Listen to Audio (63 min.)
Table of Contents
- Personal Bio
- Alcohol, Drug and Sex Addiction
- Getting Clean
- HIV Treatment
- Myths About HIV
How did you find out you were HIV positive?
It was back in 1994, and I was working as a salesperson in a motorcycle shop in Harvey, Ill. My supervisor noted that I had a very foul smell on my breath. Also, I was getting sick, having night sweats.
With the constant pleading from my mom and my girlfriend to go get it checked out, I said, "No. It's just a cold. It will pass." It lingered on for over a month. So I finally decided to go in and that's when I received the diagnosis. I stayed in the hospital for two days. The second day, I was diagnosed with HIV.
What did they first think it was?
They thought it was all kinds of things. When I think about it, it was actually more than two days. They did a bone marrow biopsy, which was extremely painful. They knew something was wrong with me, but they couldn't put their finger on it. They finally decided to do an HIV test. I knew something was wrong when the doctor came back into the room. Just looking at his face, you knew something was off. I still remember what the exact words were, "I'm sorry, Mr. Braxton, but you have AIDS."
At that point, it seemed like my life just came to a screeching halt. That was definitely a turning point in my life.
How long do you think it takes to process an HIV diagnosis?
To fully process a diagnosis of HIV, it took me several years. That's only because my grieving process was kind of hindered through drug abuse. So I never did come to terms with that immediately. It took a while, until after I got my addiction under control. Then I could start processing my feelings of living with HIV. Before that, I tried to numb it out, and just didn't deal with it.
What drugs were you addicted to? How long were you addicted?
My drug of choice, I guess, if you want to call it that, was crack cocaine. I became an alcoholic at an early age. I wasn't even aware that I was an alcoholic, but I was, looking back on it. And that was just to overcome severe shyness, to be able to have normal relationships -- a girlfriend and everything else. Well, the alcohol gave me that. But it progressed, and I started dabbling with cocaine in about 1985 or so. I got really heavily addicted to it around 1992. It was only up until five years ago that I was able to break that habit.
You were diagnosed with HIV at what point in all this?
At the point I was diagnosed, I was heavily dependent upon crack cocaine. I lost many jobs due to alcohol and drug addiction, including being a Chicago policeman.
My crack cocaine addiction really took off when I was driving trucks. I was kind of proud of myself that I could go into any city and, within a half hour, find some drugs. That was actually true -- 45 minutes, tops. When you're dealing with drugs like that, you have to look to somewhere to get some kind of self-esteem. Although that's really twisted, I kind of prided myself on being able to do that. Not the most healthy way to look at it, but that's the way I did it.
How long were you a Chicago policeman?
I was on the force for three years. That was a fun time for me. I didn't really take that job seriously. I think I did always want to catch a burglar, which [never happened]. I did sincerely want to help people. Other than that, the job for me was just a way to have fun. I was young, and I lived for the moment. I was extremely shy, coming up. And then I discovered alcohol. It brought me out of my shell. I was also into fast motorcycles and girls, and the job just seemed to foster that kind of lifestyle. So to me, it was just a fun time. I was an alcoholic, but at that time, I had very few consequences. That's why I didn't know I was an alcoholic -- because it was all fun and games for me.
There was a little voice in the back of my head, though, that told me that someday, I'm going to have to pay for this. I kind of ignored it, but it was just a constant small voice in the back of my head. I really wasn't being responsible; I was just out to basically have a good time.
What advice would you give someone who has just found out that they are positive?
If someone came to me and told me they had just found out they were HIV positive, the first thing I would say is, "Allow yourself to grieve." You're going to feel grief. You're going to go through a process, and I'm just saying that it is a process. You'll go on the dark side of the moon, but you will resurface. The main thing is to get linked with support -- you need emotional support. If it's drugs that you've been abusing, actually, you need help in that area. And you need medical support. You need to stay on top of this.
But I would say, just allow yourself to grieve, and then, when you get through grieving, realize that HIV/AIDS is no longer a terminal illness. You're not going to necessarily die -- if you take care of yourself. You can live a -- whatever a normal life is, I don't think it's a really normal life, but you can have some semblance of that.
It's going to take a lot of work, and a lot of effort. It's definitely going to change you. ... There are lots of ways it can actually change you for the better. I know it's hard to believe, but that's the way it was for me.
Do you think it's harder for African Americans?
Oh, yes. Definitely. African Americans are dealing with so much weight on their shoulders -- social, economic disparities, and a higher stigma attached to HIV. When you think of HIV, you think of homosexuality and that's a big stigma within the African-American community.
We also have a lot of our young African-American men in the prison system. And things happen in there, and they can come out -- I certainly believe that we have a lot of African-American men that may have sex with men, and live somewhat of a double lifestyle. [They] identify as straight -- and in my heart, I believe they are straight, some of them. But for whatever reasons, be it drugs or incarceration, they may cross certain lines. There's a lot of guilt and shame attached to that. I think it's one thing that's not talked about enough. Look at that not just mentally; look at it scientifically, and put prevention methods in place to deal with that population. We don't even know how prevalent it is, because everybody's afraid to touch it.
You mean the "down low," as they call it.
Yes, if you want to call it that. When you use this term, it's not just about African Americans. It affects all ethnicities: the Latinos, they have this machismo going on. Caucasians, as well. But that's one thing that we really need to address. And I don't think we're doing enough about it, because there's so much emotional energy charged to that. You hear a lot of gay communities speaking about, "Well, they're not really one of us. They don't want to be treated. Leave them alone." And [there is] a lot of hostility from women [about men on the down low]. So it's a very sensitive issue. What we need to do is try to look at HIV prevention and care [with] a non-judgmental attitude.
How do you think you got HIV?
I got HIV from just being wild and crazy. I didn't inject drugs. Half the time I was drunk, I was heavily addicted to prostitutes. Some of those prostitutes might have been men in disguise. Any time you're going out at night, and you're having sex with five prostitutes, that can be a major risk factor, to say the least. ... At 18 years old, everybody was having sex, and I was scared to talk to girls. I only had one or two friends in high school, and no girlfriends. Alcohol brought me the girls. Once I started having sex, I just took it to the extreme. It was a form of addiction, in a way -- you know, the sex, the drugs and the lifestyle that goes with it. My behavior was pretty wild, to say the least.
Do you think it's easy for African-American women to demand condom use from African-American men?
No, I don't think it's easy. It's easier said than done, depending on what culture you're coming up in, depending on what you're trying to do. For some women it is a lot easier than others. You take Africa: that's extremely hard for them to do that culturally, there.
But you also take it here when, for instance, women who are addicted to crack -- their motive is to get to more drugs, plain and simple. They don't care what the costs are; they just want to get another hit, right now. They know that if they're going to turn a date with a John to get some money, and then they ask him to put a condom on, they're going to probably lose that money, because [he's] going to go to the next [woman].
So that's a huge aspect here. All these things kind of tie in together. The women -- it depends on: Are they having multiple sex partners? What's the situation with their significant other?
So we're all over the map. I don't think there's really an answer to that. But I think in many situations, condom use is difficult to negotiate. One of the things that could empower women, until they come out with microbicides, is actually thinking about using the -- some people call them female condoms. That gives some kind of empowerment back to the woman. She doesn't have to request that the guy use a condom; she could already have one in place. If I was a woman, personally I may be thinking along those lines to protect myself.
Did any of the sex workers that you went with ask you to wear a condom?
Only if they knew I was HIV positive.
But you didn't know at the time.
Well, I did after a while. After '94, I was still addicted to the drugs, and I was still addicted to prostitutes. The only thing is: I didn't really have a lot of sex then. Not that I was dangerous, to say the least, but I was trying. At that point, the cocaine was more important than the sex. As many people know, when you're using cocaine, after the first couple of hits you're no good, anyway, because of erectile dysfunction.
So I didn't do too much of it, anyway. In a sense, that was kind of a blessing in disguise. To be honest with you, had I been able to function fully, I probably would have caused some serious damage.
That's just being totally honest, because when you're on the drugs, you're not thinking in your right mind. You just want to forget everything and experience the moment. That cocaine -- it kind of really tore me up. When you take it, you become extremely paranoid. You can't hardly talk. You can't have sex. All you can do is just kind of sit there and stare. For the life of me, I can't figure out what the fun was in that. But that's what the reality was; it was a living hell.