By M.G. Perez, Senior Reporter
Anthony Ward, aka “Torch,” has a story to tell. The 29-year-old gay man is a survivor of drug abuse, alcoholism and the addiction of self-hatred disguised as a very poor body image. He says, “[The name ‘Torch’] was given to me by an ex-boyfriend because of my personality. It continued while I was using and promoting clubs and involved in other exotic activities.” Those activities included a dismal collapse into the underbelly of the PnP (party and play) subculture plaguing the LGBTQ community worldwide. He used crystal meth and the highly intoxicating drug GHB for enhanced sexual encounters. “I call it my drug destruction,” Ward reflects. “It was the destruction of my life, my spirit, my emotions and my family. It took me places I thought I’d never go. I worked out my body at the gym regularly and once I used, I lost my worth, my self-respect and I lost my health when I became HIV-positive.”
Despite his strong stature and looks on the outside, Ward never believed he was good enough when he looked in the mirror. It’s a common delusion with gay men who have been medically diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder. Chemical addiction is a symptom and coping mechanism. Addiction in the LGBTQ community has been treated through Stepping Stone of San Diego since its early beginnings in 1976. It’s been honored nationally for its residential treatment of drug abuse, HIV and other health interventions, recovery, education and prevention services. Two years ago, the organization opened its Stepping Out program designed as an outpatient facility to help those who completed the residential program and desired support for long-term sobriety. One of those programs is a support group for improving body image. The program is facilitated by Rebecca Gangl on Wednesday nights in the treatment center at Illinois Street and University Avenue in North Park. “This is a mental health issue,” says Gangl, “body image has to be treated that way. You can’t stay clean and sober if you hate your body. We provide a safe space for men to take their personal journey in healing.” Anthony Ward was one of the first participants in the group and credits its support with helping him stay sober. “I remember this particular homework assignment we were given to allow our body to dress itself. No mirror, no judgement, just wear what’s comfortable.” Ward had never done that, instead choosing to believe his delusion in the mirror.
In the current culture of misinformation, the biggest lies could be coming from you. A recent study done by researchers at Chapman University near Anaheim revealed some facts about what men are really seeing in the mirror. The study found that 20% of straight men and 39% of gay men reported trying to hide one aspect of their bodies, usually their bellies. Studies about men and their body image continue to gain momentum. In fact, Southern California is an epicenter of research on this reality. The Body Image, Sexuality, and Health (BISH) Lab at San Diego State University focuses on the scientific study of body image and health behaviors. Aaron J. Blashill, Ph.D., is director of the BISH Lab and a published expert on the subject. Blashill is quoted online on the evidence-based, industry standard website, consumer.healthday.com, saying, “Men, regardless of their sexual orientation, place greater emphasis on physical appearance [of prospective mates], compared to women,” Blashill continued. “As a result,” he said, “gay men may be more likely to both objectify their partners and themselves.”
The BISH Lab at SDSU is currently recruiting participants for the Body Pride body acceptance program. Researchers are looking for persons who identify as gay, bisexual, or sexually attracted to men, aged 18-35, and speak English. Another program invites Spanish-speaking men to apply. ¡PrEParate! offers assistance to Latino men in the community with access to HIV prevention care like PrEP. For more information, go to bishlab.sdsu.edu/current-projects/
Meanwhile, the Stepping Out program in North Park is now opening its Body Image support group to anyone in the community. Gangl hopes the Wednesday night meeting is the safe place men will come to let go of what she calls the “dirty secret.” “The ‘dirty secret,’” she says, “is that you cannot have mental health and be disconnected from your body, whether with drugs and alcohol or dysmorphia. It’s not healthy to start turning on our own body.”
Anthony “Torch” Ward hopes to return to the Wednesday night group soon to check in on his progress. He also has plans to pursue a career as a personal trainer and Reiki healer. He says there’s no better way to continue to heal himself and pass on his story of recovery to others than in front of the mirrors that almost destroyed him. His “torch” also has a new meaning: “Fire, yes, can be destructive, but it also can be healing, too, because it’s warmth and it’s light.”