Table of Contents
- Personal Bio
- Disclosure and Relationships
- Drug Addiction and Recovery
- Harm Reduction
- Health, Treatment and HIV
Can you tell our readers and listeners about your personal history with HIV? How did you find out you were HIV positive?
I had spent 27 years in active addiction. At one time I had gotten really sick and I went to the hospital. While I was at the hospital, in the emergency room, they asked if I wanted to take an HIV test. I said, "Sure."
At that time, I had read about HIV, but the information was that it was a gay white man's disease so I didn't think it affected me. When I did get the test, it was like, "Okay. You have got to come back in two weeks."
Again, I was in active addiction, so I wasn't coming back in two weeks. So I didn't come back in two weeks. I took the test at Fulton County Health Department. I wound up in Fulton county jail, maybe a year, a year and a half, later. They called me out of my cell, and I came downstairs. I thought I was going home. There was a man in a white jacket.
He said, "Are you Mr. Burgess?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, I've got some news for you." I'm like, "Well, get to it. I want to go home." He said I was HIV positive.
At that time, I think I was at the best place I could have been, incarcerated, because I was in protective custody, protected from myself. So that's how I actually found out.
What were you addicted to?
I was addicted to heroin for 27 years.
Do you know how you got HIV? Was it through intravenous [IV] drug use?
I'm sure it was drugs because I had never been with a man. I grew up -- addiction is not a moral disease -- I grew up not being promiscuous. Just IV drug use. I know vividly how I probably contracted this virus. I came home one year, after moving to Atlanta, and a friend of mine took me into an abandoned building, and reached into the wall and sheetrock and pulled out a dirty needle. It was dirtier than the Hudson River, if I could say that. But my addiction said, use that needle anyway. Again, I didn't think about getting HIV. Back then, we just thought about hepatitis.
I think at that moment, I may have gotten HIV, if I could pinpoint. But I've shared needles for pretty much all my addiction.
How long do you think you had been living with HIV when you found out you were positive?
When I was diagnosed, my T cells were already 43. Going back with the relationship and the history with my doctor, we can say I was positive as early as 1990. Mind you, I didn't get the diagnosis until '95, '96. Looking at my T cells and where they were at, we're looking at as early as that, I could have been infected.
Do you also have hepatitis C?
Yes, I have hepatitis C, also. Again, that's a direct result of IV drug use. Right now, my doctor and I are looking at it. We are definitely a great team and we're monitoring. My liver enzymes are fine. I think two years ago we were going to do the biopsy. But because of my fears as a result of being a treatment educator, and reading that for 94 to 96 percent of African Americans, the hepatitis C treatment does not work for them, I wasn't ready to go through the pain, and go through the challenges of the depression and everything from the treatment. So right now we're just monitoring my liver and my liver enzymes, see where they are; and then we'll make that decision.
Did you find out that you had hepatitis C at the same time that you discovered you were HIV positive?
No. It probably was a couple of months after that. It's a really good relationship, how my doctor and I met. Actually, she chose me. But two months into our relationship, she said, "You have hepatitis C, also."
I had a lot of trauma done to me when I finally did come in. What I mean by "come in" is, I was almost murdered on the streets of Atlanta. I wound up in the emergency room, and they put me on a floor that's special for HIV-infected people.
You mentioned that your doctor chose you, instead of you choosing her. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Yes. Like I said, I was almost murdered. I was in the emergency room. They finally got me to a floor and assigned me to a doctor. This is so ironic. The doctor that was on call came in and I guess I was looking so bad, and everything like that. He said, "You know, Mr. Burgess, well, I have got some good news and some bad news. You made it through the night but you got four months to live. Go and enjoy yourself." At the time, he was playing God. I'm hesitating, because -- and I'll say this right now -- this particular doctor, maybe five years in, OD'd [overdosed] on drugs.
But at the same time, my primary care provider -- her name was Molly Eaton -- she was in the room at that time. Once she heard that information; when he walked out, she was like, "He shouldn't have said that to you." She said, "You know, we're all on call right now. But when you get out, please come see me, after the Olympics." Because the Olympics were going on. We have a one-stop shop in Atlanta called Grady IDP, Infectious Disease Program, and that's where her office was. She is an infectious disease doctor.
So I had a choice, while I was laying in the bed, waiting for George, Jr. and his mother. A social worker, Mary Lynn Hemphill, came into my room. I have a lot of respect for social workers. I love them.
What she did was, she sat on my bed and she touched my feet. When she touched my feet, I knew things were going to be alright. Because if you would have seen my feet back then ... She said she was going to get me into drug treatment and she got me into drug treatment.
I knew I was ready to quit using drugs, because I could have went and used, or I could have went into a drug treatment program. I went directly to the drug treatment program. A month after that, the Olympics had ended. I went to meet my primary care provider. I became her patient.
A week later, I started volunteering at AIDS Survival Project and I met Dan Dunable and Terri Wilder there. A week later, I went to my first support group (that's why I say, we need support), which is Common Ground. I speak with Common Ground, still. It is a daily support group, where people that are infected come on a daily basis and get some education, get a good meal. But the primary thing is the networking; people know that you're not alone.
All those ingredients were right there. My combination -- like I said, in 1996, it was the first cocktail, triple combination -- my combination was already there: the social worker, the doctor, the medication, the volunteerism, the support group. All of that started right there in September of '96. So from June 17, 1996 to September, all of those ingredients were coming together. I was ready.
This is the second time that you mentioned that you were almost killed. I have to ask: What happened?
I was an IV drug user. I made a stupid, conscious decision that I would not start smoking crack. So one of my friends started smoking crack. You know, a drug is a drug is a drug. But what's different is that with heroin, you can shoot up, and you'll be fine for six hours, or whatever. But crack is a repetitive thing; you have to do it over and over and over again, which takes up a lot of money. I was always a people pleaser, so one time I bought them some drugs, and I was walking away. Because I did what I had to do.
When I was walking away, I heard them call me and I turned around. When I turned around, they hit me in the face with a two-by-four.
Yes. Well, I know today they are not my friends. They were just using people; they were just associates. I thought they were my friends. They knocked all my teeth out. I had a compound fracture on my elbow, a punctured lung, one failed kidney. They left me to die. I had one tooth in my mouth. When I got to the hospital, they said, "Get the next of kin. He's not going to make it through the night."
Simultaneously, the mother of my son, who I had already mistreated -- not physically, but from my lifestyle of an active addiction, abused her -- she said a prayer. The power of prayer does work. She was praying. The doctor was saying, "His vital signs are changing." I made it through that night. Now, I can't say I felt God, saw God, or heard God. But I felt the warmth, and I got better. I got better.
That next morning, the doctor, I mentioned before, came in and said, "You got four months to live," but I got better. It was an amazing two months. You know, they say that the healing process starts with pain. That night there was much pain from the beating, but it was a healing process and I'm still healing. Because it's 11 years later, and I'm just in awe of where I'm at.
I'm reading a book called "The Pursuit of Purpose." We walk around so many times to try to find out who we are. But in this book, it talks about: Why are you? I'm here because of HIV -- I'm here to be of service.
How did you get your money for drugs? Were you working?
I was an executive at a major company on 34th Street in New York. I was a junior executive. I started what I'd call white-collar crimes.
They say that you hurt the ones that love you. My grandmother, who raised me, had money. She was ok. I faked three kidnappings and she paid the ransom. I used that money to buy drugs.
I worked for Macy's for 18 years -- again, a functional addict. I remember one time, during a board meeting, a production meeting, I had to go in the bathroom and use before I'd do anything.
I remember coming to the podium during this meeting and I took off my blazer, and blood was still coming out of my arms. I was oblivious to it. I thought I was saying some good stuff because they were saying, "Ooh," and "Ah," but they were looking at the blood coming out of my arms.
Those are things that I know I don't ever want to return to. But I started doing white-collar crimes. But then, in 1996, Macy's had a private buyout. I had already moved to Atlanta when they had the private buyout. I was one of the first ones to go. They knew they already had trouble with me. So I became homeless in the streets of Atlanta.
I started doing shoplifting. I was a smart shoplifter. I would get a smoke detector. I would take it in the parking lot. I would break the wire, and take it back in and say it was defective. They would have to give me $36 and that's how much it cost me to have my wake-up shot. It cost me $36: two bags of heroin, a bag of cocaine, a pint of wine and some beer. And that was it.
Every day. That was just the beginning. That was to start the day.
Are the white-collar crimes what landed you in jail?
Actually, the petty crimes! I never got caught or confessed to the white-collar crimes. I have made my amends in my own way, as they say.
But I kept starting this petty thievery and stuff like that. I went before the same judge four times. He sad, "You need another profession. You're not a thief."
That's how I wound up in jail. I have been in jail maybe four times; I have never been to prison. The longest I've been in jail is about two months. But even those were devastating to me. It was embarrassing to my family. But that was the end result.
They say in recovery, "Jails, institutions are death." I have been to institutions. I've been to jails and I haven't died. Well, I had a spiritual death going on, but I hadn't physically died.
The last time you were in jail was when you found out that you were positive?
Yes. That was the last time I was in jail. I didn't make the decision. Because when I did get out -- I'm glad I was incarcerated that night and in protective custody -- when I did get out my active addiction was really, really bad. I was trying to -- you know the song, "Killing me softly, kill me slowly?" I was trying to kill myself slowly. I was a coward. I wasn't going to jump off a bridge or anything like that. My addiction just took off and it took me to the point, to the beating and stuff like that.
You mentioned your grandmother, and I know that you have children. How did you tell your family that you were HIV positive? When did you tell them? How did they react?
The first one I told was my dad. My dad had no problem with it whatsoever. They were still in New York, and I was in Atlanta. So I called my dad and I told him. But even when I told him, it was in a manipulative way, because I wanted him to feel sorry for me for him to send me some money so I could get high.
Then I told my mother and she was negative about it. She said some really bad things. Again, now I know why she said the bad things -- because of her own fears, and because of not being educated about HIV and AIDS.
Trust me now: We're the best of friends. We are the best of friends and she's my greatest supporter. When I did the show, the Peter Jennings show, she was quite upset with something that came out within the context of that. But I already let her know that Peter Jennings had already died. He did not edit it. Somebody else edited it. Our relationship has really grown. But she did say some bad things.
Then it trickled on down to my brother and my sister. All of them were supportive, other than my moms. Then I had to come to my children. Two of the oldest ones, up here in New York, I told first. They were upset, but they were okay. They were like, "Daddy, what do we need to do?" Remember, these are the kids that I abandoned. There was no relationship. They were just like, "Okay. Let's circle the wagons. Daddy, what do I need to do?"
Then Tiffany, my daughter, and George, Jr., my children in Atlanta. I brought Tiffany to my office. I had already started volunteering and I worked in the AIDS Survival Project. She was like, "You're about ready to send me to college. What's all of this stuff?" So I made my disclosure right there in my office at AIDS Survival Project.
George, Jr.: I just told him, actually, a year ago. He knew. Our children do know. But I sat down and just spoke to him. And I mentioned it to him on the way, whereas I want him to not make some of the decisions and the choices that I've made and really work on self-esteem issues. Because of self-esteem issues; that's why I started really using. It wasn't that I come from a bad family or an impoverished neighborhood; my self-esteem was low. You know, I just try to educate him.
What is the best response you've gotten from someone after telling them you were HIV positive? Is there one shining moment in your memory?
I didn't see the reaction, but again, from my dad. I think my dad had the best response when I told him I was HIV positive: "Son, I love you. We'll get through this." A soldier, true to his heart. You know, a soldier with compassion: "We'll get through this, son. What do we need to do?"
I have disclosed to people and have gotten the big hug and big kiss. If I were to say something, it's that when someone does make a disclosure, we can tell if it's a sincere, compassionate hug, or if it's ... Sometimes, the response, when you tell somebody and disclose to somebody: "I'm so sorry."
I don't want you to be sorry. It actually wasn't your fault, to be sorry. I don't know if people say that because of lack of words, and stuff like that. Just be supportive.
I went to a hospital health care situation. I had an ear infection. I told the technician that I was HIV positive. She went out of the room and came back with gloves and a mask on. I questioned her about that, because I had already started advocating for myself. She went out and a doctor came in with two pairs of gloves and two masks on. I was like, "I'm not going to open my mouth, because I don't want somebody to come in here with a space suit on. Just let me be quiet."
How has your coinfection changed how you have dealt with HIV?
I think the biggest thing about the coinfection that has changed me is that I'm mindful of what regimens I'm taking; I'm mindful of what I'm putting in my system -- you know, if things are real toxic, I'm mindful of that. I'm mindful -- although I just celebrated 11 years clean and sober -- I think the hepatitis C and the HIV diagnosis keeps my recovery really in place. Why risk your life? That's what I was doing anyway, but you know.
You said that you felt you were in the best place that you could have been to find out that you were HIV positive. What advice would you give to someone who might not be in the best place and just found out that they were positive?
I think the first advice is to be still. Because it's what we call Day One. Day One could be really, really frightening ... especially sitting back on the other side of the desk and getting the diagnosis. So the first advice is just to be still, because your thoughts are going to race.
After being still, find some support. We know that sometimes family members are not receptive or don't understand HIV. When I told my mother I was positive, she had a negative response to it. But I had to realize that she wasn't educated. She had her fears. So, be still; then find some support. Get into some health care, and you can set a game plan. Then realize that it's not a death sentence; you can live with this.
You've already mentioned your relationship with your mother. How have your other relationships with family and friends changed because of your diagnosis?
This trip to New York has been so overwhelming and has really raised my T cells. This is the first time that all four of my children have been in a room together. Never been in a room together. Because of my active addiction, you know, I abandoned my children. These past 10 years, 11 years, of my diagnosis and living clean and sober; it's a whole new life and our relationship is really, really great. All four of my children have different mothers, but all of them look alike, and all of them are just so friendly and loving to one another. It's just an awesome thing.
So the relationship with my children is really great. I've met two of my grandchildren on this trip. It's really a good thing for me. This moment right here is good for me.
Do you think it's harder for African Americans to deal with an HIV diagnosis?
Yes. I think African Americans have a whole lot to deal with. I waver; I go back and forth because sometimes the stereotypes will make you say, well, African Americans are poor. They are illiterate. They have drug histories. They have jail histories ... and stuff like that.
But the reality of it is, some of us do. Some of us do. So we are addressing those other issues at the same time. Then to get an HIV/AIDS diagnosis; it's one of those, okay, what can happen next? Or one of those, I'm going to give up.
With African-American women, I think it's challenging for them, because at that time some of them, I believe, go into survival mode. "I'm going to take care of my children, and I'm going to be secondary. I'm going to make sure that they are okay." So they neglect their health in some ways in order to take care of their children. Because some of us know that it's not a death sentence, but we know that -- we're not running out of time, but the clock is on. I know that I try to get 29 hours out of a 24-hour day. Because I know that I want to enjoy, or get everything I can get out of a full day.
So with African Americans living with HIV and AIDS, men and women have their different challenges. I think that you have to address the other issues, the social issues, the illiteracy issues, education and stuff like that. Then try to combine them all when you start educating yourself about HIV and AIDS.
Going back to your drug addiction: Could you tell us a little bit more about your personal history? When did you start taking drugs?
I grew up with low self-esteem and I started drinking early, because it helped my self-esteem. I heard about heroin and I heard about other drugs. One day I came home, and my brother was under the influence of heroin. I told him he needed to go to bed, and he went to bed. The next morning my mother was screaming and hollering in the middle of the floor, and I said, "What's wrong?" And she said, "Your brother!"
I turned to my brother, and rigor mortis had already set in. Two weeks later, I stuck my first needle in my arm -- out of curiosity of what killed him. Out of ... you know, the drinking wasn't going to help me escape this pain. So that's how it started and it escalated through my entire life. It never got better. Every time I thought I had a grip on it, I really didn't. That's how it started. Then it got to a point that I lived to use, and used to live.
Who did you take drugs with? Was it just by yourself?
I started taking drugs with my best friend and then we had a circle. You know, we grew up and had ... it wasn't a gang; it was more like the Little Rascals. We were just ... friends and that whole little circle started at the same time. So we snorted and stuff like that. I have feelings of pain right now because three out of the five in the circle are dead now, from HIV and AIDS, from the direct result, again, of IV drug use. From also not ... some of them, in denial, and not really addressing it and taking care of what they needed to take care of.
I knew I had to recover and then start being responsible about taking my HIV medication. So I know some of them are not here because they didn't want that, didn't want to do that, didn't have the energy to do that.
How did you recover and begin being responsible?
I was almost murdered in 1996 -- June 17, 1996 and I went in the hospital. The doctor told me I had those four months to live.
But one of the things that really, really -- and I need to share this -- I had unprotected sex with the mother of my child. I never told her my status. Didn't even know how to tell her my status. Didn't even know how to disclose.
While I was in the hospital, waiting to heal, I had to disclose to her, and I had to watch her and my son, George, Jr., get the HIV test. That, then, at that moment -- with the combination of meeting my doctor, with the combination of meeting my Earth Angel -- which is Mary Lynn Hemphill in Atlanta -- my first social worker, first contact -- I decided to live. I decided to live.
Once I got the results back that they were both negative; that was one of my motivating factors. One, I needed to take care of George, Jr. Then, like I said, it's been a 10-year, 11-year journey to finally get all four of my children in a room together.
You just mentioned your struggle with disclosure. How do you decide whom to disclose to now? When to disclose?
I was called the poster boy of HIV and AIDS almost one year after my acceptance. I started volunteering at AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta, Georgia. I met my mentor, Dan Dunable. We were ... opposites attract. He was white and gay; I was black and straight. But he was my ... he's my ... I love him. I love him. We just buried him last year. But he got me interested in volunteering. I started volunteering and I decided to educate myself about this virus.
I was diagnosed really much at the right time, or something. What happened was, in 1996, the combination came out and I started taking the medications the way I was supposed to. I don't know if I answered your question. I started getting emotional. I thought about Dan. I apologize.
That's OK. You mentioned being a straight man. How do you deal with being a straight man infected with HIV? Do you find that people assume that you're gay just because you're positive?
Yes, they do. They assume that I'm gay. Or, one of my biggest challenges in Atlanta -- and I fight it all the time -- is this new stigma of "down low." It is a reality, but you're looking at every African-American man and saying, "Oh, he must be on the down low."
I work hard in the community in Atlanta. I'm one of the few heterosexual men that would stand up and talk about HIV and AIDS. You know, it' not about how they look or view me, and stuff like that. It's about me saving somebody else's life. I don't have to prove who I am. It's really a shame that more heterosexual men in Atlanta, or in that community, would not stand up and speak about it. Again, there are so many stereotypes and I think the down low is one of those new stereotypes.
When you say the down low, you mean...
Men who are in relationships with females, and not saying they are, and having sex with men. When I was growing up it was called bisexual. Now it's this new thing, down low. But it has really put another stigma in the whole mix. I think sometimes heterosexual men were about ready to come out and start talking, and -- no put intended -- with the down low, now they retreated to a closet. I don't mean that in a negative way, but I think more heterosexual men should speak up. I love what the gay community has done, as far as advocating. I love ACT UP! I love the marches; I love the protesting. I love what they do.
Sometimes African Americans forget that what they did was borrow a page from Martin Luther King. He was one of the first ones to act up in our community. He was one of the first ones to march. He was one of the first ones to talk about social justice. He was one of the first. So, they borrowed a page. Why can't we just borrow the page back and do what we need to do? Just borrow it. Don't -- give it back. Just borrow it.
In your activism work, do you find a lot of men are on the down low?
I work with a lot of men and I think my primary focus is men that are in recovery. I do work in a predominantly gay organization.
Which organization is that?
AIDS Survival Project, in Atlanta, Georgia. But we always try to not carry that banner that we are a gay, white organization. We are a health organization. We are a resourceful organization. We are a caring organization. Obviously, we are small in number, but big in commitment.
When you're talking about a heterosexual man; they won't come into an organization because they feel that it's a gay organization. So they will not come and get help.
The folks that I do work with, if I think that they are on the down low; I don't question why they're in denial. I say, "To thine own self be true." Be who you are. If you are on the down low, so be it. It's a waste of a T cell to try to hide your sexual orientation.
It's like going to a buffet. People pick up different things at a buffet. Whatever you like at that buffet, that's what you like. I might not like it. So if you're on the down low, and that's what you do, come to grips with it, come to acceptance with it, and share it with whoever your potential partner is. This way there won't be any resentments or animosity.
What kind of work do you do with AIDS Survival Project?
I do a lot. I pride myself on being a treatment educator. I do treatment forums. I do lunch-and-learns. I do a lot of educational programs. I am a pre- and post- counselor and tester. We just initiated this new program called Peer to Adhere, and it's really one of those new concepts, where we have peer counselors go into different health departments of different hospitals and to private docs. We go in and we ask for a referral from the doc, and what we try to do is just a lot of the work that their nurse would do. We do an assessment; see where they are, and where their acceptance is. Are they ready to adhere? Are they ready to go on medication?
During that assessment, we get that information back to the doc and then, at the same time, that newly diagnosed person is seeing somebody else HIV infected or living with AIDS, just like them. So they are more prone to open up and talk about it and stuff like that.
We just had a really good success story, where this guy was a Katrina survivor and he came to Atlanta and he found himself almost homeless. We worked diligently to find him housing.
So that's what we do. We know that in recovery, they have a saying, "The therapeutic value of one addict helping another." Peer-to-peer is one of the best treatments that somebody can have. So this Peer to Adhere program is really good.
Living with HIV, don't you get sick of talking about it and thinking about it all the time? How do you have the stamina and energy to be an activist and spend so much of your life on your activism?
Going back to AIDS Survival Project, the first program manager in their library was a gentleman. I came to volunteer one day and he was the program manager, and he was crying. He was in a wheelchair. I asked him what was the matter and he said, "I am so tired." He said, "I live this. I breathe this. I work this. My wife works this and she lives it. I'm just tired."
He was in early recovery. I was a newcomer, and I was saying, "I don't care what you're going through. No matter what, do not pick up." And he did pick up.
Yes. But what happened was that, again: Looking at people who show you what to do and what not to do, by looking at him I knew that I didn't want to use. I knew what kind of work I wanted to do and I was committed to it.
I have friends now who tell me, "George, you done gave as much as you can give, and just relax." One of my better friends, Terri, she'll say, "George, just stop."
Sometimes I feel like I'm like a shark in the water. You know, once I stop swimming, I will perish. So I continue swimming. You know, I continue swimming. I love service work. I look at AIDS as an acronym: Always In Divine Service; Always In Divine Space. So I like being of service.
What do you think are the biggest issues that need fixing in HIV today? What do you tell people that they can do to change the situation?
I think the biggest thing is that everybody stop pointing fingers. You know, you point at the politicians. You're pointing at the scientists. You're pointing at the drugs. You're pointing at the pastor. You're pointing at your neighbor. Stop pointing fingers, and let's try to come to the table with a dialogue, where we can get to some solutions. You know, because of funding, HIV has become sometimes a cutthroat situation. While you're cutting throats and trying to get your agency funding, you're losing sight of your clients. You're getting the money for the clients!
The churches are one thing where historically African Americans went for refuge. I have spoken at churches and every time I finish speaking, at least 10 folks come to me and say, "I know somebody that's living with HIV and AIDS." But I know they are talking about themselves, that they cannot go to their pastor.
You know, politicians ... Yes, we have to really kick ass and take names. Because they make it a political game. But it's all about us living. They'll come and they'll listen to us but only if it can support more votes for them! But after they get in office, it's like ... you know. If you look at the presidential debates four years ago, Edwards and them; they didn't know a thing about HIV and AIDS. Now, this year, I just watched a debate. Oh, they was on. They did some homework. But why did they do the homework? Because they really internalized and know what's going on in America? Or do they want to get some more votes?
Stop profiling. This disease has not changed. I mean, 40,000 people are still getting infected. We are over a million people in this country. That thing: I'm going to send so much money to Africa ... and it's not getting there. I think, just stop pointing fingers. If everybody would lift their voice, if everybody would take a step in the right direction, I think we'll be better. And what are your motives behind doing it? If your motive is just for self-centeredness and get back what you can get back, it's not working.
So you'd like to see people stop pointing the blame and start focusing on what? Themselves?
Not so much themselves. I think we all have a vested interest. But just start focusing on the solution. What are solutions? Solutions are: the funding needs to be allocated the right way. I think the main issue is housing. We don't have housing. We have HOPWA. But you know, in Atlanta, we're talking about: What is HOPWA doing? There are people still on the streets, people are still struggling. They have to go to three quarter houses, and stuff like that.
Focus on becoming a part of a community advisory board, or CAB. Get to know the science about the medication and how they developed, the phases, the clinical trials. Some are still stuck on the Tuskegee incident. That was then. That's why we need CAB members -- because that's a platform where we can say, "Oh, no, this is not right." Or we can monitor, and stuff like that.
Folks do have other issues, compounded with living with HIV and AIDS. They might need therapy. They need somebody that they can go talk to.
Focus on drug addiction. Drug addiction is another disease. Say, drug addiction -- again, we're looking at the stereotype -- drugs are not just in the African-American community; they are everywhere. They might be different kinds of concoctions, but it's still drugs. Let's focus on how to get folks help. And the real deal is, you can't help them till they want to help themselves. But at least we need to let them know.
Having 11 years clean and sober, I'm a fan of harm reduction. Harm reduction works. It works. It stops you from harming yourself, and it stops you from harming your community and it gives some people the opportunity to network. Every time you engage, every time you get with somebody, every time you stop into a center, that's engaging. That's when you start building trust.
A slow way of detoxing now is by letting them know:
(1) I'm here for you;
(2) let's look at different ways of how you can safely use.
The big controversy in Atlanta is harm reduction. I am one of the few that do a workshop on harm reduction.
Can you define harm reduction for our listeners?
I think, in a nutshell, harm reduction is: continuing to use, and at the same time, accepting where they are as they are using, but encouraging them to lessen the harm to themselves, and to lessen the harm to the community.
It's not about, "Stop using," that's where it gets twisted. It's not the endpoint of, "You're in recovery." Methadone is one of the successes -- I might get hit in the head with that -- as far as harm reduction.
We practice harm reduction every day. When you get in your automobile, what's the first thing you do? Put on a seatbelt. That's harm reduction. When you get a hot cup of coffee from McDonald's, what's the first thing you do? You blow on it. You don't want to burn your mouth. That's harm reduction. We practice it. So why can't we look at it in a bigger scale? Just allowing folks to be where they are.
Being in recovery and working with a good program -- people are not ready until they are ready. You can beat yourself. But again: It's allowing them to come into a center. Just giving them a cup of coffee and talking to them every day. It cuts down on them going in the streets, creating havoc. The more you engage them, the less emergency rooms that they would have to go through.
Just because we're addicts doesn't mean that we're not intelligent. We just need for somebody to turn the switch on. So once you get a moment of clarity, you'll make that decision, whether you want to completely stop or do what you need to do.
I think I could probably talk to you about your activism work and your views on this pretty much all day, but let's move back to your personal life. How has your health been since your HIV diagnosis?
My health has been up and down. I think my biggest concern with my health is my weight. I lose weight, and then I gain it back, and then I lose weight.
That's another thing of being empowered. I had to really take the necessary steps to get a nutritionist. I talk to the nutritionist. Doing simple workouts that I can live with. I am not going to go to the gym and try to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lee Haney. I'm just going to work out and just tone my body.
I'm actually on my second regimen, which is really good.
What drugs are you on?
Right now I'm on Kaletra [lopinavir/ritonavir], Epivir [lamivudine, 3TC] and Truvada [tenofovir/FTC]. My first regimen was Crixivan [indinavir], AZT [zidovudine, Retrovir], and 3TC. After 11 years, I'm just on my second regimen. I am a strong believer in medication. I believe they work. I do know that people get some severe side effects. Some people get minor side effects. I haven't experienced any real bad side effects other than diarrhea, from Kaletra. That's going back to one of the things that I do -- I'm involved with the clinical trials, and understand the medications and how they are working and stuff like that. Overall, my health is good. I work on my mind, body and spirit. I think recovery has really helped me to get a really good balance.
Why did you switch regimens?
The reason why I switched regimens was, again: Being a treatment educator and understanding medications and stuff like that, when I started losing weight I knew it was from -- well, me and my doctor came to a decision; it was from the Zerit [stavudine, d4t].
Again, side effects, lipodystrophy or lipoatrophy; you can have different side effects. But I was losing a lot of body mass, muscle mass. On top of that, I was losing weight anyway. So we tried to eliminate some of the things that we thought could be the cause of me losing weight. Once I stopped that, once I changed the regimen ... my weight is steady. So it was a good decision to change.
See? That's, again, the challenge. Medications don't work; medications do fail. You can take your medication 96 percent of the time that you're supposed to take it, and it could fail. But the thing is to have a game plan and look at what you can go to next. Early on, we used to talk about sequencing, where you can look at where you want to take your medication.
Molly, my doctor, and I knew what I was going to go on next. Right now, we're looking on what we can go on later on. So that's why I changed. But some people do change because they can't tolerate it anymore.
Other than switching your medications, did you change your health regimen at all? Vitamins or exercise?
Yes. I am talking to a nutritionist, and everything. I had to really change the way I ate. I love fried foods and I am still going to eat fried foods, but I'm going to do it in moderation.
One of the things that we don't talk about a lot in Atlanta is quality of life. I strongly believe in quality of life, so I'm not going to completely stop something that I really like. I love some fried foods. But I do it in moderation. I drink more water. I eat breakfast now. My breakfast is really simple. I have two slices of peanut butter toast with honey and some green tea and that carries me.
Before, I would wait till 11 o'clock. Also I wouldn't eat everything. I have learned how to eat the pastas. That pyramid, that nutrition pyramid; it's lightened up to me now. I understand what to eat and what not to eat. So I think that has helped.
Without the meds, has having hepatitis C changed your treatment and health regimens in any way?
Again, when we're talking about sequence, and looking at medications, you try to look at what's harsher on the liver. I try not to do anything to jeopardize it. Again, one of the good things is that I don't drink or anything like that. I just know that being coinfected, I have to work -- not work extra hard -- I just have to be a little more careful.
I really believe one day I would start hepatitis medications. More people now are dying from hepatitis C than HIV and AIDS. Because of the medications and stuff like that we are living longer. We have become senior citizens in this disease. We're living longer, which lets the hepatitis C start ... you start seeing signs maybe 10 years into the hepatitis C. So we're almost at that point.
I understand that there are different types of hepatitis C. Do you know what type of hepatitis C you have?
I have Hep-2, if I understand the question. I think Hep-2 is predominantly in African Americans and because of that, the regimens are challenging, in that a lot of them do fail. That's another thing I looked at prior to what we were just talking about. Do I want to start a regimen and stuff like that?
Just two more final questions. How has your sex life changed since you were diagnosed? Have you had any sexual partners?
My sex life is good. My sex life is really good. I've counseled people who have said, "Oh, I'm not going to have sex anymore." Why? Or, "I'm not going to have children anymore," which is a different kind of decision. But why?
Do not let this disease stop you from doing things that you have the human right, and the right, to do. I try not to box myself in. I don't try to just be with ladies that are in recovery or are HIV infected. If you are, you are; if you're not, you're not.
We were talking about disclosure. I have learned how to tweak that a little bit. Because, again, I was like a poster boy: "Hey, my name is George and I'm positive. I have AIDS. Do you want to get together?"
They were like, "Wait a minute. What's your name?"
So I'm glad I've learned. I counsel people how to disclose. It's on a need-to-know basis and dating is fun. For me, just because I'm dating you doesn't mean that I want to sleep with you, so I don't have to disclose then. If it gets to that situation, I'll disclose.
But two weeks into dating, people always ask. These are surveys. It's an assessment. "What kind of job do you do?" So it always comes out. "Well, I do this." "Well, why do you do that?" "This is why I do that."
Any final thoughts? Because we are almost out of time.
No. I just hope that this information, would help somebody. Again, I don't want to ever say this is rhetoric. This is not a death sentence. We can live and learn with HIV and AIDS.
I think, again, we need to just be supportive with one another and always remember that quality of life is the most important thing. We are either in-fected or af-fected. But in order to be ef-fective, enjoy your life, educate other folks. I think one of my greatest quotes is from Martin Luther King, and it says, "The beginning of the end of life is when you remain silent about the things that matter."
HIV and AIDS still matter, so keep lifting your voice.
George, that's a great way to end this interview. Thank you so much for coming in and meeting with me.
Click here to e-mail George Burgess.
About George Burgess
Home: Atlanta, Ga.
Diagnosed: April 1995
How do you survive 27 years of active heroin addiction? George has been through it all and yet he has survived and has a fighting, positive spirit devoted to service. He says, "I look at AIDS as an acronym: Always In Divine Service; Always In Divine Space. So I like being of service." And George has been of service since his HIV diagnosis in April 1995.
A father of four, he celebrates 12 years in recovery in 2008. For years he volunteered for Atlanta's AIDS Survival Project, before being hired as an HIV/AIDS Treatment Educator in 2001. He manages the largest Treatment Resource Center in the Southeast. He has been publicly speaking on HIV/AIDS nationally and locally for many years, and is a regular presenter on Safer Substance Use/Harm Reduction for AIDS Survival Project's THRIVE! Weekends. George is also active in HIV treatment research and is a Community Advisory Board member of University of Alabama-AIDS Clinical Trails Group (ACTG) and Community Advisory Board Chairman at Emory University AIDS Clinical Trials Unit.