A Profile on HIV/AIDS Educator and Activist Alexander Smith
By Chavonny Tillotson
Alexander Smith, the dynamic and multi-faceted professional from Salt Lake City, Utah did everything right. On paper, he’s what many would consider a success: an entrepreneur with a certified life coaching business as well as a licensed clinical social worker- holding a bachelor’s degree in human development and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Utah. But in the real world- many would consider Alexander Smith’s life anything but picture-perfect.
Ten years ago in 2003, Alexander was finishing up his graduate degree in social work. He had completed his internship in Bulgaria, and six weeks shy of graduation, began making arrangements to pursue employment as a social worker in London, England. And then, in the fall of 2003, Alexander Smith was diagnosed with HIV. “It was St. Patrick’s Day, and all I remember after my diagnoses was a lot of crying,” Alexander recalls during our interview. “I left the office and thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’” Living in Utah at the time, Alexander had no other choice but to move forward, graduating and obtaining employment at a university in the Health and Wellness Services department. Yet, while managing to create a healthy and vigorous environment on campus for his students, his own heath and wellness suffered at the hands of his methamphetamine addiction.
The Power of “Hello”
“I wasn’t someone who used drugs everyday, thankfully; I only used on the weekends. But when it got to the point where I was using every weekend, I had a reality check that I was probably going to die if I didn’t do something about my drug use,” he admits. “And that’s when I sought out the help of two clinician life coaches who taught me about meditation- and I immediately jumped into yoga and mindfulness. And I began to understand the relationship between my thoughts and the depression and fear I had around dying. And I realized that I had never said ‘hello’ to this virus that lived in me.”
In an effort to not only acknowledge his HIV, but to powerfully choose and embrace it, and to share the experience of empowerment with others, Alexander created the website BlessYourVirus.com– a service providing information and advice on living with and taking ownership of HIV and AIDS through mindfulness, yoga and mediation. “Bless Your Virus was a concept where I chose to become friends with HIV and engage and wrap my arms around the perceived enemy,” Alexander says. “And in doing so, I actually started feeling better, and I even came out with my status to my students and did a presentation on HIV; I was finally connected to the virus without all the shame and stigma. And I’ve since developed this concept online.”
Alexander is now able to teach and lead others to a place of sanction and self-acceptance by being a living example. A major and popular component of BlessYourVirus.com being Alexander’s monthly column Cashmere Sex, where he chronicles his experience with dating, relationships, love and lovemaking. “With Cashmere Sex, I wanted to make sex beautiful and luxurious again like cashmere, which is also beautiful and luxurious,” he shares. “It’s my way of saying, ‘I want to talk about this, and I’m not the only one.” You can get the first and second seasons of Cashmere Sex by visiting BlessYourVirus.com. And in addition to being entertained by Alexander’s brutally honest and inviting virtual journal entries, you’ll be challenged by the unconventional in the weekly blog Viral Mindfulness, where Alexander uses personal stories and lessons learned, combined with sketch art, to educate on the importance of mindfulness. “It’s the idea of taking mindfulness and having it go viral,” he says. “And I wanted to have a fluid place to display this information because it really changed everything for me.”
And if private retreats and one-on-one personal life coaching isn’t your thing, also available through BlessYourVirus.com is Alexander TV, where Alexander offers two-minute videos providing advice on coming out with your status and safer sex. And he has implemented this on a larger scale, having spoken at the last two World AIDS Day events. “I’m putting myself out there to show the community that I am available to serve,” he says. “Public speaking on the topic of HIV and AIDS isn’t just for the famous, but also for someone like me, a therapist with life coaching strategies who has a personal story that will help people gain the skills needed to manage this.”
Yes, Alexander has been putting himself out there as a public speaker for years ever since he publicly disclosed his status to CNN in an interview in 2011. And while he’s indisputably been an unstoppable advocate for the empowerment of people living with HIV and AIDS, make no mistake, this immovability of his could not have been possible without some truly dark moments.
Repression Gone Viral
Having grown up Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, Alexander struggled with his homosexuality from an early age, eventually leaving Mormonism after several failed attempts at reparative therapy. “By the time I was 28, I knew therapy wasn’t working, so I came out and started having sex,” he shares. “And I had never tasted alcohol or experienced much of anything before that, and I caught the virus from one of my first partners.” And not long after his diagnosis, he began a relationship with another HIV positive man who abused methamphetamine, which is how the drug was introduced to Alexander.
But I really believe that if I hadn’t abused drugs and made those choices, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he shares. “And this is what modern spirituality, Buddhism and psychology teaches us. There’s great wisdom and lessons in the dark side. And I wouldn’t be standing in the brilliance of light, awareness and connection without that.”
Alexander is now living and running his business in Orange County, California- his latest contribution to BlessYourVirus.com being the concept of Pose with AIDS, where he challenges people to use AIDS and disease as motivation for strength and flexibility in their lives. And though he still experiences dark days, Alexander Smith refuses to give up.
I hit a point last year where my meds weren’t working anymore, and I had to take new meds, and that really scared me. The following November, I started practicing yoga again and I was feeling stable on my new medication, but I didn’t want to keep doing this every ten years. So I literally asked myself, ‘Do you want to die? Because you can stop taking your meds and get AIDS and die a lot sooner.
And I chose to live, and I want to share my experiences with others who may be struggling to show them that you can live fully with this. And I’ll continue to do this work until I die or until I’m cured.