Rene AlexZander: 25th Anniversary Celebration with AIDS

25 years ago I met my life partner AIDS. We’ve gone through everything together. And when I say everything, I mean it. Like most people when they have a partner they don’t look for one another. They might play with others even at the same time. In the early 80s it was normal to share your boy with others. I was just that: a boy, to a man who had lots of money and gave me everything I wanted. I wasn’t looking for another partner, and certainly not looking for this one. This is our story of how I fought and did everything to hide my shame for this new found partner of mine.

It truly is a bitter sweet love story about love and respect. It’s about how one man came to understand his personal struggles and demons, and found a sense of inner peace. I found what life had to offer, and no matter what challenges life put in my way—they could be over come. And this life partner of mine was never about me, and it wasn’t personal. It was, and is about living life to its fullest, and how we could come out of the dark and find love and compassion for our fellow man. It’s about gathering all of one’s inner strength and inspiring our brothers to carry on.
After 25 years I’ve come to understand that without each other we have nothing. Today, I can truly say that I am grateful that I have AIDS. God has given me this tragic gift of life, so that I may help others to inspire and remind those that so carelessly play Russian roulette with their lives. Tears run from my eyes as I type these words… some from happiness and some from sorrow for the loved ones who lost in the battle that we call AIDS.

Here’s my story:
25 years ago, I was told that I had what they called back then HTLV (AIDS), and back then, that meant you had maybe 2 years to live. Well it’s 25 years later and I’m still here. I was also told in October of 1995 that I was going to die again because I only had 82 T-cells. And yet I’m still here.

When I first found out that I had the “Gay Cancer” (another name for AIDS), I made the decision not to do anything about it. If I was going to die then, so be it. At that same time, all my friends were also diagnosed with AIDS, and on the same day. I saw what the meds were doing to people. It took their once beautiful bodies and turned them into shells of skin and bone, covered in dark purple splotches. A form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma.

I wouldn’t be here today to tell my story If it wasn’t for my own personal vanity, and hopefully it inspire others to never give up. You see, what I figured was this: “Oh well, if I am going to die, I am going to die pretty.” Not like my friends. My game plan was this: I’d just kick back and wait. Party and go through life high as a kite. Do what everyone else did to protect themselves from going crazy. Drugs, Alcohol, Sex, more drugs more alcohol more anything. We had no idea what was ahead of us. We just wanted to escape.

The 80’s were tough. There was no help for us. We had to protest in the streets to get attention and money for medical treatment. Ronald Reagan did his best to let us die. We had what we called “funeral parties” to help pay for our friends’ burials. The thing with that was, they were still alive at the time. Family members of our lovers would come in our homes and take everything we owned after our lovers died. We went to a funeral a day, sometimes two. We couldn’t figure which friend to visit at the hospice, and still maintain a work schedule. Insanity was right there in our faces. Our lesbian sisters held us up as we quickly died. 10 by 10 everyday we died. They stood by us no matter what.

As for me, all I could do was pray that my day would come. I didn’t want to see any more. I wanted out of this life. In 1986 I made my first attempt to commit suicide. I failed because a friend was rushed to the hospital. He died that day, and I was still battling with whether I should tell my family that I had it. Should I tell anyone? Could I deal with the looks and the shame? No I couldn’t! I would not tell anyone for another 10 years. And I wasn’t going to follow my doctor’s orders to “take the AZT because it’s the only hope you have”. Unknowingly, they quickly killed us off. 10 by 10; 20 by 20…hundreds of us died…thousands.

I once saw a man, who checked himself out of Cedars to protest on the corner of La Cienega Blvd and Santa Monica, fall down and die. That’s what it was like in the early days. It was that power of community between Gay men and Lesbian women banding together. It’s what makes us what we are today—those of us who are still alive and remember. It’s what pisses us off about the younger generation that has no respect for life and intentionally goes out to become positive or doesn’t play safe. Remember we died for you to live today. Play safe.

By the end of the 80’s I had accomplished so much. Escorting, which was not like it is today. Back then an escort was someone who was paid to be seen with and sex would definitely cost extra. Being a stripper, drugs, alcohol and black outs were quite frequent, as well as quitting and giving up on myself. I was able to master failure. I gave up the dream of being an actor when so many things were going my way in the entertainment business, which made no sense. Why even try? Death was on my door.

At that time, having a lover was completely out of the question. If someone even said, “I love you” then they were out. Love had no place in my life. The seeds from my childhood had already been planted. Love equaled pain and abandonment. The whole AIDS thing just closed the door on any of that. So if I couldn’t apologize then to those who tried to love me, I apologize now. I even apologize to my family for not allowing them to know what it was that kept me so bitter. By the end of the 80’s, all but one of my friends was dead. And I was at the beginning of the second set of friends that soon would die, but I had a jump on these guys. You see, I had already lived longer than what I was told I would. So I was next.

I waited for my own death as I stumbled through life. And since God had done everything possible for me to no longer believe in Him, I turned my back on Him. At that time, I constantly asked Him to please take me, but He left me here all alone to deal with losing everyone. Both my mothers (my biological and adoptive moms) only presented to me that I didn’t belong to anyone. Yet another gift from God that made no sense to me. Why was I even born to begin with and have to live this life of constant inner pain? Thankfully I had AIDS and that only meant I would not endure that pain much longer. Which was another reason I had no need to tell my family I was living with AIDS. No one cared anyway. They showed me this at a very early age. The comment (I believe when I was 9) was “You’re too much trouble. That’s why.” I never forgot that. Looking back at that comment, it wasn’t
that I was too much trouble. It’s that they had too many troubles of their own to deal with a high strung, loud, out spoken spoiled child.

I had some great things happen to me around that time— despite all the deaths, drugs and such. I was able to meet quite a few famous people. I even danced with Madonna at the first APLA Dance-a-thon. I had my own cable show, did some commercials, movies and modeling. My life wasn’t a complete disaster if you looked on the outside. It was the inside that was a mess that no one saw.

I remember going to visit my aunt. I told her what was happening to me inside, and all the things I was dealing with. I needed someone that was going to be brutally honest, and that was her. I told her of the demons I was seeing at night and the voices coming from my head. The pain I would feel every time I visit someone at the hospice, and how I saw people after they died. I expressed how I was going insane. Truly my spiritual and emotional status was at a breaking point.

My Aunt reminded me of a conversation that we had when I was about 11 or 12. She told me that what I had was a gift from God, and that I should never talk about it to anyone or they would think I was crazy. I was crazy; I was down right mad and able to see and hear things I wish I hadn’t. She told me that I should “go get help and see a therapist to help yourself deal with this” (of course I didn’t listen to that part). But the part I did listen to was to pray and ask God for help.

So I went home to my little house on the top of the hill, and got on my knees and prayed for the first time in years—like I did when I was 9 and sent away. I barely got out two phrases before I began to cry. And for the next several hours, I lay on the cold wooden floor and cried and begged God to let me die. I had had enough! I couldn’t stand the pain for one more second. I couldn’t take the voices or visions. Was there anyone who understood? I was empty and everyone was dead but me. “God I beg you please take this away.”

This is how I started the 90’s. Killing myself was the only way out since God wouldn’t do it. So I got up, and went to the kitchen and got a knife. Pointed it straight at my stomach and started to push in when the phone rang. It was my best friend David’s mom. He was the last of the original group of friends. I knew it wasn’t his time to go. You see, I know these things, and I always have since I was a child. It was part of the curse of God’s gifts. So I cleaned up, and went to the hospital and I told his mom not to worry. I realized something as I sat there…I didn’t hear the voices, and the pain that I sensed from others was gone. My 30 days of hiding in my house from fear of feeling everyone’s pain was gone. For the first time in years, I felt a sense of peace.

Was my aunt right? She said that some people have certain gifts from God. It’s what we do with these gifts that make us either happy or miserable, and if we choose to ignore God or turn our backs on Him, we’ll never be happy. It was a good starting point for me. I got up and started walking around the hospital looking for the cafeteria when I ran into a friend who told me his lover was dying. I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to see the AIDS ward at General Hospital back then, but it’s not something you’d ever want to see. Gay men lined up row by row. It was extremely different from any of the hospices I had seen. I got a feeling of loneliness, true heart break. These were the people that had no one, no money, not one person to talk to other than the nurses and doctors. They were just laying there waiting to die all by themselves. It was at that moment that I kind of got it. You see it wasn’t about my friends or me. It wasn’t personal any longer.

I walked up to my friend’s lover, held his hand and prayed with him. I don’t know what it was that compelled me to do that. I must have prayed with at least a dozen or so people that day. Before I knew it, I was getting calls at home from people that I didn’t even know. Mostly from brothers and sisters, who had brothers dying
of AIDS. They were calling me from all around the country, telling me their stories of how they couldn’t do anything because of their parents or that they had no money to get out and visit. They asked me to go and give messages and if I would go pray with them. My spiritual sense of being was growing and I hadn’t a clue.

I was now at a stage of suppressing my feelings. Everything from the past, my childhood and the early days of AIDS was buried deep inside of me. I felt great, free and enlightened, but I was in denial. I was holding on to a false belief that things were better in our community. Not much had changed really. We were dealing with half our wits and less than a third of us left to try and pick up the pieces from the first battle. Our next battle was on its way—the cocktail drug.

At that time, I was working with the Centers for Disease Control, doing AIDS Research and Education. As part of our job description, we had to be very knowledgeable on all areas dealing with AIDS. Did I mention I only got the job because I had AIDS? How BS is that? None the less, I was happy to be working. So this new cocktail meds thing was just another batch of health problems for us. The second cycle of bad drugs, accidental overdoses or misdiagnosed prescriptions were here. The so-called cocktails were an insane idea when I first heard about them at a lecture. What they were proposing was that anyone who had AIDS carries around a timer. This was extremely important to make sure we took our meds right on time. If you missed one second or minute, you’d blow the whole thing and bam you’re dead. Come on, we’re past the baby sitting period. If we have survived this long, then having to be exact, minute by minute wasn’t going to kill us.

Now just for a minute let’s think about it. I have AIDS and you’re my friend that doesn’t. We’re sitting outside on the Sunset Strip having brunch with some of your friends that don’t know I have AIDS. Then out of the blue, ding ding ding the timer goes off… out comes handful of drugs. You know, the usual 8 to 12 pills every four hours. Down the hatch they go right in front of everyone. How ridiculous and embarrassing is that? We were already feeling like walking time bombs and now you’re putting a timer on us? It didn’t work. And by the mid 1990’s the second batch of friends was gone. The only person left besides me was my best friend/brother David — from the first group of friends.

By October 13, 1995, I was tired, worn out and constantly feeling sick. I could no longer put it off as “just a cold” to my family or myself anymore. So I went to the doctor and he did the numbers. They weren’t good, only 82 t-cells. Once again I heard those familiar words, “You’re going to die if you don’t do something and do it fast.” Walking to my car the tears came harder than ever before. The AZT didn’t work the first time and now this cocktail drug program seemed as though it wasn’t going to work either. So of course I did what any person in my situation would do. I made another attempt on my own life. This plan wouldn’t fail. I wouldn’t be where anyone would be able to call me. So no emergency calls were going to save me this time.

So I went to the store, and bought 2 liters of good old Jack Daniels, and drove to the beach. At 2:00 in the morning, with 1/2 liter of Jack left, I got back into my 1978 Ford Fairmont. While driving down the Santa Monica freeway at 100 mph, I looked for the perfect cement pole to ram my car into, making sure no one else would be hurt in the crash. I got pulled over for speeding and got my first of 4 DUI’s. Once again, I failed my attempt at suicide. The next couple of years are a blur. From what I understand, my brain checked out and I had a nervous breakdown. It was all tumbling down on me. My drinking and drug use was at an all time high.

What I remember of these years was trying my hand at AA and other such programs and therapy, as well as volunteering for AIDS Organizations. I was coming in and out of life and trying to catch signs of the present moments, while struggling inside to find myself. Instead, 1997 hit me with the biggest blow of all. My best friend since childhood, the man that was my left hand side of me, died. He was the only one left besides me out of both group of friends. At his funeral, I almost collapsed. My sister Tina caught me. All of my friends were gone. My biological mom, who I was just getting to known for the first time in my life, had already passed, leaving me alone. Why was this happening over and over again? I prayed daily to God for the answers. Didn’t I do what He wanted from me? Didn’t I pray and give myself to the helping others? Wasn’t I even good enough to die like everyone else? I was angry at God for giving me gifts and in return taking all that I loved. How much more could he take from me?

I kept praying and asking for answers. My life was upside down but I no longer had the desire to die. I wanted to live for some strange reason, even if it meant being alone. Going in and out of jail gave me a lot to think about. Death was not the answer. And slowly things changed inside of me.

And then God gave me another gift. At the end of 1999, I met the love of my life, Greg. He was as broken inside as I was. He was my match. He and I would find ourselves in the turmoil of our addiction to drugs, and be safe in each others arms, as much as one could be as a drug addict (without having to say a word). A love with drugs is not a love at all. But our love would surpass the need for drugs even to this day. He’s my best friend, and to date, no one has ever brought me such love as he has. He taught me to love unconditionally. His love was the root to opening my life and being alive. I know how to love and be loved because of him.

For the next four years until my mom Rose died, we did everything to try and save this magnificent love, but it was my mom’s death that really changed my life. I heard voices again as my mother lay there lifeless in her final hours. But they weren’t the usual, “Hey I want to communicate with you” voices. This time I heard a conversation. Sitting by mom’s side, I could hear her voice clear as day and another one, that I couldn’t recognize. I truly believe that I had somehow tapped into a very private conversation my mother was having with God. He was convincing her that it was time to go to Him. I could hear His words. It was this moment that changed everything that I ever knew. God was real, not something that the masses created. My belief before was just that of what was told for me to believe. Now I knew more and believed my gifts weren’t just things that I might have made up. They weren’t left over effects of the Crystal I was slamming. God and His voice are now my breath of life.

Both of my mothers and father have passed on and I’m at peace with them. More importantly, I am peace with myself. God now allows me to practice my spiritual gift of being a Shaman Healer without shame or fear of others’ thoughts. I’m secure with knowing that both my moms and my aunt knew of these gifts and the discussions we had about them were the footsteps to me becoming the man I am today.

I’m no longer ashamed of talking to the dead. My mom comes around often and allows me to know that all is good. The greatest gift of all is that as a Shaman I get to help others. My writings are God’s words that just come to me. I have no worries because all that is or needed, is taken care of. As a Shaman I have come to understand how to use my gifts as a healer and medium if needed. The inner light no longer fears the lights of the spiritual world that surrounds me. I am truly blessed. This gift in not mine to keep or hide. It was given to me to use.

Today my life is full of magnificent joy. One of my sisters and I live together and I get the privilege to be the stand-in father to her two beautiful girls, Nichole and Kathryn. Nichole is attending the Art Institute in Santa Monica and Kathryn is 7. They are the main reason why I remained here in Los Angles after my mother passed on. These two beautiful girls are the light of my life. I couldn’t love them any more if they were my own. I am the only father image Kathryn will ever have. To me they are my daughters, the daughters that I could never have.

Everyday I get this wonderful gift of playing dad. Being able to give them the gifts that I never had as a child, companionship understanding, inspiration, encouragement, stability, security, and everything else a child should have. But most of all, unconditional love. Our little family has everything. Happiness that goes way beyond anything I could have ever imagined in my life. I never figured I’d live to see a day, where my life was at peace. To me, my small family of 5, Diane, Nichole, Kathryn, Greg and myself have something that I only wish everyone in the world could have. We have God’s blessing, and a love that needs no words.

As I sit here and come to a close of this story of me and my life partner’s first 25 years together, I look back at this relationship with tears in my eyes. With great pride for the friends that gave their lives. For those of us that stood there in the early days protesting. For my lesbian sisters who held us up when we couldn’t stand any longer. For all the lessons, for God’s greatest gifts, that He has set for us. This year, I’m running in the 25th National Aids Marathon for APLA. I’m not running for glory. I’m not trying to prove any point or get any brownie buttons. I’m running because I care enough to remember that people are still dying and need help. This battle is not over! In Africa they are going through what we went through. “Worse” because here in America, we have the meds to help. It’s still no excuse to go out and become infected.

The bottom line is this, my friends: I’m not going to live forever. I’m not ready to go now, and I won’t be for a very long time. This marathon is my last stand for doing charity for AIDS on a magnitude like this. I’ll be in the background watching and doing the smaller things. Someone else will have to pick up the story and carry our flag. They’ll have to carry it higher than I ever could. It needs no be held high with pride for who and what we are and were. We can never forget what was, because it’s that past that has made us strong. And in that strength we can thank God, for allowing us to live, even if it’s for just one more day.

I’m running this marathon because I’m proud. Proud to be gay, proud to be alive, proud be God’s warrior of life. And I thank God I have AIDS.

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