When he was 30 years old, Jeffrey Zacharias led a life that could be described as enviable. He'd graduated from school with a degree in marketing. He had a steady boyfriend and a good job at Universal Music in Chicago. "Everything was pretty good," he said. Yet three years later, he was unemployed and homeless, spending all of his time in and out of local jails.
What had changed? Zacharias had started using crystal meth.
"The first time I did it, I knew that there was an instantaneous hook," he told me. "There is no drug that is more intense in what it does physiologically to the body than meth. For me, meth made me feel like I was Superman, and I could do anything. I was the hottest guy in the room."
Now 48, Zacharias grew up gay and closeted in rural Kentucky in the 1970s and '80s. He told me that taking the drug gave him more than just a feeling of invincibility; it also made him feel an acceptance that he'd been longing for his entire life.
"I felt like I could be who I was," he said. "[But] it was just a big illusion. You're under the influence of a substance, you're not really being you."
Over the past two decades, stories like that of Jeffrey Zacharias have become increasingly common, as the gay community faces what has been called an "invisible epidemic."
Statistics show that meth use soared in cities like Los Angeles in the early 2000s, but the drug has also shown a particular uptick in popularity in recent years. According to a recent report from HIV activist Peter Staley published in POZ, its usage among gay men in New York City more than doubled in a span of just three years. In 2011, 4.3% of gay New Yorkers claimed to take methamphetamines. By 2014, that figure was up to 9.2%.
This drastic increase has a lot to do with the fact that the drug is frequently used in "party and play" culture, a term for hooking up while under the influence of methamphetamines. Crystal meth acts on the same pleasure zones that are activated in the brain during sexual activity. Engaging in intercourse while on meth is widely referred to as "chemsex."
"As a stimulant, crystal increases the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, the brain's pleasure and alert chemicals," a pamphlet from the National Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) reads. "This produces euphoria, increases energy, prolongs sexual performance and suppresses appetite."
In addition to the drug's use in gay party culture, meth's easy availability on the internet has increased access to the drug, especially with the rise of hookup apps. In 2016, getting meth is as easy as logging into an app on your smartphone.
Last year, former Who's the Boss? child star Danny Pintauro came out as gay, HIV-positive and in recovery from meth use. He explained that the connection between internet hookup culture and crystal meth use is one that often goes overlooked.
"The correlation between meth and Grindr... is a lot bigger than anyone realizes," he told TMZ. "From my experiences in the past, I'd say one of every ten guys on there is either doing crystal, has done crystal, or wants to do crystal."
On gay apps like Grindr, Scruff, and Jack'd, users have developed their own elaborate system of slang terms to find others looking to "party and play." Other frequently used codes include phrases like "get to the point" and "blowing clouds" or even unnecessarily capitalizing the letter "T" in your Grindr profile (meth is frequently known as "T" or "Tina"). For instance, if a user specifies that he's into "laTe nighT parTying," that most likely means he's looking for someone with whom to smoke meth.
On Craigslist, dealers have long advertised their products through this kind of code. As "ice" is one of the most commonly understood slang terms for meth, vendors might offer "ice packs for your esky" or "cold rock ice cream" to signal availability to prospective buyers.
"Cold hair rollers that improve not only [your] hair but your mood as well. Get that feeling of freshness with ice cold hair products a available," one poster in Melbourne wrote.
This is a culture that operates in plain sight, with minimal monitoring or accountability from admins or app developers. Last year, Australian health advocate Jay Morris, who works with gay clients recovering from addiction, actually called for gay hookup apps to be "monitored and shut down." Morris told News.com.au, "The gay scene is out of control on ice. It's a complete free-for-all. You can watch people shooting up live on camera."
"The gay scene is out of control on ice. It's a complete free-for-all."
C.W.,* 35, knows this well. After being diagnosed with HIV five years ago, he told me that he moved back home to be closer to friends and family. But shortly after relocating to North Carolina, he met a dealer through Craigslist named Hank. Hank was in his 40s and also HIV-positive. He felt like someone C.W. could talk to and who would understand what he was going through.
"I was suddenly spending all my time with him," C.W. said. "We used drugs every weekend. The weekend blurred into Thursday, then into Monday. I didn't show up for family functions. I was performing poorly at work. I moved from smoking meth to injecting it. I lost [my] job and moved in with my dealer boyfriend."
Much like Zacharias, for C.W taking meth was a way to escape the shame and internalized homophobia he felt growing up in a conservative Baptist community in North Carolina.
"It was a very experimental time for me, as I was coming into my own and shaping my sexual, social and spiritual self after years of repression and a church upbringing," he said. C.W. explained that tools like Craigslist and Grindr didn't fuel his meth addiction — but they did make it harder for him to quit.
It's easy to blame the spike in the meth epidemic on the rise of hookup apps, but according to Zacharias, meth use in the gay male community is largely a byproduct of internalized stigma, as well as the need for connection.
"If there's any sense of shame about self, anxiety, or depression, these things all play into it," Zacharias said. "It feeds into that need to be wanted."
Meth might feel like it temporarily takes those problems away, but it only makes those issues worse. According to Zacharias, many users reach a "tipping point" where the harm caused by taking meth outweighs any of its perceived benefits. "It's 'I've got to change or I'm going to end up in prison or I'm going to die,' when the pain becomes so great that's intolerable," he said.
For Zacharias, that moment came 13 years ago, when he fell off a balcony while using. He was rushed to the hospital after breaking both of his arms and elbows, while doing permanent damage his knees. He wasn't able to walk. "I can't go down any farther than this," Zacharias thought at the time.
Since getting sober, Jeffrey Zacharias started a private practice that focuses on addiction counseling for the LGBT community. Although his end goal with patients is sobriety, he preaches harm reduction, which allows patients to gradually step down their behaviors. Websites like Tweakers.org also preach harm reduction.
"We're not here to promote meth or glorify meth use," the site states. "We're not here to condemn or criticize meth use. Instead, we're here to provide information so that gay men really understand crystal and how it affects our physical, mental, sexual and social health." Its goal is to give meth users the resources for recovery, as well as reach those who are still using it and want to find ways to do so more safely.
The number of addiction support groups like Crystal Meth Anonymous, which focus solely on sobriety, has ballooned in recent years in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. In New York City, for instance, there are 24 weekly CMA meetings, a huge spike from the four weekly meetings in 2002.
Members of the groups say they're an important lifeline at a time when the community desperately needs them. Since joining Crystal Meth Anonymous, C.W. got the thing he really wanted back when he first started using.
"I used because I wanted to feel connected to others and I was using drugs and sex to do that," he said. "What I've found in the rooms of Crystal Meth Anonymous are the same things that I felt I was missing when I was using drugs — a sense of community and a sense of purpose."
*First names have been used to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.