Positive since 2000
My name is Jason, and I’m an alcoholic and an addict. It took me a long time to be able to admit that. It took me even longer to say it clearly, boldly and without shame.
So how did I get to a place where I could pen an article baring my soul in the opening line?
The Beginning of My Addiction
Being a gay teen in small-town New Jersey in the ’90s wasn’t easy. I was bullied by my classmates. I felt isolated and yearned for more friends. I wanted badly to belong. Most of all, I just wanted to be “normal.” I was uncomfortable as a gay man and felt there was no one else like me, or who understood me. Nobody in school or in my community seemed to accept me; why should I?
These feelings of insecurity and loneliness catalyzed a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety. When I was 16, I discovered that drugs and alcohol brought me temporary relief from my emotional pain. Everything terrible I was facing was distorted into an easy, fuzzy, warm state. I wasn’t thinking about my social isolation or the way people treated me when I was drunk. I didn’t know it then, but I eventually learned that people in the LGBTQ community are more likely to suffer from drug and alcohol addictions than the general population.
The Road to Rock Bottom
I moved to New York City in 1998; there, I found a community of people like me. I began a career in high fashion and found that being gay wasn’t something strange or different, but rather, it was embraced. Still, the depression that had emerged when I was a teen persisted, and it would come out and rear its head seemingly whenever it pleased. What’s more, I hadn’t stopped drinking or using drugs in the years between high school and moving to New York, and in the fast-paced and heavy-partying NYC fashion scene there was no shortage of opportunities to use drugs and alcohol. I had never coped with my adolescent trauma or worked on accepting my true self; I had just piled on layers of drug- or alcohol-induced numbness.
My addiction and mental health took a turn for the worse when I was diagnosed with HIV in 2000. I felt anger, resentment and fear about what would happen next. It felt like a death sentence. I felt unworthy of being accepted in society—on a new level of low than I had ever experienced. My self-medicating grew worse.
At some point, I started using crystal meth. Crystal meth produces feelings of confidence, power and happiness with one’s self and surroundings. It can also mute feelings of shame and guilt. I’m sure you can understand why as an HIV positive gay man who had struggled for much of his adult life with depression and self-acceptance, this drug would have such power over me. I saw crystal meth kill people close to me, but that didn’t change my ways.
Some years were good; some years were bad. I tried to get sober on my own, but it wouldn’t stick. Each time I relapsed and started drinking or using drugs again, the consequences mounted. I eventually stopped showing up for work, ceased socializing with friends and family and failed to fulfill my normal adult responsibilities.
In 2014, I hit rock bottom—or, as some in the recovery community call it, the “gift of desperation.” I was about to lose my job, a friend had recently passed away from an AIDS-related condition and I was plagued with depression and a sense of isolation. I had no connection to myself, no self-love. I honestly didn’t even know who I was anymore. I realized I was slowly trying to kill myself through my drug abuse and that if I didn’t make a change soon, I would die.
The Gift of Desperation
Part of my tipping point to change was my willingness to finally admit that I had an issue. Despite my life crumbling around me, it took a massive amount of energy and motivation to make the decision to no longer live the way I’d been living. I checked myself into rehab in the summer of 2014.
My first few days in treatment were terrifying. I started out in a five-day detox, during which I faced a range of intense and confusing emotions. I repeatedly questioned whether I really needed to be there. I also couldn’t do much of anything but sleep at first—my body was so exhausted from years of abuse and now detox. But eventually, I started to feel better physically. And once that happened, I could embrace the counseling and wellness activities that ultimately helped me get sober.
Thirty-three days later, my new life began.
The Past Helps Shape the Future
One of the primary reasons people don’t seek the help they need for alcoholism or drug addiction is that there’s still enormous stigma attached to addiction. Personally, that’s why I didn’t access treatment for many years when I should have: I didn’t want to be labeled an addict. HIV/AIDS is also still shrouded in stigma. The convergence of these two diseases caused me a lot of trauma and paralyzing shame for many years. I believe that I am sober today because I’ve made peace with my HIV status. Through rehabilitation and continued therapy, I’ve realized that I could live with these two chronic diseases. I’ve realized that I have many reasons to wake up every morning and live my life.
I never imagined that my recovery would, in addition to giving me a renewed sense of hope, also end up shaping my career. For the last year and a half, I’ve worked as a recovery coach at the treatment center that saved my life, through which I help individuals maintain their sobriety and healthy lifestyle choices after they leave rehabilitation. After so many years on the other side of the table, it’s amazing that I’m able to use my experience to help others who are seeking guidance and support for their addiction recovery. This role has given me a higher purpose, something I lacked before I got sober.
It’s also given me the courage to share my story more widely. Over the past three years that I’ve been sober, I’ve realized that my past isn’t anything to be ashamed of. It is simply part of who I am, and it has contributed to the person that I am today—and to my future. Through embracing my past, my addiction and my HIV-positive status, through examining these issues without judgment and through talking to others about what I’ve been through and how I arrived at where I am today, I hope that I can help chip away at the still-persisting stigma attached to addiction and HIV. I hope that I can help others realize that we’re all human and that we all face down our demons at some point or another. Most importantly, I hope that this story inspires someone out there struggling to get the help that he or she needs.
If that person is you, give me a call. I’m ready to hear your story.
Jason is a certified addiction recovery counselor and senior manager of recovery coaching and community relations at Mountainside Treatment Center. His work involves connecting Mountainside alumni with critical resources to help them maintain the healthy lifestyle changes they have learned in treatment. Jason has also been vital in assisting Mountainside with the development of programs specific to LGBTQ client needs.
What three adjectives best describe you?
Passionate, compassionate, determined.
What is your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement was getting sober and coming to terms with my HIV status. Acceptance of my status and myself helped me to achieve sobriety.
What is your greatest regret?
Not getting sober and coming to terms with my HIV status sooner in life.
What keeps you up at night?
As a recovery counselor, I always end up thinking about what I could have done differently for someone. I always try to do my best, but sometimes people just aren’t ready to take the steps needed to get help.
If you could change one thing about living with HIV, what would it be?
To better educate communities to understand the disease and not be afraid of people with HIV. The more we can share stories and humanize HIV, the more we can chip away at the still-persisting discrimination and stigma.
What is the best advice you ever received?
It came from my doctor, actually. He encouraged me to be confident in my HIV status, not to be ashamed of it, and not to be scared to share it with people.
What person in the HIV/AIDS community do you most admire?
My doctor. He’s deeply passionate about his job and truly cares about his clients, always going out of his way to make sure our needs are met. He’s a remarkable champion for the HIV community.
What drives you to do what you do?
If I can help just one person access treatment for addiction or come to terms with their HIV status through sharing my story and my role at Mountainside Treatment Center, then I’ve done my job.
What is your motto?
I have two that are kind of connected: “One day at a time” and “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
If you had to evacuate your house immediately, what is the one thing you would grab on the way out?
My dog, Mollie! Dogs are actually really great for newly sober people or for people with anxiety, depression or a range of other health conditions.
If you could be any animal, what would you be? And why?
I would be a koi fish. Koi are a kind of Japanese fish that are strong and agile and known for climbing to the top of waterfalls. They’re a symbol for overcoming adversity.