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.
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.
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."