After speaking about his crystal meth addiction in front of hundreds of his peers at a November 16 town meeting, Peter Staley confessed he had not slept the night before and he had almost skipped the event.
“It’s a hard thing for anybody to talk about,” the longtime AIDS activist said following the event.
Staley has been arrested countless times during protests mounted by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). He has stormed government offices and the headquarters of pharmaceutical companies. He even put a condom over the home of Jesse Helms, former right wing U.S. senator from North Carolina.
Speakers at ACT UP’s Monday night meetings could be humiliated and vilified if they fell short of the group’s politics. Staley was never afraid to address that crowd.
Crystal meth brought Staley down.
A self-described “control freak,” crystal did not cost Staley his business, his fabulous Brooklyn apartment, or his boyfriend of ten years. He didn’t use the drug every day.
“It was a spiritual death,” the 42-year-old said. “I was miserable. I couldn’t enjoy life, I couldn’t dream about the future, I couldn’t enjoy friendships, I couldn’t enjoy my relationship with my boyfriend. I was spiritually dead.”
His crystal use did not even interfere with the HIV drugs that he takes. While his T-cells fell and he lost weight while using crystal, he carefully adhered to the schedule for his AIDS medications.
“I would pack my drugs and take them during the binges,” he said. “I was that anal. I would do the crystal meth with someone on the bed, but I would sneak into the bathroom to do my DDI.”
He was introduced to crystal in 2000. Staley thought it was just another party drug and he had used others without ill effects for many years.
“I guess I’ve been a serial substance abuse user, but not ashamedly so,” he said. “I was always willing to try things, but never addicted to any one, never felt dependent on any one. I always felt I used them out of choice.”
Crystal was different. The high was remarkable and the sex he had on crystal was extraordinary.
“It makes you feel all powerful,” Staley said. “It makes you feel young again. As soon as you’re high, the fact that you’re [HIV] positive just slips your mind. Any worries you have in your life are gone. It’s the perfect mid-life crisis drug because you feel like a complete stud.”
For the next two to three years Staley would return to crystal to recapture that high and that sex. He estimates he had 30 binges with each one lasting anywhere from 15 to 72 hours.
Staley would meet other users on the Internet. While he was already beginning to have unsafe sex prior to his crystal use, the drug accelerated that practice. Most of that bareback sex was with guys who were also HIV-positive, but some were negative.
“Since I had HIV-positive in my profile the parties that I would end up in, it was largely an HIV-positive world,” Staley said. “Guys my age barebacking on crystal. The problem is it’s not always like that.”
The drug’s pull was so strong that, despite knowing early in his use that crystal was dangerous, Staley kept on smoking and snorting.
“Literally by the second or third time I realized I had a problem,” he said. “Very quickly with crystal I found myself using it for an entire weekend on a weekend I had not planned on using drugs.”
Staley has not used crystal in over a year. True to his activist past, he has embarked on a campaign to give crystal the “reputation it deserves.”
Staley believes that crystal may be driving the increases in HIV infections and sexually-transmitted diseases among gay men in New York City. He has spent $5,000 to place ads on the Verizon phone booths along Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. The ads, which should be up beginning in January, feature a male model and the text reads “Huge Sale! Buy Crystal, Get HIV Free!”
Staley’s personal struggle with crystal also continues. After years of being an eager and satisfied participant in the sex and drug culture that many gay men enjoy, Staley has to learn how to have sex without drugs.
“This very old dog has to learn a new trick and that is sober sex,” he said. “For the addict, the crystal meth addict, the path back to sober sex, if they ever did know how to do it, is a very, very hard one. The idea of sober sex has to compete with those memories of crystal meth sex and it doesn’t compete.”
That, of course, assumes that he has ever had sober sex. Staley plunged into the gay sexual culture on a trip to London when he was 20. He traveled there with the intent of getting laid.
“I ended up having seven men in seven nights,” Staley said. “I took a crash course in homosexuality.”
He guesses that, since then, he was high on some drug when he had sex 90 percent of the time.
“To look back and realize how very few times in my life I had sex without drugs is an extraordinary thing,” Staley said. “It got to the point where I was only comfortable with having sex high. think that’s very true for many gay men.”
Staley is not trashing that sex and drug culture. On the contrary, he remains an “open, proud whore” as he described himself.
“I’m not indicting it, but I think as a community we do need to say if we are going to be quote, unquote sexually liberated, which I have been and am not ashamed that I have been, can we do it in such a way that it doesn’t destroy us,” he said. Crystal, however, needs to be seen in the right light. Some gay men can use the drug safely, but it will destroy “not an insubstantial minority of those lives,” Staley said.
No gay man who is using crystal for the first time can know if he will join the wreckage or the party, he believes. Gay men must understand how destructive crystal can be.
“There continues to be a perception, especially among young gay men, that crystal meth is just another party drug on the same level with ecstasy and special K,” Staley said. “The message that I was hearing was very different. It was a message of destruction and sadness.”
I couldn’t enjoy life,
I couldn’t enjoy friendships,
I couldn’t enjoy
with my boyfriend.
I was spiritually dead” Staley said.