Ever since we opened our London drug rehab centres, first in Acton and now our Fitzrovia drug rehab, we have been working with clients who have come to us for help with addiction to crystal meth. In most cases, they have been using crystal meth as part of chemsex, often with GHB and mephedrone. Typically, chemsex involves this cocktail of potent drugs to facilitate sex, mainly between gay men and sometimes transgender women. Not only does this lead to addiction for some, but there’s a significant risk of ill health, overdose and even death.
In this blog, we hear from Michael and Jake (names changed to protect client confidentiality). They came to our London drug rehab centres for addiction treatment. They successfully completed our programme for crystal meth addiction. We also reflect on the learning from an excellent webinar on 1st December 2021, led by addiction therapist Simon Marks, called ‘Understanding Gay Men and Chemsex: A Reflection on World AIDS Day.’
Michael’s Experience in our London Drug Rehab: Crystal Meth Recovery
‘My relationship with substances developed over years. I started taking drugs at 13 or 14. It started with weed, MDMA and hallucinogens. It was mainly party drugs. I always thought I was the life of the party or the last man standing. And that progressed over a period of maybe 15 years, until I was the only man standing – and not standing. I was at a place where my brain was gone and I was completely psychotic. I was using crystal meth on an almost daily basis to keep going. I don’t think you can see that coming. When I had my first drug, it was always, ‘but I’ll never do this drug’ or ‘definitely, I’ll never inject’. And then I was. I was lost in it.
‘I somehow managed to still hold down work. I almost felt this kind of pride that I still made it to work. But outside of that, I was losing weight. I was losing my looks. I was ageing. I was unhealthy. I was barely able to breathe sometimes. My brain was gone completely. At points, I literally couldn’t string sentences or thoughts together. And I was trying to hold down a job. It was almost like a Jekyll and Hyde thing.
‘By the end, I was in a continued state of paranoia, fairly regular psychosis. I couldn’t leave the house and when I did, it was only to get drugs and have sex. That was it. Those were the only ways I could feel or function like a normal person. And if I wasn’t being fucked on drugs, I didn’t know how to be. I didn’t know my self-worth. I didn’t know how to function. They were the only two things that made me feel normal. And so when that wasn’t happening, I was extremely depressive, to the point of not knowing how I could go on.
‘The thing that made me seek help is I started to put myself into extremely risky and dangerous situations sexually and with using. I tried to create more extreme situations to feel more. The biggest thing that made me seek help was one time I instigated someone to come round and I was blindfolded, tied down and injected with drugs, as an erotic play. So when this happened, I had no control over how much I was taking or what was going into my body. I had never even met the person before. I didn’t know what they looked like. In this situation, I was overdosed, physically assaulted and intentionally infected with hepatitis C because this person was aroused by their own twisted kink.
‘Just after that I got an intervention from my friend. After promising that I had to stop, otherwise I was going to die, I managed to stop smoking crystal meth for a day and half. And that’s when I realised I couldn’t stop this addiction on my own. I needed support to fix this.
‘I don’t have a big financial background, I don’t have money behind me, so seeing a service that has a cost wouldn’t have been my normal go-to. I looked at all the NHS sources that had massive waiting lists. But I knew that if I waited, I’d be dead. So to find help, I Googled and I found lots of different places. And I spoke to one or two while I was on a mega comedown. And what really scared me away at first was that people were trying to get me into residential centres. I knew that wasn’t for me. I needed to be able to get clean and get sober in my life. And that’s when I found Help Me Stop’s day programme. And that called out to me because we could sort my problem, my using, and I could get better in a way that I wasn’t secluding myself from my world.
‘Finding out there was a place I could go every day during the week meant that I potentially had a chance to do something different. I didn’t have any kind of schedule. It’s not like I had work during the pandemic, it’s not like I had anything else to do. I didn’t want to do it, of course I didn’t want to do it! But I needed to do it and this was a place that didn’t have the price tag of a residential. It was a possibility. I could make this work. It also didn’t have the locking me up, so it was more desirable. And it was the first time that I’ve ever tried to seek help in that way. I prioritised the need to sort myself out.
‘I didn’t know what I was coming into. Putting down the drugs was obviously the first thing that we did here. But the biggest thing was starting to care about myself, starting to learn that I have some self-worth, that I don’t need to treat myself like shit constantly, or make other people treat me like shit, to make me feel better about myself. And a lot of that came through the writing, through the groups, through delving into stuff I would mask – and it was hard and it was painful but I am able to sit here because of it. I learned that I am capable as a person – something that I had forgotten or never knew – is that I am capable. But I had to relearn some really basic things that ‘normal people’ just have, like how to manage your life, how to function, because I spent 10 years using and never grew up and had no-one to show me or teach me basic life skills. That came with this programme. I was working on my own values. I was working on what I thought of myself and how to look at the world around me and how to function. That comes with this programme. It just comes because I am able to be sober and learn these things.
‘So much is going on in my life now, really great things. Since leaving Help Me Stop, I have gone from being unable to think, unable to function, paranoid, psychotic, to being healthy. My training is going really well. I am back to creating. I have work I care about, most importantly, and I’m making it happen because I am able to consistently create and approach my work and engage with other people.’
Jake’s Experience in our London Drug Rehab: Connection is Vital to Addiction Recovery
‘Help Me Stop, I would say it’s been very beneficial. I came here with an addiction to crystal meth at the end of August 2021. I did the full six-week Dayhab programme in central London. I was nervous because although I’d been in recovery previously, it had just been with gay people. I didn’t know if I would feel strange here.
‘Very quickly, people proved that they are trustworthy at Help Me Stop. I got into the routine of coming here every day. It was my reason to get up and out in the morning. Coming to the end of my treatment, I felt like I knew what I had to do to create a new and safe routine.
‘The Help Me Stop programme has taught me a lot.The most important thing I have learned is that reaching out to people as an everyday habit, telling people how my day has gone, it’s vital for me. Then, I feel more connected with people, so if I do feel like using, it’s much easier to pick up the phone. I know what I need to do now to stay free from crystal meth addiction. I feel like through the experience I’ve had, I’ve learned a lot because I’ve had very honest people around me. Even when I haven’t wanted to hear it, therapists and peers have told me the truth. They’ve always been compassionate but they have also challenged me when I needed it most, to help me move forward.
‘Right now, I am feeling like I can do this. Before I came in, I felt really quite lonely. I thought I was going to have to do it on my own. I didn’t know it was going to be such a connected experience here. I’m attending aftercare and it’s going really well. Coming in on a Wednesday, I can look back over my week and see what I need to look at and change, as well as celebrate what was going well. I’m just really looking forward to getting more of my life back – working, being able to spend more time with the people I care about, being with my good friends – without drugs.’
Understanding Gay Men and Chemsex: A Reflection on World AIDS Day
We would also like to say a big thank you to Simon Marks, Nick Hazell, Dr Cosmo Duff Gordon and Dr Phil Hopley for the invitation to their webinar about gay men and chemsex on 1st December 2021. It was a moving and fascinating session, led by addiction therapist Simon Marks. Simon offered insight through his extensive practice, working with clients who experience chemsex addiction. Describing the trauma, loss and shame that many members of the gay community experienced in the 1980s, Simon explained how chemsex addiction now represents the new trauma for some sections of the LGBTQ+ community.
Simon advocated for a trauma-based approach to treating chemsex addiction, recognising the loneliness and internalised shame/ homophobia that people often feel. He also spoke of the importance of overcoming societal prejudices about gay sex, and for addiction treatment professionals to gain more understanding into the feelings that people experience during chemsex, with use of drugs including crystal meth and GHB. Crystal meth stimulates a much higher dopamine response in the brain than cocaine, leading to feelings of extreme euphoria, self-confidence and loss of inhibitions. GHB is a sedative, which has a relaxing effect: however, it’s very easy to overdose or ‘go under’ on GHB, which can be life-threatening. Consent to sex is often blurred or non-existent. A third drug, mephedrone, is a stimulant that is often used as part of chemsex. This combination of drugs with sex is what can lead to addiction for some participants. To heal, compassionate and non-judgmental rehab for addiction is needed, which reduces shame and begins to address often very significant trauma.