Brenda Chambers and Leslie Williams share how they kicked their drug and alcohol habits while supporting their families and surviving HIV.
Brenda Chambers, 44 Salt Lake City
Leslie Williams, 49 Brooklyn
Brenda: I was addicted to drugs and alcohol for 30 years. When I was 9, my father, who was an alcoholic, was sent to jail for robbing a bank. I got to a place where I wanted to escape from life, so I started drinking when I was 11. Years later, I added cocaine to the mix and then prescription pills. One day someone introduced me to meth. I quit all the other stuff. I had found what I was looking for.
Leslie: I know that feeling.
Brenda: I tried quitting, but I couldn’t stop. About four years ago, I got arrested for burglary and was taken to jail for six months. I think it was a divine intervention in jail that made me start a 12-step program. That’s how I finally quit using. But while I was in jail, in 2003, I got tested for HIV and found out I was positive.
Leslie: I found out I was HIV positive in 1993. My drugs of choice were cocaine and heroin. In my 20s, I started snorting coke with these older guys at work, and then I “upgraded” to shooting dope. I won’t lie: When I was doing drugs, I loved getting high. But after overdosing three times, I decided that enough was enough. So in 1989 while I was in jail for selling drugs, I quit without methadone or the help of a 12-step program. It amazes me how I did it.
Brenda: I never thought to get tested before. I was too high and drunk. WhenI found out, I thought I was going to die; I even wrote letters to my family apologizing for everything I’d ever done. I later discovered that my ex-boyfriend knew he had HIV and never told me. When I look back at it now, I realize I should have taken more responsibility for my sexual health.
Leslie: When I was first getting high, I used clean needles. But then I slipped up and started sharing needles with other people. When I found out I had HIV, I was scared because I had to face my wife. She was on drugs too, and I knew that I had to stay strong for both of us—which meant staying clean for good. My wife got tested and found out she was also positive. I felt so bad. Shortly after, she found out she was pregnant, but she started taking meds and quit drugs, and our daughter is negative and healthy. My younger brother died of AIDS back in the early ’80s, and my father just died of AIDS—he was addicted to drugs too. I really want HIV and addiction to stop with me. I now have six daughters and a wife to live for.
Brenda: I have four children—two of them 27-year-old twins—and five grandchildren, so I thank God that He took away my obsession with drugs. It’s been hard. I stopped hanging out with the people I was getting high with, and with the help of an outpatient program, daily 12-step meetings, my sponsor and the online group recovery.com, I have stayed clean for four years. I needed to hear that other people felt the same way I did, and that they could still be clean and sober. I also make sure that I take my meds every day. I know what it was like to be really sick, and I don’t want to go back there again.
Leslie: Me too. It’s funny; I have been clean for so long that I look at HIV as my main problem, especially the med side effects. But I am just happy to be doing well. I’m undetectable and in good health. I have been very blessed. I also run a group for HIV-positive brothas like myself, once a month, so they know they are not alone. I’m trying to help a lot of people now.
Brenda: Helping other people is key to me, too. If you’re trying to help other people then you’re not so self-absorbed, and it’s not as hard to stay clean. I hope that people who are going through what we have know that even if you end up relapsing, don’t give up. There’s hope. Look how far my life has come in just four years.