You will always feel this lonely, you will never help anyone if you continue to do this to yourself.' "

Somehow it clicked. Sumlin started attending support groups, all but stopped having sex and shied away from clubs. He hasn't used meth in 18 months, he says.

Mark King, 45, lives in a Fort Lauderdale halfway house for recovering addicts. He ran an HIV/AIDs advocacy agency in Atlanta before a meth addiction took him down four years ago.

Meth's arrival in clubs and bathhouses coincided with new drug regimens that keep people with HIV disease alive for decades, King says. Fear of AIDs subsided, opening the door to multiple partners and unprotected sex.

"The gay community had been closed up for a generation sexually, being on our best behavior," King says. "With a new class of drugs, people stopped dying and gay men were in a hurry to reclaim their sexuality."

Sophisticated Internet dating sites and Viagra allowed groups of men to hook up in private homes for marathon, meth-fueled encounters, King says. Those so inclined just advertised a taste for "Tina" or "party and play" and waited for nearby strangers to respond.

"I could get sex and drugs delivered to my door faster than a pizza," King says.

No one ever suggested safe sex, he says. "Either everyone was presuming everyone else was positive or we just didn't care. Health is not a luxury you can afford when you are a meth addict."

King is featured prominently in the documentary Meth, which focuses on interviews with current and former addicts. King went public after seeing dozens of friends losing their jobs, moving back with parents or living on the streets.

Unless gay men start talking about "our dirty little secret," he says, more and more young people will die.

"This is a fierce, fierce epidemic," he says. "We are destroying our lives, and it's just not cool anymore."

Director Todd Ahlberg says he warns audiences at every showing that even interviews about sex and meth can trigger urges among past users.

"Without fail, in every screening 15 or 20 people have to get out of the theater quickly," Ahlberg says. "You'll find them outside, shaking and chain-smoking. They are white-knuckling to stay off the drug."

King plans to attend Tuesday's showings to take questions from the audience. If someone asks, he will tell them straight up:

Since filming began two years ago, he has relapsed twice.

[Last modified October 8, 2006, 01:21:35]

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