My name is Stephen, and for the last fourteen years, I have dedicated myself to helping others who, like me, live with HIV. I love the work itself. It’s also my way of giving back. Most deeply, though, it is a continual reminder and affirmation of what it’s meant for me to be able to restore my dignity.
I look at my story as being very much about dignity. I hear the same theme in the stories of many of the people I’ve met. People who lost their dignity somewhere – or had it taken away – and who know what it is to walk the difficult, too often very lonely path that leads up from a cruelly disheartening place.
Years ago, I was on track for a very different life than the one I’ve led. A Dorchester boy, after high school I graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and later got my MBA. I sailed the world as an officer in the Merchant Marines. I became an executive at a state agency. I had a wife, two children, a house. I was very active in my community and was twice elected to public office.
Everything changed when I fell in love with a man. My wife and I divorced. Word got out, and after 15 years at my job, I was let go by someone who made it clear they had a problem with my new “lifestyle.” I found another executive position and was there for two years.
But I had started to drink heavily and then use drugs, to numb the pain of rejection, the loss of my family, my friends, and my future. My relationship with the man I loved turned out to be just as destructive. Things went from bad to worse, and finally I had no choice: I entered treatment, and it was there that I was diagnosed with HIV. When I came out of the program, I disclosed my HIV status to the personnel department at work. Not long after, I was told that my position had been eliminated.
I was still an alcoholic and a drug addict. I landed another job, no longer an executive, that lasted another two years, but I continued to use. And I was lucky: I had health insurance. I must have tried eight or ten treatment programs over that time – but nothing was working.
Everything was gone. When I wasn’t in treatment, I locked myself away, soon enough drunk, high, and so, so sick. I hadn’t even begun to confront my HIV or anything else. By the end, I no longer had a place to live.
And that’s when I heard about Victory Programs’ LARC — Living and Recovery Community.
At the time, LARC, located at Shattuck Hospital, was one of the very few recovery programs in the entire state specifically dedicated to people with HIV. It was a long time ago, and I’ve learned a lot about available services since, but I’m still shocked to think about that. And grateful.
From the beginning, the people there helped me stabilize and started me thinking about my plans for when I would leave. It was a three-month program, and that’s what it takes, at the least.
I was there with other addicts with co-occurring conditions, all from very different backgrounds. I actually credit the success of the program to that: anyone was welcome, and all of us showed the same path forward. Some of us had degrees, others hadn’t finished high school. There were gang members and ex-cons. There were victims of all kinds of abuse, there were immigrants. There were even people I knew from long ago growing up in Dorchester.
At LARC, I finally learned that living with HIV was going to be okay. I started to face the sense of shame I’d carried, and how I had been hiding from it with substance use. For the first time, I began to see that I could stop. During those three months on the eleventh floor of Shattuck, with the help of everyone from the director on down, with the help of all my peers, I gradually came back to my sense of dignity.
After three months of the first progress I’d made since my journey through hell began, I moved on to the New Victories, another recovery home operated by Victory Programs. Eight months later, my case manager found me an apartment from Boston Housing Authority dedicated for people with HIV. Fourteen years later, and I still live there. I have not had a drink or used drugs this entire time.
I also became a member at Victory Programs’ Boston Living Center. I have used every resource at the BLC – meals, support groups, the computer room for job searches, you name it. I knew nobody with HIV when I was diagnosed. The BLC introduced me to hundreds. It is an invaluable resource and I do not know what people do for support where there are no such places. It must be very lonely.
Dignity restored. I don’t know how else to say it. And although everyone at Victory told me from the beginning that it would be me who made it happen – and they were right – they were right there with me, and I thank them.
I’m in an entirely new place now. Shortly after leaving New Victories I became a Peer Advocate at an HIV/AIDS clinic in Roxbury for nine years. I now work for an organization that covers insurance premiums and the costs of medications for people living with HIV, along with conducting clinical trials on new HIV medications. At the end of the day, I go home. I meet up with friends. I walk a path forward. Dignity is no longer a question: I have it back.
And I’ve started to make small but regular contributions to Victory Programs, now that I am in the position to do so. It feels good to give to the organization that helped me get my life back, knowing they are doing the same for so many. I ask you to think about doing the same. I am one of many.
Please consider a gift today. Your gift will go directly to support Victory Programs’ 19 health, housing, and recovery programs for individuals and families who are homeless and in crisis. The need is great.