The night was unforgiving. Save the growing expanse of dark, speckled only by the lone stars above, and the growing sting of cold. The crack pipe in my pocket had witnessed its last high an hour or so ago. The delirium of my last crack-cocaine-fueled high was waning, along with my waistline, causing the stolen sweatpants I was wearing to remain perpetually dangling halfway around my emaciated ass.

Usually, this would be fetching for the boys, the carrot to lure them in and then ask them for money or drugs, the stick that would take me further into the inferno of sex and drugs. But crack cocaine is a wretched taskmaster, a half-life of only fifteen minutes before you have to go back to that bottomless well.

Earn money as an Airbnb host

I hadn’t eaten in days and water was an afterthought. It hadn’t touched my body in weeks. Standing there in the open of Hollywood Beach, solitary and dry as a bone, my body had had enough—it always knows the score. I thought it was a momentary release of gas coming on. It wasn’t. I shat all over myself. It kept coming out.

Smoking crack cocaine in a crack house

Smoking crack cocaine in a crack house
Smoking crack in a crack house (1991). Note the background, including broken cabinets and sheet on the door. For photojournalists, accessing the inner sanctums of the crack cocaine epidemic was dangerous and challenging, requiring photographers to gain the trust of drug users and sellers. Image courtesy of the New York Times, Edward Keating.

This had never happened in the long litany of horrible things happening. Incarceration. Holed up in abandoned buildings for whenever sleep would come. Stealing FedEx and UPS packages from a neighbourhood I’d called home for the past several years, never having a lease. The usual trip to the local Aldi grocery store to steal whatever nourishment I could muster before going back to my adopted vocation of boosting from Walgreens and CVS pharmacies to support my now two-decades habit.

The boys weren’t even out yet, odd for this time of night. By this time many would be strolling along Chicago’s Lakefront Hollywood Beach, cruising for fresh meat, usually hopped up on crystal meth (a drug that would come later for me) looking for the next hapless Vic. It was common to see full-on orgies in the park, gangbangs and other sexual exploits.  The trees would make for good cover sometimes; often though, it would be commonplace to see a boy, legs spread wide open, hunched over a bench in the clearing, for all to see and join in. A virtual sex fantasia of whatever your heart—or head—so desired. The darker the night, it seemed, the more ambitious the sex play. For his was my home; this stretch of beach encompassing Chicago’s Northside Edgewater neighbourhood, bucolic and treelined.

Covered in fecal matter and stinking from day’s old must and shit, the prefrontal cortex of my brain, the stop part, didn’t have time to catch up to sanity. Only the limbic system was working, the go part, where its active neurotransmitter ingredient, dopamine, was urging me on to the local Jewel grocery store.

There was still time, before closing, to hit another lick. Steal some body wash, a hundred dollars’ worth, to sell to one of the local merchants on Granville, the major merchant artery in Edgewater that had become my place of selling all matter of goods boosted from the local stores.

I never had to explain where said goods were coming from and why I only wanted no more than, usually, forty to fifty bucks. You get a crash course early on in underground economics: what workers at McDonald’s are demanding (usually Tide detergent), and what they’ll pay for the booty—no more than thirty-five dollars for a hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise.

The night my body gave up the ghost and left me covered in shit didn’t afford me pause to go and clean up, take a shower and prepare for the next caper. Jewel was closing soon, and I needed more crack. Now, more than ever as the shame of having defecated on myself began to emerge in my fragile conscious, I knew I had to pull this one off and quickly. The dinosaur’s’ prayer came readily to mind: Lord a little more time. It was good an invocation as any. Could I do it? Would the smell give me away?

The thought of taking that first hit of crack was all the inspiration I needed to accomplish the mission. My batting average was good, and I had garnered a reputation among the local merchants—and the dope boys—for being able to get whatever goods they were seeking. And I was fast. They did vote me “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school.

It didn’t start out this way. While the U.S., was caught, inexorably, in an erroneous War on Drugs, I was waging my own internal civil war. The mad and crazy frenzy for crack cocaine became an inevitable outgrowth.

Leon before and after

Leon was not well—crack cocaine addiction, incarceration, and a black gay man’s search for identity
Crack Cocaine: Addiction
Leon was not well—crack cocaine addiction, incarceration, and a black gay man’s search for identity
Crack Cocaine: Recovery

Before I started chasing the drug, I was chasing stories for CNN International, at its headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Plucked from Columbia College in Chicago, where I studied journalism, the chance to work for one of the largest media companies on the planet pulled at me. Alone and adrift emotionally with an alcoholic addiction, and desperately seeking the love of another man. I found it in a lone stranger in Midtown, Atlanta, and with it crack cocaine. Love is what I was seeking, crack and lust is what I found—and I chased it, in 1999, for two decades.

We now know that what fires together in the brain, wires together. My brain made a connection that crack cocaine, and sex were twin companions. I knew I was gay back in Markham, Illinois, where I grew up in a foster home to loving and nurturing parents who made up for the emotional lack, I’d experienced in the formative and crucial years of my life.

Addiction, I discovered later, is genetic (my mother was an absent alcoholic and dad was never there); but that’s only a portion of the picture. Addiction needs context. The lonely terror and isolation of having never to talk about my desires for other men became suffocating. Ralph Ellison, in his great tome, Invisible Man, talks about dying for lack of speech. I, the communications major, could hold forth on politics and literature but had no language and vocabulary for the thing that mattered most—matters of the heart.

Smoking crack cocaine is like being catapulted to the summit of Mount Everest without ever scaling its ridges and bluffs. That first high brought sweet relief and an outlet for all the pain of not being able to navigate the world of queer life and love. People use drugs because it works until it doesn’t. And by then, for most, it’s too late. It’s not why the drugs, the addiction; it’s why the pain. Perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions.

“What drugs have not destroyed, the war on it has.”

–David Simon, HBO’s The Wire

Recovery was planted years ago via the 12-step modelAA and NA. I tried desperately to fit myself in that often- rigid world of thinking and being. I found myself saying things I didn’t, at bottom, fully swallow. The notion of powerlessness, a prerequisite for admission and an assurance of recovery, stymied me throughout my efforts to get better. Homelessness and abject poverty, and a growing criminal history, assured me that I was powerless and that my life was wholly unmanageable. The idea, as I perceived and railed against it, is that there was something wrong with me. That the hardware was faulty and defective.

 I’ve since learned that the hardware is fine, it’s the software that needs repairing. The stories and lies I’d told myself about myself—that I was unlovable and unworthy of love; that two decades of smoking crack cocaine and demeaning myself in myriad ways to protect my addiction, was not serving me. The pain outweighing the pleasure. When the drugs stop working. Crack allowed me to do sexually what I’d only dreamed of soberly. Crystal meth had an even more founder effect—kicking the dopamine drip of pleasure and sexual intensity to higher highs and subsequent depressive lows. If crack cocaine is being on Mount Everest, then Crystal Meth is being in the clouds, above it all.

Recovery finally began to stick when I begin to explore other recovery options. It’s not one-size-fits-all. There’s no one way to recover.  I discovered meditation and mindfulness, and other therapeutic tools such as dialectical behavioural therapy. My problem, it occurred to me, was not crack cocaine and crystal meth. That was the solution. The problem was in my inability to inhabit the full palette of my emotional and interior life; the self-delusion that gay meant others and love was never to be my lot in life.

Recovery has meant not merely the absence of substances, although that certainly is part of it, but the healing from a fractured sense of self. When the addicted finally bid farewell to the drug, the thinking, the behaviour, there’s a pain that no longer gnaws, a hurt that heals—and an ache that no longer hurts.

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