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Positive Empowerment: I Get Blessings, I Get Lesson

July/August 2003

A note from TheBody.com: Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

Positive Empowerment: I Get Blessings, I Get Lesson

Just like anyone else, I have some bad days, but in general I'm like Tony the Tiger. I feel grrreat! That's no small feat considering that my last viral load was over 300,000 and my T-cell count was six. In fact, I haven't had more than 20 T-cells in the last 10 years.

So you know that I did not always feel like Tony the Tiger. I had to go through some very tough times to get to where I am today. I've had some very nasty battles with two deadly diseases: HIV and addiction.

In 1994, I had already lost several good jobs, all because of my alcohol and drug use. I had been a Chicago police officer, a CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) bus driver and an over-the-road truck driver. It was at that time that I got a cold I couldn't seem to shake. I began to have night sweats. After six weeks and much pleading by my family, I decided to go to the hospital.

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After several days passed, my doctor came in my room looking like someone had just died. "I'm sorry, Mr. Braxton, but you have AIDS." Devastating words. I felt like the whole world kept moving, but I was standing still. Like I had just gotten thrown off the bus of life in the middle of a desert. I was given an AIDS diagnosis because at that time my T-cells were 60. They didn't do viral loads then.

After the initial shock, panic set in. I had two kids and a girlfriend I lived with. I was so relieved to find out that everyone close to me tested negative.

I was prescribed AZT [Retrovir] and Bactrim. I had a very severe reaction to the Bactrim. I assumed I was dying from AIDS. I was so sick I could barely walk. One day I managed to ride my bike around the block. The next day I went a little further. In a couple of months I was riding 25 miles a day. At the end of that summer I completed a 100-mile bike trip. The seed was planted. I associated exercise with feeling better.

However, there were many trials and tribulations that lay ahead. This was because I had not yet gotten my drug and alcohol addiction under control. Over the next several years I went through just about every HIV medication available. I was building resistance to all medications at an alarming rate. This was because sometimes I would take the medication and sometimes I would not. It generally depended on whether or not I had something more important to do, like smoke crack cocaine.

I was constantly in and out of the hospital. I've been close to death more times than I care to think about. You know you're in trouble when you see tears in the eyes of family and friends while you're in the hospital. I remember being angry because I could not do one push-up a couple of weeks out of the intensive care unit. I started doing bicep curls with the guest chair in my room at Cook County Hospital. I was transferred to a nursing home where I used the physical therapy room as my personal gym. A year later I was bench-pressing 240 pounds.

Then one day I just didn't feel right. Again, I almost died in the hospital. I knew that I could fight my way back to being relatively healthy. I just couldn't seem to stay that way for long.

It became crystal clear to me that I couldn't successfully manage my HIV unless I first learned to manage my alcohol and drug problem. While in Haymarket treatment facility I was linked up with TPAN's Positive Progress group. This is a support group for HIV-positive people based on the 12-step model of recovery for substance abuse.

After getting out of treatment I continued to attend the group. One day the facilitator said he had to attend another meeting and wanted me to run the group. I was scared to death. I continued to facilitate Positive Progress for the next nine months. During that time I experienced tremendous personal growth. I learned the value of giving without expecting anything in return. I met my 12-step sponsor in that group, who continues to work with me today.

Positive Empowerment: I Get Blessings, I Get Lesson

Today I am involved with several HIV community-based groups: HPPG (HIV Prevention Planning Group), NHHC (Northside HIV Health Committee), ARAC (AIDS Research Alliance Chicago), EASE (Empowerment, Advocacy, Support and Education caucus) and Haymarket CAB (client advisory board). I'm learning a lot through those organizations, but I am still new at it. Sometimes I believe these groups give me more credit than I'm worth. Recently, ARAC sent me to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to represent them. Wow! Also, I showed up for a donut and to be nosy at my first EASE meeting, and they elected me co-chair. Boy, do they have a sense of humor.

Only recently have I begun to make any long-term plans. When I heard about the new drug for deep salvage therapy, T-20 (or Fuzeon), I began to have hope. I even enrolled in Harold Washington College to pursue a certification for drug and alcohol counselor (CADC).

It has been one year and eight months since I had a drink or drug. During that time I have taken my meds 99% of the time. I have no problem injecting myself twice a day with T-20. I have had some medical problems, but they are minor compared to before.

Today I'm making minor changes in my diet and yes, I exercise on a regular basis. I have my studio apartment loaded up with six different kinds of exercise equipment. None of them have become a coat rack yet. My weekly exercise routine involves cardio, strength training, and Pilates. I also take supplements and occasionally juice vegetables. I have reversed the effects of lipodystrophy (small arms and legs and huge stomach).

To work on myself spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically is very demanding and takes a lot of discipline. It is all well worth it. I'm sober now, so I get a kick out of life.

I never expected to see my kids grow up. Today not only are they young adults, but I have lived to see my first grandchild -- go figure! In my first two months on T-20, my viral load dropped from 500,000 to 300,000. In a couple of weeks I will check it again.

Yes, today I feel like Tony the Tiger, grrreat! However, it takes more than Frosted Flakes to get that way. I cannot take all the credit for my life today. I had help. A lot of help. I am extremely grateful for organizations like TPAN, AIDS Care, Alcoholics Anonymous and Chicago House. I get support from family and friends. Most of all, I receive help from Him whom I cannot see. Like they say in AA, "When I do His will I get blessings, when I do my will I get lessons."


Got a comment on this article? Write to us at publications@tpan.com.

A note from TheBody.com: Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!



  
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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
 
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