Ron, age 66/ Washington, DC, USA

Stories from an Aging Pandemic

I was suicidal when I was thirteen. Because I was gay, or “sissy” as they used to say in those days. I was actually planning how I was gonna do it, and I heard this voice in my head that said, “Don’t do it. Wait ‘til you get older. Things will be different.” I was thirteen, so I said, “Okay, I’ll wait another thirteen years, and if it’s not different, I’ll do it then.” Turned out to be a lot different, okay? So I’ve always sort of looked at life as, like, watching a movie? So it’s like, “Okay, well, what’s gonna happen next? What’s gonna happen next?” So when I turned positive, I wasn’t that stressed out. Because for all practical purposes, I should have been dead years ago, had I killed myself, so it was like anything that comes after that is not gravy, but you know… So, I wasn’t that upset. Plus, I knew the life I led.

The only thing was that there was no drugs. Well… No, no, there was. The doctors told me I should take AZT. But I had done my research, and there was no way in hell I was gonna take AZT. All my friends said, “Oh Ron, you got to take it. It will give you two more years of life!” And my response was “No, I want twenty to thirty years of life, so why am I taking this pill for two years?” And so I didn’t take it. I didn’t start taking medication until 2003. I don’t recommend that people do that. Don’t wait until your T-cell count is 36 to go on medication, but that’s what I did. And I’ve been on medication since.

In 1991, I joined a support group of black gay men in Washington, D.C. called “Us Helping Us.” What made this group unique was that it said, one, that people could live with HIV, which was unheard of – doctors were not saying that, okay?!?  – if you adopted a holistic approach to your health involving the body, mind, and spirit. Once a week, they would teach you different ways to maintain your health. So, physical, we talked about food and nutrition and herbs and proteins and water and stuff like that, and exercise and oxygenation. And then for the mental, they taught us how to meditate and visualize and do a mind body dialogue and all that kind of stuff. And then spiritually, there were three questions that you have to answer. One is, “Are you afraid of death?” Because if you’re afraid of death, it will kill you sooner. Second thing is, “Why do you want to live?” And it cannot be because you are afraid of death, okay? The third question was, “Does your belief system aid your healing process? And if it doesn’t, then you need to change it.” I mean, there’s a whole lot of faiths, so pick one that works for you, you know? And then the last thing we would do is we would teach them how to use their sexual energy to aide in the healing process.

At the end of the twelve weeks there were 22 guys in that group and we were like, “This is incredible!” But the founders, who were the facilitators, they were getting burnt out, so we said, “Hey, train us how to do this.” At some point there are maybe four groups going on in four different houses, and once a month we would have a potluck dinner to bring them all together, so they would meet each other. To make a long story short, this was ’91, so in ’92 the founders asked me if I would volunteer to be the ED. And I said, “No, of course not.” Why would I do that? I’m Dr. Simmons. I’m at Howard University, you know. I’m big time. Right? I was teaching radio, TV, and film. Black film history, those kinds of things.  And he said, “I’ll pray on it.” And I thought to myself “Well, you go ahead and pray on it, honey, ‘cause I ain’t doing it.”

Well! Three months later, my chairman calls me into her office and she says, “We’re not gonna renew your contract, so you’ll be unemployed in thirty days.” And I was devastated, ‘cause I’d been there for twelve years. And I remember calling Rainey – that’s the founder – and I said, “Oh my God, Rainey! They just fired me! I can’t believe this!” And he said, “Oh, that’s horrible! Maybe now you can be– “ I swear to God! I looked at the phone, I was like, “I can’t believe he said that! I’m being set up!” Anyway, I said, “Okay. I’ll do it.” And that was twenty-five years ago. And I’m still doing it.

So I had built it from a support group that met in the living room to now I think we are the oldest and largest black gay AIDS organization in the United States. We have twenty-nine full-time people, a budget of 2.4 million dollars, we purchased our own building in 2001. We would tell people, “No, you are not going to die, honey. Stay in school, buy the house, the whole bit – you are not going to die.” Now, a lot of us died, but a lot of us didn’t.

Every morning I just pray. I was raised a Sunni Muslim, which is another thing. But I say “You know, Allah, it’s just been incredible!” I see other old people who have difficulty walking and, you know… I mean, I had a blood clot in my lung back in 2013. That was a trip. I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma two years ago. I had six months of chemotherapy. But I’m like, “Hey kid, remember, you were going to kill yourself at thirteen, so basically every day you get beyond that, you really cannot complain, okay? Because it was not your idea to live this long, okay? So just, hey, enjoy the show.” Right?

I’m just waiting for the closing act and, you know, how is that going to be, because so far, my God! I mean, come on! A black gay kid from the Brooklyn projects?!?!  I guess, the thing I would say is that if there’s any kid out there who is contemplating suicide, don’t do it. That is all I can say. Don’t do it. I mean, trust me, I know it’s difficult, and yes, things may not get better, but just stay. You may be surprised as how things turn out.