Methrecommended viewing

Live the dream
todd ahlberg
Various Meth Users
The Setup: 
Documentary about crystal meth use among gay men.

I simply can never read or see enough about meth. It’s one of those topics, like global warming or plastic surgery gone wrong, that I just get a sick pleasure out of eating up everything about. My new favorite topic is cyberbullying, by the way. So when I saw this was available as a 99-cent rental on iTunes I was all over that shit. Then imagine my surprised pleasure as I saw that the first 30 minutes of this were bringing up a massive amount of explosive topics regarding gay culture! Then imagine my grim disappointment as the last 60 minutes dropped all those larger issues and settled into the familiar “I hit bottom, then I quit, now I’m better” narrative. It’s almost always that way with documentaries—I want them to be much more in-depth than they are.

We’ll blow though the interesting content then circle back to it at the end. There are about six main guys that come back in and tell their stories at different points. They all tell strikingly similar stories: when they discovered crystal they found that they felt incredibly sexy and confident, and all the insecurities that had bothered them before melted away. Their discovery of the drug often coincided with the rise of circuit parties, where they would dance and have sex all night, with all sorts of different people. Some of them say that soon they began to look down on people who were doing other drugs that didn’t give them the stamina meth did, rolling their eyes like “Oh, he’s only on E,” or, God forbid, only drinking. And they feel this sense of community that now they are among this group of tweakers that does meth and has sex all night—even though they may know nothing more about their new “friends” they're having sex with or hanging out with but their first name—and many describe how they were suddenly living the dream and having sex with muscle gods. Many of them also describe how they find themselves having sex with people they wouldn’t touch with a stick if sober.

In here is a good moment where one of the guys who has stopped using describes how difficult everything was when he was on meth, how everything was just so complicated and such a problem, and it was all “Why do I have such rotten luck? Why does everything go wrong for me?” This is immediately followed by a current user voicing those exact thoughts, saying how his life is just so endlessly complicated and he just can’t understand why nothing he tries ever works out.

Eventually the bad stuff starts coming in. The guys look back in amazement that guys at circuit parties used to overdose and be carted out in stretchers, and that some of the circuit parties had stations for overdoses, yet no one really thought anything of it. They say they had this attitude of “Don’t pass out in my space, man.” One fellow asks if anyone remembers when circuit parties used to be AIDS fundraisers. Speaking of that, the guys describe how around this time, HIV drugs were coming out and the perception was becoming that HIV is just not a big deal at all. One of them talks about how when he’s on crystal and he’s at a bathhouse or sex party and “in the hottest situation” there was no way he was going to worry about a condom. Another describes how if you pulled out a condom, or even mentioned one in that situation, you would be considered helplessly square.

Then comes an interesting idea—that crystal is an “evil” drug, that the kind of sex these guys are having on crystal is “evil,” and therefore… why not go for it? If you’re already evil, if it’s absolute abandon, the bottom of the barrel, why worry about it? One guy talks about knowing he could catch HIV but said “I knew I was killing myself anyway.” One of them describes how when he was diagnosed with HIV he “treated it like a license to self-destruct,” and took even more risks. In many cases their lives are falling apart, but they don’t care, and crystal “makes it all ok.” They usually describe feeling like no one could tell, many of them describe getting evicted, and one tells how he lost his job and house, and broke up with his lover because he didn’t use the drug.

We now go into the paranoia, the illusions of cameras following them around, or hear voices whispering in their ears—voices that are laughing at them or hate them. One talks of how he thought HE was Hitler and was responsible for the deaths of six million Jews. Eventually most of them [except for one notable example] describe getting off the drug and cleaning up their lives, although many of them are initially hesitant to join a support group: “If there’s going to be anything worse than not dancing on a box, it’s going to be hanging out with losers at AA meetings.”

Now, previously in this space was a rant about mainstream gay culture and the kind of pressures and lack of support that result in the feelings that these guys tried to assuage through meth. But it was just getting unfocused and sounding bitter and homophobic [although one of its strains was how ANY criticism of mainstream gay culture is immediately branded as homophobic], so let's just stay focused on the things we can directly tie to the stories presented in the movie.

One of the things that underpins all of the stories in the film is the vital importance of being "hot." They experience the gay culture they live in as one that admires sexual attractiveness above almost all other considerations [such as being intelligent or psychologically astute, for example], and one that places a high premium on losing one's inhibitions and having out-there crazy-hot pig sex--which is in conflict with using condoms and having safe sex. Implicit in what these guys are saying is deep-seated insecurity, which surely stems from childhoods growing up gay in America, but which also can be said to receive little reparative support from the mainstream gay culture they advance into, and its value on the inherently diminishing-returns ideal of being "hot" and sexually active. Furthermore, in the face of all this, it is important to project confidence, especially in the harshly judgmental environments these guys exist in, such as circuit parties and gay resorts like Fire Island, where you are surrounded by hundreds of guys who are more muscular then you, hotter than you, are able to project more confidence than you [perhaps because they're on drugs themselves!]. The common denominator in all the stories here is that meth allowed these guys to turn off the voices of insecurity in themselves and feel super-hot and confident, which in turn allowed them to, if falsely, live that ideal of having wildly uninhibited [unsafe] sex and be that super-stud that is so idealized.

What I'm saying is that the pressures these guys are trying to manage with a destructive drug can be traced to trying to adhere to the values of the mainstream gay community. The implicit message is, if you do not adhere to these ideals, you are boring and unsexy. One of the most powerful quotes in the film is when one of the guys says “Show me a happy, well-adjusted middle-aged homosexual, and I’ll show you someone who never gets any media coverage in Out or Advocate.” Because basically, if you want to be psychologically balanced and healthy, you need to actively RESIST the messages of mainstream gay culture! And for the most part, you will be on your own in this. You'll be the boring guy who doesn't want to let go and be wild, and you'll be watching everyone else enjoy being considered hot and hooking up with the hot muscle guys.

Once I had picked up a gay magazine that had an ad that was trying to offer support for depression in the gay community [a problem statistically ranked as the second biggest problem facing the gay community after HIV/AIDS (Source)]. It urged gays to seek help for depression and gave resources to call if they are depressed. But what struck me is that the illustration for this ad was a photo of a tanned, shiny buff muscle-stud in confident, attitudey sunglasses, on a Fire Island-esque beach in a tight tiny swimsuit, pointing at YOU! As if to say "Eduardo wants YOU not to be depressed!" and I just thought: "Well, what if Eduardo is THE REASON I'm depressed?"

Of course, we have to admit that the glamorization of psychologically-unhealthy lifestyles is not unique to the gay community--one is constantly aware of the need to have a fulfilling life outside of work, yet the only people getting promoted and receiving business-page coverage as "geniuses" are those who have essentially handed over their personal lives for their jobs--and that ultimately the responsibility leads up to American-style capitalism. In many areas, you have to face that if you are going to be balanced and healthy, you are going to be "boring." But it's sad to see these guys driven to such self-destructive behavior in pursuit of the values of their community, which relentlessly encourages them to vigorously participate in a self-destructive game it is not possible to win.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, the first 30 minutes bring up a lot of interesting issues relating to mainstream gay values.