Real World recovery

By Michael Giltz

Originally published on Advocate.com September 11 2005 11:00 PM ET

“If
I’d started using drugs like crystal meth in high
school,” says Chris Beckman, “I
don’t know if I would have graduated. Or
lived.”

Beckman had been
in recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse for just a
year when he joined the cast of MTV’s The Real
World
in its 2002 Chicago season, thereby becoming most
Americans’ first real image of a young gay man
overcoming addiction. He calls those months of
fishbowl living his “halfway house”:
“Everything seemed to happen for a reason.
Talking to people—it became my life.”

Three years later
he lives on New York’s Long Island, focusing on his
painting and touring high schools and colleges to talk about
addiction and recovery. As part of that work he wrote
the just-published Clean: A New Generation in Recovery
Speaks Out
(Hazelden, $12.95), a combination
of autobiography, self-help, resource, and stories
from other former addicts.

Alcoholism was
Beckman’s most enduring battle, begun at a young age,
but he eventually also fell in thrall to crystal meth.
“I know when I tried it, my immediate reaction
was to get more,” he says. “[I thought,]
This is really great! For a while there, it
really controlled my life.”

It also gripped
the life of an addict named Charlie from Knoxville, Tenn.
He and other addicts tell their own stories in separate
short passages offered throughout Beckman’s
narrative. Charlie says bluntly,
“Methamphetamine is a drug of the devil—I
wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Staying up for
100-plus hours while having ‘fun’ eventually
yields an addiction that will remain with you
forever.”

Beckman also
writes of his own meth binges. He once stayed up for 36
hours straight to paint a friend’s new apartment
(finally collapsing facedown in an ashtray) and spent
another two days creating canvas
“masterpieces.” All the work that looked
brilliant while he was high turned out to be nothing
but ugly messes once he crashed.

“I can
laugh at those stories now,” he says. “But
it’s insane behavior. To look at it with the
clarity I have now, I can’t help thinking, Did I
do that? I’m lucky to be alive.”

Beckman’s
story is sadly typical: Growing up in Massachusetts, he
started using alcohol at age 11, quickly moved on to
pot and mushrooms, and in college regularly used drugs
like cocaine, Special K, and ecstasy. He first tried
crystal meth at age 18, he says, and he was hooked. He also
speaks frankly about being molested by a priest, and about
his father, who Beckman says also struggles with
addiction. In high school, Beckman says, he was so
closeted that he gay-bashed another boy so no one would
think he was queer, and he cozied up to a girl who had
access to good pot.

He also admits to
using his good looks to feed his addictions. “Being
good-looking,” he says, “was never a burden.
It certainly got me into clubs before I was of
age.”

Beckman
eventually came to his senses. Not after getting drunk and
landing a rental car in a ditch, or after assaulting a
police officer, or on hundreds of other occasions when
he might have recognized his destructive behavior. In
fact, he says, he used his battle with crystal to
prolong his alcoholism. “I thought I was sober when I
stopped using illegal drugs. I [still] needed to
drink. I held on to it because it was what my friends
were doing. I could be social. That lasted for a few
months.”

Then came his
simple epiphany: While drunk, he brought a stranger home,
and suddenly he realized his behavior was dangerous and
stupid and wondered what he was doing with his life.

Beckman describes
getting truly clean for the first time at 23 and
feeling like he was emotionally much younger—not
unlike some gay people who come out at 19 or 25 and
feel they’ve been cheated of a typical
adolescence: holding hands, taking a date they care about to
the prom, enjoying a first kiss that doesn’t
lead inevitably to sex.

“It is
almost the same,” says Beckman. “It
isn’t fair. I’ve wondered, Why are
some gay people so promiscuous? Why is that a
problem?
I think as time goes on there will be
less of that. [Gay] adolescents will be able to
experience those things.”

Beckman tells his
story without blaming his addiction on any of the
experiences in his life that are so often linked to
substance abuse: living in the closet, being sexually
abused, coming from a family with a history of
addiction, living in poor neighborhoods, and so forth. Nor
does he credit his recovery to his blessings: good looks,
artistic talent,

intelligence, and
a network of supportive family members and friends who
care for him. Rather, he takes personal responsibility for
both his substance abuse and his recovery.

“The truth
is, addiction can happen anywhere, anyplace,
anytime,” he says.

And so can
recovery.