Surviving Loss, addiction and hepatitis

I’m Jimmy.  I’m Puerto Rican and Chinese, and in my forties. It feels great to humbly say that I’m in great shape physically, mentally and spiritually. I have a mature outlook, but relish my childlike anticipation for every day. My life is in balance, and I work hard to keep it that way. I can also comfortably say that it wasn’t always like this. For a long time, my thinking and actions were dictated by external messages I believed about myself that I learned during my youth. Some were verbal, some coded. These messages often came in the form of words like junkie, faggot, fat boy, chink, and – well, you can guess some of the rest. I’m writing to Manning UP to share my experience of overcoming those messages, and of taking control of my present and future.

Last month I visited my home turf of New Jersey and New York. It was great to see the crazy Puerto Rican side of my family, my kids, my mother, and some close friends. Being back east last month was a throwback to the earliest part of my life. I felt like hell, and it was just like old times. During those early years in New Jersey, my brother and I were heroin addicts. As a result, we collected some baggage.  That’s how I got Hepatitis C, and how my brother got hepatitis C. I survived the interferon and cleared it. But my brother’s was a different path.

I had to get out of the neighborhood. I knew I had more potential than that life would allow. I was also recognizing that I was gay, and I needed to figure that out away from my family and the neighborhood. I made what a lot of people in recovery would call a geographic; I came to California, started going to 12-step meetings and got clean and sober.  Well, you could say I was mostly “dry”.  Living in West Hollywood, I explored my newfound sexual identity and I was having a blast! I went dancing two or three times a week ‘til early in the morning. I worked out five times a week, mostly to lean down and add muscle bulk. I wasn’t using or drinking, but I partied. During this time, my spirituality consisted of a condemning God. I felt shame about my history of drug use and my sexual orientation. I felt that I had no control of my choices, and that I was a victim of my beliefs and circumstances.

A serious knee injury started a downward spiral. I was only going to the gym occasionally, but couldn’t seem to hit my stride. My knee pain intensified, and I fell into a trap that many in recovery encounter: Vicodin eased my pain, and unleashed my addiction again. Prozac soothed my depression. High blood pressure and cholesterol meds became part of my pillbox dependency. I started to believe I was a victim of my circumstances. When my doctor decided it was time to start treatment for Hepatitis, I added weekly interferon injections and ribavirin to my pharmaceutical prison.  The depression was emotionally crippling.  Although my Hepatitis C was successfully treated, the meds left me depleted and hopeless. I was eating low-cost dollar meals full of greasy, fatty, meaty carbs. Within a couple of years, I was crossing the two hundred pound benchmark.  (Did I mention that I’m 5’6”?).  I was always dressing to hide it well.  I never put myself in a situation where I’d have to look good.  I did everything I could to avoid interactions with people.  I was living a confined existence.  No freedom. Isolation became my comfort. My doctor(s) and pharmacist(s) prescribed my future.

I decided to go on disability. It was easy to justify – I was disabled!  Depressed, injured, addicted and victim to so many forces.  What I didn’t realize is that I would start to believe the label, “disabled”. It held me down, and defined my “ability” to change my life’s direction.  The shame and negative messages from my youth silently haunted me. I allowed feelings of worthlessness, internalized homophobia and shame to dominate my thinking, beliefs and perspective.  I had lost one of life’s most precious values, freedom.

I knew that I had to make a change, and on some deep level I believed that I could. I remembered a more productive, exciting time when I was healthy, engaged and socially involved. I could remember when I liked the way I looked. You know the feeling, when outer comfort reinforces your inner confidence – and vice versa.

I started going back to the gym in earnest. It felt embarrassing, considering my weight and appearance. But I also knew that if I could just get myself there every day, half the battle was over. The rest would be easy.  I started to believe that I could revive my momentum towards self-care. It was around this time that Hepatitis C took my brother’s life. Treatment didn’t work for him, and paid the ultimate price. Being there for my brother was difficult, but necessary – and it gave me some perspective for my future.

Around 2004, I was at the river at the waterfront in Jersey City, and something called me into the Hilton Hotel. There was an event there involving people who were part of Agape, a spiritual program. When I joined them, I experienced a spiritual awakening. My discovery of Agape reinforced my holistic recovery helping me shift my eating, my exercise, and my spiritual practice.

By the time I moved to L.A. in 2008, I weighed 186. I was off of cholesterol meds, and detoxed from Vicodin with Suboxone. Then I committed myself to getting back to the gym regularly, hiking regularly, and going to Agape weekly.  I was on a roll!  I stopped smoking in 2009. I switched from fatty meats to egg whites, let go of white rice, and became keenly aware of how important every decision I made was to my well-being.  Looking back now, I know that I was taking back control of my health, my life and my future.

Now, I have so much more perspective on the challenge I faced through these phases. I notice that my motivation for I exercising is to feel good, to be in balance – and looking good is an added perk. I can see that in small steps, I’m letting go of things that aren’t working for me. Things like fatty foods, sleeping to escape, and buying into negative thinking.  Sure I get sick sometimes – but I’m not defined by my sickness. I’m rejecting the negative beliefs that held me back for years – without regret.

Mistakes are not my enemies, they are my lessons. With the challenges that I know lie ahead, who knows what I may learn!

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