Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us Richard Cordova, a 33-year-old gay man from Chicago. Richard was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 2002, which did not surprise him since he had been living a life of hard partying, heavy drug use and unprotected sex at the time. But thankfully, he came across an opportunity for a clean break and ran away with it, literally. He quit the partying and drugs for marathons and 200-mile bike rides, a calling that helped him rediscover his passion for life. Today, Richard is an HIV advocate, working as the director of athletic events at Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), a spin instructor, a transformational speaker, as well as helping thousands of people every day as TheBody.com's very own safe sex and HIV prevention forum expert!
Richard, welcome to This Positive Life. It's wonderful to have you here today.
Thank you so much. I'm very excited to be here.
Thank you. Can I just get you to introduce yourself? And just tell us what you do, where you're from, where you live.
My name is Richard Cordova, and I do quite a few things. I am the director of athletic events at Test Positive Aware Network. It's a local AIDS service organization here in Chicago. I'm also the safe sex and HIV prevention forum expert on TheBody.com. Thank you, thank you. And I'm also a spin instructor and a transformational speaker. So I'm busy, busy, busy.
Can you talk about how you first found out you were HIV positive?
I found out that I was HIV positive -- I had an all-over body rash. And I thought I was having a breakout from a seaweed wrap I had gotten while I was on a cruise. So I went in to my doctor. He looked at the rash, and he said, "That's syphilis." Then the question that he asked me was, "When was your last HIV test?"
And I said, "It's been about two years."
He said, "It's time for an HIV test."'
I said, "OK," and did the test. The test came back positive. That was in 2002.
So, now, you say it had been two years. So you had been tested in the past for HIV?
OK. So you had a sense that you had some risk that you were experiencing? What did you know before testing positive?
I knew about HIV. I'd say deep down I'm sure I knew about the risks, but I don't think I'd ever actualized them to myself, and thought about, "OK, this is safe sex, and this isn't safe sex," in the sense of making my decisions based on what I knew to be true. I had been engaging in behaviors that definitely -- I knew when he said it's time for a test, I knew that the test was going to come back positive.
"I had been partying. I was heavily into crystal meth at the time. And you know, I had been having unprotected receptive anal sex. I knew. I knew the test was going to come back positive. There was no, 'Oh my gosh! How did that happen?'"
I had been partying. I was heavily into crystal meth at the time. And you know, I had been having unprotected receptive anal sex. I knew. I knew the test was going to come back positive. There was no, "Oh my gosh! How did that happen?"
How old were you at the time?
So what did you think? And how did you feel when you first heard your doctor say that your test results were positive?
I definitely was in a state of shock for sure. You know, it was very matter of fact. It was like, "OK, what's the plan? What are we going to do? What's next?"
My doctor said, "Well, the first thing we need to do is, we need to do a viral load test. We need to do a CD4 count. We need to see what state your immune system is in." I came back with 123 CD4 cells, which automatically qualified me for the luxurious title of living with AIDS.
So it was very matter of fact. It was like, "OK, what do we need to do?"
He was like, "Well, I really think we need to start on medication immediately." And so that's what we did. I started on Atripla (efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC). Well, I take that back. I started on the medications that would soon become Atripla. They were, at that point, three medications. So we started on meds.
What was the first thing that you did that helped you come to terms with the diagnosis? Because it sounds as if your life went on as it was. But you were taking the meds. So you had a sense that this is something that you needed to do to sort of keep alive.
Yeah. So I was taking the meds. I started to get healthier. My immune system started to repair itself. I quickly became undetectable. My CD4 count started to climb. But there was this sense of -- I thought, "I'm going to die. I'm not going to live to see 30."
"And then I realized, as my numbers climbed up, my immune system repaired itself and I got healthier, the realization came to me that I was going to die, but it wasn't going to be from the HIV; it was going to be from the partying, from doing all the drugs."
And that thought would continue on for me, for years. And then I realized, as my numbers climbed up, my immune system repaired itself and I got healthier, the realization came to me that I was going to die, but it wasn't going to be from the HIV; it was going to be from the partying, from doing all the drugs. And that was kind of the aha moment, as Oprah likes to say, "Your aha moment."
It started a path for me of figuring out how I could change the behaviors in my life so that I could start to live a life that I was proud of, and ultimately a life that would allow me to live a long, generous life.
What first steps did you take on that path?
Well, the first step I had to take was to really dig deep into what it meant to be positive. And the higher up you want to go, the lower you have to go down. So it's kind of like when you want to jump off a diving board; if you want to get some height, you've got to really go down on it. You've got to jump down hard, and then you go up high.
So I went to the bad place, emotionally, with it. I did not reach out for help, for therapy, didn't really reach out to friends. I kind of just took it into myself. And it's not something that I would recommend to others. I would definitely recommend reaching out, finding resources and seriously looking at the Just Diagnosed Resource Center on The Body. It's there. You're not the first person to get HIV. See how it's been done. See what other people have done. And then make decisions for yourself.
But what I did, as I'm often known to do, is do it the hard way. So I would listen -- there's a musical, as I'm sure most of you have heard, called Rent. And there's this song called -- I can't remember the name of it. I think it starts with, "Will I?" And the song basically talks about dying alone, without anybody to care for you and to be there for you. I assigned that song to my life. I told myself that was what was going to happen. I was going to die alone of AIDS with no one to care for me.
And that was a period of probably a year and a half. So really, depression, I guess, to kind of sum it all up. I was depressed, and I wasn't reaching out for help. And going that deep down started my ascent back up.
And so what were your first steps after going to that dark place? It sounds like it was really cathartic to just kind of be in that depression, and also just feel it and just cry it out. What then did you do to start that ascent? Did you reach out for help? Did you go to an organization? Did you tell a friend?
I had started to tell people. I had started to tell friends. And in coming out -- you can come out in so many ways, for so many things -- coming out in disclosing your HIV status is such a personal thing. And you're entitled to do it in any way, shape or form, or not at all. I systematically started to tell people closest to me, friend-wise, leading up to telling my mom.
There was definitely a lag time between telling all the people that I knew in my life, and then telling her, because I knew that it would upset her the most, and so I didn't want to upset her. But I just started systematically going through and telling people one at a time, in a very matter-of-fact way.
And my way of coming out progressed, too. In the beginning it was like, "I have something to tell you. I'm HIV positive. I'm good. I'm healthy. I feel good. But I wanted to share that with you," which then progressed to just slipping it into casual conversation during dates. So there was definitely a progression of the first time I told someone to the most recent way that I would explain my status to someone.
All this stuff was happening at once. It was like thinking I'm going to die, realizing I'm not going to die from HIV, and trying to move past that thought, recognizing and telling people, and realizing they're not going to reject me.
"I think we all have this innate fear of rejection. I know it's a really strong motivating factor for me, is thinking that people are going to reject me. So when I realized that people were not going to reject me -- and then also the realization that some people might -- and that was OK."
And I think we all have this innate fear of rejection. I know it's a really strong motivating factor for me, is thinking that people are going to reject me. So when I realized that people were not going to reject me -- and then also the realization that some people might -- and that was OK.
So it started me on this path of like just wanting to shout it from the rooftops, where I would be, like, "I'm positive! This is me. I have HIV." And that was the start of that being OK with life, and moving on from my addiction and from my fear of dying.
So, now, backtracking a little bit, how did you tell your mom? You said that you were telling friends in the run-up to telling Mom. How did you start that conversation?
I went over to her house. I want to say it was around the holidays. And I sat her down. I was like, "I have something to tell you. You need to know that I'm totally healthy and everything's fine." I said, "But I have HIV."
And she started crying, and she said, "No, no, no."
And so I told her, "No, I don't. I don't have it. I don't have it."
And then she was like, "Oh, OK. OK. OK." And then the next day she called me and she's like, "You do have it, don't you?"
And I was like, "Yeah, I do."
And she's like, "OK." So we needed that buffer, that fake buffer of pretending that that didn't just happen. But we got through it. She's been to my doctor with me.
Looking back on it, for people that are going to tell people in their life, if they've got to tell their families or their friends -- have information. Be prepared to take them to a site like The Body. Have pamphlets. Get your information together. Do your homework. Because the fact of the matter is, by the time you're ready to tell someone you've come to a place, for the most part, of being OK that you're going to tell them, to some degree. And they are not going to be prepared for that. So any information that you can leave them with, resources to check out I think is really helpful, and I would encourage you to do that for their sake.
"My mom is totally OK with it now. She gets it. I run marathons. I do 200-mile bike rides. I teach spin. She sees that I'm healthy and that I'm going to live a long life, and I'll outlive her. But in that moment her world was definitely, I'm sure, collapsing around her when I told her."
My mom is totally OK with it now. She gets it. I run marathons. I do 200-mile bike rides. I teach spin. She sees that I'm healthy and that I'm going to live a long life, and I'll outlive her. But in that moment her world was definitely, I'm sure, collapsing around her when I told her.
Yeah. No kidding. Speaking of Mom, tell us a little bit about you childhood, upbringing. Where did you grow up? And what was it like growing up?
I'm an only child. I do not suffer from only child syndrome. I grew up in Chicago. I was overweight as a child. And most of my adult life, I have been overweight. So I definitely wasn't like an outcast. I mean, I was; I wasn't like the most popular kid, by far. I had my friends, you know? Like, you had the other outcasts that were your friends.
But growing up, I went to a private Catholic school. And next to the Catholic school was a place; it was called Shelter of God's Love. And there was a place where people with disabilities lived. And when I was 12, I started hanging out there. And so my best friends were all the people that lived at the shelter.
So there was a girl with spina bifida. There was a blind woman. There was a girl with cerebral palsy. Those were my friends. And it was like two blocks from my house. So I would get off of school. I would go there. I would do my homework. I would hang out. I would help around the place. I would help serve dinner. I'd eat with them. So that was what my childhood, my formative years of growing up, was like in a household where you were different. But I guess you weren't different. I mean, you were different, but you weren't. That's just who you were.
Wow. That's lovely. So now, did you come out in high school? Like, in high school did you totally know that you were gay? Or did it take till after high school?
I think I knew something was up. I mean, I had a girlfriend in high school but just something wasn't right. And so I didn't come out, per se, in high school.
I ran away from home when I was 16. I came home one day from school and my parents had found gay materials of the sexual nature. And they were out in the living room, which is not where I had left them. I had left them hidden in my room. And so they had found them.
Looking back, they were probably looking for drugs, which -- I didn't do drugs in high school; that was to come later. But I was really depressed. I look back. I can see that now. I was really depressed in high school. I had moved away from all my friends, out to the suburbs, probably deep down, knowing I was gay and not realizing it yet, not knowing anyone. So, super-depressed in high school, trying to fit in. It wasn't really working. Still overweight.
So at 16 I ran away from home. And I couch surfed for a few years, not having a place to stay, working. But I guess to backtrack, actually, when I was in the process of living at home and realizing something was wrong -- and I say wrong in the sense that I knew something was different about me -- at the time, growing up Catholic, I remember asking God, "God, why? What's different? What's going on? Why do I feel different?" And not getting an answer. So for me that was the moment when I moved away from God, in the sense of what religion says God is. And I moved, started moving towards what would become later my spirituality.
Once I moved, once I ran away, I don't know, it was like there was no coming out. There was just, like -- I was gay. It was just like instantly, "OK, I'm gay."
Now, when you were couch surfing, did you have friends in the community? Did you have friends that were also gay? Was there a Chicago queer youth place to go? Where did you find support in that time when you were living away from home?
So, at the time, there was a place called Horizons, which would later become the Center on Halsted, as it's currently known. And I remember -- and I don't know how I found out about it, because I was in the city -- I was couch surfing, but not really with a friend. It was just someone that I met online; he let me come stay with him, a very nice person. Like, I didn't have to sleep with him to do it. I was just literally sleeping on his floor. He lived in a studio.
And I found this place called Horizons. But I was scared, because I didn't know what was happening. There were youths running around in there, but there was no welcoming committee, if you will -- nothing that pulled me in. So I just left. I just continued on my own.
So I feel like it's something important. A takeaway message is resources. So I walked into this youth space; that's what it was there for. And because they weren't rolling out the red carpet, I ran away.
"Ask for help if you need something. Keep pushing till you get what you need. And if you're not getting what you need somewhere, then go somewhere else. But don't just try to figure it out by yourself. It's been done a million times over by a million people's mistakes, blood, sweat and tears. So learn from those, and then you'll have a better place to start from."
And so it's like, don't run away. Keep pushing. That's something I finally learned. Ask for help if you need something. Keep pushing till you get what you need. And if you're not getting what you need somewhere, then go somewhere else. But don't just try to figure it out by yourself. It's been done a million times over by a million people's mistakes, blood, sweat and tears. So learn from those, and then you'll have a better place to start from.
Absolutely. So, now, fast-forwarding again, what do you do to keep healthy now? You said that you run marathons and all of that stuff. How did you get into that, basically?
So, yeah, health is so much more than physical health. So mental health for me is about managing boundaries, especially because I love to do for others. I love to give. I love to help make the world a better place. I love to support people's fundraising and help them grow as a person.
But for me that means knowing what I am willing and not willing to do. I'm not willing to do something that emotionally drains me, because then I'm no good for myself, and I'm certainly no good for you, and I'm no good for the next person. So managing boundaries is really important for me. That's my mental health.
Physical health, I was still partying. And in 2006 I had seen an ad for the AIDS Marathon, which was a training program that (it's a charity training program) is now called Team to End AIDS. And they have sites here in Chicago, and in Los Angeles, and in D.C., and all over the country. And they will train you to run a marathon, or a half-marathon, or a triathlon. And you fundraise for them.
So I filled out the application, but I didn't do anything with it; I just put it away. And then fast-forward to a year, to 2007, I, full on in my partying mode, saw an ad for the training program again, and decided -- there was an info meeting coming up -- so I decided that I was going to go to the info session.
It literally happened, like, on a Tuesday, I saw the ad for the training program. Went upstairs after, I decided, "I'm going to go to this info session." Went up, got high. And that was on, like, a Tuesday. Partying, stayed up. Crashed out. Slept for whatever amount of hours. Woke up on Thursday. Went to the info session. Decided to do it. Signed up. Never looked back. Never touched crystal meth again, which had been a whole process for me of talking myself into not doing it, deciding all the reasons why I didn't want to do it. And that's a whole other Positive Life interview, or a subject of choice.
"I've run six marathons, about to run my seventh, in Hawaii. My fastest marathon time was 3 hours and 28 minutes, which is about a 7-minute and 10-second pace per mile. I've completed three 200-mile bike rides to raise money for HIV/AIDS services."
But I quit cold turkey. Stopped doing; stopped partying. And I started training with the marathon. And every Saturday was my long run, with my group, where you meet with a group and you guys go for your run.
That became my touchstone, my support group, my six steps, whatever that program -- the 12 steps. That became my group, my program. And it kept me sober. And I just never looked back. And I never stopped running, figuratively. I've run six marathons, about to run my seventh, in Hawaii. My fastest marathon time was 3 hours and 28 minutes, which is about a 7-minute and 10-second pace per mile. I've completed three 200-mile bike rides to raise money for HIV/AIDS services.
And these things have led to becoming a spin instructor. It led to my current job, director of athletic events. I produce an event called the Ride for AIDS Chicago, which is a fundraising event that raises money for Test Positive Aware Network, and other community partners, here in Chicago.
It has all steamrolled from that. If you roll it all back, it all started from a place of wanting to be OK for myself; wanting to live a life where I felt comfortable with who I was, and being OK being positive. And I'm out there with it.
"Because for those of us out there that are OK with being positive, we are the minority. We are not the majority. We are the 1 percent. And so it is time for us to step out of our shadow, and to say, 'You know what? Being HIV positive is OK.' Be OK with it. If people reject you, let them. They're toxic. They don't need to be in your life. You're beautiful. I'm beautiful. Being HIV positive is A-OK."
I'm not ashamed of being positive. I'm proud of it. It is what it is. And so I use my status to educate others, to be a guiding force.
Because for those of us out there that are OK with being positive, we are the minority. We are not the majority. We are the 1 percent. And so it is time for us to step out of our shadow, and to say, "You know what? Being HIV positive is OK." Be OK with it. If people reject you, let them. They're toxic. They don't need to be in your life. You're beautiful. I'm beautiful. Being HIV positive is A-OK.
Wow. Beautiful. All right. Just a couple more questions. In closing, how do you feel that having HIV has changed you?
HIV has changed me for the better. You know, we're all going to die. And HIV has forced me to come to terms with that. And so I realize that I've got things to do. I've got a life that's worth living to live. So that means not wasting time sittin' around and watching TV, and just getting drunk all the time, and hanging out and doing nothing.
I want to hang out and talk about ideas. I want to talk big ideas, talk about how we're going to change the world, and get excited about that. It's made me realize that I have a purpose. And my purpose is to make a difference in the world, in any way, shape that I can.
And to anyone that's willing to do it with me, come along! I do things for HIV and that's my thing. Your thing doesn't have to be HIV, but I want you to have a thing. Maybe your thing is cancer; maybe it's the Earth; maybe it's recycling; maybe it's cleft palates, or puppies, or kittens, or orphans or whatever. But have something. And you're going to find that having something fills you with such joy and light that people that are drawn to you have that same desire. And you become this magnet for change.
"And don't be afraid to ask the question, 'Is this OK with me? Am I happy with this?' If you're not happy with something, then change it. And if you change it and you're still not happy, then change it again."
Wow. Is there anything else that you'd like to share? Any answers you want to give to questions that I have yet to ask?
Always ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask questions. And don't be afraid to ask the question, "Is this OK with me? Am I happy with this?" If you're not happy with something, then change it. And if you change it and you're still not happy, then change it again.
And even if they're small changes -- they can be tiny, tiny changes -- but don't be afraid to stop pushing. Don't be afraid to stop growing. Don't be afraid to stop wanting more than what you have, because you're worth it.
Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.