Two main themes emerged from the interview data: (1) the participants used drugs to explore life to its limits and (2) the participants justified these explorations as the result of drug use when the outcome was deemed undesirable. Thus, the research participants noted that drugs both permitted them to explore and to excuse their explorations ex post facto.
Theme One: Purposive Drug Use to Explore Life to Its Limits. The research participants in this study readily identified their desires to explore. However, this did not mean overcoming boundaries. On the contrary, it involved an open-ended and experimental process without specific goals. The participants highlighted that such exploration occurred through, and as a result of, drug use, partying, and sexual conduct. The following participants illustrate this:
I guess in my twenties I was exploring, being young, and youthful, and partying, and sex, and all that. (Ott-7)
I tend to explore. I need to know. I mean, people say, “oh have you tried this?” “No, but I'll try once,” and then I'll know if I like it or not. (Ott-4)
The above quotations illustrate that exploration is a primary activity of the research participants. They wish to experience/experiment with many new sensations.
However, this exploration is not without limits. Instead, it can be described as the process of standing as close to an edge as possible, but without falling off. It is a highly regulated and controlled activity that involves reaching the limits of self-control, without exceeding them. The following participant clearly articulates this point about how pushing limitations gives him “everything,” but only up to a certain level. At this undefined point, the following participant realizes that he has gone too far, and stops pushing. Indeed, he decides that he is “not playing anymore.” He states:
What I was saying is that you're pushing; you have everything when you're pushing too far, but there's time when I'll say I'm not playing anymore. (Ott-14)
In the foregoing quotation, Ott-14 exemplifies what many other participants described: a process of approaching personal limits in order to explore them, but without going too far. At the point where his exploration does go too far, he states that that is the “time when [he'll] say [he's] not playing anymore.” In this quotation, that which stops him from “playing” is not reported—perhaps (and as will be suggested in the theme two), this is because it is only post hoc, after the exploration, that is, that he can explain what caused him to stop “playing.” Nevertheless, further investigation with Ott-14 confirms that his goal is to “push [him] self to the limit,” but not do destroy himself in the process. “Exhaustion is the goal,” not death, destruction, or devastation. The bounded nature of this “push[ing],” which we call “exploration” here, is of particular interest because it demonstrates that the participants (as exemplified by the text of Ott-14) did not intentionally desire their own demise. Indeed, they did not seem to be intentionally attempting to inflict harm upon themselves. Notice how Ott-14 explains this process:
I'd push myself to the limit of exhaustion.
But not destruction?
No. For example, three months ago, I was ready to die and I decided let's go in detox and just give yourself another chance, but I was ready to commit suicide, so I had at least that survival that keeps me. (Ott-14)
In this second statement, Ott-14 provides an example of his “push[ing]” (i.e., exploration) that exceeded the “limit of exhaustion”—indeed that went to the point of suicidal ideation. However, at the point where he has gone too far, a withdrawal occurs (“detox” and “that survival [instinct] that keeps me [alive]” kicks in). Our interpretation of this process is that both Ott-14 and the other participants who described such a process withdraw when their explorations cause them to surpass a certain point (i.e., their limits). Again, we posit that this may be because the goal is to flirt with danger, not to be destroyed. That is, pushing beyond personal limits represented a “risk” that this participant did not want to take. Ott-14 further illustrates how he would push until he was about to “lose everything,” but then draw back:
To the limit of losing everything, yeah, I would do it completely. And that's what I'm thinking these days is the excess. Now I have to rehabilitate myself in finding pleasure without excess, but I still need my highs. (Ott-14)
As revealed in this quotation, Ott-14's ability to experience pleasure seems to be inextricably linked with “excess” and pushing “to the limit of losing everything.” His desires, one could suggest, involve a form of bounded exploration, an investigation into everything that can be experienced within a given set of limits. The caveat, however, is that this participant also desires to retain control of himself by placing parameters onto his exploration.
However, no other participants reported such severe outcomes (detoxification or suicidal ideation) related to their substance use. In contrast, most participants reported that both GCPs and substance use served as the means by which desired experiences of exploration could be realized. In all of this, the sequence remains unaltered: the participants' aimed not to lose control, but rather to maximize personal experiences by reaching this limit. In the following two quotations, Ott-8 further demonstrates this process. He states:
So when we're going out to a [GCP name], we have a good time, and the energy levels rise and we just become more motivated, more willing to consume, and consume, and push our limits. (Ott-8)
Yeah, but, you know, I'm STILL able, when I'm drunk, to recognize my limits—what I'd do and what I wouldn't do. I think that kind of says that I still DO have limits when I'm smashed. (Ott-8)
For Ott-8, GCPs are locations where experimentation of life is permitted, where he has “a good time,” where his “energy levels rise,” and where he “just become[s] more motivate, more willing to consume. Most importantly here, GCPs are places where this participant reports that he and his friends “push [to their] limits,” but do so while still being cognizant not to surpass these limits.
For some participants, sexual practices represent a limit that can be explored by lengthening the duration of contact, trying new experiences, modifying a particular practice, or increasing the number of partners. Prolonged sexual escapades, for example, become a challenge, in part, to see if they are physically possible and to push pleasure to its limits. How much pleasure is possible? For the following participant, the performance of oral sex for prolonged periods is one method by which he pushes himself to his limits and achieves pleasure:
I can go to extremes … I like to do things to extreme. So, for a lot of guys, sucking for hours non-stop is not always the most comfortable thing, but I like to please someone, so having someone pleased, and enjoying what you're doing and enjoying what you're doing, is a turn on. (Ott-1)
Here Ott-1 reports that how he likes to engage in extended oral sex that is “not always the most comfortable thing,” but which transforms through its excess into “a turn on.” This practice is an intentional exploration of limits through drug use that allows for sexual practices and new pleasures. The following participant reports that he as well enjoys engaging in sex while under the influence of drugs because it allows him to intentionally explore the limits of his body, to “experience everything that [one] can experience.” He states:
You would rather have sex with drugs?
Yeah I prefer it with. It changes my limitations. I find I can get more into it with drugs than without. I'm more susceptible to suggestion. I will try new things, but things that I would normally not try. I want to experience everything that you can experience. I think it's the whole purpose. Try everything once; if you don't like it, don't go back. (TO-1)
For TO-1, drug use becomes important as a means by which the physical limitations of his body (i.e., fatigue, etc.) can be surmounted. This is echoed by the following participant who reported that ecstasy (E) consumption is one method of partying for “four days”—an experience that the human body cannot endure unaided. He states:
After four days of partying most people, unless they were popping E or something crazy like that, their energy lowers, their mood and the atmosphere starts to die down. (TO-1)
In the same vein, another participant relates that he uses ecstasy to offset fatigue:
[Because of fatigue], usually at around four o'clock in the morning it will probably be ecstasy and usually when you come down from ecstasy you use marijuana so you don't come down harder. (Ott-11)
In the previous two quotations, the participants push their bodies to their limits. This demonstrates the deliberate use of drugs to achieve a specific form of exploration—not too much to overdose, but not too little so that they feel fatigued. In the second quotation, Ott-11 reports using additional substances to dynamically counteract the effects of previously consumed substances—the “use [of] marijuana so you don't come down harder.” In effect, these two participants illustrate that, overall, their limits, while pursued and played with, must not be exceeded. In fact, sexual and drug use practices are undertaken with extreme calculation. For example, the following participant remains aware of his limits to ensure that the withdrawal period does not last for days:
I know what my limits are. I know when enough's enough. I know what time to take them. I never take them past a certain time, not take too much. I'm never up for like days on end doing that sort of thing. I'm very wary of that. (Ott-8)
This participant consumes drugs, but not to a point that he feels is excessive. His description of exploring his limit indicates an absolute measure that should not be exceeded. As previously noted, the analysis of the interviews identified that each individual possessed different limits, but to each participant, personal limits were reported as objective (“THE limit”): “But know what you're doing and know your limits, or know THE limits” (Ott-4). This quote demonstrates that despite Ott-8 's substance-induced explorations, his goal is to remain cognizant of his limitations at all times. There is, thus, a point that the participants do not wish to pass, but at times, accidentally do. In these situations, drugs serve a secondary role: they justify transgression.
Theme Two: Drug Use as Justification. In addition to deliberately consuming drugs to experience the effects that these substances can produce, the participants identified that these substances can also serve as an excuse for some of the actions they undertook while intoxicated. This means that while the participants used drugs to overcome some of their limitations (subtheme one), they also used these substances to justify their transgressions if they did not appraise them favorably once they had again become sober. In the following quotation, Ott-10 illustrates this process when he indicates that alcohol affects his decision-making processes. He states:
Sometimes you just don't have the strongest hold on yourself.
What do you mean by “the strongest hold on yourself”?
You make decisions that you wouldn't normally make if you were not drunk.
So when you're drinking, you do things that you wouldn't when sober?
Here, Ott-10 notes that substance-induced intoxication causes him to “make decisions” that he “wouldn't normally make.” In making such a claim, Ott-10 is attempting to relinquish, or at least diminish, personal responsibility for his own actions. In effect, his statement can be interpreted to mean that Ott-10's sober self is unaccountable for his drunk self based on the rationale that alcohol diminishes one's ability to make sound, logical decisions, and thus this substance is the cause of people's behavior.
Other participants, such as TO-1, however, refute Ott-10's claim by stating that “if you know your own limitations, then you can't turn around and blame the drug for it.” TO-1 continues: “Get stoned so that you can do it [i.e., pursue one's desires], but don't get so stoned that you lose control” (TO-1). In both these quotations, TO-1 maintains the idea that drugs can cause a loss of control, but this loss of control is an extreme state; it is not the usual outcome. Indeed, TO-1 argues, as did many other participants, that the usual outcome of drug consumption is to render one more likely to pursue otherwise inhibited or repressed desires. When Ott-10's claim that alcohol (as a drug) diminishes the hold he has on himself is interpreted through the lens of TO-1 's statement, we can begin to understand that recreational drug use serves an important role in distancing the user's intoxicated self from his sober self.
Further exploration of this topic/idea with other participants revealed that the ex post facto relationship between alcohol and drug use and behavior is one of justification. Ott-11 reported that he uses drugs to justify the actions he undertook while intoxicated when he feels that he needs to. An example of such a situation is when he blames sexual contact with an unattractive partner on drug-induced visual impairment. He states:
It's not usually what you did, it's usually who you did it with. That's what they're referring to. It's like, “oh, I can't believe I took that monster home.” That's probably what it is, their vision was really impaired. I think that's what they mean by it. My mother can tell me that she doesn't like getting fucked, and I call her a liar, because it's a human bodily function that we enjoy. So, for getting fucked, it's referring to whom you've been doing it with. (Ott-11)
According to Ott-11, a person's claim, including his own, that specific sexual contacts would not have occurred without intoxication is only required when that individual perceives his actions to be unacceptable (e.g., sexual contact with an unattractive partner). In such cases, drugs serve a dual purpose: (1) to permit individuals to push their limits and (2) to absorb the blame if the outcome of such behavior is deemed inappropriate. By extending Ott-11's claim to its logical limit, we can interpret the idea that if one woke up to find an attractive person in one's bed, one would be unlikely to blame the situation on drugs. From the perspective of Ott-11's statement, if one were to engage a partner who continued to appear attractive after the drug-related visual impairment had passed, one's intent to satisfy what Ott-11 calls “a human bodily function that we enjoy” might be more openly acknowledged as intentional and purposive. In all other cases, however, Ott-11 suggests that substance use will continue to be blamed.
Ott-11's insight also helps to explain the seeming inconsistencies that arose in other participants' interview data, such as when they adamantly reported that drugs did not produce changes in their behavior, but then described situations in which the exact opposite occurred and drugs were the identified cause of their behavior. Ott-11's insight describes these incompatible occurrences as being isolated situations in which drugs are used to disassociate from outcomes that do not correspond with the values of the sober self. This only happens when, after the fact, the drug-related outcomes are deemed suboptimal. As an example of this, review the following five quotations from Ott-7, during which he switches from stating that drugs do not change his behavior to suggesting that drugs, because they “took his personality into darkness,” are at least partly responsible for his acquisition of HIV. He states:
In my twenties I was exploring, being young, youthful, partying, having sex, and all that. I was totally connected with all the circuit boys. I was young, buffed, and having a great time. (Ott-7)
My practices never changed in any way. There were times when I was so high that there could have been a slip, but even then, I was really careful. (Ott-7)
Well, it [i.e., drugs] guarantees fun. You look forward to going to the party, and picking up whatever beforehand, and planning your whole night out. And if it escalated beyond that, so be it, too. (Ott-7)
The HIV definitely happened to me during a party. Hundred percent. If it wasn't the time that I'd mentioned, it could have been a slip somewhere else, but it pretty much happened then. (Ott-7)
It [i.e., drugs] took my personality into darkness, into doing riskier things. It would just push me to the dark side, push me to do things that I would never do in a million years. Yeah, it turned me into, like, this demon. (Ott-7)
Here, Ott-7 describes what seems to be an inconsistent story: one in which drugs both do and do not change his behavior. In the first three statements, Ott-7 describes how he planned his nightly drug use, which might have included undertakings that were not part of his original plan. In the fourth quotation, Ott-7 identifies the point at which he suspects he became HIV positive, and then proceeds to discuss how drugs, due to their having taken his “personality into darkness, into doing riskier things,” were the reason that he engaged in the sexual practices that ultimately caused him to become HIV positive. As discussed, Ott-11's statement helps clarify that Ott-7 is likely using drugs as justification for an unwanted outcome. This reconciles the differences between his initial statements that drugs did not affect his behavior and his later assertions that drugs had taken him to “the dark side.”
Another example of dissociating intoxicated-self behavior from sober-self behavior can be seen when the following participant at first relates that he is a specific type of person (i.e., he outlines his sober self), then how alcohol (as the drug he uses) changes his behavior (i.e., his drunk self), and lastly, that his actions are actually planned. He states:
What type of partying do you usually do?
I usually just go out to the bar with friends. I've never gone to a bathhouse. I don't do that kind of partying. I go to a bar with friends, have a couple of drinks, maybe three drinks, dance, and go home at the end of the night. (Ott-8)
My friends were telling me that we had tequila a couple of weeks ago and I was just absolutely crazy, on the speakers and everything. It's kind of funny now that you mention it. I see myself TOTALLY smashed, and doing these crazy things: getting all touchy-feely and gropey. I'm not usually like that. I'm kind of holding back, and shy, and quiet, and stuff. It just seems that another person comes out. (Ott-8)
I think it's easier on me, self-esteem-wise: Let's just not have a plan and let's just see what's going to happen. If something DOES happen, sure, it'll be cool. I think it'll be more of a let-down though if I establish a plan, go to the bar, and the plan fails. (Ott-8)
In the three foregoing quotations, Ott-8 describes an inconsistency that is similar to the one reported by Ott-7. Ott-8 describes himself as being a specific type of person, then blames his out-of-character actions on substance use, and finally admits that the behavior he previously blamed on alcohol is actually part of a plan that he does not acknowledge. In the third and final excerpts, Ott-8 enhances our understanding of what Ott-11 states is the use of intoxicants as justification ex post facto. It protects the sober-self's self-esteem. To acknowledge that one knowingly made decisions that can be evaluated as unwise or illogical is to put one's intelligence and rationality in question. However, to pretend that these actions are unintentional to the point that they are the result of external agents (i.e., drugs) protects the rational/logical/intelligent sober self from its seemingly irrational desires. Thereby, drugs serve as both personally and socially acceptable excuses for behavior.