Poppin’ Pills Poses Dangerous Threat to HIV Patients
We now live in a state where prescription drugs have far surpassed alcohol as the drug of choice and, with that, a known risk for addiction. The statistics are alarming, and with the Volunteer State’s crack-down on prescription pain meds, more and more users are turning to cheaper alternatives to the escape afforded to them by doctor shopping.
Across the U.S., we are seeing upticks in the statistics on abuse of meth and other synthetics, and in Maryland the Governor has declared her state’s heroin epidemic an “emergency.” But little alarm has been raised over the effects of drug abuse on someone living with HIV. What are the dangers of mixing the medical cocktail used to keep HIV from progressing into AIDS with the drugs an addict uses to escape the emotional pain of the disease? We sat down with an HIV patient in recovery to get the answers first hand.
Austin was living in Atlanta when he fell really ill. His roommate was dating a guy that was positive, and they urged Austin to go get tested because they didn’t feel there was a reason for him to be as sick as he was. They took him to the testing facility, and that’s when he found out he was positive. “When I found out about my status I was 28,” says Austin. “It was the summer of 2008.”
Austin hadn’t gotten tested a lot before that, and had never practiced safe sex. Austin had never exchanged needles or had a transfusion, so he knew that he had contracted the disease sexually. “Looking back it’s almost shocking that it took so long actually,” says Austin. “From there it was just all downhill.”
“It was someone I thought I knew really well, and that I trusted,” says Austin. “He did not know that he was positive. By the time I found out he had moved to San Diego, and I called him and told him, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.’ I looked him up just the other day. He’s still running around telling everyone that he’s negative when I know for a fact that he’s not.”
When he found out, luckily, Austin had a really good support system. His friends rallied around him. He still, however, felt ashamed, scared and alone.
“The first act of the disease of addiction is isolation,” says Erik Hines of Addiction Campuses. “It makes you feel alone, and one of our basic needs as human beings is connection.”
Austin was already doing drugs recreationally when he found out about his status, but afterward he began to spiral out of control. He basically felt like there was nothing worse that could happen, which took him to a very dark place.
“I did meth to cope,” says Austin. “I engaged in chemsex. It was crazy. Looking back, there were a lot of things I shouldn’t have done, but I did it anyway. I felt like I could just have sex and not worry anymore.”
Some people, especially those in the so-called “bug chaser” community, consider contracting HIV a relief: “bug chasers” seek to contract the disease to relieve them of the “burden” of “living in constant fear” of contracting the disease. Like Austin, once they have HIV they feel as if they can engage in sexual activity without worry. Experts say this can be very dangerous for a person living with HIV, as they are susceptible to contracting other sexually transmitted diseases.
“I spiraled into meth,” says Austin. “I just kept doing more and more and more and more and more. You start to not take care of yourself.” Austin’s doctor put him on Norvir, a protease inhibitor that reduces the amount of disease in the body; Rayetez, which treats infections in the body caused by the disease; and Truvada, another infection fighter. Austin was able to lower his intake of meth when he went on the HIV meds, but still wasn’t able to let go of the grip of addiction.
He quickly began to miss his daily regimen of meds. “It kept the medication from working as effectively as it could have,” says Austin. “If you miss more than once a month, you run the risk of becoming resistant to the medications. I would be on meth and get all scatterbrained and forget to take my meds a few days at a time.”
Luckily Austin never became resistant to his life saving drugs. Someone addicted to meth is usually articulate and can maintain some level of function while using. It is when they are not using that meth is all their brain can think about. “I was doing about half an 8 ball a week,” says Austin. An 8 ball is around 1.75 grams.
Austin’s HIV got very close to turning into AIDS at one point during his addiction. When he moved back to Nashville a year after his diagnosis, he was going every month to do lab work and his CD4, or T cell count, got down to around 300. T cells, or white blood cells, fight off infectious disease in the body. The lab test measures how many T cells the patient has per cubic millimeter of blood. A healthy person has anywhere from 500-1500. A person is usually diagnosed with AIDS when the count gets to 200 or below. “Most people that I know stay around 600-700,” says Austin.
“One day I woke up and realized that I was being stupid,” says Austin. “I was tired, I was cranky, I wasn’t taking my meds. I was able to stop. I honestly just stopped. When I did, my CD4 jumped about 600 points, and my viral load lowered to around 200. The doctor asked me what I was doing differently and I said that I had stopped doing drugs.” Austin added that his doctor said, paraphrasing, “That’ll do it.”
Austin says he didn’t lose friends when he stopped, but he did lose acquaintances. Meth is a stimulant, so the most dangerous time is during the actual high, versus downers, such as opiates and benzos, where the highest risk factor is during the withdrawal period. Luckily, Austin didn’t have to detox physically, but he did have to detox mentally.
“It wasn’t the physical high that was the reason why I did it,” says Austin. “It was the mental escape. An escape from the way that I thought I felt.” He’s had relapses when he says he’s put himself in situations he didn’t need to be in, tempting situations that have occurred since his recovery process started.
Addiction Campuses promotes a “full life detox,” which they say is absolutely necessary for any chance at recovery. “You have to detox your life from every angle,” says Addiction Campuses’ Dr. Jason Brooks. “Treatment is absolutely imperative to a long-lasting recovery. Clean out your house, your phone, your social networking and the company you keep.”
Austin too has a strong message for people who are HIV positive and using drugs to cope. “Don’t,” says Austin. “All it is going to do is make it harder for you health wise. It’s not going to make anything easier. It’s a hard fight anyway just being positive, it doesn’t need any help. You can miss medications, it can keep them from being as effective as they could be. All kinds of things can go wrong.”
Austin says the important thing when you are diagnosed is to deal with it head on. “Get a good support system,” says Austin. “Hang around a good circle. That’s what helped me was my friends and my family. Being able to just talk to them about whatever I needed to talk with them about.”