If I knew that some of my closest friends are shooting, snorting, or sleeping their way toward potential HIV infection (or worse, death), would my inaction make me indirectly responsible?
We have all seen the commercials that teach us to stop a drunk person from getting behind the wheel, but that same action should apply to other dangerous actions. We have an obligation to intervene when our friends engage in behaviors that are dangerous and potentially deadly. If we expect to stop new HIV infections or deaths caused by addiction to drugs such as crystal meth and heroin, then we must start having honest, clear conversations with one another.
Recently, Glee fans were shocked to hear of the sudden death of Cory Monteith, the actor who played the lovable character, Finn. Monteith, who made his own personal struggle with addiction public and entered rehab earlier this year, lost his battle with addiction after overdosing on a combination of heroin and alcohol. Late last year, we lost Spencer Cox, a renowned AIDS activist who struggled with addiction to crystal meth. Both of these lives and countless others serve as examples and highlight the need for friends to be patient, understanding, and willing to talk, instead of remaining silent or avoiding confrontation.
In my own life, what started simply as something I would do while out dancing with friends soon became an overpowering addiction that wrecked every aspect of my life, and led to me contracting HIV. I could have easily been another Monteith or Cox. My life while using meth consisted of trolling hookup sites looking for my next trick, all while looking for my next fix. There were never enough tricks and there was definitely never enough meth. Psychologically, I had devolved to a state of amphetamine-psychosis, a consequence of chronic amphetamine use. Symptoms mimic those of schizophrenia and include hallucinations, hearing voices, paranoia, mental confusion, loss of time, emotional flatness, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness just to name a few. Essentially, during the height of my addiction I would have loved for anyone to have told me how much I was hurting myself.
Luckily even without the help of friends and family I was able to address my addiction, although by that time I had lost my new truck, home and employment. While it was not easy, I found support in other recovering addicts, since they understood exactly what I was going through. Since June 2011, I've traveled across the United States sharing my experiences both as a person living with HIV and as an addict in recovery, and one thing that has stood out to me is that people are still using crystal meth.
Still, I'm amazed to see the headlines for “Party N Play” or “PNP" — code for fellow tweakers — whenever I log onto any hook-up app or website. Bathhouses are filled with guys who are doped up on chemicals purchased from warehouse stores; the actions they engage in while under the influence create a breeding ground for HIV infection. My knowledge of what goes on in bathhouses comes with experience: I am most likely a card-carrying member of your bathhouse. I have no shame in disclosing the fact that I frequent bathhouses around the world, because regardless of your social standing we are all equalized when we are wandering those halls in a towel looking for our next trick. The reality is that the bathhouses are filled with your friends who slip in after a night of partying. You may never know about it because they probably think you'll judge them. And there's a good chance these friends are also not wearing condoms when they have sex.
We need to face it that there are two messages being told. The most prevalent and politically-correct message is that condoms need to be used each and every time that you have sex. The reality is that not everyone wants to use condoms and consequently we are not wearing them. One of reasons that no one freely admits that we are not using condoms is because we do not want to be shamed or shunned. While condoms offer protection against exposure to HIV they are just one of many tools that we have currently. If we are truly committed to reducing shame and having a conversation about reducing new HIV infections, we must end the stigma surrounding unprotected sex.
It is time for us to also have these tough conversations with each other regarding risk-reduction practices and prevention outside of simply putting a condom on. It is time to wake up and recognize that beating people, let alone addicts, over the head with the “condom” message isn’t cutting it. A better conversation to have with these friends who refuse to use condoms might be to ask whether they have heard of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) or what other risk-reduction practices they can use.
It all boils down to talking to one another. Free of judgement. Free of shame. Are you responsible for your friend’s HIV infection? That is only something that you can answer. Ultimately each person is responsible for their own actions, but as friends and family, don’t we have a higher responsibility to intervene when a person is engaging in behavior that can lead to HIV infection and in some cases death? How many more people need to die before we start talking about the real issues at hand?
AARON M. LAXTON is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel "My HIV Journey" and is a community advocate for the AIDS Clinical Trials Group.