Since I've been diagnosed, I have become much closer with my mom. When I was diagnosed, I didn't hold back. Within 10 minutes of me knowing, I told my mom, and my family. My father was living at that time; he's dead now.
What did they say initially? Were they cool about it?
They were cool in front of me, but I'm sure it hit them like a ton of bricks. They tried not to show fear in front of me, because they didn't want me to worry. They were kind of walking a tight line. But when I would get sick -- and I did get sick back then -- my mom would come out to see me, almost on a daily basis. I was so sick; I would go weeks without eating food. She was always there.
She knew you were addicted to crack cocaine?
Oh, yes. Yes, she knew it.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago.
In what kind of neighborhood?
An African-American community. I grew up in a middle-class society. There were gangs there, but it wasn't as bad as some other neighborhoods. But I found those other neighborhoods. I didn't hang out where I grew up, and where my parents lived. Of course I would go into the drug-infested communities; that's where the fun was. You know, run anywhere from the South Side to the North Side or West Side. I was doing things I wasn't supposed to be doing. I was kind of making a mess of my life back then.
What kind of work did your parents do?
Well, my mom worked for years at the Illinois State Employment Service. When she retired, she was an adjudicator for persons who were denied unemployment. She would adjudicate those cases. My father worked for 18 years as a CTA bus driver.
CTA stands for Chicago Transit Authority?
Right. After that, he had a short term with a Sears store, working as a repairman for washing machines, but transitioned for another 18 years with IBM, working on computers. He had a long career.
You have grandchildren, I hear.
Yes, yes. Isn't that something? I have one grandson.
Were you married?
I had a relationship. We weren't married. But I had two kids, and when I was diagnosed in '94, of course, I thought I was dying. I wanted to have a conversation to prepare my kids. I had no clue how to do that. I think I gave way too much information at that time, because they were young. I can just remember my daughter crying, saying she didn't want me to die. I was trying to prepare her for my death. But the funny thing about it: I didn't die.
It's just amazing that I now have a 4-year-old grandson. He's a beautiful kid. My son has grown up. He's working full time. He's going to college. He's getting As and Bs. My daughter is doing the same -- plus, raising my grandson. They really turned out well, in spite of me.
I did the best I can in raising them, but it wasn't too good. I would see them on the weekends. They would come over some weekends. But many days, I disappointed them. That was one of the most hurtful things of all during my addiction: telling them to come over for the weekend, and then we're going out to the show, to the movies. When they would get there I was on the street, and just never made it home.
I would come home on Sunday night, beat up on, with no money, just in a tremendous amount of emotional pain, especially where my kids are concerned. Those are some of the worst memories of my addiction.
Now you get along with your family?
Yes. Everything's good. Two beautiful kids are grown up. You know, I know I've had to face the cycle of my behavior, but my family haven't shown it outwardly. They've always respected me, for some reason. They've always given me a tremendous amount of love. Recently, they were at my wedding, which was the greatest thing. I had my family out. I moved out of Chicago. I moved up 63 miles north.
Tell me about how you met your new wife.
That was interesting. I was in a relationship, which was an unhealthy relationship, while I was sober. It was kind of a codependent relationship, and it wasn't going anywhere. I started getting bored, and I just started playing around with the HIV dating sites on the computer, not that I thought that anything would come of it. Matter of fact, my impression was that people that dated through the computer just didn't know how to talk to a woman.
I just started, you know, just for fun. I met some interesting people there, one who turned out to be kind of a pen pal. But then I got one message from a lady, and she said she was interested in my profile. I e-mailed her back, and she e-mailed me back, and I e-mailed her back. Next thing I know, I'm getting up at three or four in the morning, to run to the computer to see if she e-mailed me. I'm running home from work, trying to check my computer. We never stopped communicating. We have over, maybe three, four thousand e-mails. Two months later I actually got to talk to her on the phone. In another couple of months, I actually met her in person. We just hit it off and never looked back.
At that point, I was living in Chicago House, in the independent living program. I had just taken the job that I have now, which is a full-time position. I had to move out of Chicago House, because I couldn't be a client and a staff member at the same time. Around that time, I got engaged; the time was right. I just moved out of the city to McHenry. Now I commute every day, back and forth to work.
Did you ever imagine this would be your future?
Not at all. Not at all.
When you were addicted did you ever imagine you'd end up doing what you're doing now and living where you are now living?
No, not at all. Definitely not. When I was younger, I always got good jobs. My goal was just making money, having a good time, enjoying life. At the height of my career -- which I thought was going in the right direction -- I was a Chicago policeman. I was making good money. I had a lot of girls. I had money, my own apartment, but I was having too much fun. My world basically just crumbled, especially with the cocaine addiction.
I never thought then about going back to school. Back then it was just more like surviving. You want to not get sick, and you want to get your drugs. That's what I was doing on a day-to-day basis, not ever thinking about going back to school or work in anything full-time. I thought about maybe one day driving a truck on the road again, or a cab -- something like that.
When I got sober, things just started falling into place. When things started happening like that to me, I realized that I was limiting myself. I was putting limitations on me. I'm actually even looking further now, going to get beyond my bachelor's degree and working full-time. I'm on the I-4 employment program, which helps people go back to work who are HIV positive. That's what I'm working on now. But right now, I'm going for a master's degree in nonprofit management. I'm taking a night course. As a matter of fact, I'm going to school tonight.
I'm also trying to get personal trainer certification. My goal is to help people with HIV and/or the aging population reap the benefits of exercise. I believe that it was very instrumental in my health, especially when the medications weren't working, and I want to pass that on. I want to create a program with an existing organization, or even start my own nonprofit organization. Those are my goals now.
How many hours a week do you devote to exercise?
It varies. I was going to work out last night, but I thought I was coming down with a cold. It turned out to be allergies. I try to set a schedule now, because I have a full plate, with full-time school and full-time work. I try to stretch it out.
I'll come home and normally try to work out about an hour a night. That's my goal. In actuality, it turns out to be about maybe three nights, doing it. Monday through Friday I'll work out the cardio mixed with some strength training. I kind of go all out on the weekend, one day out of the weekend. I might go up there for four hours; that's healthy for me. Because before I was working, I would actually work out about four hours per day -- which is too much, you know, but I was kind of addicted to that, too.
Now I'm trying to moderate it somewhat. I run down, do a little cardio, and the next day I'll do some strength training. I'll try not to do it on the weekdays more than an hour, because I have to do some studying at night and prepare myself for work the next day. It's just a matter of time management now.
I want to go back to asking about your family. How do you decide whether to disclose your HIV status to somebody? Do you always disclose?
For me, I am totally open with it now. It was a long process for me to get there. I told my parents and my immediate family, my girlfriend, right away. That would have been way too much pressure on me, trying to hold that in and deal with this HIV. So I told them. But it took many years before I would go out, aside from my immediate family. I finally started going to TPAN Agency, where I could talk to other people like me.
I started doing groups. I realized it was empowering, talking about HIV within the HIV community. I was good at that, but I wouldn't talk about it outside the community. But when I was going for my bachelor's degree, we had to write a mission statement. In the mission statement, I talked about working with people that are HIV positive. That's when I disclosed my status for the first time publicly, in front of a non-HIV setting.
When I did it, I read my mission out loud, actually sweating bullets, I was nervous. I got a lot of support from my classmates, which surprised me. No one ostracized me. From that point on, I just started to learn to open up.
Right now I'm to the point. I don't go around broadcasting my HIV status, but I don't hide it either. If somebody came up to me and asked, "Are you HIV [positive]?" I'd just tell him the truth. I'm to the point now where I always -- I would never say that I don't care what other people think about me -- but right now it's less important what other people think about my HIV status. Right now, it's just more important what I believe [about] myself. I don't have any qualms about disclosing that ... if it's an appropriate situation. I'd never go into a room of people and say, "Hi, my name's Greg Braxton. I'm HIV positive." I have to have some kind of a reason to disclose that.
What's the best response you have ever gotten from telling someone?
The best response was -- questions. That was the best response. They want to know how it is to deal with HIV. They have a brother or cousin who's HIV positive. They want to know how to deal with him. That's the best response for me, because I'm using it for something positive, maybe to help somebody else.
I love it when people come to me and tell me: "You know, I have a cousin who came to me, and I don't know what to tell him, where to go," and I can give them some kind of guidance. Or if they just want to know about it in general. How do you get it? Those kinds of questions. It opens up dialogue. The more you talk about it, the more it actually reduces the stigma that's attached to it.
When people start seeing me as Greg -- and not a person with HIV, but seeing me as Greg -- that takes the power away from the stigma of HIV. That's what's important for me: to chip away at the stigma. Because that's what fuels it. That's what fuels HIV power. This is just like addiction. If you don't talk about the addiction, if you hide it, it's going to have all the power in the world. If you start exposing it some kind of way, it loses the power.