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Christmas can be a joyous time of year – spending time with family and friends, enjoying great food and having memorable nights out. As the song goes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, right?

However, for some people – myself included – the festive season can be really difficult.

Twelve months ago, just as my family were finalising our preparations for Christmas 2022, we lost my brother, Ben.

I don’t have the words for the shock and grief that overwhelmed my family when we got the news. We couldn’t make sense of what had happened – it was only when we got the coroner’s report, months later, that it became clear that Ben had died of a cardiac arrest caused by drugs he had taken.

Ben was my older brother – he was 27 when he died. I thought that I’d known Ben really well – we’d lived together in Manchester for a while, we were close. I knew that he liked to go out and have fun, but I didn’t have any idea that his drug use had become such an issue that he was risking his life. I only found that out after it was too late.

The months following Ben’s death were like a blur – I felt like a zombie. Christmas came and went. We couldn’t hold the funeral until the end of January. The coroner’s report wasn’t completed until May.

The coroner’s report revealed that Ben had consumed a cocktail of drugs – cocaine, ketamine, GHB, and crystal meth. I know now that these are drugs that are associated with chemsex, but at the time, I didn’t understand what chemsex was or how it was connected to the death of my brother.

Ben always took a lot of photos and I wanted to try and get access to them – I assumed that they’d be on his phone or laptop. To me, the photos would help us to remember Ben but they were also his memories of us, his memories of our family.

The police had taken possession of Ben’s phone and laptop from his flat during their initial investigation of Ben’s death. After the coroner’s report had been released, the police eventually handed Ben’s personal items over to us.

I was able to retrieve his photos – there were thousands of them. As well as the personal photos and all the happy memories that I’d been searching for, Ben’s laptop brought me face-to-face with the drugs and the addiction that had cost my brother his life.

Looking at his messages and emails, I realised that Ben had stopped going to work sometime in the summer before he died. It seemed as if his whole life had become consumed by drugs and sex.

On his laptop, I also found blog posts that Ben had written. They hadn’t been published – they were just drafts – but he was writing about what chemsex was and how to help someone who was struggling with issues surrounding chems. This was the information that I needed in order to help my brother – I felt sick, realising that it was now too late.

That’s why I contacted GAY TIMES and asked if I could write this article – to share my story but also to help share the information that my brother Ben had been working on. You may have a friend or loved one that is struggling with issues relating to chems and Christmas is a time of year when people are particularly vulnerable.

What is chemsex?

Let’s start with the basics. Chemsex is the use of drugs – such as crystal meth and GHB – to enable an enhanced sexual experience.

These drugs can help you to lose your sexual inhibitions but they are highly addictive and their use comes with significant health risks.

Chemsex isn’t exclusive to men who have sex with men, but it is particularly prevalent within the LGBTQIA+ community. Issues such as internalised homophobia, low self-esteem, and loneliness seem to make gay men particularly vulnerable to the downsides of using chems.

What are the risks associated with chemsex?

  • Physical health: Accidents and injuries, nutritional issues, lungs and heart diseases, dental problems, disrupted sleeping patterns.
  • Mental health: High levels of depression, anxiety, or psychotic episodes such as paranoia or hallucinations.
  • Emotional health: Issues such as isolation, domestic and relationship issues, low self-esteem or inability to focus or make decisions.
  • Sexual health: High risks of transmissions and infections of HIV, HEP-C and other sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis, gonorrhoea. Chemsex users are also at risk of poor adherence to HIV medication, potentially jeopardising their undetectable status.
  • Financial issues and unemployment.
  • Personal safety: Potential overdoses, sexual assault, theft or self-harm.
  • Legal issues: Buying, selling, possessing and selling these drugs is illegal.

How to help someone that might be struggling with issues relating to chems

Discovering the blog posts that my brother had written prompted me to do more research – I wanted to find out everything I could about chemsex. I had no idea how widespread the use of chems is. I had no idea how many gay men are struggling with the complex issues surrounding their sexual encounters and the use of these drugs.

You might not realise that someone you know is using chems and you may not realise that they are struggling and need help.

It’s important to remember that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, but if you’re worried about a loved one and you think chems might be the problem, keep the communication open – let them know that you’re on their side, listen and be supportive.

Direct confrontations and arguments are counter-productive. Avoid being judgmental.

You also need to set some boundaries for yourself – supporting someone who has issues with chems is an emotional roller-coaster.

Controlling Chemsex is a specialist organisation that provides free online support to people who are struggling with their use of chems. A great first step in helping a loved one to get their life back on track is to connect them with the team at Controlling Chemsex to start talking about the problems that they’re struggling with.

A Christmas wish

We won’t be putting up any Christmas decorations this year. A year has gone by but my family is still grieving.

My heart breaks thinking about what my brother was going through. He had so much potential – so much to look forward to. My heart breaks that we weren’t able to help Ben.

My wish for Christmas this year is that I want to help prevent other tragic losses – I want to help all of the Bens that are out there, feeling like their lives are spiraling out of control.

If someone is struggling with issues surrounding chems, it’s likely that they’re feeling isolated and lonely. The festive season can feel like it amplifies those feelings of loneliness – it can feel as if everyone is being loved and cared for while your life is falling apart.

Wrap your arms around your friends and family this Christmas. Even if they seem withdrawn, or are being a bit difficult – let them know that you’re there for them, that you love them and that help is available.

If you or a loved one are having issues with the use of chems or you want to find out more about chemsex, contact Controlling Chemsex for free advice and information.