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This Positive Life: An Interview With Ron Crowder

August 24, 2010

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Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

Welcome to This Positive Life Video Series! We have with us, Ron Crowder, Executive Director of Street Works in Nashville, Tennessee. When Ron tested positive in jail back in 1991, he wasn't surprised. Being an injection drug user who was sharing needles, he knew he was at risk. Yet, being diagnosed in a time when AZT was the only medication available, Ron, 57, never lost hope nor has he allowed an AIDS diagnosis to stop him from giving back and educating Nashville's African-American community about HIV.

Tell me when you first found out you were HIV positive.

I found out I was HIV positive in 1991.

1991 was the dark years.

Yes. I was actually in jail, and I had had some teeth removed. The dental hygienist in the jail dropped one of the instruments and it pricked her on the leg, so they asked everyone who had saw the dentist that day in jail to take an HIV test. So, that's how I found out.

What did you know about HIV when you found out?

Actually, not a whole lot. You know, everybody who had HIV was going to lose a whole lot of weight; that was my knowledge of it at that time.

Did you start praying? Did you get religious?

Well, no. I've always been, sort of grown up in the Church, so my thing was, you know, hey, it is what it is. You know, I knew the risk. I knew I was an injection drug user. So I kind of reserved myself to pretty much prepare myself to die, at that point. I just didn't want to die in jail. I had just gotten a new eight-year sentence, so once I found out I was HIV positive I positioned the Court for a suspended sentence, and got it, after only four months into the eight-month sentence. I think they was kind of like, OK. They didn't want to deal with anybody HIV positive at that point.

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What jail was this? Where was this?

Nashville, Tennessee.

Could you tell us what you were in jail for?

Yes. It was either worthless checks, or . . . no. It was drug possession for resale. Possession.

I see. So you got out of jail, and then what did you do?

Well, I got out of jail, and I started back shooting drugs, for only a very short period of time. And then I went into treatment.

"The fact that I knew I was HIV positive and sharing needles; that's what consciously I wanted to clean myself up with. Because I didn't want anyone else to get infected as a result of me sharing needles."

So you were sharing needles, basically.

Yes, I was. Yes, I was. And the fact that I knew I was HIV positive and sharing needles; that's what consciously I wanted to clean myself up with. Because I didn't want anyone else to get infected as a result of me sharing needles.

Did you get treatment? Did you get whatever was available?

I did.

AZT?

AZT at that point. Because, at the time, I had heard somebody say, you know, it was better to take something than not to take anything. But I had very, very low knowledge of the disease itself. A year or so later after then I started doing the work. I started educating myself. And that's what made me found the agency. Because there wasn't a whole lot of education, particularly to the people who was becoming infected the way I did -- you know, out on the streets, injecting drugs, or doing all kind of risky behavior. Particularly in communities of color -- we didn't have a lot of education. All we knew, mostly about HIV at that point was, it was gay, white men.

Can you tell us how you think you got infected?

Oh, I know how I got infected -- by sharing needles.

Did you know the people were positive afterwards? Is that how you found out?

No, I never. I could never. Because I shared needles with so many different people, because I was an IV drug user, there was no way I could pinpoint who, in fact, actually infected me.

And there was no needle exchange back then.

No.

And there is not really any. The state has still maintained that needle exchange doesn't work.

Needle exchange wasn't really popular nowhere in the country then.

So what miraculous journey did you take to survive?

Actually, I'm a pretty open person, and I was pretty open with my status from the word go. [phone ringing] So I guess it was just an act of God that kept me healthy all these years. Over the years, the people that I did shoot dope with, just about all of them are dead.

"I've taken plenty of vitamins. I used to swim a couple of miles a day. I used to get up and do a thousand push-ups every morning. I've done everything humanly imaginable . . . eat a lot of fruit . . . I've done everything. I've done juices. I've done herbs. I've done everything that I thought would keep me living."

Did you do anything different? Did you take vitamins? Did you work out? Did you juice?

I've done all of the above. I've taken plenty of vitamins. I used to swim a couple of miles a day. I used to get up and do a thousand push-ups every morning. I've done everything humanly imaginable . . . eat a lot of fruit . . . I've done everything. I've done juices. I've done herbs. I've done everything that I thought would keep me living.

I see. So, your drive to live: do you think that's part of how you survived?

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I think that anybody give up the . . . and also, I think that the fact that I have been so open. I think the stress of people trying to keep HIV a secret, particularly minorities . . .. Minorities has not done well with the fact of an HIV diagnosis. They don't want anyone to know. They take it to their grave. And I think that what has helped me is, I've always, from the word, from the jump, from when I first got the diagnosis, I went public.

What bad things happened to you, as a result of going public?

Nothing. Not to my knowledge. Not a thing.

You don't think people avoid you?

No. No. If they did, they didn't do it in such a way that I was aware of it. So, no. I'm just an open person.

So you think the people who are fearful of telling others, they might not understand what actually happens when you tell people? They just . . . you know. Or maybe you live in a weird kind of world where people are really nice, and accepting, and tolerant. And most people aren't that lucky.

I think that the fact that I don't care what people think about me; I think those who judge don't matter, and those who matter don't judge . . .. And I've always lived with that concept in mind, and moved forward, you know? When I first got the diagnosis, I was, like, OK; I'm going to be dead in a few years, so I may as well max out all my credit cards and run up all the credit, and just leave it. And here it is, what? Almost 20 years later . . . and I'm in a whole lot of credit card debt.

Do you still owe money from back then?

No. It's a joke. It's a joke.

Tell me when you started getting . . . I guess the first question that's really important is, what was your CD4 count when you were diagnosed?

Actually, my CD4 count has always been around 500. Always. And it's still around 500 or 600.

You're still very active.

"I think people have this notion that your life is going to dramatically change because you're HIV positive. And I don't know if I'm extremely lucky, or I'm extremely unusual, or what. But life has been . . . hey, the same for me."

Very active. I work 12, 14 hours every day. Recently married.

Let's talk about that. Tell me how you found love, being HIV positive. Do you find it's a particular challenge?

It wasn't for me. Again, I think people have this notion that your life is going to dramatically change because you're HIV positive. And I don't know if I'm extremely lucky, or I'm extremely unusual, or what. But life has been . . . hey, the same for me. I've always had a girlfriend. I've always just lived life as it comes, you know? And once I tell the female partner that I'm HIV positive, and educate them, it doesn't seem to be that big of an issue.

Have you mostly dated negative women?

Yeah I always dated them. Well, I had one woman, my first . . . I don't guess it was my first, but early on; in '95, I was engaged to a woman who was positive, and she died in '95. But she took it to her grave. Even her children didn't know.

I guess '95 was just before the treatment came.

Yeah.

Wow. So you're just out there. You're just not afraid to tell people things.

No.

And so you meet lots of people.

I do. I do. And I think that is what has helped me, that and working. I never even considered going on disability. I never tried it. I've always worked. And I just . . .. Life just kept going as the old one.

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This article was provided by TheBody.com.
 
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Petra M. (Orange, New Jersey) Wed., Sep. 29, 2010 at 11:42 am EDT
Ron, I see you are still advocating for AIDS awareness, and so am I, keeping it real is the key to helping others overcome their fear. You are a strong and confident man to continue to do what you are doing, and hopefully I can share some strength with you from this side of the map. Erasing the stigma and sharing our stories can save lives.
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Comment by: (chicago ) Thu., Sep. 9, 2010 at 1:22 am EDT
Well hive change my live because I don't drink no more, I stop smoking, I'm careful with my acts because God is looking at me, and I try to pray every day for forgiveness Even do I'm human and I make mistakes, o and I take one pill everyday for hiv.
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Comment by: Anonymous (USA) Sat., Sep. 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm EDT
I read this and it sounds a bit unrealistic to me. You say you never had a problem with stigma, was never treated different, never this never that. Come on man, keep it real. Either you dont live on Earth or you are unrealistic even to yourself. Yes your story is interesting but its also very unbelievable. You talk about HIV as if its a good thing and theres not one bad thing about it at all. You act like it didnt affect your life in any way whatsoever. Keep dreaming but I really cant respect that. HIV changes peoples lives and it changes things in their lives. Listening to you one would think you caught a cold and took a tylenol and everything is ok. Its abit more complicated that that and Im a bit insulted that you speak of it so nonchallantly. I think your living in a dream world that is not of this earth. Who would not be affected in some way by a HIV diagnosis much less a full blown Aids diagnosis? Keep dreaming, but your story wasnt inspirational to me at all. It was more fiction than fact. I wish you the best but keep it real. It almost sounds as if your glad you have full blown Aids!
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Comment by: Devin (San Antonio, TX) Wed., Sep. 1, 2010 at 10:02 am EDT
Ron, you are a truly inspiring man. Keep up the great work and stay well!
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Comment by: Henry (NYC) Fri., Aug. 27, 2010 at 8:04 pm EDT
Very inspiring story, Ron - thanks.
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Comment by: Fred G. (Kansas City MO) Thu., Aug. 26, 2010 at 8:27 am EDT
I applaud you Ron. I work as an HIV peer educator here and most of my clients are AA. Most of them are just how you described, going to take it to the grave with them.I am advocating right now to get an AA lady to come in here and take some of these women off my hands.Until that happens I will do my best for all my clients. I was diagnosed in 1986 and stayed drunk for 15 years I am now in recovery and giving back to my community. I am a loud advocate for those who can't or wont speak for themselves. Keep up the good work.
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Comment by: Anettia Wright (St. Petersburg, Fla) Wed., Aug. 25, 2010 at 6:32 pm EDT
Read ur story, and it really touched my heart.., you continue to do God's work, and you will continue to be Bless
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