The Compassion I Feel for My Drugged-Out Gay Bar Patrons

I've seen drugs ruin lives working the door of an LA gay bar. But as a former addict, I know that sobriety only comes from within—and that we can't judge others, no matter what.

by Jeff Leavell; illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
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Aug 31 2017, 8:58pm

I am a drug addict. Today I'm a sober drug addict, but still a drug addict. My drug of choice was heroin, but that didn't mean I didn't love whiskey and MDMA and coke, speed and pills, all the various ways I could quiet the endless voices in my head.

Even without the drugs, my mind still behaves in erratic and self-destructive ways. I have spent years learning how to deal with my brand of insanity. I go to AA meetings, I meditate, I pray to gods I'm not sure I believe in, and I practice a great deal of patience, both with myself and others.

And I try to remember that life is full of suffering and joy, it is full of loss and love, and the only way to survive it with any dignity is with the help of others, together.

A few years before I got sober, I was at a rooftop party in downtown LA, high out of my mind. We danced as the sun rose. Toward the end of the night, I stood at the edge of the roof, the Hollywood sign in the distance, as I got my dick sucked. I felt like we were all flying and free—I felt the music and the rising sun, I felt like the guy sucking my dick and I were connected. Like everything was intimately one.

When I finally got sober, I worried nights like that were lost to me forever.

But nights like that are at the core of who I am. Nights of intimate connection and dancing, music and city lights.

When I got sober, I got a job working the door at one of LA's more prominent gay bars.

That career might seem like a contradiction, but it isn't. This job has reminded me of the importance of tolerance and acceptance and compassion. It has reminded me that while for most of the world drugs and alcohol are enhancements to one's experiences, a way to celebrate the night and the music, for a few of us, they can become tools we use to destroy our lives.

There is a man who comes to the bar where I work; he's stunningly handsome, and always smiles and says hi; lately, he's started giving me hugs when he sees me. Toward the end of the night, he's been ending up alone, so high that many times I've had to sit with him, give him water and make sure he's OK before finally calling him an Uber. On those nights, we talk.

"No one ever connects to me," he once told me. "I feel like I can go days and never really connect to anyone. I go to work and to the gym. I meet guys on the apps, and we fuck, but no one ever stays the night—everyone always goes home." He was twitching, his jaw grinding, his eyes haunted. "I'd like to find someone who wants to cuddle."


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One night I found him on the street drinking GHB-infused water.

"Angels," he said to me, laughing. "There are angels in the water. I just have to get to them."

Another night, after work, walking back to my car, I found him screaming, howling at the sky. He had tears running down his face. His hands kept reaching out in front of him, fingers grabbing at things only he could see, trying to pull them toward him.

"It hurts," he said.

"What hurts?"

"Everything hurts."

It would have been easy to just walk away, to leave him there.

I asked if he wanted to walk around the block. He hugged me, his shirt wet with sweat.

We walked around that block for over an hour. He kept stopping and howling, reaching for the sky or turning and wrapping me in his arms.

I didn't see him again for a few weeks. He told me how embarrassed he was for getting so fucked up.

"You have nothing to be embarrassed of," I said. I thought about telling him I was sober, but decided not to. Sometimes all it takes is being kind, and allowing people to be who they are. "I've been where you were plenty of times. I'm just glad you're OK."

Later that night, I found him passed out on the sidewalk, his head hanging into the gutter. I pulled him back and propped him up against a building. He woke up briefly and told me he was just tired. He needed to sleep. I offered to call him a taxi, but he refused, standing up and stumbling away from me.

I haven't seen him since.

There's another guy I've seen for years at the various bars and parties I've worked at; I'll call him Jack. He's in his mid 20s. Super sweet, intelligent. He was trying to be an artist. When we first met, he referred to himself as a "casual meth user."

"I only get high on the weekends," he told me.

One night, while talking with me at the door, he took out his phone, showing me pictures of his artwork. His lips were cracked, his eyes large, scanning the faces around us, constantly getting distracted by movement.

The drawings were of shadow men and women, all strangely haunted, all sad.

"All these shadows are me," he said, his body vibrating, his words fast, stumbling over one another.

Another night he stood with me at the door, eyes scanning the crowd.

"This is the worst part," he said.

"What is?" I asked.

"Right before the high kicks in," he said. "Looking at everyone having fun, laughing and talking with their friends. I know this sounds self-deprecating, but I just think, who's gonna want to go home with me if I don't offer to get them high? And in those super lonely moments, you know, when people are on their way to work, but you're still up, it's so easy. Find a guy on one of the apps, and you two just get high and fuck, and it almost feels like maybe you might go on a date." He laughed. "It's total bullshit, right? Do people even date anymore?"

Years later, I would see him again. By that time, his skin had taken on a gray-yellow hue, and his eyes looked abandoned. He told me that he was just "giving into the night" for a while, but he'd get sober soon.

One night, I found him parked near the bar after work. When he saw me, he jumped out of the car, too skinny, too animated.

"It's better than paying all that money for rent," he said, gesturing toward his car. "I just figured I could save some cash and have a free place to sleep." He laughed and sounded completely devoid of happiness.

A few weeks ago, outside a coffee shop, I saw Jack again—dirty, clothes tattered, cruising the streets. When he saw me, he started laughing hysterically, pointing at me, and then he took off, running down the street. Sometimes I still see him out there, wandering alone, talking to people only he can see.

I might be sober, but I still love to go out, sometimes after work, meeting friends at one of LA's after hours bars or private parties. I love to get lost in the music. Often I'm the only sober one. My friends will party and dance, we'll stand on rooftops or in the middle of dance floors, them riding the high, all of us riding the night and the music, and then we'll go out for burritos or Korean BBQ.

There are nights like the time my buddy Anthony, tripping on shrooms, told me about how the night was alive, and the air was breathing—with "all of us breathing as one," as he put it—as we walked around Thai Town until the sun came up. Or when Mike and Peter, rolling on MDMA, asked me to drive them to the beach, and the three of us proceeded to lay on towels on the sand, the waves pounding, making out endlessly. Happy. Nights I wouldn't trade for anything.

Some nights I feel the whole world is collapsing under the weight of the sorrow, of the loneliness, and other nights I can feel the night breath, just like Anthony said, the world connected, all of us one.

Back when I was still getting high, I thought that getting sober would mean giving up my life—giving up partying and dancing and friends, going out. I thought it would be a sacrifice. I hadn't imagined the kinds of doors it would open inside of me, and the freedom I would find to just be who I am. Sometimes lonely, sometimes happy, sometimes scared, sometimes wrapped in beauty.

I know I can't save men like Jack, or that gorgeous howling man. But what I can do is show up and treat everyone—whether sober or high, messy or together—with compassion and love.

I am grateful for the life I have and the people in it. This life would not be mine if I was still shooting heroin into my veins.

And I am grateful that I still get to dance, to ride the night, to stand in dark bars with men, sharing our lives with one another: all the sorrow, all the joy, all the pain and loss and love, all the beauty of it.

Follow Jeff Leavell on Instagram.

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