#iampoz: The Story Behind the Hashtag
What does it mean to really know someone? We see what is on the surface, but we don’t know their daily struggles. David Hawkins is living with HIV, and he wants to help others who have been diagnosed with the virus. David sat down with us for an afternoon to tell us his story. So that we could present a full portrait of David, we are presenting a Spotlight that tells his story, as well as a video where David is educating us and the community about the misconceptions of HIV and resources available to those who have been diagnosed.
Life is an art museum. The walls are lined with all of the people of the world, each a radiant portrait waiting to be admired and cherished and even analyzed. However, in life, we analyze more than we appreciate. Instead of taking a step back and taking in the entire painting, we pick it apart. We focus on individual brush strokes that offend us, or don’t line up with our artistic sensibilities.
This is the reason I am meeting with David Hawkins and his mother, Deborah Hawkins-Lawrence. David has something he would like to share with the world, but it doesn’t define him. It is but one swath of his portrait. David is living HIV positive. David is hoping that in telling his story, he can help others. David is hoping that by sharing his story, he can create a more caring, compassionate, and educated community. There are resources available to HIV-positive individuals that most people aren’t even aware exist.
David, always impeccably dressed, and his mother, who radiates motherly love sit across from me as we begin our conversation. I want to go back to the beginning, I want the full scope of David’s experience.
In The Beginning…
David: I was born in Greenville, at Greenville Memorial Hospital. l grew up off Laurens Road, then popped off to Raleigh and then came back to the same house off Laurens Road. In sixth grade, we moved to Easley, which felt like we moved deeper into the south.
One issue that doesn’t just extend to LGBTQ individuals is that of bullying. Unfortunately, David’s experience was no exception.
David: Middle School was brutal. There was some violence. One was, guys would literally throw, not pebbles, but rocks. These middle schoolers, they can throw like a pitcher of a baseball game. Another incident, I remember, I was cornered at a chain link fence, I just remember shins. They were kicking me.
It was then that Deborah chimed in, you could hear the emotion in her voice.
Deborah: It started early with David, the bullying. I remember, at six or seven, people were making fun of him. He would come home crying. The kids would call him such awful names.
David: I didn’t even know what gay was at the time.
Deborah: I realized that school was the worst place for him. I was constantly trying to find other avenues for him to make other friends.
David: Anywhere there wasn’t a teacher was terrifying. To limit my time in the locker room I would wear my gym clothes under my regular clothes.
It was in High School that David came out as gay, he was ready to speak his truth. He was shocked at how this stripped the power from his bullies.
David: I said, ‘I have tried everything. I had played straight, I had fought back’; my stepdad even taught me to fight, to lessen bullying. When I came out, it shocked people, my honesty. Guys would still try to use slurs but the secret was out, it took the sting out of their words.
Deborah: My biggest thing with him was him living a lie. So many people in the area were going through the motions of living straight and being gay, I never wanted that for him. I was very encouraging of him being himself.
David: The places she encouraged me to go already had out individuals. When I was a sophomore I started to attend the Governor’s School. It was the first or second year they opened, and I knew that was where I had to end up, it was where I belonged. My time at the Governor’s School… it allowed so much more to roll off of my back. It gave me optimism as to what was around the corner. During school, I was popular, I was out. Everyone was so cool about it. But I also remember, at the Governor’s School, they wanted you to make a name for yourself.
NY State of Mind
With the idea of making a name for himself bouncing around in his head, David enrolled in college at SUNY Purchase. In New York, David found his people. He flourished in the progressive environment indicative of NY. However, college wasn’t for David. A new opportunity presented itself.
David: I was offered an internship in PR at a huge firm. I was helping represent huge designers who, looking back, it was better that I didn’t know who they were. It kept me from being starstruck.
Everything was going so well for David, until 2008. He became a casualty of the economic downturn and lost his job. He turned his sights to small business consulting, helping many LGBTQ small businesses.
It was then that David was offered a job in Los Angeles.
David: I remember someone telling me, “You can’t say no to this.” It was the first time ever in my PR career that I had taken a job and didn’t work out in terms of management. I moved out there, and I felt trapped. It was the first and only time someone has ever said to me that I went from hero to zero.
This started a rough patch for David. He explains to me that in NY, you can make a living. If you work hard, you can make it. In LA, he felt like he was spinning his tires. He felt as if he was becoming a victim of poor circumstances. Shadows had fallen upon David’s path, and it would only get darker before the light would return.
David: About that time, Crystal Meth was introduced, and in no time, it took me down the rabbit hole. The only reason I stopped was my mom was coming to visit me. She knew something was up because our communication stopped. She looked me up and down and asked what I was on.
Deborah: The scariest thing for me, David has always been a guy who will take care of you when you come to visit him. When I landed in Dallas to change planes and I texted him, he wrote back and said “I can’t pick you up mom.” In every cell of my being, I knew it was bad.
David: I had a car, I could have picked her up. She gave me an option before she even came up the steps.
Deborah: I walked up, and nobody wants to see that. I said choose, work with me, let’s get you healthy and come home or this your life.
Voices shaking, David and Deborah recounted what it was like for David in this harrowing time. They detailed his detoxing experience and move back to Asheville to live with Deborah. David began to rebuild his life. He worked tirelessly to open a store in Asheville. Then the diagnosis came.
David: I remember before my mom showed up in LA, I had probably a five day period I had dropped off the radar, I felt so sick, sicker than I had ever felt before. I remember crying in bed due to the fever and how bad I felt. At that moment I knew that was probably what had happened. Inevitably I knew what that five-day fever must have been. I would get tested, and every three months there was a negative. It was nine to ten months from that fever to the time I was diagnosed with HIV.
Picking Up The Pieces
I have a hard time holding back tears as David recounts how his caseworker Debbie let him spend 20-30 minutes crying as they held him like he was family. After the tears, it was time for action. David and the caseworkers immediately went into an action plan. In those two hours following his diagnosis, they made appointments, they had to find out how sick David actually was. David went home and told his mother, he was surprised how well she took it, at least externally. The biggest shock was yet to come.
David: They expedited my bloodwork, and on Monday I saw the doctor… He said I was the sickest person he had ever met. I had the highest viral load of anyone who he had seen.
A viral load describes the quantity of a virus in a given volume. When it comes to HIV, anything under 20 is undetectable. David had a viral load of ten million. Deborah recounts her reaction on that day of David’s.
Deborah: They immediately did a brain scan, they were worried the virus had entered his brain stem. At that point, I really broke down. I just didn’t want people to be alone. Not when they get this kind of news. It isn’t like a family member has cancer, all the support runs in. It is a dirty secret that you are scared to tell and you have to live in this hell with no support. I didn’t even know who I could tell… I do, I actually remember sitting in that hospital room and it rolled over me thinking he might not make it. I thought to myself do I even want to be here if he isn’t? I heard “yes.” There’s too much to share. It was in the moment, I had to buckle up.
From the time he was diagnosed, up until last year, David was uninsured. Everything, all of his treatments and medications were funded by someone else, something else. In the beginning, David and his mom didn’t know how they were going to pay for everything.
David: People need to know more about the medication, how it is provided. This isn’t taxpayer money. It is grants, fundraisers, money is donated into that pool. All of these services that are provided allow me to stay alive.
Now that David had been diagnosed, he had to start living with the diagnosis. It is also important to note that HIV isn’t something that only impacts drug users or the LGBTQ community. Anyone who is sexually active can contract HIV.
David: I do remember feeling immediately “who is going to love me.” Even though I know there will be a time I can’t pass it on.
Once he started receiving treatment, David started a gradual upswing of feeling better.
David: It was incredible how fast I started to feel better. I gained five to ten pounds. My hair started growing back. I used to have a terrible rash, I would cover my face in cortisone. I used to have terrible night sweats. From there, I was never a victim of it. I was never defined by my diagnosis. But I felt it had to be a huge secret. It never felt like it would serve me for anyone to know.
Eventually, David and Deborah moved back to Greenville. David started treatment at AID Upstate and noticed a world of difference. He was treated with a smile, and the facility was clean. He was assigned a new case manager, Heather, who went through everything with him. This is where he knew he needed to be painfully candid. About a year into his treatment, David admitted that he had battled with addiction. AID Upstate matched David with an addiction counselor (he has requested that the addiction counselor’s name not be included in this piece).
David: He always encourages to remember who I was at that time. He ignited the same David who was in New York. The proud David, the honest David, the helpful David, the compassionate David. He allowed me to start feeling all that again.
Near the end of their time together, the counselor read David Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go. One part in particular resonated with David.
David: I’ll always only ever be 98 ¾ percent perfect. I’ll always have that portion I’ll have to monitor.
Now we are in the present. David is still painting his portrait, and he is using some of the most beautiful colors. David wants to show others who have been diagnosed with HIV that there is hope, that this isn’t a death sentence.
David: I have worked on myself so much, I don’t have shame. I don’t want pity. The best thing I can do is be honest about my experiences, educate my community.
As David and Deborah prepare to move to their video interview (included in this post), Deborah recounts to me something David said after they filmed a segment for 20/20.
Deborah: After 20/20, David looked at me and said: “Mom, that was such a rush.” I asked him what he was talking about. He responded, “Telling the truth.”
David is speaking his truth, and in doing so, telling his story, and helping the community.
You’ve read his story, now watch the two-part interview with David Hawkins below.
5 Things You Didn't Know About HIV: Part 1
5 Things You Didn't Know About HIV: Part 2
If You Like This, You’ll Love – Upstate for Everyone: Your Guide to LGBT+ Pride
7 things to do, eat, & experience for the week ahead - straight to your mailbox each Sunday.