A gay man hopes the story of his crystal meth addiction will help save those still in the closet about their own drug problems.
When Jimmy Dagenhart saw the Christmas card from his son Jay, he knew it wouldn't offer typical holiday wishes.
The card featured a painting of his son looking rough and strung out-the same image that appears on the cover of this newspaper. "May the true spirit of Christmas live within your heart," read the inscription. A typed two-page letter addressed to uncles, aunts, cousins and friends accompanied the card.
Jimmy knew his son's troubles, so the letter's contents didn't surprise him. But he wondered how other family members would react to the third paragraph: "This is my story," it read. "I am a gay, HIV-positive recovering sex and drug addict. I've been arrested, bankrupt and have attempted suicide-once by jumping 33 feet off a ledge at a construction site in Washington, D.C., and many other times by acting out sexually in bathhouses while almost overdosing on drugs, hoping-however unconsciously or consciously-to contract the AIDS virus."
Concerned the graphic confessional would upset her, Jimmy called his ex-wife, Jay's mother. But Jay had already read her the letter over the phone.
"I may not have felt entirely comfortable with it," she says now. "But when Jay read it to me, I knew how important it was to him. I wouldn't have dreamed of asking him not to send it. Besides, it's the truth."
She couldn't predict the family's reaction. What she did know is the letter comprised another step in her son's path, a path that may soon make him a controversial figure in Philadelphia.
Jay Dagenhart moved here two years ago to kick a crystal meth addiction. Instead he wallowed for a year in city bathhouses, consuming the drug and becoming part of a subculture within the gay community that uses crystal to enhance sex. He celebrates his first year of sobriety this week. But his personal victory is only a start.
Dagenhart recently co-founded a task force to educate the gay community on the dangers of abusing crystal meth, a pure form of methamphetamine linked to high-risk sexual behaviors that further the spread of HIV.
Dagenhart knows the connection
"Buy Crystal, Get HIV Free"
It's 8 o'clock Sunday night. Eight men gather in Jay Dagenhart's living room for a meeting of the Philadelphia Crystal Meth Task Force.
It's October, and Dagenhart, a thin man with close-cropped hair and the small, angular features of a carved idol, passes out the agenda. No single person controls the task force's activities, but the 36-year-old Dagenhart is the group's most vocal member.
His struggle with the drug lasted more than five years and almost killed him. Dagenhart preferred to snort crystal, which can also be smoked or injected. Crystal provides an unparalleled adrenaline rush, turns insecurity into confidence and fuels sexual appetite and desire. Because the drug reduces inhibitions and increases the user's tolerance for pain, it's been tied in the gay community to prolonged episodes of unprotected anal sex or "barebacking" with multiple partners. Binge behavior.
Many of the recovering addicts on the task force say meth can twist sexual arousal into a kind of psychosis. "If you're on crystal," says one, "you can look at a table lamp and want to have sex with it."
Use of crystal in the gay community first drew national notice in summer 2003 when singer Rufus Wainwright admitted his addiction in The New York Times. But so far the crystal meth problem has received shockingly little notice locally.
Tonight Dagenhart displays ideas for posters, information cards and pamphlets he plans to disseminate. He wants to out crystal in part by adapting some of the messages used by activists in New York, including a poster that features a disco ball, a set of bare, ripped abs and a simple slogan: "Buy crystal, get HIV free."
When he shows the image and says he'd like to put up similar posters in Philly, the task force members nod in agreement.
"We should definitely pass stuff out at the Blue Ball," says one man. "We'll tell them, "After you finish partying this weekend, sober up!'"