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Car Toon Spin: A Journey of Acceptance from Roger Rabbit to Meth

By Christopher Archiopoli

When I think back, I can recognize signs as early as kindergarten. However, it wasn’t until the summer between 7th and 8th grades that I knew with certainty I was gay. We were in line for Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin at Disneyland. The man in front of us was wearing a tank top. I don’t remember much else about him except his hair. He was a ginger, and not just on his head. He had a full pelt of chest and armpit hair spilling out of his tank top. I was mesmerized. Recognizing I was gay was not a relief. No. At that moment, it felt like the darkest timeline.

Society and my family had taught me that being gay was wrong. Men liked women. That was the way of the world. Sitting in the back of our family’s white Ford Aerostar minivan driving back to Phoenix from Anaheim, I vowed never to act on my newly realized attraction to men. Maybe it was just a phase? Maybe I could still be “normal” and get married to a woman and have a family. Maybe I would be a monk? I could only confidently say I would never act on my feelings.

I still remember interacting with my grandma while visiting Florida one summer. She had come into the bedroom I was staying in to let me know a group of teenage girls was in the pool. When I said I’d rather keep reading, she said, “Don’t tell me you don’t like girls like your cousin?!?” I’m still unsure who this cousin is, but it confirmed my commitment to chastity. Only one person in my class was “out” when I graduated from high school in 1999. I had crushes on boys, but I never acted on my interests. Besides, I was an overweight nerd, editor of the yearbook, and a little too vocal about my love of Star Trek; nobody expected me to have romantic interests, male or female.

It wasn’t until after high school that my defenses started to slip when I met the girl who changed my life. I was working my first job at Blockbuster Video, and Megan immediately saw me for what I was. Not only was she proudly “out” with her sexuality, but she was cool. She got me to talk about my crush on one of the assistant managers, and she introduced me to the gay scene in Phoenix. I was only 18, so my options were limited. She took me to bookstores, after-hours clubs, and my first Pride. The world was opening up to me for the very first time. I saw a glimmer that maybe it was OK to be gay.

It was during this time that I came out to those around me. Mostly close friends to start, but gradually, I became comfortable with this being part of my identity with new people in my life. The outliers were my family. Based on snide comments and the context of knowing them my entire life, I was certain they would not accept me if they found out. Then, I met a boy. Chad was my first boyfriend. He was cute, fun, and confident in his sexuality- all of the things I wasn’t. Chad and I moved in together after only a few months of dating. After I graduated from high school, my family had moved to Kansas. They purchased a small house for me to live in while I attended college and would visit several times a year. Shortly after Chad moved in, my mother announced she would visit. I was excited to see her but panicked at what to do about the man who was living with me. I asked him to stay with a friend for the weekend and set up a second bedroom to give the appearance I lived with a roommate. Her flight back to Kansas was scheduled when I was at work. When I got home that evening, I found a note on my pillow from my mother telling me that she knew I had chosen an “alternative lifestyle” but that she still loved me. I didn’t talk to her for over a month after that, and our relationship has never been the same.

Through all of this, I still maintained the shame of being gay. Society stigmatizes and caricatures our identity. We’re the GBF (gay best friend), fun co-worker, or we’re dying of AIDS. I began working in the beauty industry in 2002. All of a sudden, if you were male, it was assumed you were gay. It was like a mirror universe where straight people had to come out instead of the reverse. I had found my people. I continued my journey of becoming comfortable with my sexuality, but it was during this time that I also became aware of how this played into masculinity and my role as a cis-gendered man in the world.

I met my next serious boyfriend in 2006, and he changed the world for me in many ways. None more important than these two:

1) He and I moved from Phoenix, AZ, to Seattle, WA. 

2) He introduced me to crystal meth. 

The moment I met him was a fulcrum point in the trajectory of my life. To this day, I have a love-hate relationship with him, Seattle, and meth. 

My journey through meth addiction and into recovery is what ultimately led me to acceptance of who I am. Knowing my life without this experience is impossible, but I am grateful for the lessons. He and I used meth together off and on for about a year until we broke up. I continued using sporadically without him after our breakup, but my relationship with meth waned as my social connections in Seattle began to blossom. I drank on weekends and would sometimes do cocaine with friends, but I stayed away from meth for several years after that relationship ended.

In 2011, that all changed. I worked too much, leaving little to no time for my social or home lives. I wasn’t just burning the candle at both ends; I had stuck it in the oven at 450˚. I started using cocaine regularly as “daddy’s little helper” to get things done. When I lost my dealer, meth was easier to find and served the same purpose for a fraction of the price. Things only got worse when my dealer showed me how to slam. (For the uninitiated, slamming is slang for injecting) And, WOW. Never had I felt something so intense. I had always been awkward and ashamed of my sexuality. With the meth rushing through my veins, none of that mattered. The pleasure was paramount. 

Within the space of just a few months, I lost everything. I went from being at the top of my career and having a strong social network to being unemployed and ostracized by my friends. I would have been unhoused if my family hadn’t paid to move me back to Arizona. There, things only got worse. Pulled away from everything I knew and loved, I had no purpose. I wasn’t working, and I was living with my parents. Receiving $500 a week from unemployment with few expenses and nothing but time left me both listless and without hope. I attempted suicide on multiple occasions, but ultimately, this was the beginning of my long recovery journey.

I spent about 10 months in Tucson and Phoenix before moving to Olympia, WA, where I resided for 6 months. In the spring of 2013, a friend coaxed me back to Seattle to work at a salon he was opening. I had been sober for close to a year, and life felt like it was getting back on track. Between 2012 and 2016, I attempted sobriety on my own with mixed results. I had periods of use that would last months at a time. I had learned to recognize when my life was getting close to the edge and was skilled at pulling myself back from the precipice. However, I was stuck in a causality loop, repeating the same mistakes and repairs in what felt like perpetuity. 

To be a man is to be strong. You must not show weakness or admit fault. These qualities were reinforced in my upbringing and by society. The predominant model of recovery available is based on the 12 steps, and its foundation requires anonymity outside of groups. There is a structured foundation from which people can build their recovery, a roadmap to follow that doesn’t allow room for deviation from the date you start. To be clear, I have nothing wrong with this model. It has saved countless lives. It just didn’t work for me. Holding hands, reading from a book, asking for money, and referring to God with a capital “G” felt too much like church. As a gay man, the church has never been particularly welcoming.

What saved my life and helped me come to terms with what masculinity actually looks like was the harm reduction-based model of recovery I found in Strength Over Speed (SOS). The harm reduction model acknowledges that recovery is as unique as the individual and is rarely linear. I was drawn to meeting people where they’re at; not being beholden to a specific date and accepting that someone is in recovery when they say they’re in recovery has always felt more authentic. 

There are 10 group agreements that we read at the beginning of each SOS meeting. These are four of the most important and the ones that bonded me to this brotherhood for life:

  • Abstinence: This is a safe place for those who wish to continue and/or build on their

abstinence from Crystal Meth. 

  • Respect: SOS respects all identities and recovery journeys. SOS is a closed group for gay, queer, bisexual men, trans-masculine/men, and nonbinary/genderfluid AMAB individuals. Many tools and options help people reach their goals; all ideas are welcome and will be supported.

  • Relapse: You are encouraged to discuss any relapse in the group to benefit learning and growth. You will not be shamed or thrown out of the group if you relapse.

  • Discussions of Sexuality: Discussions revolve around Crystal use, sexual behaviors, struggling with sexual compulsion, and/or sex as a trigger for Crystal use. This is not a pick-up joint! Please respect each other’s sexual boundaries & feel free to discuss this with the facilitator or moderator leading these groups.

I felt accepted for the first time through the recovery I found in SOS. Not only was it OK to be gay, but it was OK to talk about it. It was OK to have feelings and to express our love for each other in a healthy way that was both sexual and platonic at the same time. I recognized that masculinity wasn’t defined by being butch and having sex with women. Each person defined it for themselves. There was strength in vulnerability. You could be gay (and even FLAMBOYANT) while still being masculine. There is strength in the community.

I have been active in recovery since November 2016. One of the few positive things from Donald Trump’s presidential election was an understanding that I needed to be clear-headed for the four years to come. That doesn’t mean my recovery has been perfect. Like most journeys, recovery isn’t linear. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes, there are detours, and sometimes you must start over. Shame and stigma are two of the biggest barriers to a person’s recovery. Society teaches us that people who use drugs are bad. They are undeserving of love and respect. More than anything, they have committed the cardinal sin of masculinity: they are weak. 

This presumption of weakness could not be more off base. To survive the proverbial gauntlet of fire that is thrown down by both our own brains and the trappings of society is something that not everyone survives. Those who make it through, the people I’ve met in recovery, are some of the strongest I’ve ever met. Today, I proudly identify as a gay man living with HIV in long-term recovery from crystal meth addiction. I am still learning what masculinity means to me, but I’m here for where that journey takes me.

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