Thursday, June 26, 2008
Everyday A Challenge
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
So what happened with gay men and meth? A couple of years ago everyone was in a panic. Eighth Avenue was crowded with bus stop posters decrying the scourge that was crystal methamphetamine, it seemed like everyone knew someone who had just lost their job or soul to Tina, brunch pals were dropping like flies. Health officials and community activists made the direst possible predictions about the perfect storm of meth and HIV, not to mention flesh-eating, drug-resistant bacterial infections. Yikes!
Well, the truth is that meth, like crack cocaine, is still around and still wreaking havoc in the lives of gay men and others; it's just gone underground. The public panic has waned, as it always does - a point this newspaper's Duncan Osborne has taken pains to point out - and all the hoopla has subsided into the daily grind of users using and former users struggling to stay clean.
The effort to silence the seductive siren's call of crystal meth has proven in many cases to be a tremendously difficult battle that still takes enormous effort even years after a user has admitted he has a problem and taken substantial steps to address it.
Just ask anyone in the still crowded rooms of the 12-step group Crystal Meth Anonymous (http://www.nycma.org), which has more than 30 meetings a week in Manhattan. Those guys know the different cycles of relapse, because they hear about it every day.
There are people like Davis (all the names in this article have been changed) in early recovery but still struggling to go for even a week without binging. "It's like I'm trying to climb up the slope of a mountain and just can't get traction. I keep sliding back. If I have money, I'll buy drugs. If I feel down, I'll go online to try to hook up with someone who's using. I just can't get over the hump."
Achieving abstinence can be particularly difficult with meth because the way it operates on the brain may actually interfere with a person's ability to withstand triggers to use. Cocaine is known to flush the brain with more than 500 percent the normal level of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, whereas meth can stimulate the release of more than 1,500 percent. But when the party's finally over, a user is running only on fumes to support his emotional stability as the brain slowly attempts to recover.
For many people, getting sober requires an all-out effort, not infrequently an inpatient detox program with specific experience in treating meth addicts like the ones at Manhattan's Addiction Institute (http://www.addictioninstituteny.org), at the Pride Institute (http://www.pride-institute.com), a long-time presence in Minnesota that now operates in New Jersey as well. But go-away rehab programs are costly and often not covered by stingy managed care companies. Luckily, there are other options, like the LGBT Community Center's new outpatient recovery program (http://gaycenter.org/health/recovery) that operates on a sliding scale based on people's ability to pay and accepts Medicaid.
But all too often, even when someone has been able to cobble together a few months of clean time, and has a whole host of new perspectives on what made them vulnerable to getting hooked on meth, and has even re-crafted their world from a shady network of users into a supportive sober community, relapse is more often the norm than an exception.
"I was six months off meth," said Charlie, "I was going to CMA meetings every day. But I was lonely I hadn't learned how to have sex and be intimate with another guy without meth. Slowly I started back sniffing around online, then jerking off thinking about crystal sex. An old fuck buddy from like more than a year ago texted me one day I called in sick to work and was back in the saddle with meth."
For Charlie, his relapse was luckily just a slip and within a couple days, he was back at CMA and slowly counting each clean day again. But for some guys, getting back to sobriety can take months. "I was so ashamed of myself," said Gordon who relapsed last year after being two-and-a-half years off meth. "I was supposed to be a pillar of sobriety, advising people who just got clean. I was supposed to have it figured out. When I broke up with my boyfriend, I got so depressed, and then when I relapsed, I just couldn't face telling people it had happened. And so it kept happening. It was really a nightmare."
While Gordon has stopped again, the sense of fragility - that the specter of meth addition might raise its head at any time - plagues him daily. "It's never over with crystal," he said. "As long as it's out there somewhere, I need to be constantly vigilant."
While the intensity of the drug and its effect on the brain explains some of the frequency of relapse, it's likely that there are other contributory factors. Internalized homophobia may find expression in the power of the drug to silence all the self-lacerating chatter that goes on in the minds of gay men as they attempt to find love and connection in a world still freaked out by HIV and where standards for physical beauty and success can often seem unattainably high.
Crystal's sneaky specialty is that it puts gay men in a precious mental zone where they can be with themselves, with their own bodies and with other men and their bodies, without the often covert self-sabotaging thoughts that tell them they are too fat, too stupid, too something to be loved. The problem, of course, is the awful price that meth exacts for the few hours of unalloyed pleasure.
If relapse is regularly a part of the recovery process with meth, the challenge is learning how to quit through slips - not let them deter you but rather teach you, helping you to get back up on the horse. Relapse is dangerous, certainly, but the hope is that the skills that someone learns in getting clean once can be applied when they are needed again - skills like reaching out to others, making sure there are plenty of resources to help and not the bare minimum, and uncovering the shadowy influence of internalized homophobia.
Gay men are nothing if not resilient. In the ongoing battle against addiction to crystal meth, meeting the challenge of relapse means being fully who we are and not allowing a drug to turn us into mere shells of ourselves.
Christopher Murray, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice in Chelsea who can be reached at http://www.christophermurray.org.
Melissa Sklarz, a New York transgender rights advocate, shown here with New York Governor David A. Paterson, will be on the Rules Committee at the Democratic National Convention in August.
Conventional Wisdom Is the Goal
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Although she snagged only a cameo in the 2005 film "TransAmerica" starring Felicity Huffman, Melissa Sklarz has played a long-standing role as one of the most respected and effective transgender community activists in New York. After proving an important mover in the recently successful push to finally get GENDA, a gender expression non-discrimination bill, through the State Assembly, she was just named one of ten New Yorkers on the Rules Committee of the Democratic National Convention set for Denver this August. In 2004, Sklarz was one of only six transgendered delegates at the convention in Boston.
A director of the New York Trans Rights Organization, she's currently the vice chair of National Stonewall Democrats' board of directors and is a former president of Manhattan's Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.
By day, Sklarz, 57, is the collections manager at the Actor's Fund Credit Union, having previously worked for Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Gay Games. A former high school varsity athlete, she's a center fielder on the Vikings team in the Big Apple Softball League, where she's played the last eight years.
A 14-year resident of Manhattan, Sklarz recently moved to Woodside in Queens. Growing up on Long Island, she went to her first transgender bar in 1976 and has "never really looked back."
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: So, you are heading to Denver!
MELISSA SKLARZ: I have been elected to be on the Rules Committee as one of the representatives from New York State at the Democratic National Convention.
CM: Does that mean you are an Obamamaniac?
MS: I was elected as Hillary Clinton supporter, and the New York part of the Rules Committee is made up of about 60 percent former Clinton supporters which is no surprise, since she did so well in New York. State Assemblymember Jonathan Bing was also selected, and he supported Hillary. Gay activist Corey Johnson will come, too, and he is an Obama supporter. For all of us, going on the Rules Committee, but not as delegates, will mean we have credentials and access without having a floor vote.
CM: Are you supporting Obama now? How is he on trans issues?
MS: Yes, I am. He is supportive of a trans-inclusive ENDA [the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act] and trans-inclusive hate crimes legislation. Those are the two big issues, the only ones that either of the candidates will ruminate on.
After he's elected, Obama may well think more outside the box. But anything progressive that the congressional Democrats manage to pass legislatively will be challenged by the conservatives through legal action and - guess what? - the courts have been thoroughly Republicanized. Just look here in New York State, where we are seeing conservatives suing Governor Paterson for saying he'll recognize any gay marriage performed outside of New York.
CM: Do you think the trans community nationwide shares the optimism of Senator Obama's supporters?
MS: I cannot speak for an entire national community, but here in New York, we are thrilled about the passage of GENDA in the State Assembly. That victory provided for reasonable and serious debate about our community on the floor of the Legislature. So we are doing good here, as for the other 49 states... I think our trans community is used to being victimized and it's hard sometimes to even acknowledge our victories. I think trans people carry their personal hurts and defeats along with them. However, I expect the political environment of 2009 to be very different, and that it will enter the realm of exciting possibility.
CM: Will there be any other trans people at the convention?
MS: From coast to coast, there will be eight or nine of us in Denver, a few more than last time, so we've seen an increase, which is good. In Boston in 2004, the most important thing for us was the coming together of a national trans community working as one to create a foundation for our political process. We had a meeting with the Kerry people with a full national transgender agenda prepared. They were not very open to it, but what we did ask them to do was to stop saying "gay, gay, gay" all the time and instead refer to "the LGBT community," and that they did.
CM: You mentioned the passage of GENDA in the State Assembly, what's the next step there?
MS: Having the bill come before the State Senate. Senator Tom Duane is carrying the bill, but I don't think we have any Republican involvement yet. The Senate has historically been unfriendly to LGBT issues, but we either need to find Republicans to support it, or to take back the Senate, so that's the next step.
CM: What to your mind was the tipping point on passing GENDA in the Assembly?
MS: Well, the Empire State Pride Agenda made it a number-one priority of election year 2008. We got our coalition together - who told their Assembly people, who eventually were able to convince Speaker Sheldon Silver of its importance. The explosion over ENDA in Washington may also have had an impact. But the clear commitment of ESPA is to make the Democrats the majority in the State Senate.
The process for GENDA in the Assembly this year was great. The bill went through quick and easy. I was there for the debate and was very moved by hearing our friends and rather shocked by listening to our enemies, I've never heard firsthand what the conservative Republicans think of our GENDA bill before. I've spent almost ten years trying to convince our Democrat friends this is important and valid. But hearing the Republican perspective for the first time during the debate was ugly. The conservative party has their talking points about GENDA, and it has to do with locker rooms and bathrooms, and the idea that sexual predators will now be dressing up as women and getting access to women-only spaces
CM: How does it feel to hear these things?
MS: Simple - more work. More work is all. Hell, they are lawmakers, and they are entitled to their opinion. They just need more education. We need more voices, more faces, more education. But our friends were great - Danny O'Donnell, Deborah Glick, Dick Gottfried, and Brooklyn's Jim Brennan, they were all great.
CM: Tell me about the pain of the last Congressional session's debate about ENDA.
MS: We had spent years... how do I put this? In the Bush agenda there is no room for trans rights or LGBT rights. They worked very hard to de-gay their legislation. All the work of the Clinton administration, they worked hard to remove. Only since 2006, since the Dems took over Congress, have new ideas come into play. I started lobbying federally in the Clinton years and stopped in the Bush years. It didn't seem to make sense.
CM: Are you saying you weren't surprised by what happened to ENDA?
MS: As recently as 2002 we were trying to get the language of ENDA changed to be trans-inclusive. It finally had a chance when the Human Rights Campaign changed their mind in 2004. After the fiasco here in New York when trans-language was never included in the gay rights bills, Matt Foreman went to bat for us, while he was running the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, but then last year HRC reversed its decision.
CM: So why did the powers that be decide to exclude the trans-inclusive language?
MS: Hard to say, really. My guess is that perhaps it came from George Miller [the California Democrat who chairs the House's Committee on Education and Labor] or it's very possible that the supportive Republicans came together in conference with [Connecticut] Representative Christopher Shays and demanded a gay-only ENDA. We don't know, but the Dems didn't want a war on this. Whether it was ultimately Miller, Barney Frank, or Nancy Pelosi's strategy decision, I don't know. But HRC supported it. In any event, it would be hard to change it back now that it's gone through the House. I'm not all that optimistic.
CM: I'm struck by your dispassionate stance, how practical you are. Is that the voice of experience?
MS: My focus is the fight. I don't focus on victory. I'm in it for the fight. Our trans community is so small and virtually invisible, and for me to make demands of the culture at large where so few relate to and recognize our needs would be a waste of energy.
CM: How to you keep going?
MS: I think the fight is worth it. I like the fights. I like the ideas behind the fights.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
My Revson Fellow pal Claudia Preparata introduced me to her friend, writer Lisa Chamberlain this past weekend. Lisa's new book, Slackonomics, comes out in a week or so and looks like a terrific window in the the generation x world through an economic lense. Check it out at her webpage!
Four Women & a Waitress
June 13, 2008
By Christopher Murray
Each of the brief one-acts on this double bill features a pair of women engaged in conflict -- two sisters in Edward Allan Baker's Rosemary With Ginger and two actors in Strindberg's The Stronger, translated by Carl Mueller -- expressed in coarse argument in the former and subtle observation in the latter.
In Rosemary With Ginger, the eponymous sisters come together upon the closing of Rhode Island's Peter Pan Diner in 1993. Among the worn chairs, dirty walls, and half-filled coffee cups, they attempt to fill out an entry for a mother-of-the-month contest to honor their long-suffering mom but quickly fall into recrimination about the way their lives have turned out.
Pamela Shaw, with big hair and blue sunglasses and cracking both gum and wise, portrays the alcoholic Rosemary as struggling to maintain a sense of umbrage at most likely losing custody of her children. Aria Alpert as Ginger maintains a tense smile in the face of her sister's foulmouthed jeremiads even as her own marriage has hit the rocks. The play, directed by actor Karl Bury, is a little clunky, following standardized dramatic clichés, but the actors reveal the bonds of survivorhood that temper the sister's obvious distaste for one another.
In Strindberg's jewel of a monologue, Frau X (the frisky and intelligent Francesca Faridany) comes upon her old acting and romantic rival, Mlle. Y (noted Swiss actor and director Marthe Keller) in a café on Christmas Eve. While Frau X talks and talks, working her way through nostalgia, accusation, and finally self-satisfied admiration for her friend, Mlle. Y sits silently, nibbling on almonds and reacting only in gesture and glance.
The piece, directed by opera director Stephen Wadsworth, is a cheeky bit of theatrical effect in its deliberate unbalance, but it works, because both actors are so tuned into one another's communication of emotion and tension, expressed in endless anecdote or the meaningful silence of a cat. Keller's beatific smile and worried eyes say volumes, while Faridany's sense of comedy and pathos is evident from her entrance, when she first spies her friend and her eyes light up and the torrent of words gushes forth.
Presented by Maggie Maes and Kimberly Vaughn
at the ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St., NYC.
June 11-22. Tue.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 5 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me
June 03, 2008
By Christopher Murray
Katie Bender's wistful and moving new play, in which she also appears, is set in the west Texas desert town of Marfa, which, a program note explains, the playwright passed through in 2004, learning it was the adopted home and creative laboratory of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who died in 1994.
Throughout This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me, Bender has a fictionalized version of Judd (the craggy Stephen Payne affecting a folksy twinkle reminiscent of Will Rogers) deliver a series of monologues explaining his creative and social vision as defined by his commitment to building an artistic haven among the dusty, disaffected denizens of Marfa.
Bender also explores the impact of this transplanted patriarch on the intersecting lives of a young woman named Love (Bender), who is retracing the pit stops of her wayward post-hippie mother; a disappointed local named Scrappy (Jesse Presler); and, in flashbacks, Scrappy's bellicose, rifle-toting sister Crystal (Mary Guiteras). Scrappy and Crystal were abandoned by their parents to white-trash squalor and an intense, almost incestuous interdependence.
On Stephanie Tucci's economically designed set, short scenes alternate among three locales: Judd's studio, the bar where Scrappy pours whiskey for Love as they share tales of lost legacies and shattered dreams, and the dilapidated front porch of the siblings' house, littered with dented Diet Coke cans used for target practice and the jetsam of a hardscrabble childhood: broken toys and overwashed underclothes.
Lost parents and the betrayals inherent in moving on from childhood's disillusionments are themes expressed mostly in traditional realistic dialogue, with expressionistic collage elements added as the play builds to its climax under Stephanie Yankwitt's deft direction. The subtle and apt costuming is by Jennifer L. Adams.
An excessive reliance on monologues to express the characters' emotional states reveals the play to be incompletely dramatized, but heartfelt performances engage the audience's empathy. Presler stands out in a workhorse role, his pinched, unshaven face moving from an adolescent's gawky credulity to a young man's numb disbelief in the possibility of his own redemption.
Presented by Rockstead Productions and the Cardinal Group at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex's Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., New York City.
May 29-June 15. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
Casting by Judy Bowman.