This piece originally was published June 6, 2016, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission from Healthline. Christopher was a great interview and ought to serve as an inspiration to many, especially for his frankness in sharing his story. His story is not the least bit uncommon and is being played out right here in the Quad-Cities. What is described here is NOT a big-city phenomenon, in the least. I admire frankness. Best to you, Chris!
In the picture shown above, Christopher Interdonato believes he was near life’s end. Addicted to crystal meth, which he shot up, and barely surviving on the streets of Los Angeles as a sex worker, he got to a point where “I felt like I was dying. I could no longer move.”
The picture you see here nearly brings me to tears, not only because of the sad vulnerability expressed on the young man’s face, but because I once was addicted to meth, malnourished, unhealthy, desperate, hopeless about life, and certainly without even an ounce of self-respect. It’s impossible to get sober (or at least sustain sobriety) when you have no self-respect.
Interdonato lay there like that for a few days, his veins so collapsed doctors could not extract blood to get a diagnosis. When they finally did, Interdonato learned he had HIV.
While HIV is a manageable disease these days, there still is no cure, and you’re required to take pills for life (although long-lasting injectable forms of HIV treatment are in the works).
In a couple of weeks, Interdonato will celebrate two years sober. A far cry from what you see in this picture, he is strikingly handsome, healthy, and works as a house manager and case manager at a rehabilitation center. In August, he will go back to school full-time to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor.
How Interdonato ended up in the abyss
Interdonato moved to Los Angeles in 2011 after living a year in Orange County (the suburbs to the south) first. Ironically, that was the same trajectory I took when moving to Southern California after college in 1992.
Interdonato worked for the circus, Cirque du Soleil. But when his contract ended, he found himself in a frightening position – homeless on the streets of L.A.
Interdonato had tried meth once at a bathhouse in Seattle, but he didn’t like it. In fact, “I hated it at first. I stayed up so long.”
But like so many young men who find themselves homeless on Tinseltown’s streets, the drug’s hyper-stimulating side effects – the power to keep you up for days at a time – offered a bit of safety, the thought process often goes, as opposed to falling asleep in the big city. “I was in a city where I knew no one,” Interdonato said.
The other side effect? Intense sexual arousal that allows already virile young men to perform for hours and hours and hours and hours.
Interdonato says he doesn’t want to be portrayed a victim as it pertains to his days as a sex worker. “I was never forced into anything,” he said. “I made a conscience decision to do what I did to support the lifestyle I had. I never had sex for the drugs. I always had my own drugs. I sold the drugs, too.”
I asked him why, like many sex workers in Los Angeles, he didn’t just hustle the streets sober, and pocket even more of his money as opposed to spending it on drugs. “Prostitution is not something I can do if I’m not high,” he said. “So when the drug use stopped, for myself I was not able to continue doing it because I felt dirty.
“Part of getting sober for me was about my self-esteem. It wasn’t just about rebuilding my body. And today sex is not the only currency I have. I have more to offer than that.”
Meth a huge problem in gay mid America as well
Unfortunately, I understand Interdonato’s story all too well. While I always had a job and never had to hustle to survive, I left Los Angeles in 2000, and a second time (for good) in 2002, horrifically strung out on crystal meth.
When I returned to the Quad-Cities, meth again reared its head a few times. But as I always told people rather frankly, the meth here was crap compared to what I snorted (and smoked) in Los Angeles, so I never slipped way back down the slope. I did, however, abuse cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol. I celebrated two years sober last month. (Editor’s note: It will be three years in May 2017).
And thank God I am sober, and very confident in my sobriety. If you can say, “I’m an alcoholic and an addict,” and know that you can never take another drink, never snort another line, you have won more than half the battle. And I know I am an alcoholic and addict. For me, using again isn’t an option.
So, I’m glad I left behind the party scene and the bar life when I did, as now the methamphetamine problem right here in the Quad-Cities, in mid-America, is as bad as it is in the urban gay meccas.
Headlines beginning in the spring of 2016 in the Quad-Cities illustrated this, so there’s no point of regurgitating it here. People still are talking about it. Indeed, eye-popping stories, and I suspect we will see more of them.
People are quick to point fingers at places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City as hedonistic harbors where young, gay men can go astray. But the Quad-Cities is not one bit different. In fact, I believe it’s worse, as there is a void in terms of affirming support services. Mental health services in the Quad-Cities are wildly substandard, particularly for those who do not have private insurance and/or belong to a minority group.
While the Los Angeles LGBT Center is known for civil rights advocacy and being front and center at flag-waving festivals, it also is a lifeline for people like Interdonato. It absolutely 100 percent supports and helps anyone who is struggling with a drug problem, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS. It is a world-class non-profit organization offering world-class services, including the Jeffrey Goodman Clinic, Crystal Meth/Addiction Recovery Services, legal services, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Interdonato is living proof of the life-changing work that this amazing organization provides.
It’s why I’m covering AIDS LifeCycle this year for absolutely zero financial gain.
Interdonato said he already was familiar with the services of the Los Angeles LGBT Center even before his hospitalization and HIV diagnosis. He regularly went to the Center for HIV/STI screenings and post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, after he believed to have been exposed to HIV in the past.
“I represent that percentage of the population of our community…unfortunately, in the gay community there’s a high incidence of people who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, and there is a high incidence rate of contracting HIV as part of it,” Interdonato said. “That’s my reason for riding, besides for thanking the L.A. LGBT Center for getting my life on track, but by being an example of a sober young person in recovery, who is HIV-positive, and hopefully I can help someone by showing them you can be as low as you can get and it is possible to recover from drug addiction and live a healthy life. Even as an HIV-positive gay man.”