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Living With Two Diseases: HIV and Alcoholism

By Jimmy Mack

July 28, 2009

I've spoken at length on this blog about the disease of HIV and how it affects me and my life. But I live with another disease that is just as devastating and deadly. It is also a disease that has no cure but can be "managed" with proper treatment. The disease I refer to is also one that I'm sure affects many of the readers of TheBody.com, it is the disease of alcoholism/addiction. This is a disease that I believe I was born with, just like I know I was born gay, and both have shaped my life in a big way.

My parents tell of an incident when I was 3 or 4 years old and was sent upstairs to nap. I went to nap in my parents' room and got into my mother's vanity. I was playing with her make-up and jewels when I came across some pills. In those days, drug companies sent sample prescription drugs to doctor's homes (my dad is a doctor). The pretty pills I found looked delicious, so I tried one. It tasted horrible, but I figured they were so pretty, one of them had to taste good. So I wound up eating an entire week's worth of Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), a prescription diet pill or "upper".

That evening, my parents noticed something was wrong when, for the first time in my life, I refused to sit down and eat dinner. Evidently, I couldn't sit still and they knew something was wrong because I was typically obsessed with food. My dad looked into my eyes and ran upstairs to find the empty pill container. It was too late to pump my stomach, so my parents took turns staying awake with me for the next three days as I told my life story over and over and redecorated the house. Hearing this, it seems fairly obvious that I was born an addict and born gay.

I always knew that I preferred guys. I don't know how, but the boys in middle school figured that out and I was harassed and called fem, faggot, and gay boy. I knew it was true and I was so filled with shame that I just wanted to die. I didn't have the courage to kill myself, but I did start working out at home and soon got big enough to defend myself.

But the shame I felt at being gay, coupled with my Catholic upbringing, was the very shame that filled me when I met the only thing that quieted that shame: alcohol.

I first got drunk at the age of 15 at a religious retreat and I drank until I threw up and blacked out. But, for the very first time in my life, I felt good and was comfortable in my skin! And that's when the disease of alcoholism took control of my young life.

By the time I was 16, I had done every drug out there -- including snorting heroin and I could never get enough of anything. I later learned at a drug and alcohol rehab that the experts feel that shame is the root of all addictions and it is what fuels it. I was so ashamed of who I was and of being gay, that looking back that makes perfect sense to me now!

I took that shame with me to college, where I continued to use and abuse drugs and alcohol on a daily basis until that shame was suddenly lifted. After graduating from Boston University in 1980, I went home to the Hamptons in Long Island for one last summer of life guarding on the ocean and waitering at the Club Pierre.

This summer was different. I fell in love with one of the gay waiters, a beautiful young man named Frank. After telling my parents three times that I wasn't coming home because I was sleeping at Frank's house, they called a meeting in my father's den.

Now, I have always described my parents as enlightened, open-minded, loving parents, but this night they blew my mind.

They sat me down. My father was first to speak. He said that they heard most of the waiters at Club Pierre were gay and since I was spending nights with Frank, they assumed I might be gay. They wanted me to make sure I knew that if I was gay, they had no problem with it and would continue to love me no matter what. Furthermore, they said that I was not to listen to what the church, the media or anyone else had to say about homosexuality, that it was perfectly normal and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.

They went on to say that I could be as open as I wanted to here in the Hamptons and in places like New York City, but that I may go to places where I would have to consider hiding it because there were ignorant people in this world who may want to hurt me because of it.

Finally, they said that if any of their friends had a problem with it, then they would no longer be their friends! And, by the way, they'd like to meet Frank.

By then I was in tears and looking back, I see this as a time when the daily shame I lived with up until that point was lifted! I enjoyed a wonderful, somewhat normal, shame-free life for seven years, until Valentine's Day of 1987, when all that shame came roaring back into my life with my HIV diagnosis. And I turned back to the only treatment I knew that would quiet the shame: drugs and alcohol.

In my years of drinking and drugging, I came so very close to dying from an overdose or from drinking and driving (I got three DWIs [driving while intoxicated] and eventually lost my license in 1988). The disease of alcoholism has defined my life far more than the disease of HIV and it continues to do so.

Although I have been clean and sober since 1992, my long term relationships in sobriety have been with active alcoholics/addicts, adult children of alcoholics or rage-aholics, so I now find myself attending Al-anon as well as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).

I still struggle with the toll alcoholism has taken on the lives of the people I love, although I much prefer the medicine for my alcoholism -- which consists of entering a room full of love and sharing my experience, strength and hope with other alcoholics -- as opposed to the chemotherapy that I take for my HIV.

I find both diseases devastating in their ability to destroy lives and families and relationships, but I find the disease of alcoholism/addiction to be far more destructive to relationships because it is often coupled with denial. With the help of 12-step programs, I have found the serenity and spirituality I need to survive both diseases. However, it breaks my heart that too many people I love so dearly just can't seem to get the help they need!

To contact Jimmy, click here.




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