Sunday, March 20, 2011

what a long strange trip i've been on...

I've gone back to school.  I have decided that my program (aka my baby) is far more successful than I could've ever imagined.  The data is incredible--over 75% of program participants are still sober at 6 month follow up. That's amazing.  I'm so proud of my baby.

Since I last blogged, my program has been recognized as a top performer by the federal government, I was invited to speak about my program at a national conference, and we've been awarded enough funding to keep the program going for another 5 years.  I have been very, very fortunate.  

I have accomplished much more with this program than I ever thought I would in my lifetime.  Now I'm itching for a new challenge.  So what next?  Well, I was thinking about all the times I mentioned therapy on this blog.  I realized that while I don't have any clinical training, my amateur therapist diagnoses at work can be pretty accurate.  And I recognized that for some strange reason, people find it easy to open up to me.  I think Fate is trying to tell me that I should become a therapist.  

I am now a graduate student at USC's School of Work (yes, I'm back at my alma mater and, yes, I'm taking these classes online).  I thought I would share with you my admissions essay.  When a friend proofread it, her first comment was, "This reads like a blog post."  I guess I'll just make it one.

I just didn’t know what to say. 

He was sitting there across from me, his face buried into his hands.  “I thought for sure that test would come out positive,” he said to me in Spanish.  “I deserve it.”

Nelson was referred to me by one of the HIV testing counselors.  He was sent to me because of his primary HIV risk behavior—alcohol and drug abuse.  I am the creator and current program manager of (name redacted), the outpatient substance abuse treatment program for formerly incarcerated Latinos at (name redacted).  I see many addicts in my line of work.  But none of them wanted to be HIV positive until now.

Why would anyone think they deserve to get infected with HIV?  I asked him, “Why do you feel that way?”

He lifted his face up from his hands, but didn’t lift his eyes to meet mine.  “Because I’m attracted to men.  Because my God says this is wrong.  I am a sinner!  I deserve to be punished.”

I took a deep breath.  It was as if my cousin was there in the room with me.  

My cousin Pedro lived in a rural part of Mexico in the state of Veracruz.  We were estranged for much of my childhood although we kept in touch over the phone.  However, we didn’t meet until we were adults.  Pedrito had not come out to his family but in private he came out to me.  He figured his liberal, American cousin would understand him in ways that our traditional, Catholic family would not.  My cousin also revealed to me that he was HIV positive.

 I was well-versed in HIV, AIDS, and the history of the epidemic.  Yet none of that prepared me for my cousin’s news.   With my heart beating rapidly, I embraced my cousin and pledged him my undying support.  And then he asked me to keep it all a secret. 

Although my cousin wanted to keep his sexuality and HIV status a secret, I regret now not encouraging him more to talk about this with our family.  As the years passed by, he refused to seek treatment for HIV because he did not want anyone in the family to know that he was gay and sick.  He was devoutly Catholic and, from talking to him about this, I realized that he harbored some self-hatred.  My cousin was taught to believe that his sexuality was not normal, that it was not of God.  From his point of view, it was in his nature to sin against God every time he was attracted to a man.  For him, HIV was his penance for this grave sin—a suffering he was willing to endure for God’s absolution.
One beautiful evening, my mother called me from across the country.  Her words were still difficult to take in.  “I’m sorry, baby, but Pedrito passed away from pneumonia,” my mom said.  I cried, but not because I was sad.  I cried tears of rage and frustration—anger at a society that forced my cousin to pretend to be someone else and frustration that I did not do more to help him come out and seek help.

I was still in the anger stage of my grief when I met Nelson.  As Nelson spoke it was as if my cousin was speaking to me.  I saw too much of my cousin in Nelson. 

I moved my chair closer to Nelson and took his hands in mine.  “Nelson,” I said calmly, “the God I know loves you very much and is very sad that this is what you have decided to do with the life He gave you.  Still, I’m glad He brought you here because I know that He wants me to help you if you let me.”  Nelson looked up at me and when his eyes met mine I saw hope.

The next five months went by in a blur.  Nelson enrolled in treatment, where we provided him with individual counseling and group counseling.  The program was lacking a case manager so I filled that role for Nelson, aiding him in creating a plan for his life, setting goals that he was determined to achieve.  I found him a new church, a Universalist Unitarian Church that showed Nelson that God truly loves us all regardless of sexuality.  I connected him to a job training program so that he could one day apply to be a construction manager.  By the time he graduated, Nelson had celebrated 150 days of sobriety.

Two years later, Nelson is still sober, still working, and still going to church.  He takes his challenges one day at a time.  And when he needs extra support, he knows where to go.                     

These days I see my cousin everywhere—in the fragile woman who drinks to ease the pain of her husband’s punches, in the undocumented immigrant who became a homeless drug addict because he did not realize his American dream, in the closeted man who drinks to erase the shame of his sexuality.  Pedrito is everywhere in everyone and I help them all the same.  I may not have saved my cousin, but he has enabled me to save others.  This is where my passion lies—helping the hopeless find their hope and empowering them to change their lives. 

Wherever he is, I know that Pedrito is proud of me and the work that I do.  I know I am.     



aneo said...

Wow. This is fantastic. It takes a special type of strength to turn the crap life sends us into tools. So amazed to know you!!! Next, the world :D

Terra said...

This is absolutely amazing and I'm so glad you shared this. You have achieved so much and it's amazing the lives you have touched and helped and saved. Cheers to you!

Capitol Hill 20210 said...

nice to see you blogging again