Listen to Audio (52 min.)
Table of Contents
- Personal Bio
- Disclosure and Relationships
- Drug Addiction and Recovery
- Harm Reduction
- Health, Treatment and HIV
Can you tell our readers and listeners about your personal history with HIV? How did you find out you were HIV positive?
I had spent 27 years in active addiction. At one time I had gotten really sick and I went to the hospital. While I was at the hospital, in the emergency room, they asked if I wanted to take an HIV test. I said, "Sure."
At that time, I had read about HIV, but the information was that it was a gay white man's disease so I didn't think it affected me. When I did get the test, it was like, "Okay. You have got to come back in two weeks."
Again, I was in active addiction, so I wasn't coming back in two weeks. So I didn't come back in two weeks. I took the test at Fulton County Health Department. I wound up in Fulton county jail, maybe a year, a year and a half, later. They called me out of my cell, and I came downstairs. I thought I was going home. There was a man in a white jacket.
He said, "Are you Mr. Burgess?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, I've got some news for you." I'm like, "Well, get to it. I want to go home." He said I was HIV positive.
At that time, I think I was at the best place I could have been, incarcerated, because I was in protective custody, protected from myself. So that's how I actually found out.
What were you addicted to?
I was addicted to heroin for 27 years.
Do you know how you got HIV? Was it through intravenous [IV] drug use?
I'm sure it was drugs because I had never been with a man. I grew up -- addiction is not a moral disease -- I grew up not being promiscuous. Just IV drug use. I know vividly how I probably contracted this virus. I came home one year, after moving to Atlanta, and a friend of mine took me into an abandoned building, and reached into the wall and sheetrock and pulled out a dirty needle. It was dirtier than the Hudson River, if I could say that. But my addiction said, use that needle anyway. Again, I didn't think about getting HIV. Back then, we just thought about hepatitis.
I think at that moment, I may have gotten HIV, if I could pinpoint. But I've shared needles for pretty much all my addiction.
How long do you think you had been living with HIV when you found out you were positive?
When I was diagnosed, my T cells were already 43. Going back with the relationship and the history with my doctor, we can say I was positive as early as 1990. Mind you, I didn't get the diagnosis until '95, '96. Looking at my T cells and where they were at, we're looking at as early as that, I could have been infected.
Do you also have hepatitis C?
Yes, I have hepatitis C, also. Again, that's a direct result of IV drug use. Right now, my doctor and I are looking at it. We are definitely a great team and we're monitoring. My liver enzymes are fine. I think two years ago we were going to do the biopsy. But because of my fears as a result of being a treatment educator, and reading that for 94 to 96 percent of African Americans, the hepatitis C treatment does not work for them, I wasn't ready to go through the pain, and go through the challenges of the depression and everything from the treatment. So right now we're just monitoring my liver and my liver enzymes, see where they are; and then we'll make that decision.
Did you find out that you had hepatitis C at the same time that you discovered you were HIV positive?
No. It probably was a couple of months after that. It's a really good relationship, how my doctor and I met. Actually, she chose me. But two months into our relationship, she said, "You have hepatitis C, also."
I had a lot of trauma done to me when I finally did come in. What I mean by "come in" is, I was almost murdered on the streets of Atlanta. I wound up in the emergency room, and they put me on a floor that's special for HIV-infected people.
You mentioned that your doctor chose you, instead of you choosing her. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Yes. Like I said, I was almost murdered. I was in the emergency room. They finally got me to a floor and assigned me to a doctor. This is so ironic. The doctor that was on call came in and I guess I was looking so bad, and everything like that. He said, "You know, Mr. Burgess, well, I have got some good news and some bad news. You made it through the night but you got four months to live. Go and enjoy yourself." At the time, he was playing God. I'm hesitating, because -- and I'll say this right now -- this particular doctor, maybe five years in, OD'd [overdosed] on drugs.
But at the same time, my primary care provider -- her name was Molly Eaton -- she was in the room at that time. Once she heard that information; when he walked out, she was like, "He shouldn't have said that to you." She said, "You know, we're all on call right now. But when you get out, please come see me, after the Olympics." Because the Olympics were going on. We have a one-stop shop in Atlanta called Grady IDP, Infectious Disease Program, and that's where her office was. She is an infectious disease doctor.
So I had a choice, while I was laying in the bed, waiting for George, Jr. and his mother. A social worker, Mary Lynn Hemphill, came into my room. I have a lot of respect for social workers. I love them.
What she did was, she sat on my bed and she touched my feet. When she touched my feet, I knew things were going to be alright. Because if you would have seen my feet back then ... She said she was going to get me into drug treatment and she got me into drug treatment.
I knew I was ready to quit using drugs, because I could have went and used, or I could have went into a drug treatment program. I went directly to the drug treatment program. A month after that, the Olympics had ended. I went to meet my primary care provider. I became her patient.
A week later, I started volunteering at AIDS Survival Project and I met Dan Dunable and Terri Wilder there. A week later, I went to my first support group (that's why I say, we need support), which is Common Ground. I speak with Common Ground, still. It is a daily support group, where people that are infected come on a daily basis and get some education, get a good meal. But the primary thing is the networking; people know that you're not alone.
All those ingredients were right there. My combination -- like I said, in 1996, it was the first cocktail, triple combination -- my combination was already there: the social worker, the doctor, the medication, the volunteerism, the support group. All of that started right there in September of '96. So from June 17, 1996 to September, all of those ingredients were coming together. I was ready.
This is the second time that you mentioned that you were almost killed. I have to ask: What happened?
I was an IV drug user. I made a stupid, conscious decision that I would not start smoking crack. So one of my friends started smoking crack. You know, a drug is a drug is a drug. But what's different is that with heroin, you can shoot up, and you'll be fine for six hours, or whatever. But crack is a repetitive thing; you have to do it over and over and over again, which takes up a lot of money. I was always a people pleaser, so one time I bought them some drugs, and I was walking away. Because I did what I had to do.
When I was walking away, I heard them call me and I turned around. When I turned around, they hit me in the face with a two-by-four.
Yes. Well, I know today they are not my friends. They were just using people; they were just associates. I thought they were my friends. They knocked all my teeth out. I had a compound fracture on my elbow, a punctured lung, one failed kidney. They left me to die. I had one tooth in my mouth. When I got to the hospital, they said, "Get the next of kin. He's not going to make it through the night."
Simultaneously, the mother of my son, who I had already mistreated -- not physically, but from my lifestyle of an active addiction, abused her -- she said a prayer. The power of prayer does work. She was praying. The doctor was saying, "His vital signs are changing." I made it through that night. Now, I can't say I felt God, saw God, or heard God. But I felt the warmth, and I got better. I got better.
That next morning, the doctor, I mentioned before, came in and said, "You got four months to live," but I got better. It was an amazing two months. You know, they say that the healing process starts with pain. That night there was much pain from the beating, but it was a healing process and I'm still healing. Because it's 11 years later, and I'm just in awe of where I'm at.
I'm reading a book called "The Pursuit of Purpose." We walk around so many times to try to find out who we are. But in this book, it talks about: Why are you? I'm here because of HIV -- I'm here to be of service.
How did you get your money for drugs? Were you working?
I was an executive at a major company on 34th Street in New York. I was a junior executive. I started what I'd call white-collar crimes.
They say that you hurt the ones that love you. My grandmother, who raised me, had money. She was ok. I faked three kidnappings and she paid the ransom. I used that money to buy drugs.
I worked for Macy's for 18 years -- again, a functional addict. I remember one time, during a board meeting, a production meeting, I had to go in the bathroom and use before I'd do anything.
I remember coming to the podium during this meeting and I took off my blazer, and blood was still coming out of my arms. I was oblivious to it. I thought I was saying some good stuff because they were saying, "Ooh," and "Ah," but they were looking at the blood coming out of my arms.
Those are things that I know I don't ever want to return to. But I started doing white-collar crimes. But then, in 1996, Macy's had a private buyout. I had already moved to Atlanta when they had the private buyout. I was one of the first ones to go. They knew they already had trouble with me. So I became homeless in the streets of Atlanta.
I started doing shoplifting. I was a smart shoplifter. I would get a smoke detector. I would take it in the parking lot. I would break the wire, and take it back in and say it was defective. They would have to give me $36 and that's how much it cost me to have my wake-up shot. It cost me $36: two bags of heroin, a bag of cocaine, a pint of wine and some beer. And that was it.
Every day. That was just the beginning. That was to start the day.
Are the white-collar crimes what landed you in jail?
Actually, the petty crimes! I never got caught or confessed to the white-collar crimes. I have made my amends in my own way, as they say.
But I kept starting this petty thievery and stuff like that. I went before the same judge four times. He sad, "You need another profession. You're not a thief."
That's how I wound up in jail. I have been in jail maybe four times; I have never been to prison. The longest I've been in jail is about two months. But even those were devastating to me. It was embarrassing to my family. But that was the end result.
They say in recovery, "Jails, institutions are death." I have been to institutions. I've been to jails and I haven't died. Well, I had a spiritual death going on, but I hadn't physically died.
The last time you were in jail was when you found out that you were positive?
Yes. That was the last time I was in jail. I didn't make the decision. Because when I did get out -- I'm glad I was incarcerated that night and in protective custody -- when I did get out my active addiction was really, really bad. I was trying to -- you know the song, "Killing me softly, kill me slowly?" I was trying to kill myself slowly. I was a coward. I wasn't going to jump off a bridge or anything like that. My addiction just took off and it took me to the point, to the beating and stuff like that.
You mentioned your grandmother, and I know that you have children. How did you tell your family that you were HIV positive? When did you tell them? How did they react?
The first one I told was my dad. My dad had no problem with it whatsoever. They were still in New York, and I was in Atlanta. So I called my dad and I told him. But even when I told him, it was in a manipulative way, because I wanted him to feel sorry for me for him to send me some money so I could get high.
Then I told my mother and she was negative about it. She said some really bad things. Again, now I know why she said the bad things -- because of her own fears, and because of not being educated about HIV and AIDS.
Trust me now: We're the best of friends. We are the best of friends and she's my greatest supporter. When I did the show, the Peter Jennings show, she was quite upset with something that came out within the context of that. But I already let her know that Peter Jennings had already died. He did not edit it. Somebody else edited it. Our relationship has really grown. But she did say some bad things.
Then it trickled on down to my brother and my sister. All of them were supportive, other than my moms. Then I had to come to my children. Two of the oldest ones, up here in New York, I told first. They were upset, but they were okay. They were like, "Daddy, what do we need to do?" Remember, these are the kids that I abandoned. There was no relationship. They were just like, "Okay. Let's circle the wagons. Daddy, what do I need to do?"
Then Tiffany, my daughter, and George, Jr., my children in Atlanta. I brought Tiffany to my office. I had already started volunteering and I worked in the AIDS Survival Project. She was like, "You're about ready to send me to college. What's all of this stuff?" So I made my disclosure right there in my office at AIDS Survival Project.
George, Jr.: I just told him, actually, a year ago. He knew. Our children do know. But I sat down and just spoke to him. And I mentioned it to him on the way, whereas I want him to not make some of the decisions and the choices that I've made and really work on self-esteem issues. Because of self-esteem issues; that's why I started really using. It wasn't that I come from a bad family or an impoverished neighborhood; my self-esteem was low. You know, I just try to educate him.
What is the best response you've gotten from someone after telling them you were HIV positive? Is there one shining moment in your memory?
I didn't see the reaction, but again, from my dad. I think my dad had the best response when I told him I was HIV positive: "Son, I love you. We'll get through this." A soldier, true to his heart. You know, a soldier with compassion: "We'll get through this, son. What do we need to do?"
I have disclosed to people and have gotten the big hug and big kiss. If I were to say something, it's that when someone does make a disclosure, we can tell if it's a sincere, compassionate hug, or if it's ... Sometimes, the response, when you tell somebody and disclose to somebody: "I'm so sorry."
I don't want you to be sorry. It actually wasn't your fault, to be sorry. I don't know if people say that because of lack of words, and stuff like that. Just be supportive.
I went to a hospital health care situation. I had an ear infection. I told the technician that I was HIV positive. She went out of the room and came back with gloves and a mask on. I questioned her about that, because I had already started advocating for myself. She went out and a doctor came in with two pairs of gloves and two masks on. I was like, "I'm not going to open my mouth, because I don't want somebody to come in here with a space suit on. Just let me be quiet."
How has your coinfection changed how you have dealt with HIV?
I think the biggest thing about the coinfection that has changed me is that I'm mindful of what regimens I'm taking; I'm mindful of what I'm putting in my system -- you know, if things are real toxic, I'm mindful of that. I'm mindful -- although I just celebrated 11 years clean and sober -- I think the hepatitis C and the HIV diagnosis keeps my recovery really in place. Why risk your life? That's what I was doing anyway, but you know.
You said that you felt you were in the best place that you could have been to find out that you were HIV positive. What advice would you give to someone who might not be in the best place and just found out that they were positive?
I think the first advice is to be still. Because it's what we call Day One. Day One could be really, really frightening ... especially sitting back on the other side of the desk and getting the diagnosis. So the first advice is just to be still, because your thoughts are going to race.
After being still, find some support. We know that sometimes family members are not receptive or don't understand HIV. When I told my mother I was positive, she had a negative response to it. But I had to realize that she wasn't educated. She had her fears. So, be still; then find some support. Get into some health care, and you can set a game plan. Then realize that it's not a death sentence; you can live with this.
You've already mentioned your relationship with your mother. How have your other relationships with family and friends changed because of your diagnosis?
This trip to New York has been so overwhelming and has really raised my T cells. This is the first time that all four of my children have been in a room together. Never been in a room together. Because of my active addiction, you know, I abandoned my children. These past 10 years, 11 years, of my diagnosis and living clean and sober; it's a whole new life and our relationship is really, really great. All four of my children have different mothers, but all of them look alike, and all of them are just so friendly and loving to one another. It's just an awesome thing.
So the relationship with my children is really great. I've met two of my grandchildren on this trip. It's really a good thing for me. This moment right here is good for me.
Do you think it's harder for African Americans to deal with an HIV diagnosis?
Yes. I think African Americans have a whole lot to deal with. I waver; I go back and forth because sometimes the stereotypes will make you say, well, African Americans are poor. They are illiterate. They have drug histories. They have jail histories ... and stuff like that.
But the reality of it is, some of us do. Some of us do. So we are addressing those other issues at the same time. Then to get an HIV/AIDS diagnosis; it's one of those, okay, what can happen next? Or one of those, I'm going to give up.
With African-American women, I think it's challenging for them, because at that time some of them, I believe, go into survival mode. "I'm going to take care of my children, and I'm going to be secondary. I'm going to make sure that they are okay." So they neglect their health in some ways in order to take care of their children. Because some of us know that it's not a death sentence, but we know that -- we're not running out of time, but the clock is on. I know that I try to get 29 hours out of a 24-hour day. Because I know that I want to enjoy, or get everything I can get out of a full day.
So with African Americans living with HIV and AIDS, men and women have their different challenges. I think that you have to address the other issues, the social issues, the illiteracy issues, education and stuff like that. Then try to combine them all when you start educating yourself about HIV and AIDS.