Living with HIV: Walking a road to recovery, sharing experiences

Hope is the one thing Steve Daniels gained in life and the one characteristic he tries to pass on to other people.

Daniels, 62, is HIV-positive and has dealt with the disease for 25 years.

"I've been infected so long," he said. "I've seen a whole lot of death and hopelessness. I try to encourage people not to give up and to just hold on."

Drugs and alcohol

Daniels used injected drugs, which led to his contracting HIV or human immunodeficiency virus. Daniels was in college when he started using heroin. As drug use progressed, he started injecting drugs for a faster fix.

"I had a flaw in something about myself to start using drugs in the first place," he said.

In numerous efforts to quit using drugs, Daniels found himself in a treatment center 14 different times. In one of those treatment centers he was told he was HIV-positive.

"That was in the '80s," he said. "There was not a whole lot of information available. I thought you got HIV and died two weeks later. I left the (treatment) center and continued to get high."

Before Daniels made it back to the streets for more drugs, he did make a trip to Duke to get another HIV test from a doctor.

"The doctor at the center was cold," Daniels remembered. "He acted like I was wasting his time. They didn't have a counseling protocol in place. They did the blood test and gave you the results. That's why I have the perception of (the doctor) being cold and callous."

Nine years after his positive test, Daniels reached his limit and went to a treatment center with a serious goal to quit injecting drugs into his body.

'Last man standing'

Daniels was married 13 years. During that time, he became infected with HIV and wasn't aware. Therefore, he infected his wife. She died two years after receiving a positive diagnosis.

"I started getting high because of shame and guilt," Daniels said.

"It's an abyss of nothingness. You are down and it's just you. It's a horrible state of mind to be in. I lost my will to live."

In addition to his wife, Daniels lost a brother, a sister-in-law and two first cousins to HIV complications. There were also about 20 friends Daniels saw die from direct or indirect issues of substance abuse, violence, liver health problems from alcohol and causes from HIV diagnosis.

"After I got sick of myself and people dying around me, I knew it was time to do something different," Daniels said. "I went to a treatment center for the last time."

Getting to the root of his issues that created a desire to stay high on drugs was just as hard for Daniels as quitting drugs.

"I had to humble myself and ask for help," he said. "I had to go to people who were much younger than me and ask them how to deal without drugs. I didn't have a clue. They gave me something to do."

Daniels said he joined a 12-step program and started participating in his health by keeping doctor appointments and following proper procedures to maintain a healthy body.

"It took everything I had to evolve into who I am," Daniels said. "It's like I'm the last man standing. I'm grateful and blessed to be able to do some of the things I do."

Daniels said his journey to being drug-free and HIV-positive was hard,
but well worth it.

"(The recovery) started happening so fast," he said. "All this good stuff started coming to me. I knew as long as I didn't get high, I knew I had a shot."

'It's a dangerous job'

Daniels, who spent many years unemployed, has a job as a phlebotomist at Piedmont Health Services, a sickle cell health agency, in Winston-Salem. For his job, Daniels goes to high-risk communities to draw blood and test individuals for sickle cell and HIV.

"Those are some of the places I go in and catch people to try to identify with their issues and talk to them," Daniels said. "I don't give advice. I just give them my experience and how I've been able to participate in my life and to stay as healthy as possible. It's a dangerous job, but somebody's got to do it."

From the cocktail medication of protease inhibitors and anti-virals to immune protection pills and a vitamin, Daniels takes about 14 pills a day. He gets a healthy amount of exercise, which is mostly through walking for his job. He also said he tries to maintain a stress-free life.

One thing Daniels has to do often is attend 12-step meetings for recovering drug and alcohol users.

"Being a recovering substance abuse user, I'm not drug-proof," he said.

"(On my job), I'm smelling drugs and weed from being in some of these houses and being approached by women and people trying to sell you stolen goods. It taxes your spirituality."

The 12-step class offers Daniels a break from the old atmosphere where he tries to be a light of hope, since the rehab sessions are typically during the noon-hour.

"I take a break from all that insanity and go exhale for a minute," he said. "It gives me the opportunity to re-energize, so to speak, and finish up my day."

Despite being in the drug-infested atmospheres, Daniels said the days are never boring.

"Every day is different," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to see.

Being a heroin addict, it's not boring. I like excitement, but by the same token, I'm mindful of my surroundings. I've seen this job eat people alive. One thing they didn't have was what it took to be an outreach worker. They don't have years of being on the street and street corner like I have. It's a reversal of who I used to be. That's what enabled me."

'My experience is mine'

Twenty-five years after receiving a HIV-positive test result, Daniels uses his experience to encourage others. He visits conferences throughout the nation to share his life story with others who are HIV-positive or health care providers, ministers and community members who want to help.

"The same thing they do other places, is the same thing we do here," Daniels said, in regards to drug use and unprotected sex. "I share my experience and get across to people. I'm genuine. My experience is mine. I tell them how I've overcome some of this stuff I feel. Dwelling on the past is counter-productive to what I'm trying to do."

While Daniels is "still learning to navigate through his feelings," he is employed, remarried and a father of four children. Daniels' wife is HIV-positive, and he met her attending a 12-step class. As for his children, they are not infected with the disease and range in age from 30 to 40.

"I do a lot of praying," he said. "I am still asking God to forgive me.

Being me isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. Drugs destroyed all our hopes and dreams. We are not responsible for our disease, but responsible for our recovery. I have to participate in the process."

To participate in the process, Daniels will make his way to Hickory at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Exodus Missionary Outreach Church. Daniels is the guest speaker for "An Evening of Hope and Joy" to share his story with people who are infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. The program is part of the National Week of Prayer for Healing of HIV and AIDS. In addition to Daniels' talk, there will be youth and adult choirs, as well as a candlelight service. The event is set to end at 8 p.m.

"It's my creator who is keeping me here and maintaining me," Daniels said. "I can't take credit for all of this stuff."