This Positive Life: An Interview With Tree Alexander
September 15, 2010
Welcome to This Positive Life Video Series! We have with us Tree Alexander. At 20, Tree thought he had it all -- a wonderful job in Chicago and a loving boyfriend -- until the shocking news: He and his partner were both HIV positive. Barely out of his teens, Tree had to grow up fast, educate himself about a disease he knew very little about and seek treatment with no health insurance. This blogger, public speaker and AIDS advocate discusses the importance of adhering to medications, never giving up hope and the importance of educating his peers.
So, Tree, let's start at the very beginning. When did you find out you had HIV?
I found out one month after my 20th birthday. I found out after a partner of mine -- we were living together -- he began to get ill and have symptoms. And so we decided to go and get tested, but before we had a chance to get tested, he got sick and we found out about his status in emergency care. And then I immediately went and got tested.
And where are you from?
I'm from Chicago, Illinois. And now I live in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
So this happened in Chicago?
This happened in Chicago.
Did you tell somebody immediately?
The first person that I told was my sister. We're very, very close. We talk about everything. She keeps me motivated. I don't think she knows that she keeps me motivated, but she does. She uses me as a role model. So it forces me to stay motivated. It forces me to keep myself in line because I know she's right there waiting to see what I'm going to do next.
Wow. So you only told her. She was cool.
I told her. She was like, "OK, we can deal with this." She was like, "You know, you got to stay calm. Let's go to dinner." And then after that, she was at every clinical appointment I had. Everything that I had to go to, she was right there.
How much older than you is she?
"My sister was like, 'OK, we can deal with this.' She was like, 'You know, you got to stay calm. Let's go to dinner.' And then after that, she was at every clinical appointment I had. Everything that I had to go to, she was right there."
We're actually twins.
Oh, you're twins. Wow. So you did this without telling your parents?
I did this without telling my parents.
What kind of care did you get? Did you have health insurance?
I didn't have health insurance and it was really hard trying to get health insurance. But I actually found a clinic that would do it for free. And I got most of my care there and then for medication, I joined a research study and got my meds through ADAP [AIDS drug assistance program].
I see. Was it very difficult to get free treatment and care?
Well, it wasn't very difficult to get free treatment and care, but it was difficult to get Medicaid in Chicago because they have rules about you having to be hospitalized for a certain number of days. At that time, when I found out my status, I was too healthy for medication. I had no signs or symptoms. I wasn't sick at all.
What was your CD4 count and viral load when you first got diagnosed?
When I first got diagnosed, I think I was at 450 and my viral load was maybe 30,000.
So because you weren't sick enough, it was hard to access the care.
Right. So I complained and argued to the hospital. "I want medicine. You told me that I have HIV, so of course I want medicine. Give me what I can get, so I can stay healthy." They were like, "Oh no, you're too healthy. Your numbers are too high." I was like, "So you want me to get sick before you get me medicine?" Until I was calmed down to be explained about the numbers and about waiting for medication, I decided to just wait and drink tons of orange juice every day and take all these vitamins until I was able to get on medicine. But my provider found a research study for early intervention. And as soon as she found out about it, she was like, "I know he would want this."
Because she knew that you just wanted to get on treatment?
And how many years ago was this?
This was three years ago. I'm 23 now, so I've been positive for a little over three years now.
And what happened with your boyfriend?
We stayed together for another year after that and then we started having problems. I was working a lot. He was doing his own thing. He started to cheat and we had a big fight and broke up.
Is he in care also?
At that time, he was in care. At that time when he found out his status, he was very sick, he had PCP [Pneumocystis pneumonia] and three opportunistic infections. So he was in care for that year that we were together after that. Since then, I haven't seen him.
How do you think you got infected?
I'm not sure. I don't know if it was that relationship or the one before that because it takes time to get the test done, but I know right before that relationship, I had just had a negative test result. And then I get into a relationship and we used condoms in the beginning. And then we have our conversation. "When's your last test?" "When's your last test?" And I was assured that he was fine. So about seven months into our relationship, that's when he really started to get really bad. I think it was about six months when we had to rush him to the emergency room.
It must have been really scary. You were very young.
It was very scary and it was not just because of that. It was because we lived together on a side of town where none of our family was. So it was just me and him. And to see him in that condition, it was very stressful. Finding out his status through him being very sick and then having to go get tested myself, waiting two weeks before I could get my results, that was really stressful. Because every day I wanted to call and say, "Are my results back? I know it's not two weeks, but I know that one test only takes a week. I want to know as soon as possible." So it was really stressful at that time. I think I just drowned myself in work, which helped me because they saw that I was there, that I was dedicated. So I started getting a promotion.
What kind of work do you do?
At that time I was working for the Chicago Park District. I think I was a rec weeder. After that I got promoted to a special recreation activity instructor. I did work there before I decided to move here to New York.
What kind of recreation? Do you have a particular sport?
I was running two facilities, which were the outdoor batting cages and the outdoor ice skating rink, as well as fitness classes. So I was running fitness classes, teach the class, create the lesson, create the moves and exercises. I had a lot. I think I did about 14 classes a week.
Did you tell them you were HIV positive?
"Every time that I've told somebody, I've gotten a great reaction. Even when I talk to people and disclose on the street and people ask for my phone number and things like that, I'll tell."
No, not until before I left the company to move to New York. I told my supervisor I was positive.
What was the reaction?
At that time, I think I was going through the breakup with my ex. I was really depressed and I think I looked to her just -- I think I needed somebody to say it's going to be OK. And so I actually went into her office and I was crying. And she was like, "You're going to do a lot of things. And you're going to beat this."
It sounds like you got great reactions.
I actually did. Every time that I've told somebody, I've gotten a great reaction. Even when I talk to people and disclose on the street and people ask for my phone number and things like that, I'll tell. Some of them didn't like it, but they would just say, "OK, I'm going to take your number and I'm going to call you," and they never call. But it was never like, "Oh, you're disgusting. I don't want to be around you," type of thing. And some people after telling them, "Oh, it doesn't matter. I know," or, "You can tell me about it." And there are people that have relationships with positive people and it's not a problem. And I've dated negative people.
This article was provided by TheBody.