Life in the fast lane

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Post by James May22 Mar 2012

Drugs and alcohol became a dominant force in my life when my sexuality began to emerge around the age of 14. I was copping a great deal of flack at high school and there was nothing I looked forward to more than getting pissed with the other ‘freaks’ at the end of the day.

The homophobia I endured in my teens definitely had a lot to do with my failing education and escalating drug and alcohol use. While getting drunk and stoned didn’t help, it was probably the only thing that kept me from topping myself back then.

Being a poofter was one of the worst things you could be in Queensland in the 1980s, especially with the arrival of AIDS.

I chanced upon drugs like acid and ecstasy in my late teens and I thought that I’d found the perfect antidote to my suffering. I loved popping pills and kicking my heels up in The Valley. I was still in the closet but having a great time nonetheless — skirting the edges of the gay scene, although I didn’t really identify with it. I had a huge crush on a straight friend at the time. His brother had recently died of AIDS and his horrible recollection of the event made me even more terrified of the ‘lifestyle’.

When I finally started getting down and dirty with a few guys, I was straight on the phone to the clinics and helplines, convinced that I’d contracted HIV from oral sex. The shit hit the fan when my brother found out about my sexual escapades.

He beat the crap out of me and I was banished from our social circle. Our mother hooked me up with a Christian social worker after a suicide attempt. She was into ‘conversion therapies’ and tried to convince me that it was all just a phase.

Part of me had wished it was too but I left Queensland in the end, knowing I couldn’t come to terms with my sexuality in that state.

So I rolled into Sydney with barely any self-esteem, crippling anxiety and a terrible drinking problem.

Although I saw blokes hugging and kissing and letting it all hang out on Oxford Street, I still hated myself and I couldn’t identify with the ‘out and proud’ boys camping it up at the pubs and clubs. I recall feeling exiled from Queensland but far from welcome in the Sydney gay community with my long hair and flannelette shirts.

I needed a strong dose of grog to get me out there in the first place and then I found myself in all kinds of sticky situations. Rocking up to bars half-tanked and staggering home when the sun came up with very little memory of what had happened. I had fleeting encounters with a string of blokes back then. I guess I was trying to embrace my sexuality but I couldn’t be intimate without getting off my face. That led me into intensive counselling but I was way too deep in denial to process my feelings about being gay.

"The homophobia I endured in my teens definitely had a lot to do with my failing education and escalating drug and alcohol use."

I went to a coming-out workshop at ACON when I was 22 and that seemed like a breakthrough. I was meeting gay men clean and sober, away from the pressure of the bars and clubs. It was there that I found my first openly gay friend. I thought he was cool with his sexuality because he’d cruise the beats from Central Station to Cronulla, but I soon realised that this was his own way of dealing with the guilt and shame. He was also a pill-popping drug fiend and it wasn’t long before we were gallivanting up and down Oxford Street like two kids in a candy store.

I was living in Darlinghurst then and had become dependent on drugs like speed for just about everything – hanging out with friends, going out dancing, picking up guys.

Everyone I knew was into one drug or another and I rarely interacted with gay men unless substances were involved. Sure, there were times when I thought it was getting out of hand. I’d go down to Melbourne for a ‘drug holiday’ only to wind up hanging off some dodgy dude at the Prince of Wales in St Kilda. I even went as far as doing a six-month stint overseas when I was 25, only to be hounded from Kathmandu to Calcutta by hashish dealers. Still, it was my cleanest year since the age of 15 and I flew back to Sydney a reformed man.

That’s when a dear friend introduced me to my first serious partner. He was the biggest drug pig I’d ever met, but he was funky and handsome and he swept me off my feet. It wasn’t long before we were shacked up in the biggest little ‘pharmacy’ in Surry Hills. I had a sense that I was pushing my luck, but I guess living with him in the middle of Sydney got the better of me. He was the dominant personality by a long shot and I got caught up in the same old shit again.

That’s when the diagnosis came. We weren’t even having much sex at the time — he was way too out of it for that. But I can trace the transmission back to a short-lived shag when we were coming down off meth.

I haven’t touched a drug of any sort for ten years now. There were a few benders after the diagnosis but that’s about it. Contracting HIV was probably the only thing that would’ve made me change direction. I had far too many issues around self esteem, sex and intimacy to cope without drugs and alcohol. These days I run a mile if anyone even sparks up a joint and the closest I get to hardcore clubbing is trying to copy a few moves from So You Think You Can Dance in my flat. After ten years, I still feel affected by the drugs I used back then. I’m sure it’s got something to do with the chronic anxiety and insomnia that still plagues me.

I don’t think life could’ve been any different though. I was too messed up by the homophobic abuse in my formative years. This had an adverse impact on my relationship to drugs and alcohol and my relationships with other gay men. While we’re ultimately responsible for our own health, surely this prejudice can be linked to the kind of risk behaviours that continue to drive HIV infections in the community.