By PT Staff, published on May 1, 1993 - last reviewed on October 18, 2004
PT listens as patients discuss addiction, AIDS and the promise of a
new life without drugs
Harlem Hospital Center
Harlem Hospital Center occupies an architecturally diverse compound
on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue in New York City. Although sizable, the
720 bed hospital is virtually alone in serving the medical needs of a
community of approximately 500,000. And this is no ordinary community.
Since the mid-1980s, the drug problem in its streets and tenements-always
a powder keg for health and public safety-has grown geometrically worse.
The well-documented crack epidemic has exhausted police, social services
and health workers, but it's consequences are many, and not immediately
Some months after crack first appeared in New York nearly 10 years
ago, police began to see a huge rise in the number of heroin arrests.
Addicts would often turn to heroin, an opiate comparatively out of favor
in Harlem since its hey-day in the mid-'70s, to ease the horrific edges
of a crack binge. Dirty needles were shared for the injections among many
users in the condemned houses and abandoned lots littering the East Side.
As a result, the HIV virus, which causes AIDS (also a newcomer to the
inner-city in the early '80s), was given an ideal environment in which to
An already badly outnumbered and overworked staff at Harlem
Hospital Center was soon forced to revamp their substance abuse program
when a random sampling of heroin and crack addicts revealed an alarmingly
high incidence of HIV infection. Suddenly, the clinics had to cope not
only with the users who sought treatment, but also with the wives,
husbands, lovers, and children of these users who were infected by HIV in
the womb or through sexual contact.
Dr. James Curtis, director of psychiatry at the hospital, directs
the operation of the four IV-drug-use clinics in Manhattan. "Without
intervention," Dr. Curtis says, "any addict told that he is infected with
HIV may well become desperate and possibly go on even more destructive
binges, affecting his loved ones and their loved ones in turn. The
clinics are very much on the front lines. We very often must deal with
those who have simply run out of resources to live a life on drugs, and
by that time, they're lucky if they can make it here given their mental
and physical state."
It is Dr. Curtis's and the clinical staff's precarious
responsibility to offer counseling to these people, to establish their
medical condition and convince them that life without heroin is better,
even in the face of a deadly disease for which there is currently no
PSYCHOLOGY TODAY received special permission by Harlem Hospital's
directors to attend this group-therapy session. The following is a direct
account of remarks offered by patients of the IV-drug-treatment program
conducted by Dr. Curtis's associates, Dr. Michael Scimeca and Dr. Gopal
Ram. The names of the patients are fictitious.
"I was told three years ago that I was HIV positive," said Mary, a
forty-year-old mother of three daughters, ages 2 to 12. Last January,
Mary began to show the first signs that her immune system was rapidly
breaking down. Ordinary colds would last weeks ... then months. During
the fall, her T-cell count, a prime indicator of her body's ability to
fight infection, had plummeted from a relatively normal level of 1100 to
below 200. Her youngest was born with AIDS in 1991.
"I'm scared all the time, but not of getting sick. I live with
feeling sick. Being sick is as much a part of me as my arms and legs now.
I'm scared for my family. When I have to go to the hospital, what will my
daughters do? I don't have no insurance to help them, not to mention the
medical costs of having me on my back. I know that they will line me up
and say that I'm just another dope fiend or crack head. And I'm not. I've
been straight for seven years now."
"What makes you think that you'll be treated so badly?" asked Dr.
"Now come on. Someone walking into a hospital with no money is
going to die from AIDS one hell of a lot quicker than someone with a big
check book. When I delivered my baby, I nearly died in the emergency room
before I could get close to a doctor."
"I don't know how to reassure you about that," said Dr. Ram. "I
cannot speak for those who delivered your baby, but we certainly do what
we can in the facility at Harlem. I'd be lying to you, though, if I
denied that communities have only so many resources to help people with,
and in many ways, doctors are as puzzled about AIDS as you are. But it is
similar to all other diseases in that how you act and how well you take
care of yourself has a tremendous impact."
"How many of you here are HIV positive?" asked Dr. Scimeca.
Nine of the 12 members of the session raised their hands.
"I know that some of you are taking medication. We have been
distributing AZT from this clinic for years now. Do you think that the
medicine has helped?"
"I can't sleep at all since I tried it," offered a woman staring
into her folded arms. "I can't get no one to help me get to sleep. And
you know I've been to see you about this before Dr. Ram."
"Helen, I know you can't get to sleep, and you know that we have
been trying different ways of helping," Dr. Ram replied. "AZT has a
different effect on each patient, but I think your sleeplessness has more
to do with your being depressed than with the medicine you're
"To hell with that. And why shouldn't I be depressed?" Helen began
to raise her voice. "There ain't no professionalism here. Where am I
supposed to go..."
"What happens when you try to sleep?" asked a man to her
"I get these attacks. I feel my head pounding. Something hammering
away. I sweat and shake all over till the whole bed's movin'. I just have
to get up ... have to get out." She began to cry softly. "I'd give
anything to be able to shut my eyes."
"The group is one of the best ways for people, especially people
with little or no other emotional support, to cope with this entirely new
life," Dr. Curtis reports. "One important thing to realize is that these
people have spent a life of secrecy. Their abuse of drugs, usually more
than one at a time, is almost always a shadowy affair, kept hidden from
friends and family until the abuser's life simply disintegrates from the
strain. Yet the secrecy continues even after family and friends are no
"The introduction of AIDS into the community made secret drug use
even more deadly than it was previously. We try to convince newcomers
that it is imperative to be tested, not only for them but for their
partners. Additionally, we encourage all to discuss their HIV status
within the group. Of course, this means breaking the powerful silence and
ignorance which has ruled many of their lives. It comes slowly."
"AZT scares the hell out of me," said a man in his late twenties
sitting off to the side. "Between the methadone to kick the heroin habit
and AZT, life's a joke. I can't hardly gather the strength to get up in
the morning. I can't taste my food, or smell, and my body hurts so much
that I just want to forget the whole damn thing and give it up."
Many in the group looked up from the floor at the mention of this
and nodded in agreement. "I mean, how sick do you have to be to get
"I've been medicating myself since I was thirteen," interrupted
Helen, an ageless woman with powerful shoulders that poked from her
sweater. "I made more mistakes than I was due. Now I've got AIDS and I'm
gonna die. Why should I go on medicating myself with AZT until it's all
over. I'm no addict anymore. To me, drugs are just another way of keeping
me quiet. Always have been. I don't want those last few years if I just
go on sleeping for fourteen hours a day and feelin' like sleeping for the
"I can't sit here and tell you that AZT will be your miracle drug,"
said Dr. Scimeca. "One of the things you've got to face is that this
medicine is a matter of risks and benefits. AZT helps to stave off the
infection, but it has some nasty side effects. You have to decide what is
going to help the most. No one's going to make you take it, and in some
instances, it only helps to a marginal extent. But without it, I know the
chances of you just ... deteriorating are considerably better. It's a
matter of weighing your fears as much as anything else."
"Fears! HIV is the only thing that ever scared me in my whole
life," said Jane. "I never have found a way to deal with it. I've been
toughing it out with men my whole life. Ain't none of them ever scared
me. My father, my husband ... they were burning up with anger their whole
lives. They beat me, twisted me around, and then they just died. But they
were simple. I knew how to beat 'em. AIDS is a woman to me. It's trying
to fight something inside. Where do I start?"
"Jane, how long have you been straight?" asked Dr. Ram.
"How many people do you know who were addicts fourteen years ago
are alive today? Not a whole lot I'd imagine. By accomplishing that, you
are a success story. You already have resources to fight."
"There are some things that you can't fight against, though,"
offered a man sitting near the doorway. "I'm an ex-police officer,
ex-drug addict, and ex-con. Like everyone else here, I've done wrong to
myself and my family. I've seen drug issues from all perspectives, and
after I got clean, I thought I could make a difference as a drug
counselor at school. When I began speaking to kids, I started to feel
important for the first time in my life, as if all the shit I'd gone
through meant something. But I was let go a couple of weeks after my boss
found out about me being positive. Now here I am. I may not even be sick
for ten years but I can't get a job. I'm branded as something that no one
can even get close to, much less give a job to."
"It's true", said Mary. "Friends I'd had for ten years just about
left town when they found out. And I can see now what they were thinking.
I mean, my God, what with HIV, tuberculosis and everything else, it's a
wonder people open the door in the mornin'."
"But Mary, you're talking about HIV as if you can give it to
someone at work if you look at them funny," said Earnest. "I got it from
sticking needles in my arms, and no one who ain't an addict has to sweat
over catchin' it that way. To me, AIDS is just another reason for
prejudice. That's all. It doesn't matter if you've been off drugs thirty
years. To the world, you're still a junkie. And if you have HIV, no
matter how or why, you're just a germ and that's reason enough to hate
"So what if that's true? I've been living with prejudice all my
life," said Janice, a heaviset woman from the back row. It was the first
time she had spoken during the session. "It's still just hate. And your
choice is the same. You either let it get you or you don't. And believe
me, feelin' hate all the time ain't going to make you feel much better
when the time comes to be sick or not. This is my family," she gestured
to two young women just behind her. "I'm lucky to have them. When I don't
have the guts to fight, they do it for me."
"I watch my baby getting sicker every day," said Mary, staring into
a cup of coffee. "I wake up every day knowing that I didn't just mess up
my life, but that I poisoned my baby. I cry every day for her, and I want
to give up half the time, but I have two other girls to think about. Now
if I can deal with that, you can deal with findin' a job."
"Yeah. You do have a family," said Earnest. "But what if you don't.
What the hell are you supposed to do if nobody believes in you. I lost
the last of my family three years ago. I have to fight for me now. And
who can believe doctors? What does anyone who don't have HIV have to tell
me? As if the man behind the desk is going to give a shit if I live or
die. It's a paycheck to him, and you're all fools if you don't know
"Ernest, none of the staff here are getting rich, believe me," said
a nurse standing near the doorway. "If we wanted a fat paycheck, there
are other ways..."
"You all go to families at the end of the day though," Ernest spat.
"You go home, eat a big dinner, watch TV. I'm here with nothing, do you
"So you're pissed," said the man next to him. "So what? What do you
want the nurse to do, bleed for you? If you're really sitting there
waiting for this woman to solve your problems, you're gonna be pissed off
till you die. If that's what you want, go ahead, but don't be telling
anyone here that they're fools."
"That's real easy. Just go off and figure shit out. No help. No
family," Ernest said.
"You find some family then," said Janice. "You stop being hurt all
the time and take a look around ... how 'bout at the people in this room.
And you know," she smiled, "it seems to me you always left here with
"Besides the coffee," Mary said.
Figures vary among the four clinics that Dr. Curtis directs, but
approximately 60 percent of those who appear at the clinic doors in
Harlem are HIV positive. "And we have the facilities to see just a small
fraction of those addicts who would accept help," says Dr. Curtis. "At
least in the short term, the medical community is perplexed in dealing
with HIV. Any hope simply lies in stopping the spread. And distributing
information is not enough. A solution will only come from a comprehensive
network of social services. It is imperative that these people not be
left to die alone, because they won't. Unless we intervene, their
families, and others, may well follow."