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Living with HIV

Jul28

Bob Leahy interviews Randy Verdone for PositiveLite and World Hepatitis Day

Thursday, 28 July 2011 Written by // Bob Leahy - Publisher Categories // Hep B and C, Features and Interviews, Living with HIV, Bob Leahy - Publisher

Randy Verdone is in recovery from twenty years of addiction, jail time, life in the sex trade industry and separation from his children. His story of courage, survival and triumph will inspire you.

Bob Leahy interviews Randy Verdone for PositiveLite and World Hepatitis Day

I asked Randy Verdone to write his bio.  "My name is Randy Verdone, I am a 34 year old male.  I come from a small community where I was raised in an abusive family that didn’t want me. I have lived a large portion of my life on the streets.  I am recovering from almost 20yrs of addiction, abuse and hiding from my past, who I was and what I had done.  I was a walking stigma and until recently, fought that title with every fiber of my being.

Now though I am learning to embrace who I am.  To stand and be a light to others walking the same path in life.  I have learnt to hold my head high as I stand tall and accept who and what I am.  I am a stigma and proud of it."
 
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Bob Leahy:  Randy, thanks for agreeing to talk with PositiveLite.  Now you have an extremely interesting background  - you’ve had a long struggle with addictions, you’ve been in prison, you’ve worked in the sex-trade – I hardly know where to start.  But ultimately your story strikes me as a story about survival.  Would you agree?
 

Randy Verdone: I can and always have claimed to be a survivalist.  If the world as we know it ended today I would hardly notice it.

BL: Now you’re not HIV-positive but you are – or did have – Hepatitis C, right?

RV:Correct, actually like HIV I will always be positive just that my viral load has gone to undetectable.  Some physicians consider that cured, some don’t.

BL: So when were you diagnosed with Hep C?

RV: Sometime between 2008-2009  - the exact dates escape me. I was too high at the time and years got a little blurry during that period of my life.

BL:Do you know how you got it?

RV: I am not exactly sure how I caught it but I believe it was IDU (injection drug use).

BL:How did you come to get tested, then?

RV: I was waiting for a dealer at the public health building and they were having testing.  I needed supplies anyway so I went and got my supplies and got tested at the same time. Quick and painless, although I didn’t return for the results until over a month later.

BL: Was it a surprise to you when you had your results?

RV: Truthfully, not really, Didn’t really faze me at all.  Why would it when everyone I associated with had something?

BL: So you were infected with Hep C, but you’re clear of that now.   For those of our readers who don’t know, tell us what the treatment is like and how difficult it is to go through.

RV: Well the interferon/ribavilon treatments are kinda intense.  I got off lucky I think compared to some people on it.  My side effects were mostly mental.  My normal side effects were similar to those a person taking chemotherapy  would experience.  Weight loss, hair loss, inability to sleep coupled with severe fatigue - now try being so tired you can’t talk or walk, yet not being able to sleep for days on end - extreme anxiety, depression . Medication can actually bring about suicidal depression. I lived on an emotional rollercoaster for 58 weeks and it was insane.  I can admit that without the support of the team at the Sanguen Health Centre, where I took my treatments, I would not have carried through with them.  The entire team there went over and above though to ensure that I was successful and for that I am eternally grateful.

BL: So it was pretty rough.  What would have helped you get through that period better?

RV: Support. Proper support from people experiencing the same things I was.  It seemed at the time it was me against all the stigma surrounding Hepatitis C.  I had nobody to compare my experiences with.  If I could have associated with others that were going through, or had already gone through, the same treatments I believe that I would have found it a lot less mentally traumatic. I also took a lot of counselling and I saw up to 5 counsellors a week dealing with various issues and problems.

xbobrandy4

BL: I want to turn to your drug use now.  Randy, you have almost a twenty year history of using.  How did you get in to this in the first place?

RV: Well I started using drugs in order to feel normal.  I was outcast by my peers, I had a physically abusive stepfather, a mother that told me she wished she had aborted me, a father that was non-existant in my life at that point in time and a life I would have just as soon done without.

BL: So tell us what became your drug of choice and why.

RV: Heroin, because it dulls you to what is going on and brings about a lethargic behaviour, allowing you to go through whatever life throws at you without caring.

BL: Herioin, eh?  In the world of HIV, you know, we often hear it said about drugs in general that when people are high, it impacts on their ability to make good decisions for their own sexual heath.  Did you find that drugs made you someone who was more likely to get involved in risky sex, say?

RV: Of course I would never have started working the street if I didn’t need the drugs.  I always did lead a varied sex life though and I enjoy some behaviours others say would be risky.  “Risky sex” is only risky if proper precautions aren’t taken and I always insist on taking precautions. I wanted to live to have more sex and do more drugs and I couldn’t do that if others felt I wasn’t safe to do those things with.

BL: Did you ever share needles?

RV: I have to admit I have but only after I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and only with other people with Hepatitis C.

BL: Would you say injection drug users know  about the risks associated with needle sharing, and if so, does it deter them from that practice or not.

RV: I believe that general safety precautions are known by the majority of users.  Whether or not it deters them is a matter of personal decision and discretion for each and every one of them.  There is no blanket way to deter someone to not share needles.  An addiction is an addiction and if clean supplies aren’t available the person is still going to use.

BL:What needs to be done to help injection drug users, do you think?

RV: Well first thing is that they need to learn how to inject themselves properly.  Too many people tear their veins apart because they don’t know how to do it properly.  Secondly, they need to learn the basics of vein care.  When I first started injecting at 19 the old man that taught me how to do it properly told me to eat a lime a day.  Well I did this, not regularly, but at least once a week and my veins are still in near perfect condition.  Third, we need to continue providing clean supplies and the knowledge that there is help when they decide they want help.

xbobrandy5

BL: You were also in jail at various times for break and enters, breaches, theft under.  Were those offences related to your drug habit?

RV: Yes and no.  Some were related to alcohol consumption.

BL:  I see. Anyway, you served time.   How difficult is it to deal with addictions while you’re there in prison?

RV: It was like living in hell but I was too sick to care. 

BL: I think I know the answer to this, but can you still get drugs while you are inside? 

RV: LOL, Oh ya. As long as you have the ability to pay for it in some manner or another.

BL: And are there programs inside to help drug users?

RV: Yes I was lucky and got into an inmate treatment centre, although I got thrown out a few months into it for threatening another inmate.

BL: What drugs were you able to obtain while you were inside?

RV: Heroin, cocaine, meth, pills - as long as it didn’t give off a smell it was there at some time or other.

BL: Now you also have a little history of being a sex-trade worker.  Tell me where that came from.

RV: Well I needed a way to quickly and effectively make money that didn’t require crime and would supplement my pan-handling. 

BL: So what period was this?

RV: I started shortly after I was released from incarceration in either 2001/2002 . It was the winter between the two I got released and it continued until my sobriety in 2010.

BL: How did you get in to it in the first place?

RV: Went on a binge when I was released.  When the money ran out I was offered a ball of coke for a BJ and jumped at the chance without question.  After that I looked at it as easy money.

BL: So were  you working the streets, or were you an escort?

RV: I was living on the streets but I worked as a “male companion”.  In fact most of my clients were female because of my title. I would hang around more upscale hotels and had no problem.

BL: You did that to support your addiction, right?  RV:  Correct

BL: Was it easy to earn enough to do that, or not?

RV: It was not my sole source of income; it was purely supplemental on an as needed basis. It was extremely easy work but very mentally disturbing at times.  The money was good and I would make more than double what the average working girl would make off of one client.

BL: Some of your clients were men, right?

RV: Correct

BL: And some were women.  As a straight man, how did you handle having sex with the men?

RV:  I didn’t really have a problem with it. I was sexually abused as a child and lost my gag reflex early in life.  For the record though I do identify as bi.

BL: You’ve said in your blog you had to give oral lots of times, and that sometimes you went further.  I’m assuming you’re talking about anal, right?

RV: Correct

BL: How did you feel about that?

RV:  Again it was nothing new to me, although some clients were big enough to scare the shit out of me (and rip me to shit), the ones I allowed to go that far were generally gentle and they ensured my comfort as much as possible.

BL: How did you feel about yourself during this period.  Really bad?

xbobrandy1

RV:  I was extremely ashamed.  I felt I couldn’t tell anyone and had to put on airs that it wasn’t happening.  I just did more drugs to dull the emotions and feelings associated with what I was doing.  Now I should make it clear, it wasn’t just the fact that I was doing things with men that shamed me, doing things with women shamed me just as much.  It was the fact I felt like my body was no longer mine and I just occupied a piece of public property.  I still find myself wanting to yell at people that look at me the wrong way that I am not a piece of meat.

BL: We’re you ever homeless in your life?

RV: Yes on and off for 14 years.

BL:What was living on the street like for you?

 RV: AWESOME!!!  It was the one place where I felt safe and totally in control of everything.

BL: What kind of coping mechanisms did you have?

RV: My number one coping mechanism was drugs.  Second was music, which is now number one. I love singing and creating music.

BL: Tell me about your family life. You said that you have two kids.  Their mother is out of the picture, right?

RV:I am actually the father of 4 children that I know about.  My oldest I haven’t seen since he was 2 he is about 14 now.  He was adopted by his maternal grandparents and it was agreed that because of my lifestyle and drug use that I not have anything to do with him at the time.  I am currently waiting till he is old enough to decide if he wishes to reunite. His mother is out of the picture.

My second is 7 and I am now involved in his life and am currently in the process of going for custody of him. His mother and I are separated but she is not out of the picture totally as she is the mother of 3 of my 4 children.

My third is 6 and he was given for adoption at birth, my ex and I talked and decided we weren’t ready to parent two infants at the same time and so we found an appropriate family for him.  My ex is still involved in his life in a miniscule way and I may eventually also reintroduce myself into his life.  The adoptive parents are more than willing for this and are in fact, pushing me to.

My fourth is 5 and I am now involved in her life and am currently in the process of going for custody of her. 

BL: So your drug habit was the reason for all this separation?

RV:  Yes I chose to stay away from them as I didn’t want them to see what I was doing to myself and grow up thinking it was “OK cause daddy did it”.  I didn’t have enough strength to fight my addiction at the time and was rarely sober long enough to be involved in any way with them.

BL: Thank you for being so honest about all this, Randy. I want to talk about the better times in your life now.  You’ve been drug-free since Mach 2010.   First of all, congratulations! 

RV: Thank-you, but you know I still have to take it day by day.

BL: So you can look back at almost a 20-year history of dealing with addiction.  You are seventeen months free.  How is it going?

xbobrandy3

RV:  Well dealing with life on life’s terms is a little difficult at times.  I can’t lie and say that life is easier now but I can say that I am going places with my life.  I am learning something new every day.  I guess you could say that I am going through a type of culture shock and trying to “fit in with regular society” has me throwing my hands up in despair at times.  I cant believe the stigma’s surrounding the life I’ve led but seem to be getting used to the “ewww” factor. 

BL:  Is it hard?

RV: At times it is extremely hard.  At others not so much.

BL: Tell me how you managed to break the drug habit. First of all, what prompted you to do it? 

RV: Well I met a man named Tim that was willing to meet me where I was at in life.  He didn’t try to push me into sobriety.  He just answered my questions when I asked them and pointed me in the proper direction when I needed to find a resource.  He kept giving me friendly reminders of my children in such a way that it was not offensive or confrontational and eventually what he was saying sunk in.  He offered me a place to live, 3 square meals a day and all the support he could offer if I was willing to help him with his 95 year old mother -  but I had to stay drug free.

BL: So where did you go, and what was the program like?

RV: I went to the local detox here in Kitchener and did the 10-day detox program. It was pure hell.  I had the shakes, was extremely fatigued, puked more than a few times a day.  The staff there were excellent though and there are a lot of peers in the staff that have been through the same thing. The programming was intensive and kept you busy but each part of it served a purpose.  I then went and lived with Tim and his mother after that.  I believe that is where my recovery truly happened.  I was able to isolate myself and escape the people, places and things that triggered me.  It provided me time to set my priorities in order and give myself attainable goals.

BL”The words “we can help” meant a lot to you, right?  Tell me what they meant to you?

RV: Well you hear a lot of people say “we will help” then they cause more problems than they solve.  That word “can” makes all the difference in the world to me.  To me that means that I have the option of taking them up on their offer or not and their “help” is not going to be thrust upon me because of some mission or vision statement made by some suit behind a desk that never experienced a day in my shoes.  It's an open offer of assistance.  It's a hand held out in friendship, asking if you want a hand up, and not a hand grabbing to pick you up when you aren’t ready to be picked up.  I heard that term at the Sanguen Health Centre in Waterloo when I first went there to see about treatments for Hepatitis C and it just stuck with me.

BL: So now you’re recovering from that long period of addiction.  Does the recovering ever stop?

RV: No.  My recovery will continue until the day I die.  I can make no promises that I will never use again.  In fact exact opposite, if I look down the road I can honestly see myself going back to what I know, (i,e: drugs).  What I can say, and I will strive to say until the day I die, is that “I will not use today”

BL: You’ve said “ I have done some severe damage to myself because of my past and I may never recover fully from that damage”.  What do you mean by that?  Are we talking physical or emotional - or both?

RV: We are talking both and more.  I can never drive again because I am prone to memory lapses because of my drug use (temporary amnesia).  I have scars all over my body that act as constant reminders of my life.  I have severe nightmares and have a sleeping problem because of them.  I still deal with depression, guilt, shame, fear, anger, etc, etc because of my past.  I still have flashbacks and at times still have withdrawal symptoms and cravings bad enough that I have to run to the closest toilet.  My first thought every day has to be, “what will I do today so I don’t use”.

BL: You seem like a different person now.  I think you’ve said one of your prime motivators is you want to make a difference, to help others in similar situations to the one you were in?

RV: I truly believe that I've been given a gift. Not every person in the situation I was in is offered the chances I have been offered.  I strongly believe in karma and I can’t just take all this “good luck” greedily and not give back.

BL: Is that what drives you now?

RV: Yes, that and my children. I seem to have certain skill sets that allow me to impart what I know and have been through in a way that people find helpful.  If I can use that ability to help even one person then I will be happy and feel fulfilled.

BL: You’re connected with the AIDS Committee of Guelph now.  Tell me what you’re doing and how is that working out for you.

RV: I actually volunteer with the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo Area.  I love it. How many work places let you play with dildo’s!!  (OK, they are “condom demonstrators”).  It also allows me the opportunity to be a part of my peer group without being a part of the lifestyle and that's important to me.  I'll be working with the needle exchange and am also working on a few other projects with the Outreach Coordinator. 

I'm also volunteering with the Sanguen Health Centre to assist in getting a Peer Support Group going to help others going through treatments.

BL:Would you say you‘re a happy person now?

RV: In some ways I am a happier person than I was.  In other ways though I am not.  It saddens me to see how much stigma is in society and how many people blindly choose to believe false facts.  I am happy I’m doing well and able to see the world clearly.  I am not happy that the world does not see me or people like me clearly.

BL:What would you like the rest of your life to look like?

RV: I hope my life is much like today. Content, strong and carefree, I carry on.

xbobrandy6

BL: Picture yourself in fifteen years time, say.

RV: In 15 years I will be grey, balding and fat!!! LOL. Seriously though I currently have a few opportunities I'm working on that will allow me to work on my future. I really don’t want to lay plans because, as an addict, I must take each day in turn. I just hope that after 15yrs I can help society realize that many of their stigmas are unfounded.

BL:How would you like your children to think of you, to remember you?

RV: I want them to be proud of me to think of me as a strong person. I want to attain something that they can say “my dad did that”. I want their world to be a little bit less stigmatic and a little more open. I don’t want them to ever have to experience what I went through in life.

BL: Randy, you really have led an extraordinary life. Thank you so much for sharing it with us, and being so open, even about the hard parts.Is there anything you’d like to add?

RV: Yes. If anyone out there is interested in how to go about providing peer support please feel free to contact me or the AIDS Committee in your area. There is a greater need for personal experience right now than there is professionals. If you are willing to stand on your soap box and talk then someone will always listen. We can’t be ignored if there are enough of us, united in a common cause.

BL:How did that feel talking to us?

RV: Very comfortable and I truly appreciate the fact that you have provided me the opportunity to share. I feel priviledged. Thank you so much Bob.

BL: Again, Randy, thank you!

Randy Verdone is on twitter as @randyverdone. His blog is here.  His website is here: .

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