Ordinarily, a Park Avenue penthouse is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of AIDS. But then very little about Jimmy Mack is ordinary.
It's not just that he is tall and handsome with stylishly cut steel-gray hair and bright blue eyes. Nor is it that he fairly glows with good health, good humor, and charm. All these things are part of what comes at you on first meeting him, but the thing you notice most is the light -- he seems to be surrounded by it. On closer inspection however you realize that it radiates from inside, from some inner core of grace. And it is a light you recognize as being kindred to your own.
But it was not always so. Jimmy has emerged from some very dark years, years characterized by heavy drinking and drug taking which came into full flower after Jimmy was diagnosed with HIV in 1987.
The Plunge Downhill
"It was Valentine's Day, and my lover and I went to a clinic in Chelsea to be tested. When the results came back positive it was the last thing I expected. I wasn't promiscuous. I didn't go to bathhouses or backroom bars. I thought it was something that happened to other people. The person who gave me the results said, 'Try not to think of it as a death sentence, You have at least a year to a year and a half before you start to get sick!'
"That night I drank until I blacked out, and did it every night for the next five years. If I didn't black out I would have terrible dreams about how I would die. I had seen several friends die horrible deaths and I didn't want to be coherent when it hit me."
"Even though I had a very successful and demanding career in advertising, I was still able to drink because I worked for a compulsive gambler. As long as I got to work before the first race went up on the board at OTB at 11:00 a.m., he didn't care what time I got in or what condition I was in. I was able to function as an alcoholic for years."
Those years came to a head on Memorial Day weekend of 1992. Jimmy had gone to visit a friend in Puerto Rico. On his last night there his friend threw a party where Jimmy consumed a half gallon of rum, an eight-ball of cocaine, two hits of ecstasy, and several joints. Then he hit the bars. He found some hustlers who wanted to party and went off to smoke more cocaine and heroin. He woke up the next day in an abandoned building, wearing nothing but his underpants and lying next to a dead body.
"Luckily it was raining. I made my way to the beach, dodging behind trees and bushes, and made it back to my friend's house ... where I drank another bottle of rum before I got on the plane."
On the plane he recalled his sister-in-law's offer to help him if he was ever ready to admit that he was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He also thought about his parents and how loving and supportive they had always been.
"They brought me out when I was 19. They said, 'We know that you're gay and we just want you to know that we love you and we want you to be happy.' But I was so full of shame about having HIV that I didn't want anyone to know, even though my father and my sister are doctors. It was okay to be gay, but to have HIV was the biggest curse in the world."
Soon after he returned to New York, Jimmy got a call from San Francisco. A friend with AIDS was in the hospital and wanted Jimmy to come and see him. "I asked him when he was getting out. 'I'm not,' he said. I was on the next available plane.
"When I got there, he asked his mother and his lover to leave the room. He said, 'Even though I have been sick and in and out of hospitals for the past two years, they have been the best two years of my life. I found a program that brought me back in touch with God and enabled me to live a life without drinking and drugging. It's given me a peace and serenity and a spirituality I didn't know existed, and I'm here to tell you that you will be the next one in this bed if you don't stop drinking. And it will have nothing to do with HIV.'
"He died that night. The next day I called my parents. It was the hardest call I ever had to make, even though they had always been wonderful and loving and supportive. It was so difficult to ask for help. But I did and that's when the miracles started to happen."
Jimmy entered a rehab center not far from his parents' West Hampton home. "I went as a day patient, and my goal was not to stop drinking but to learn how to drink as a normal person. On my way back to my parents' house every night I would pass by my brother's boat and drink some of the vodka I kept hidden there.
"Two weeks later, my friend from Puerto Rico was coming to visit on his way to an inpatient rehab center and he wanted me to go with him. I told him I was doing fine as I was. The day he arrived there had been a party at my parents' house. After everyone had left I found myself alone with all the liquor. I drank every drop that was left, throwing the bottles out onto the front lawn as I finished them. When the liquor was gone I found a family-size bottle of Nyquil, which I was just finishing when my friend walked in. 'Oh, you're doing just fine! Pack your bags. You're coming with me.' And somehow, by the grace of God, I went."
Seven days later, on October 4, 1992, Jimmy had his epiphany. "There was a little gathering and someone was reading quotes from the bible which they said was God talking to alcoholics and addicts. There was one story about how shepherds would cut reeds to make into flutes. If the reed was bruised, they threw it away. But God said that no matter how bruised or damaged a person was, if we were to come back to him he would use us to make beautiful music. I realized then that I never needed to drink or drug again. It was a white light experience."
With that realization also came a freedom from shame about being HIV-positive. Initially counseled not to talk about his HIV status to others in the rehab, Jimmy began to tell everyone. "I thought, everyone has their secrets, so why should I be ashamed of my skeletons? And the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. People would come up to me and thank me for being so honest. I even got elected mayor of the rehab! I also began to realize that if I can do this here, I can do this anywhere."
Since getting sober, Jimmy has taken the fierce and powerful energy he once expended on his quest for oblivion and focused it on his health and on helping others. He has participated in several experimental drug protocols that he hopes can one day help others. "I figure if all the abuse from alcohol and drugs didn't kill me, then it means I have a constitution that can handle drugs which might make other people really sick."
He is also a regular speaker at AA and NA meetings. He tells his story at high schools and rehab centers on Long Island and works as a volunteer with the Long Island Association for AIDS Care, God's Love We Deliver, and Gay Men's Health Crisis.
"I sometimes cry when I think about the pain I put myself through and I hate to think of anyone else going down that path if they don't have to. I talk about my experiences in the hope that somebody else might not make the same mistakes that I did. What I thought would be the death of me has turned out to be a great blessing. I'm really happy now, and looking back I wouldn't change a thing. I see the disease as something that came to me at the right time, at the right moment, and as an experience for me to learn from. It helped me to grow an enormous amount in a very short period of time. I've lost my shame of being HIV positive and I've lost my fear of dying. Without that fear I'm now able to live a life beyond my wildest dreams. At 29 I never thought I would see 30, and now I'm 42 and going to see the millennium."
Work is also good for Jimmy. "After rehab I started a catering business in the Hamptons with my sister-in-law who helped me get sober. Through that I met my present employer, who is very wealthy and hired me as his major domo. In fact, after this interview I'm off to butler school in England for six weeks. My boss is another of my blessings. He and his wife know my HIV status and are very supportive. They even set up a consultation for me with a world-renowned immunologist who put me into the interleuken study at St. Vincent's."
One of life's greatest ironies is that the more vulnerable we allow ourselves to be, the safer we are, and the safer we make it for others to be vulnerable. Jimmy Mack's honesty about his past, his openness about his HIV status, and his dedication to telling his story so that others can learn from it makes it possible for others to believe that they too can live a life free from shame about who they are, free from guilt about their past, and filled with the light that shines in every one of us.
"I have never received a negative reaction from discussing my history as an alcoholic or my status as someone with AIDS because I don't see it as a negative. I see it as a positive, so other people respond to it positively. I can honestly think of my HIV as a blessing."
As for the future, Jimmy says, "I try to live one day at a time, but I would like to spend more time working with people who have HIV and an addiction problem just to give them the hope that you don't have to do it that way. There is a lot of hope out there, and just a change in attitude can make a huge difference. I have a lot of hope for a long and healthy future. I don't know when my final day will be, but each day is going to be wonderful."
When told that the story of his struggle is a powerful and beautiful one, he adds "Yeah. And it has a happy ending -- I lived!"
Frank Abdale, the author of Community-Based Nutrition Support for People with HIV and AIDS -- A Technical Assistance Manual_, has worked with people with HIV and AIDS for over ten years. He is now a program and development consultant in the nonprofit sector and is a frequent contributor to_ Body Positive.