It all started when I was out with my friends. It was February 2017 and I was to start my PhD in Mumbai. I got a Grindr ping saying, 'Hey, you're very close. Why don't you come over?' I told my friends I'm just going out for an hour. I went to this person's place and, after our session, he offered me a cigarette. While I was smoking, he asked me if I have ever tried ‘high fun’ (or ‘chemsex’ and 'party and play': terms used for male sex parties often fuelled by usage of mephedrone, G and crystal meth). I said no. He told me that it's a good thing, that it enhances the feelings during lovemaking. I was apprehensive but I agreed. He put the meth powder on a cigarette and after three-four puffs, the effect started kicking in.
I started feeling free, calm and safe. We had sex again. After that, he offered me the powder to snort. I had only seen this on TV and movies. Before I knew it, this is all I did that whole day. The next day, when I finally went home, I had a slight hangover.
I met him again and we did high fun many times. I had started to like this person too, probably because the substance made me emotionally close to him. After a point, he asked me if I would inject the substance. To tell you the truth, until then, I was in denial that I was getting addicted, and even told myself that it's not as harmful as poppers (a liquid inhalant of alkyl nitrates class of chemical drugs, which relaxes muscles for sex). I said no once and he didn't insist. But the next day, he offered again. This time, I said okay, perhaps from the pressure or the trust I had in him. From then on, I lost track of time.
The addiction intensified in other ways too. First, it was just the two of us having sex. Then he started introducing other people. After a while, once he realised I was addicted, he started asking me for money to buy more. The worst part in all of this is that even when he wasn't around, I had started going out by myself and doing it with other people.
‘Last year, I overdosed, and my roommate rushed me to the hospital’
In Mumbai, it’s very easy to find chemsex. You open Grindr and out of 50-60 profiles, at least five are into high fun—either selling them, or inviting people for group sex. At the same time, drug abuse is stigmatised so much that if I told my friends, instead of calming me down, they would’ve instantly cut off from me. So I started to rely more on people who were on this.
This is also how cases of extortion, blackmailing and robbery take place. There are incidents where people turn up in the hotels as police and take everything from them. It's happened to my friends. First, you are a gay man, going out on a date, and having sex with another man. Second, you're using a substance. If this gets out, it becomes a police case.
Finally, last year, I overdosed, and my roommate rushed me to the hospital. There, too, the hospital staff was not willing to admit me until the police came. They, in fact, did not look at me as a person who had abused a substance. Instead, they mocked me and treated me like a criminal. That was a horrible moment because I was sure I would die. When the cops finally arrived, they started interrogating me on where I got that stuff, with whom I did it, and so on.
Soon, people around me came to know about this and collectively stopped talking to me. This sent me into more depression, and I became suicidal. But I continued to abuse the drug. One day, while I was hallucinating on this substance, I went to my balcony and tried to jump from the fourth floor. It was my roommate who saw me and held me back.
‘Queer people would rather say they had unprotected sex than admit they’re on substance’
Last year, I left Mumbai and came back to my hometown in Manipur. There, my psychiatrist started treating me with antidepressants, without any counselling. I was treated as a patient who is mentally sick. Since I am a queer person and the counsellor wasn’t queer-affirmative, I couldn't tell them my real stories. Be it in Manipur or Mumbai, these support systems are rare, and this forms a part of the reason substance abuse happens.
When I went back to Mumbai to continue my studies last year, I relapsed. With that, more people started making fun of me. In the LGBTQ circle, nobody talks about substance abuse; they will outcast you instead. Most people think substance abusers are doing it for recreation, fun and sex, but no one has even looked deeper.
Manipur as a state also has its own troubling history of drug abuse. Some of my close relatives have either died of overdose or been caught abusing substance. The drug war is very active on this side, because the trade comes from Myanmar, and the youth are the most vulnerable ones to get hooked on substances like alcohol, tablets, poppers, heroin or crystal. You find these things here so easily and cheaply.
This is how my organisation, Ya-All, came into being, because of my frustration over how neglected these problems are. The northeast is cut off from not just the mainland in terms of news, but even the queer community is not adequately represented in the media or activism—in fact, here, people mistake all LGBTQ members as trans women.
Another issue is that, in Manipur, just like in the rest of the country, no one wants to talk about LGBTQ issues and health of young people. During my recovery, I often felt like I was the only one with this problem. But the more I talked to people, the more I found out that there are so many others who are just scared to talk about being queer and abusing substance.
The withdrawal effects are so depressing that you need someone to talk to. But queer people would rather say they had unprotected sex and got (HIV) positive, than admit they were on substance. In fact, I would find out only through Facebook that some of my friends, whom I knew were into chemsex, had passed away. It's not just the overdosing or suicidal tendencies that can kill you; there are risks of heart attacks too.
‘The queer scene is so sad in India; there’s a problem of loneliness’
After the relapse last year, I’m now in recovery at home. But my depression is still there. Doctors tell me that it's going to stay, along with panic attacks, anxiety and paranoia. I obviously didn’t tell my family the truth: I told them I had food poisoning and that’s why I wasn’t keeping well. If I had told them the truth, my mother might have killed herself. In a closed society like ours, people are discriminatory and that made my coming out also very difficult. Hiding my identity was affecting me so much that it felt like I was living a lie.
That's why I started speaking about substance abuse among queer people because it’s not just me. When I talk to affected people, they tell me they’re into it because they're either sad at home, or they’ve broken up with someone, or have been cheated on, or because of problems with family and finances. Recently, a research study came out that India is one of the most depressed countries in the world. That's why the drug abuse is on the rise, especially among the youth and queer people.
This drug plays with the serotonin levels of your hormones, so it gives you a sense of well-being, at least for some time. Of late, because of the severity of the issue, people have started to talk about it in a few cities like Mumbai or Delhi. We even have doctors who talk about it, but they mostly club the drug with HIV, to give the cause some masala.
So why do young people continue to abuse it?
The queer scene is so sad that there’s a problem of loneliness. I’ve observed that gay dating apps mentally affect queer people. They're in constant search of a partner, company, sex, friends or even love. We're all addicted to these apps. Section 377 may be gone, but we still cannot go out openly, hug or kiss, and be comfortable with a person we want to be with. Within the circle too, there's a lot of body shaming and rejections. In order to have sex, people are now ready to pay, and this drug makes all these insecurities go away.
Secondly, we now have a generation of queer people who are exposed to all the internet trends at a very young age. For us, this happened in our 20s. These young kids are very experimental, and get lured by gifts, or a certain kind of support, mostly by older men (around the ages of 30-50), who have the money but are lonely, or who are still closeted and married to the opposite sex. They offer these young boys money and drugs, and it’s very easy to fall into this trap.
With the reading down of Section 377, the Supreme Court may have acknowledged gay love, but substance abuse is still a crime. The only way to treat them is to punish them or put them in jail, rather than figure out the root of the problem. Being a survivor, I want to highlight these nuances. There’s more to drug abuse than just sex in the queer community, and it’s about time we came out.
For counselling and support, you can reach out to 24/7 helpline number +91-6009032883, courtesy a collaborative initiative between Blued, a gay dating app , and Imphal-based LGBTQ organisation Ya-All.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.