Of Meth and Men
In public, gay men once called meth "Christina" because it sounded like "crystal." The nickname was soon shortened to "Chrissy," then changed again to "Tina" by the time Rod Rushing finally decided to get rid of the bitch.
Rod and Tina had been up for a night, maybe two, three or more, and hard rain was pouring down when Rod sought shelter -- and help -- at Addiction Research and Treatment Services, a clinic in City Park West. In 2003, more and more gay men were showing up at ARTS with meth addictions. They were all assigned to Bob Dorshimer's caseload.
Bob took Rod to the clinic's conference room, where they sat down for lunch. It was the first food Rod had eaten in days.
As he ate, he talked with Bob about the rising popularity of the "party and play" scene in the Mile High City. Men who craved meth-fueled sex could find each other by surfing websites and chat rooms or cruising the bathhouses in town and searching out the party. But Bob could see that the party was about over for Rod.
"I thought to myself, "Wow, look what meth is doing, look what meth has done to this man,'" Bob remembers. "It had taken away his job and his career; he was homeless, and all he had left was meth."
Bob told Rod that kicking the addiction would be a long, hard journey, one that would require a full commitment.
In the months that followed, Rod kept relapsing -- but Bob never gave up on him. Rod would get a job and get a place -- and then get high, get laid and get fired. He drifted in and out of a couple of support groups for meth addicts. The other people in those groups were always straight, and explaining his meth/sex addiction to them was uncomfortable.
It seemed that everywhere he looked for help, a heterosexual was looking back. Everywhere except at his sessions with Bob.
"I can't be the only gay guy trying to get off meth," Rod said. "Where are all the boys I partied with?"
Today, finding gay sex and meth in Denver is so easy that even an evangelical from Colorado Springs can do it. But finding gay-geared treatment to kick the addiction is not.
"Gay men are showing each other how to use crystal," Rod said. "So it only makes sense that gay men would be the ones to show each other how to quit." And three years after he first went to Bob for help, Rod is leading the way.
Rod was born in a small Illinois farm town in 1958. His father joined the military and left town; his mother was unstable, and later diagnosed as bipolar. When Rod was in the fifth grade, he was raped by a boy about five years older. Rod remembers thinking that it was normal behavior, that everyone did it -- but he also knew it wasn't something that people talked about.
Rod started experimenting with drugs early, popping his mother's Seconal, a barbiturate he thinks she got from her dentist. He was smoking pot and drinking before high school. By the time he was a sophomore, he'd moved on to acid and Quaaludes.
In 1974, when he was sixteen, Rod told his mother he was gay. She didn't take the news well, and he left the farm for the city. In Chicago, he lived with a Puerto Rican drag queen for a while and then with a couple, working as a go-go boy and a bartender. Rod was partying a lot, falling in and out of friendships, but he remained a self-described "spinster."
He got a job running Medusa's, a new after-hours club owned by a friend. It was only open two days a week, but the popular party spot paid well. Rod worked with people he loved and felt he was doing something positive for the city, because the place attracted such a diverse, peaceful crowd.
Then AIDS hit.
"My best friend started getting sick," Rod recalls, "and I tried to take care of him as best as I could for a while, but it started to spiral down from there. I thought, 'My God, I'm a much bigger slut than he is, and if he gets this, I'm going to get this.'"
People in the neighborhood were wasting away. Some of Rod's friends lost up to a third of their body weight and had no energy. Rod had to wear gloves, a gown, a mask and a head scarf to visit them in the hospital. Watching their bodies convulsing kept him off sex for a year.
In 1985, two years after AIDS was first identified, Rod nearly passed out during an aerobics class. He made an appointment with a doctor and gave a blood sample. A week later, the doctor told Rod the sample had tested positive for HIV. Rod's best friend died from AIDS a month later.
Rod slowed down the sex, but he sped up his use of cocaine. One morning in 1986, he woke up on his couch with the doors and windows of his apartment wide open, his friends standing above him. He remembered nothing from the previous night.
The only infected people who seemed to be doing well were those who moved away and started fresh. Rod hadn't spoken to his mother in more than a decade; she was now living in California with her new husband. Rod called her, told her that he was HIV-positive, then packed up his stuff and went to live with her in Anaheim. But the fresh start didn't help: He got into freebasing cocaine and became infected with Hepatitis B. Rod thought it was the big one, full-blown AIDS. He called a cousin in Colorado and moved here to die.
There wasn't much drama to Bob Dorshimer's childhood. He grew up in Pennsylvania with a sister, a mother who worked part-time and a father who was self-employed in the textile business. When he was a teenager, he worked as a lifeguard on "the same New Jersey shore that Billy Joel sings about." He had friends and girlfriends and played sports in high school.
He came to Colorado to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango -- and ski. An "average beer-drinking Joe," he experimented a little with pot and ate mushrooms one Halloween in Boulder. He took his junior year off and spent six months at an internship at a residential treatment center in Pennyslvania and another six months backpacking through Europe.
The trip was also a spiritual journey. Bob was figuring out what mattered most in his life, thinking about fatherhood and his own sexuality. He decided he wanted to further his education and also put his political beliefs into action.
Bob finished school after his year off, then went to work with his father for a year. He returned to Colorado to take a job at the Denver Children's Home, counseling adolescents with mental-health and substance-abuse problems. Several years later, he moved on to Arapahoe County's Department of Human Services, where he saw how drugs had robbed some parents of their ability to take care of their children. Many of those kids had severe mental illnesses as a result. And while the goal was to keep families together, sometimes that simply wasn't possible. "Unfortunately, the substance addiction is sometimes stronger than the bond between a mother and child," Bob says. "Understanding that intense addiction is one of the reasons I continue this career. As a caseworker, looking at the love between a mother and a child and seeing addiction break that bond -- that's powerful."
In 1997, about to turn thirty, Bob took three months off for another spiritual journey. He knew he wanted to be a father, but he also knew that he was gay -- and that it was time to come out.
"It was awesome," he remembers. "My friends were like, ŒGoddamn, it's about time, we've known something's been going on.'" They celebrated with dinner and dancing at a gay bar.
Bob's next job was as an impact family therapist with the Adams County Department of Social Services. He finished the coursework for a master's in education and counseling while working there, then moved to a job with ARTS, a state-funded clinical program in the division of substance dependence at the University of Colorado School of Medicine's department of psychiatry. For three years, Bob was an ARTS program coordinator working with youth who had addiction issues. But then massive funding cuts in the state's child-welfare system hit, and that program was cut in half. Senior managers at ARTS asked Bob if he'd like to take over the HIV clinic.
Since a straight guy had been running the HIV program, management was happy to get a gay male there. And Bob's sexual orientation wasn't the only asset he brought to the job. He'd lost friends to AIDS, lost clients to AIDS. He'd done volunteer work and outreach with people infected with HIV. For Bob, the opening seemed like fate.
At the same time Bob was developing his professional life, he was building his personal life. He took on a six-year-old mentally challenged boy who had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome and came from a family struggling with substance-abuse issues. The boy had moved about fourteen times in the foster-care system over the previous three years. Bob started the process to adopt him.
"Please, no more homes," the boy said when he finally arrived at Bob's house.
"You're not going to have any more homes," Bob told him, "because I'm going to be your dad. This is your home. This is your bedroom. You're home. You can call me Dad now."
"I've always wanted a dad," the boy said.
Turns out he'd always wanted a brother, too.
After a couple of weeks in Colorado, Rod started feeling better. He realized he wasn't going to die -- at least not immediately. Denver ran at a slower pace than Chicago and California, and Rod slowed down, too.
He started taking more control of his health. The drugs prescribed for AIDS in the late '80s seemed to kill as many people as the disease did, so he explored a spiritual path of healing and joined a support group that helped him deal with all the ramifications of having the virus. Rod had other issues to work on, too: He'd been diagnosed as bipolar, like his mother, and he'd fluctuate between depression and times when he was productive and focused.
After waiting tables at a pizza joint, Rod landed a good job at a travel company, where he stayed for twelve years, working his way up to operations manager and a $60,000 annual salary. On the job, Rod got to travel around the world. Although he steered clear of drugs, he enjoyed hangovers in Australia, Fiji, Tahiti, South America, Europe and Southeast Asia.
By 1999, Rod felt better than he had in years -- but now forty, he also felt a terrible sense of loss. He'd wasted a quarter of his life waiting to die. "I was suddenly supposed to have a life plan," he remembered, "and I had always thought that I didn't need one because I wasn't going to be around."
He moved to San Francisco and took a new position in the travel industry. Business was great until the dot-com bust. He found another job in Los Angeles, where he worked four days a week -- then returned to San Francisco and waited tables the other three. But in the week after 9/11, Rod lost both jobs.
He was out of work for six months, then finally got a job waiting tables at a steakhouse in a fancy San Francisco hotel. But he came down with shingles, and since he had no health insurance, he self-medicated with Vicodin. Popping six pills a day threw his bipolar disorder into even greater disarray.
One night, Rod went to a party with some of his co-workers from the hotel. He watched as people put shards of crystal in a pipe, then torched the glass with a butane lighter, turning the solid into a liquid, then into a gas that they could inhale. "Oh, that's so cute," Rod thought as he saw the meth vaporize.
Rod had snorted meth once in the '80s, but it burned his nose and he hated it. The smokers seemed to be enjoying themselves, however, and Rod watched them take hits as though he were observing a science experiment. He'd already taken his daily dose of Vicodin and had had a drink or two. Finally, he went down to the apartment's lower level and took a hit. The meth didn't taste like anything.
Just blow the hit out, the partyers told Rod. No need to hold it in the lungs too long.
Rod exhaled. For the first time in weeks, the pain from the shingles all over his back and chest wasn't noticeable. He felt great. He went home and started straightening up his apartment. He had so much energy that when he went to bed, he had trouble sleeping.
He had no trouble deciding whether he wanted to do meth again. "It felt really good, so I was going to do it," he remembers. "There was no doubt about it."
The next day, he scored a quarter of a gram for $25. Rod bought a pipe, incinerated the meth inside it and blasted off again. For a few weeks, he'd get high and then work. But soon he'd just get high. When his manager called to see if Rod was okay and planned to return to work, Rod quit his job.
But tweaking at home alone could be boring. High on meth, Rod took apart a couple of VCRs and tried, unsuccessfully, to put them back together. One night he rewired his doorbell. Another night he called his Internet service provider because he thought he heard voices coming across the connection. Then, finally, he started surfing the "party and play" scene online. Meth and sex were soon inseparable.
At first meth allows you to keep an erection right through orgasm. Once you start hitting the pipe on a regular basis, though, it's harder to keep an erection. But the sex drive stays strong. And mixed with Viagra, meth is a popular party cocktail.
Meth turned Rod's life into an orgiastic blur. When the sun came up, he'd find himself in a place he didn't recognize, speaking to himself incoherently. He blew through $45,000 worth of 401K funds. Buying meth was more important than paying rent, and he lost his apartment. He lived in his car for a few months, floating up and down the West Coast. He smoked crack in a shelter in Los Angeles, but it wasn't as good as meth.
Then one night on skid row, addicts stole everything Rod had left. He decided it was time to leave California and move back to Colorado, where his mother now lived.
He found a job right away with a travel agency. But then he went to a party where a lot of gay men were doing meth, and he got high and got laid. The life he'd just started putting back together fell apart fast. Rod stayed high as long as he could, bouncing from party to party. Sometimes it was just two men who got together, other times threesomes. Some binges went on for several days and nights, with men coming and going. At some parties they'd watch porn, at others they'd smoke pot. Sometimes people would take shots of GHB, a central-nervous-system depressant that makes sex more animalistic, more intense.
Many of them did not use condoms.
Rod's online profile stated that he was HIV-positive, and he only hooked up with guys who were at least in their thirties. "I kinda justified it in my own head that it would be okay if it was someone who was over 35, because they'd already been through the first wave and knew how to protect themselves," Rod says. "In Denver, it's like the military policy: Don't ask, don't tell." Before he penetrated someone, Rod put on a condom. But when he was on the receiving end, he didn't always ask the other man to use one.
Rod tried to clean up his act again. He got an apartment and a job -- then relapsed and lost it all.
Finally, in 2003, after a several-day binge, he found himself at ARTS, which he'd heard about through the Colorado AIDS Project. And at ARTS, he met Bob, who'd been watching meth decimate the gay community.
"Meth does not discriminate," Bob says. "It's getting into white-collar, highly professional socio-economic circles. People who have been committed to each other for a very long time who have not done drugs have been introduced to this drug. Meth is so unique because it creeps. It creeps from the highly professional to the white collar to the blue collar to the guy who's living on public assistance.
"This drug is different from other drugs," he continues. "Crack cocaine has generally stayed within the inner-city populations. It didn't creep out to the suburbs, it didn't go up the economic food chain. Meth has creeped into suburban worlds. Mommies are using it for weight control, and other people are using it as a sexual-advancing drug, better than Viagra."
And meth definitely had a hold on Rod. After meeting with Bob, he found another job waiting tables at a restaurant downtown, but relapsed within a few weeks. The pattern continued for months. After a frustrating day at work, Rod would find a party online, then hit a gay bathhouse and binge on sex and meth for four or five days without sleep. By the time the binge ended, his job had, too.
In September 2004, Rod relapsed yet again: He went to a meth house, met a guy and partied on sex and drugs for a week. "It was a really bad stint," he remembers.
He'd been living in a friend's basement; when he finally returned home, the friend kicked him out. Rod was homeless for a while, and then another friend allowed him to spend the night at his house -- but required Rod to be out of the home during the day. To burn daylight, Rod returned to ARTS. He began aggressively participating in the rehabilitation treatment and started attending twelve-step meetings.
Rod hasn't smoked meth in more than two years. But giving up the drug didn't solve all his problems. Back to waiting tables, he felt like his life didn't matter. "Why did I get sober?" he wondered. "Was it for this? Please tell me it wasn't for this."
And then Bob called.
Bob Dorshimer has always cheered for the underdog, both in his professional and personal life. As Rod was getting off meth for good in 2004, Bob was adopting a second son -- the child of a teenage mother in Nebraska who was hooked on meth. Bob knew that kids with special needs like this boy were the least likely to be adopted, the underdogs. He seemed a perfect addition to the family.
The adoption was finalized when Bob heard that the director's job was open at Denver's Office of Drug Strategy. He decided he wanted to be Denver's first gay drug czar -- and his friends gave "the queen" a tiara at a celebration party after he got the job.
The Office of Drug Strategy coordinates city policies with the anti-drug efforts coming out of the White House, covering drug prevention for everyone from kindergartners to the elderly and linking local agencies with funding opportunities. When Bob took over, he looked at all the stats involving meth abuse and saw that the gay community was particularly vulnerable.
"Meth affects people the same, but when meth targets one subgroup of people it really deteriorates the social network of that subgroup," he explains. "It's penetrating within multiple social networks. As a gay man, it's hard now to know someone who hasn't done it or at least tried it."
Talking with Dr. Mark Thrun, director of HIV Prevention at Denver Health, Bob realized that there was a legitimate concern that HIV infections in the city would increase because of the meth epidemic. "It's a different emotional situation," Thrun says. "It's challenging for people to come out about their HIV status because they fear rejection from their potential partners. So they use meth, they get disinhibited and they don't worry about having to come out about their HIV status or having to use a condom."
A recent survey of 981 gay men in Denver found that 11 percent had used meth within the past year -- about ten times the state's overall rate of meth use. And Colorado's meth usage is about double the national rate, which experts at least partly attribute to the ease of getting the drug that flows up from Mexico on I-25.
But Bob didn't just collect statistics. He met with citizens and heard their concerns about drug dealers and crackhouses in their neighborhoods. He coordinated the Denver Drug Task Force, a group of 28 community members who started working on a citywide strategic plan for prevention, intervention and treatment. His ten months as drug czar was one of the most rewarding times of Bob's life.
Bob's home life was becoming increasingly demanding, however. A single father of two boys, he was now fostering a third child -- a boy from a family addicted to meth -- whom he hoped to adopt.
Bob needed more flexibility in his schedule, and more money wouldn't hurt, either. He and his boys liked to travel and snowboard; their favorite activity was going to Winter Park for the day, then eating onion rings and watching a hippie band play. The tradition continued even after one son broke his arm in the terrain park two years ago.
So when the executive-director position opened at the Council, a fifty-year-old non-profit treatment, prevention and addiction-intervention agency based in Denver and funded by grants and Mile High United Way, Bob jumped at the chance.
At the Council, Bob was contacted by Imani Latif, director of It Takes a Village, an Aurora nonprofit devoted to reducing health and social disparities, particularly among people of color. It Takes a Village receives funding through the Ryan White program, and those grants require that people from all walks of life who are infected with HIV be recipients of the services. Latif already had workers getting the word out in the minority community, and she hoped Bob might be able to suggest someone who could focus on the increased HIV infections tied to meth use in the gay community.
Bob knew just the person: Rod Rushing.
"Take a look at this guy," Bob said. "He's pretty powerful, he's pretty amazing, and I think he deserves a chance."
Latif did take a look. And while she usually brings a potential hire before a review panel, she gave Rod the full-time job after just one meeting. She was impressed by his sincerity, his understanding, his passion for fighting the epidemic. "He laid out how he would get referrals of clients, how he would help the clients, what he would do," Latif remembers. "Sometimes you find leaders in your community who are your least likely leaders."
Today, Rod and Bob work together as colleagues.
Bob brought his intense interest in the meth epidemic to the Council. "It's personal to me as a gay man, because it's affecting my community as well as the children I adopted," he says. He wants the Council to be the first agency in town to engage the gay community in meth treatment and awareness. So far, he says, the effort is mostly one of "cultural competency," focusing on a new treatment group for gay men who use meth and either have been infected with HIV or are at risk of infection.
With these men, it's critical that they have someone they can look to who's struggled with the same demon. So Bob enlisted Rod's help.
"We use that buzzword 'cultural competence,' but Rod is like the essence of cultural competence because he sees the differences," Latif says. "He recognizes the specific cultural needs of people. But his heart is so big that people relate to him and confide in him regardless of their ethnic background. And that is rare."
As part of his work with It Takes a Village, Rod takes clients to the doctor, interpreting medical terminology and discussing treatments. During one cold day last winter, he picked up an HIV-positive man at seven in the morning and took him to dialysis treatment so he wouldn't have to take a bus. Another client didn't speak English, but Rod somehow made himself clear.
Clients aren't the only ones who appreciate Rod. As he coordinates efforts with other HIV clinics around town, administrators have recognized his talents. "I'm telling you, people are trying to steal Rod from me," says Latif.
One of those people is Bob. Armed with a $37,000 planning grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, he and Rod are studying the best ways to intervene and treat gay men who use meth. As part of the project, Rod will travel to a few cities, including Chicago and possibly San Francisco, to research what they've done so that Denver can take advantage of their experience. And after they've come up with a solid proposal, Bob and Rod plan to request a $150,000 three-year grant to fully implement the program with four or five staffers, plus volunteers.
"It takes mental-health support, it takes a good after-care plan, it takes family support, it takes friends' support to turn somebody around on meth," Bob says. "It's a pretty comprehensive support plan. Looking at any community and any group of people, you try to provide cultural competency with treatment. For the gay community, you want to use language and treatment protocols that meet their needs."
While working with the city, Bob instituted a program created by the Matrix Institute on Addictions. That program has a gay variation called "Getting Off" that the two hope to use in this project.
Rod knows how tough it is to get off -- and stay off. He goes to meetings of Kicking Tina, a support group that he and four other gay men founded, twice a week. He also helps facilitate a cognitive-therapy group that's designed specifically for people who use stimulants, to help them understand why they behave the way they do. He's been appointed to the Mayor's Office of HIV Resources, which oversees the administering of funds to combat AIDS, and is pursuing becoming a certified addictions counselor. And at 48, he's buying a home for the first time.
Rod is working hard -- but then, he's making up for lost time. And he wants to hold up the mirror so that other gay men can see how meth can impact their lives. "It's having no worries," Rod says. "You lose your anxiety. Let's just say that for me, there's a whole piece about being an aging gay man, and there's a whole piece that causes me anxiety, and there's a whole piece about being HIV-positive, and there's a whole piece about being lonely, and there's a whole piece about being inadequate because I don't have a formal education. Meth erases all that."
If it doesn't erase its user altogether.
With Bob's help, Rod got clean. Now he's on a mission to help others separate the myths of meth from the harsh realities. "I firmly believe that this drug has done so much damage to my community and to people I know and to people I don't know that I'm not going to participate in it anymore," he says. "It's not going to be part of my reality. And I'll be okay if I don't do it. That's the other thing."
He's kicked the bitch.
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