|Illustration by Russell McGonagle|
In 1994 I learned I was positive. I treated the news as if I had the common cold. By that I mean from 1994 until 1999 I existed just for drugging and partying. I knew a little about HIV, yet wasn't ready to take care of myself by learning how to take medications and the right things to do to stay healthy.
On September 25, 1999 I decided to leave my neighborhood and family in order to survive, to deal with my HIV. If I had stayed, I probably would still be getting high. It was a way of life there.
I still can't explain it, why I suddenly decided to leave. I just woke up and said, "That's it," and I walked. I had bus fare but I walked through the neighborhood one last time and all the way over to the Haymarket Treatment Center here in Chicago. With the health coordinator's help and ongoing support I started to make a difference in my drug recovery and health issues. I was finally sober after 23 years of alcohol and two and a half years of crack.
Since then, I'm actually living. Before, I don't remember anything after the age of 18. I got up, I got high. I went to sleep, I was high. Now I eat better. I've gained weight. I've traveled to conferences in San Francisco and Denver to learn about HIV. It's fascinating. If I didn't have HIV I would probably go back to drugging. But learning about HIV is not boring.
Along the way support came also from four very important people I've grown to care very much about, and I ask them questions when I'm confused or angry. I'm now living in a transitional housing organization that has been the basis of my achieving the things that I didn't think possible. By this I want you to know that means a stable address and someplace where I can take my meds on a regular schedule without shame or fear. I've found that the housing system needs work, but I guess that's to be expected.
I'm an American Red Cross instructor in basic HIV/AIDS and Afro-American training certified by the state of Illinois as an HIV counselor, and I'm the facilitator of an HIV substance abuse group -- Positive Progress -- at my second home, TPAN (Test Positive Aware Network, publisher of Positively Aware). At TPAN, I found support and help which I still haven't gotten where I live and where I help with HIV prevention and awareness. TPAN got me active in the Northside HIV Coalition and got me involved in its Client Advisory Board. TPAN helped me become a facilitator and helped me get past my anger. I learned to address problems differently when confronting people, how to be more diplomatic. The staff talked me into going to college, and now I'm in the associates program for substance abuse counseling at St. Augustine College.
I write about my thoughts on HIV/AIDS in poetry and recovery letters to myself. I can express myself better with pen and paper than I can verbally. I write about various events and how I feel about them. I write because I'm depressed, but other people find my writing uplifting. I think that's strange.
I still haven't accepted change, the idea that I can't get high anymore. I still feel uncomfortable, but I know I don't want to use. I don't want to sell everything I've gotten in a year and a half of being clean for one bag.
I voice my anger in committee meetings and various other functions such as talking to others at colleges, high schools, and conferences. I let people know that while I have an AIDS diagnosis, by taking care of myself and taking medicine I now have a healthier immune system and wouldn't qualify for an AIDS diagnosis today.
I now know that to make a difference one must get educated and speak to others, positive or negative, but at least try to make a difference or make others aware that the fire is still out there and it will take more than a bucket of water to even start to smother the flames of ignorance and denial. That it's still a big problem with very few solutions, let alone a cure. I'm Tyrone Pittman and I'm positive about being positive.