By Nick Ashton-Hart @nashtonhart

I’d already been drinking and abusing drugs for more than a decade and shooting up meth for six years when I stopped everything 22 years ago, at age 28.

I knew I faced a life or death choice.


Back then in the mid-1990s there was nowhere to go to deal with what we now call ‘chemsex’ issues. The term, at that time, hadn’t been invented. I had all the problems that word describes though, and few resources to deal with them. Often, I had no way to even describe what I was experiencing. I was flying mostly blind, in the dark.

I realised that I had to completely start over in my approach to everything about sex and my own sexuality: how I approached other men for it and how I felt about my own needs and desires. I had a lot of self-loathing and internalised homophobia. I was also profoundly insecure. I couldn’t even take my shirt off around other gay men in bars and clubs. I had ridiculous perceptions about the relative masculinity of being a top or a bottom which was driving my sexual choices totally contrary to what I really wanted. I was so terrified of rejection I wouldn’t even talk to the men I fancied; if they didn’t approach me, nothing happened - except my leaving feeling sad, lonely, and frustrated with myself for being a coward.


From then on I’ve routinely been in 12-step recovery settings with men newly drug or alcohol abstinent, and I see in them a mirror of many parts of the man I was (and sometimes can still be). There’s greater knowledge of what chemsex addicts go through now, and many more resources to help us, but the journey of recovery is still an intensely personal and profoundly testing one for each person who embarks upon it regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. There is no shortcut to dealing with the wreckage that chemsex addiction brings to your psyche.

The shame I felt about how I behaved when high, and the difficulty in navigating relationships of any kind, sexual and platonic, were not unique to me. On the contrary. These issues are enormously difficult, perhaps one of the greatest tests we face when the drug-fuelled ‘party’ ends - and the truth is, non-addicts face many of them too. Talking about issues with sexuality for a recovering addict is still terribly difficult, emotionally risky, and leaves each of us with a Hobson’s choice between being vulnerable discussing our greatest insecurities or bottling them up, where they fester, often creating a ticking bomb that undermines and endangers the ability of addicts to stay clean. For the non-addict, the impact of issues with sexuality can be just as devastating over time. The Achilles heel of gay chemsex addicts is sex: almost everything about it is a minefield.


In my case, when I got ‘clean’, as we 12-steppers say, I started from three assumptions.

One, I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to men in any way, shape or form, clothes on or off. Two, that I was going to do everything I wanted sexually without drugs because if I went back to using, it would be the death of me. Three, it had to be possible to live sober and have better sex without drugs than I had while I was high, I just didn’t know how.

The last one I had to take entirely on hope and faith for quite a while. I saw this trio clearly, but early on I really only had a clear idea of the first one because it accompanied the realisation that I didn’t know how to live a clean healthy life full stop; sexuality was just a piece of the problem. The realisation of the other two came a bit later.


Looking back I can see that this list gave me a black-and-white lens to view my sexual and platonic relationship choices that helped me make healthier decisions. Was I avoiding approaching a man I found attractive because I was afraid of rejection? Why did I believe rejection was about me, anyway? Was I agreeing to certain sex acts because they were what I really wanted, or because they fit an idea of masculinity I’d learnt from society? Was I genuinely attracted to a man as a person or just by how he looked? Why did sex sometimes leave me feeling lonely and sad, and at other times, feeling happy and energised?

It’s crystal clear to me (sorry, I couldn’t resist) that we all need to find better ways to discuss sexuality, whether gay or straight, trans or non-binary. Those of us recovering from chemsex addictions have to do it to save our lives, but other gay men need it desperately too. The LGBTQ+ community glorifies sex and beauty but often avoids at all costs talking about the downsides of the ‘beauty contest’ we’re all encouraged to enter, not realising until it is too late that the only way to win that game is not to play. Nobody sets out to be any kind of addict. I’m sure there would be far fewer of us if our community dealt with sex and sexuality with more honesty and sensitivity and a lot less judgement about different sexual choices.


Until I removed shame from my conceptions of sexuality, insecurities drove my decisions about intimacy and, as a result, made intimacy at best difficult, and sometimes impossible; I only discovered the massive power it has to transform sex and interpersonal relationships over the course of time - and years of hard work confronting uncomfortable internal issues. I still learn new dimensions to intimacy, and find new ways to express it and accept it. I hope that never stops.

I stopped using drugs and alcohol to save my life, but living a life recovering from the damage the substance abuse caused required me to start over relating to other men (everyone, really) across the board. The result is a life better than I could have ever imagined the day I stopped drinking and using, but it wasn’t easy, it didn’t happen overnight, and I made many mistakes along the way. I still do. I met men and women along the way who pointed me to the next place down the path I needed to go, most of them without knowing the incredible service they’d done for me.

I hope that exploring some of my journey will do the same thing for some of you who read it.