By Dalton Karwacki
It is important to live life to the fullest while living with AIDS, according to the World AIDS Day speaker who came to Rider on Tuesday.
Comedian Mike DeStefano discussed living with AIDS, as well as his struggle with drug addiction. The event was part of World AIDS Day. DeStefano mixed comedy into the serious lecture to keep the mood light. He started by discussing his addiction to heroin.
“Most people that end up addicted to drugs have other problems that they don’t know how to deal with,” DeStefano said. “Drugs help them feel better, and they keep doing them. By the time I was 16, I was on heavy drugs and I just kept doing them.”
He explained the standard progression of addiction begins with trying one. After using one drug for a while, he moved on to other, more potent ones. Eventually, he was injecting heroin regularly.
“When I was 18, my parents found me in the basement, almost dead,” DeStefano said. “They took me to a hospital, and when I woke up, they sent me to rehab. And that was it, pretty much. That’s the story of my drug addiction.”
After his rehab experience, he decided to go to college. He got a job as a counselor, helping young people with drug problems. At 21, he became assistant director of the adolescent program. With this came medical and life insurance, requiring a medical examination.
“I went to the doctor, and I had to get all these blood tests done for the life insurance,” said DeStefano. “I went to get my results, and the doctor told me that my HIV test came back positive.”
After dealing with the initial shock, DeStefano went for treatment. It was difficult, he said, AIDS was not a major concern to most people; it was believed to impact only a small portion of the population, namely the gay community. In fact, the only place he found help was the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“So I went to this Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and nothing [strange] happened,” said DeStefano. “They welcomed me and, you know, tried to help me. It was me and all these gay guys in a support group.”
He talked about the terrifying nature of this time, and how he fully expected to die. The doctors told him that he had about five years to live. He said the support groups were helpful in dealing with his impending death.
“For me, it was really important for me to open my life up to other people,” DeStefano said. “I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, and I didn’t think about other people. So when I found that I had AIDS, none of my friends were going to be helpful.”
The worst part for him was not the looming threat of death, but the sense of isolation. Seeing someone in his support group die nearly every week drove home the fact that there was nothing anyone could do to help him. He recalled wanting his life to end soon.
“In the beginning, I would wake up every day and die really quick because of how bad it was,” said DeStefano. “And then as time went on, I was a little less wanting to die, but still didn’t have a lot of hope. One of the main things was that I was never going to have love, you know, I was 21 years old.”
Then, at his support group, he met a woman named Fran who also had AIDS. She too came from an abusive childhood, experimented with drugs, got clean and then learned she had AIDS. They started dating and decided to make the best of their time together.
“We moved to Florida and we just tried to live our life to the fullest,” he said. “You know, usually when people say that, they’re talking about jumping out of airplanes and doing stuff like that. To us, it was just trying to put as much living into each day as you could, because we weren’t going to have that many of them.”
Eventually, Fran became extremely sick. She started to develop nerve damage, the first signs that her disease was progressing. From there, her condition kept getting worse. She was often in and out of the hospital. There was a brief period where she seemed to get better, and the two got married.
“We got to that whole ‘to death do us part’ thing, and I thought, how many people say this and think they’re just saying it?” said DeStefano. “But I knew that one of us would have to live up to that because we’re both going to die.”
He said he felt frustrated because, as Fran got worse, he stayed pretty healthy, and she later ended up in hospice. He talked about the time he visited her on his new motorcycle. The two went for a ride, with Fran in her hospital robe, carrying her IV drip.
“She died the next morning,” DeStefano said. “She died in hospice there, and that was in 1995. That was 14 years ago, and I’m still healthy as a bull. It’s like I got a bad batch of AIDS or something.”
He said that after Fran’s death, he went back to work as a counselor. He soon left this job and went to the Health Department of Florida, giving HIV prevention talks. He recounted becoming frustrated at the questions, the willful ignorance people would demonstrate and how he would counter them in ways that made the audience laugh.
He realized that he enjoyed this feeling and went into comedy, though he still tries to put serious messages into his shows to help spread knowledge and acceptance.
By Amber Cox