January 3, 2011
Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us David Adkins. When David tested positive in 1997, he was utterly shocked: He was confident that he had used condoms with his partners over the years. But when he put two and two together, he realized that he had been drugged and raped one night and as a result of that sexual assault, he had contracted HIV. This openly-gay executive director of an AIDS organization talks about his struggles with drugs and alcohol after his diagnosis; the obstacles in doing prevention work in his rural Pennsylvania town; and how working in the HIV/AIDS field has changed his life.
So let's start from the beginning. How did you first find out you were HIV positive?
Well, I was dating a guy in the military and he had asked if I had ever been tested before. And I hadn't because I always used protection. I went and got tested and found out I was positive.
Yeah, it was a pretty big shock.
How long ago was this?
It will be 13 years tomorrow.
So what year were you diagnosed?
And you were completely surprised?
Oh yeah, floored.
Do you think you have any idea where you...
Yes, I know exactly. I know exactly the week, I know exactly who, everything.
Can you go into some more detail? You don't have to say anyone's name.
Well, I was under the influence of alcohol at the time. I believe they slipped me something in my drink and I was raped. I didn't think anything of it at the time.
So did you think you had been assaulted after the assault or when you tested positive you put two and two together?
I put two and two together.
What did you do?
Well, first thing I did was called and told my mother, then my sister, then my dad, some other family members. I broke up with the guy. I made up a lie to the guy I was dating in the military. I just wasn't ready to deal with it, I guess. I quit my job, moved back home, because it was '97. It was right when the cocktail came out. My first medicine was one of the original cocktails. I just started to take medicine and went from there.
Where did you live before you moved back home?
It was only about 30 miles from my house.
This was in Pennsylvania?
And so you quickly disclosed to your family. Why did you feel compelled to do that so quickly after diagnosis?
Because they're very supportive. They're supportive of me being gay and everything. So I knew they would be. I mean I had to tell somebody. I'm very close with my mother.
So did you think, "I'm going to die"?
Yeah, at first I did, but then after I hooked up with an AIDS service organization, Beaver County AIDS Service Organization, they helped me deal with some things. I did get back into drugs and alcohol for a while.
Yeah. I was involved in a serious car accident. But I've been clean since. Doing great.
So when you moved back home, were you depressed?
Yeah, I had gotten an infection. It was nothing serious. It was like the flu -- oh, not the flu -- pneumonia. I just went back home. I said, "It's just time. Just go back home and recoup and regroup."
What was your CD4 count when you first were diagnosed?
They were over 500.
OK, so you were doing OK.
Yeah, and I had had it for two years before I knew.
And you said you had started doing drugs and alcohol again. Was that to self-medicate your diagnosis?
So what were you doing? Partying a lot?
Partying, going out to bars, drinking, smoking pot.
Yeah -- making an alternate reality to my own. I just didn't want to deal with it. Just put it in the back of my head. What really put the trigger back into the alcohol and drugs was my grandmother passed away. I was very, very close to her. I helped take care of her. That's the reason I told the partner from the military I was moving home, was to take care of my grandmother because she was sick. Which wasn't actually totally a lie because I did do that.
Just wasn't the reason that you were moving.
Yeah. Which recently I just met up with the guy from the military again on Facebook and I've disclosed everything with him. And he figured that's kind of what it was anyway. So we're talking again.
So your grandmother passed away, so that triggered a lot. When did you decide, "I'm done"?
The car wreck.
Tell me about that.
I went out to a bar, and drank a bunch, and took a bunch of pills and thought I could drive home. Ended up driving over a cliff. A tree stopped me about 50 feet over the hill. I was [lifted] to Pittsburgh, had a bunch of broken bones, a bunch of broken ribs. I got a scar across here. [pointing at his...] I don't know if you can see it or not. It's from the windshield.
So you woke up, you were in the hospital?
No, I woke up in the helicopter. Actually, the first memory I have of it, I was telling them, "Don't touch me. Don't touch me. I'm covered with blood. I'm HIV-positive." Even the ambulance people told me I kept saying that over and over to them. They said, "We understand." I just was so traumatized, I guess, and was fearful for anyone to touch me. I woke up in Pittsburgh, in a CT machine, next thing I remember.
So after that you just kind of realized?
I went to a halfway house. I went to a rehab. Got involved with AA [alcoholics anonymous] and NA [narcotics anonymous]. Got more involved with the Beaver County AIDS service organization, which I ended up being the executive director of for three years.
And so what was the recovery for you like?
It's basic. You just change people, places and things. You just have to put something else in your life besides the alcohol and the drugs.
Which you did.
Let's go back to talk about your family. You said your family was really supportive of you, especially with you being gay. When did you come out to your family?
I was probably about 14, 15. To my mom, of course.
What did your mom say?
She wasn't too happy about it, but we dealt with and she accepted it. It wasn't a choice. It's something -- that's who I am. Can't help it, nor do I want to help it. I'm happy with who I am.
When did your father and your siblings come around?
I think my sister always knew. She's younger than I am. We played Barbies together. She may have had some inkling. [Laughs.] "My brother likes Barbie." But as for my dad, he was actually more supportive in the beginning, and still is, than my mother was. He's gone to gay bars with me, to drag shows. He's a truck driver, so he's like a manly man.
Wow. So you disclosed to your family initially. How long did it take you to disclose to other people?
Immediately. When I went to the doctors and they told me, I was probably in the room for two hours, talking to the doctor afterward because she had never told anybody that before. She cried. I cried. She's still my -- she's a nurse practitioner, or physician's assistant. So I still see her to this day.
Cool. She was kind of emotionally affected by your --
Yeah. I've known her anywhere from five to six years before that even.
So when you got clean -- I'm going to go back to that -- were you still living at home with your parents?
My grandfather. It was after my grandmother passed away.
So what were the other things that were going on in your life at that time? Were you going to support groups just for living with HIV? Were you accessing services in your area?
When I was in Gateway Rehab, I had to either work or volunteer, so I chose to volunteer. That's when I became involved with the Beaver County AIDS Service Organization. I volunteered there. I was on the board of directors as the consumer -- I forget what it's called -- whatever the "consumer" is on the board, that's what I was. Then I ended up being the program coordinator and then ended up being the director.
Had you done HIV work before your diagnosis?
Did you know anyone who was HIV positive?
No. No, that's not true. My best friend's friend died in the '80s. That's why I always used protection, because she beat it into my head, "Use a condom. Use a condom. Use a condom." Because she knew I was gay.
How has it been dating?
I'm in a relationship now with somebody. We've been together for eight years. He's negative. We just have to practice safe sex and take the precautions.
Where'd you meet him?
Online. Yahoo chat.
Were you afraid to disclose your status?
No, I told him the first time I met him online. I told him I was HIV positive. He said, "OK, that's fine."
Has that been a lot of the responses you've gotten in dating? Or have people sort of been --
Did get both. I was doing a lot online on gay.com and different things. As soon as you tell someone, it's like, "OK, they're gone." It was hard sometimes, but it's to be expected.
Now that you're in a relationship with someone who's negative, do you feel afraid sometimes? Do you feel, "I hope I don't --"
Yeah, if I were to infect him, it would devastate me. I've never [infected someone], as far as I know. I've had protected sex with everybody. No one's come back to say, "I'm positive." That would be really hard.
And you guys have been together for eight years?
Let's talk about your health care and your treatment. You said you started treatment in '97. Are you still on treatment now?
How did you find your HIV specialist?
The Beaver County AIDS Service Organization.
Can you tell me about that organization?
They're actually closed. It's a long story. But I've opened a new agency since then. It's called Project HOPE: HIV Outreach Prevention Education.
We are applying for nonprofit status. It's in the works. Right now, we're applying for an HIV testing site number from the PA Department of Health. We do support groups and food banks for now. I just had a support group before I came, on Thursday. We had 23 people show up. I live in a rural area, so that's a pretty good amount of people to come out, because the transportation's really hard. A lot of people have to drive or take a bus or get rides from other people coming to the group.
And these are people who are positive coming to the support group?
There's probably 13 positive people and the rest were family and friends.
You said you live in a rural area. What are some of the difficulties of doing HIV work in those areas?
Well, I do --
I mean there's a million.
Oh yeah. I do a project called AIDS Rural Project where we had kids do community service. They made a little card and we put an AIDS ribbon on it, we put statistics on it and stuff about Project HOPE. And we go to like Walmart and to Giant Eagle and we hand them out there at the door. We collect donations. I have a booth set up. So we get stares. You can see people, as soon as they see the AIDS ribbon, it's like, "Ooh, walk past that." And I do the local fairs and things, I've gone to them, tried to do fundraisers and stuff, selling water, making lemon shakes and things. You just can see it on people's faces. As soon as they see the red ribbon, it's just like, "Ooh. We're not going past there. We might catch it if we buy water from them."
Do you think that's how they really feel?
Oh yeah. I've done this for -- I started Project Hope in 2008 and I've gone probably to four, five, six, maybe, fairs since then. It's just the same thing.
Where in Pennsylvania is this?
Thirty miles north of Pittsburgh, the southwestern part of Pennsylvania.
What kind of population is it? Is it miners?
It used to be steelworkers.
Sorry, that's right. Duh. Steelers. Pittsburgh. I'm thinking miners is West Virginia. So it used to be steelworkers and they're not --
No, the steel mills have pretty much all closed. There's a few, but it's mostly -- US Air was the big employer but they went out, the airport up there. It's a really hard economic area.
And you think there's a lot of miseducation and fear?
Oh yeah. I try to get into schools to do HIV 101 and it's either, "No, you can't come in and talk about it," or, "Yes, you can, but it has to be abstinence." It's hit or miss. So I'm trying to get into the schools to do some education.
Do you deal with a lot of gay youth in the area?
Not really. If I do I usually send them to Pittsburgh. There's a youth empowerment project that my friend Lindsay runs. I usually refer them to her.
So you're dealing with straight people mostly?
It's about half and half.
Talk about some more of the difficulties that you've faced doing work in these rural areas.
We had a lady come up to the table the other day when we did it and tell us that if men wouldn't have sex with men, there'd be no AIDS. And then she ran away. I wish she would have stayed long enough for me to educate her because I felt bad for her.
You should have caught her.
Well, no, believe me. So many things went through my head so quick. Oh no, no, no. I felt bad for her because she has to live her life with that negativity, and she doesn't know so much she could have in her life just because of her own ignorance. I wish I could have educated her. That's part of my program, education.
What made you decide to do this work?
I got sick, when I became infected. Since then, I've had probably 10, 15 friends who have passed away.
Since you've been diagnosed to now?
It was clients and friends.
I think that what's interesting is that while this disease is manageable, people still die.
A lot of them ... just because they didn't take medicine.
They didn't adhere and they grew resistant.
And some of them were long-term, too. They had been diagnosed in the '80s, went through a lot.
Did you try to talk to them about adhering to meds?
Oh yeah, definitely.
What did they say?
They have a program a lot of them were doing. Every time you open your pills, it counts it. There's like a counter on top of the pill case. There's different programs I've asked them to go to. Some of them did get involved, some didn't. It's hit or miss.
How do you adhere to your medication? Do you like alarm clocks? Do things remind you?
I take it once a day and I take it at 5 o'clock.
Well that's easy. So talk to me more about the work that you do and why you got involved. You saw your friends dying. You were sick. What does this work mean for you?
It's -- I don't know -- I just feel like I do so well. I'm so healthy. My T-cell count is so high. My viral load's been undetectable for years. I just feel that it's my purpose. Why would a higher power take all these people and leave me? That's a question I always wonder.
Do you ever have survivor guilt?
That's probably what it is. That's probably what I experience.
Do you still seek counseling to deal with the guilt?
I haven't recently. But I was a few years ago in counseling.
So how is the community? And not so much the people that are just like, "Oh my god. AIDS is Gays." But how do they react? How do clients thank you? How do people in the community come and say, "You're doing a good job"?
I do a lot on Facebook. I actually do Facebook anonymous, I think. But I do a lot of promotion on Facebook. I have 356 fans on the Project HOPE page. A lot of people leave messages on there. A lot of people have donated. For all my fundraisers and everything that I do, I've not had to do anything. Everything's been donated by the drug companies, or friends and family or just different stores I've approached asking for donations. I would say, probably 95 percent of everything I do with Project HOPE is positive. It gets positive results. But there's still always going to be somebody. In a rural area, that's to be expected. But it's only -- that's the first time somebody's said anything. That lady at my table was the first time someone said anything the whole time I've done Project HOPE. Now with Beaver County AIDS Service Organization, I had someone say something once, but that was over four years, too. So I think that -- I don't say it's good, but it is.
So you're slowly but surely making a difference.
How many other AIDS organizations are in your area?
Beaver County, it's just me. It's just Project HOPE. In Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, is Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. They have the Persad Center, which is the second oldest mental health facility for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. Then they have Shepherd Wellness Community, the Pitt Men's Study.
So there are resources.
Yeah, the Gay Lesbian Community Center.
You're the only one in your town.
In my county, mm hmm.
You're kind of taking on the --
Taking on the world. [Laughs.]
How does that make you feel? A lot of people may have been scared.
No, I'm not scared at all. It's rewarding. I really enjoy going out and doing it and helping people. I get hugs from my clients when I give them their food. If I can afford getting a $10 gift card to Giant Eagle for them for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter, we try to do that, something special. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, actually last year we made food, my family and friends, turkey dinner for Thanksgiving and a ham dinner for Christmas.
And these are for your clients?
A lot of your clients, they live below the poverty line?
Yeah, the majority of them. A lot of them get disability and are on welfare.
I'm going to go back to you for a little bit. What do you do to keep healthy, other than taking meds? You said you adhere to your meds, your labs are looking good, but what else do you do for yourself to stay healthy? Do you take vitamins? Do you work out?
I work out. I try to go to the gym at least five to six times a week.
I haven't been since I've been down here.
You haven't been to the gym? I went to the gym yesterday. I might go to the gym afterwards.
The one thing about vacation is that I'm not going to do it. I did bring my gym clothes, but I did not use them.
Do you do any type of yoga, any type of meditation, anything like that?
Are you juicing, making carrot juice?
No, I just don't really drink pop. I don't eat sugar. I try to eat as healthy as possible. I'm a very big germaphobe. I'm very conscious of touching myself, my mouth with my hands or anything like that, any type of germs. I think it's just from 13 years of having to worry about it.
And so how have you changed since you've been diagnosed, just emotionally, mentally?
I'm a stronger person. It's made me a lot stronger.
Do you value the same things back then that you value now?
Back then I was a little bit of a wild child. I'm a lot more mature, a lot older now, so I've learned. There's more to life than just partying.
Do you think you've become closer to your family?
I know you said you told your dad that you were going to be on The Body. He actually went to the website.
That's really great support. A lot of people don't have that.
I know. I'm very, very fortunate. My family and friends are very, very supportive of me and of Project HOPE.
So what advice would you give to someone who's just found out they're positive?
Go to support groups. Definitely get in contact with your local AIDS service organization. If not, [there are] national organizations that you can contact. I just learned about Second Life; I think it's what it's called. It's some type of virtual world that has online support groups for people with HIV/AIDS, which I'm going to definitely check out once I get back to my room. Definitely get into care. There's certain guidelines that everybody wants you go to at, but just do the research yourself, for yourself.
Do you find in the rural areas that it's difficult for people to have access to computers to be able to look at a lot of the online stuff? And does Project HOPE have computers at your organization for people to access?
Actually I came here on a scholarship. I wrote a grant for a computer system for my clients to use for recreation, for looking for jobs, housing, whatever they needed to use. We're going to give them a certain amount of time, like an hour, whatever they want to use it as.
Do you feel that's a disconnect, that there's a lot of people who don't have access to the Internet and here's all this amazing information on the Internet? I think it's great that you applied for a grant because especially in the rural areas, there's a lot of people who do work in the deep South where Internet's not -- and really everything's on the Internet now. Did your clients come to you and say they wanted to have better computer --
There's a couple, I'd say probably, I have 23 clients and I'd say probably at least 10 maybe have a computer and are online, maybe 15. So there's a few that are pretty way out in the boonies.
And so my final question. How long do you see yourself doing this work?
Forever. I don't think I'll stop.
No. Not until it's my time.
Great. And with that we bring this interview to an end. Thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with us today.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.