Chemsex is something that many people find difficult to discuss, even with their closest friends, often attempting to minimise and deny any problem. Gay men, perhaps used to putting on a front while growing up, still insist that everything is fabulous. “Depressed, me? No way!” “Battling with lack of intimacy, chemsex habits, drug misuse, a healthy sex life? Never!”
But the data says otherwise. The ongoing pandemic impacts our lives, often exacerbating existing struggles and changing how we behave. The stress and strains of the festive seasonal together with increasingly more stringent Covid rules, provide the ingredients to brew a perfect emotional storm that can tip even the most balanced individuals over the edge, never mind those with worrying drug habits.
I caught up with David Stuart of davidstuart.org, a chemsex support worker in a global volunteer team supporting chemsex clients during Covid.
Has the Covid pandemic altered the way people indulge in chemsex?
Most recreational players found it easy to choose to stop once it became a matter of broader public health and keeping our communities safe.
Some others identified as recreational players (not necessarily having ever had a “problem” with chems) found that they struggled to control their chemsex behaviour during the pandemic. It came as a surprise to them that they kept responding to intense cravings despite their better judgment. The struggle was a learning experience for many about how strong habits and desires can be and how much their social lives might have revolved around hooking up and drugs. Some needed support to adapt their social lives and practices during lockdowns and the closure of nightclubs and bars.
Do you feel that the two Covid lockdowns impacted individuals who were already struggling?
Covid lockdowns were particularly tough on those for whom chemsex is beyond recreational and serves a more complex psychological or psychosexual purpose. LGBTQ+ communities have a complicated relationship between drug-taking and sex, which became more pronounced during Covid. The stillness of being alone and at peace with one’s thoughts is a blessing only afforded to people with good mental health. For others, being alone and quiet is a struggle requiring a hard-learned skill that needs constant honing. Isolation turns into a scrambled mess of complicated thoughts, anxiety, and unmanageable emotions for many people. The isolation and estrangement caused by Covid intensified the situation.
A great many of my chemsex support worker colleagues around the world were overwhelmed with calls for help from people struggling with controlling their chemsex habits. These were people for whom chemsex may have only been mildly problematic pre-Covid. Drug consumption had become a heavy (sometimes everyday) habit in isolation. They were using home alone and needing urgent support to manage the descent into addiction and crumbling mental health.
What about the potential impact of the festive season on our mental wellbeing?
The holiday season (however we celebrate it) is challenging for many people, more so for those trying to manage drug problems. LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have complicated Christmas memories or estrangement from families. In addition, we are looking at unstructured free time, triggering people to manage cravings. But, of course, it’s not all bad. The most outstanding care plans a drug support worker can advise for anyone is to be busy around people who authentically care, and surrounded by loving people and positive affirmations, regardless of how we define “family.” That is what Christmas is for many people, the safest time of the year. It is a time of generosity, a definite opportunity for us all to reach out to our friends and lovers who might be finding this time of year more triggering or difficult. So, let’s reach out to our friends and chosen family, especially those who have fallen off the radar in real life and on social media. The festive season is an opportunity to be inclusive, even saving a life.