Though his parents didn’t attend services, Queenie Steen took her grandson, little Jerome Adams, to church with her faithfully, and he was baptized in 1958 at six years of age. It was the beginning of a saga that would take decades to complete. On the other side of a 31-year-battle with alcohol, drugs and HIV/AIDS, Jerome’s abiding faith in God is the thing that kept him alive, because it kept him from giving up.
“Without that early foundation in Church, I would not have known I could call on God’s grace,” he said. “I would not have known that I could examine myself and do things differently. That was a continuous message as I was growing up: We have control over life’s circumstances – we have access to God’s power in our lives.”
A member of the neighborhood parish First Church of Deliverance since the 1930s, Grandma Adams helped Jerome become quite involved in church life. He became a junior trustee and a member of the young adult choir. His first job was as an orderly in a nursing home owned by the church. Jerome received the call to ministry as a child, but ran into roadblocks of education and class and substance abuse as he took steps to become who he knew God made him to be.
After applying to Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black college, Jerome was denied admission because his grades were poor. He attended nearby Kendall College for two years before re-applying to Morehouse, finally getting accepted.
Unfortunately, those with whom Jerome had fellowship with in Church were the same people who introduced him to alcohol as a teenager. When he moved to Atlanta for school, he stopped attending church, but retained his drinking habit.
After much hard work to get there, Morehouse was not entirely what Jerome had expected. His first time away from home for an extended time – in Atlanta – brought him face to face with an unexpected class reality.
“It was a black bourgeois setting,” Jerome said. “Doctor’s kids and lawyer’s kids. That’s when I really found out that I was poor and that there were people who were not poor like me.”
Jerome stayed one semester at Morehouse before returning to Chicago and eventually moving to the Big Apple to study theater at NYU. Jerome joined the Negro Ensemble Company and soon learned that he liked working behind the scenes better than acting. Newfound connections helped him secure a position managing Broadway shows such as Carousel Production’s Mahalia (1980) and Scott Joplin’s Trementia (1975).
In 1981, he toured in Europe as company manager of Bubbling Brown Sugar, Loften Mitchell’s musical about the Harlem Renaissance. It was during that time abroad that Jerome, still in the grip of his addiction, contracted HIV.
“There is a direct correlation between addiction and diagnosis,” Jerome said of the HIV virus. “That’s how people engage in unprotected sex – they do things they wouldn’t ordinarily.”
City nightclubs and the social life of the advertising industry introduced Jerome to the destructive power of cocaine. While doing theater work, Jerome was also employed with an advertising firm, where he helped to cast actors for commercials.
“The pay off for wrapping a campaign was an evening in the senior vice president’s office with a table just spread out with cocaine,” Jerome said. “Those perks and payoffs became such a bad habit and addiction that I was going to be fired.”
Rather than be fired, Jerome quit his job in 1985, the same year he learned he was infected with the HIV virus. At the time, Jerome said HIV was considered a “gay man’s disease” and that more was known about it in New York than anywhere else. What Jerome had seen of the disease personally wasn’t pretty. Those with HIV saw their health spiral downward until, finally, their failing immune systems left them to die.
After 16 years of risky living in the big city, Jerome returned home alone and diagnosed with a deadly disease. He watched those around him crumble because they had nothing to fall back on in times of crisis. Still, he was not without hope. In time, Jerome’s faithful roots paved the way out of a desperate situation.
For a time, Jerome kept using drugs, sacrificing even his own integrity and family relationships to continue the addiction. This prevented him from receiving care from those who loved him.
“I was trying to get them to feed on sympathy for the diagnosis to feed the addiction,” he said. “I would manipulate them to get the drug by any means necessary. There is such a level of dishonesty in addiction that people don’t know how to respond to you.”
As Jerome gradually became more honest, family members who had originally blamed him and forbade him from even using their own bathrooms started to become more understanding.
Though he may have stopped going to church years ago, Jerome knew God hadn’t given up on him. He even credits the divine with urging him to stay away from what may have been the most lethal drug Jerome encountered. He said that early formulations of AZT, the antiretroviral drug first used to treat HIV, actually contained toxically high doses that many believe actually left those with HIV worse off than before. Jerome said he placed his pills on the cupboard shelf instead of ingesting them and that is the reason he is still alive today.
Since Jerome didn’t fall into any immediate major episodes of illness, he went back to working in theater and tried his best to get on with life. Though on the outside he seemed to bounce back – securing a job with the ETA Theater from 1987 to 1993 – inwardly he was crushed by continual loneliness.
Addictions are fed by lies and maintained through manipulation, Jerome said, and he felt as if he was hiding from everyone and was utterly isolated – even his parents did not know how serious his condition was.
Fed up with secrecy, Jerome finally confided to his employer about both his problems with addiction and his diagnosis and entered treatment at Jackson Park Hospital in 1993. He wanted to be clean, but relapsed after treatment again and again because he was relying on his own willpower and not taking advantage of the resources that were available to him.
By 1995, there would be no more hiding for Jerome. He was hospitalized with a dangerously low CD4, or “T-cell,” count and his body was not producing any more. The average person reportedly has 9,000 to 12,000 T-cells. Those with fewer than 200 T-cells receive a non-reversible diagnosis of AIDS. Jerome had six T-cells and his symptoms included pneumonia, shingles and a yeast infection in his throat.
After three weeks of hospitalization, Jerome was discharged. He moved from apartment to apartment and occasionally stayed with his parents for months at a time. Since he was still spending all of his $700 to $800 social security check on drugs, he had no money for rent and started just leaving places before they would have a chance to evict him.
In 1998 he sought treatment at Vision House, an outpatient AIDS treatment home in South Side Chicago run by Liberty Baptist Church. Counsel he received there helped him discover some of the core reasons he formed an addiction in the first place and kept relapsing when he would kick substances for a while.
“I became more aware of the detriment of street drugs on the virus,” Jerome said. “I was in less denial of the problem and stopped blaming my illnesses on AIDS only and admitted that some of the decline of T-cells was due to drug use and not taking prescription medication properly.”
Though Jerome was still an active addict in 1998, he began going back to church because a friend kept picking him up and making sure he was there. Though he didn’t follow a traditional 12-step program, Jerome believes his faith, along with the third step of turning one’s life over to God and the eleventh step of prayer made his recovery possible. Being filled with God’s Holy Spirit as a result of his earnest prayers, Jerome regained a sense of purpose in his life that he had lost long ago.
The turnaround he experienced in attitude as well as health inspired him to become an advocate for health and wellness. He facilitates support and spirituality groups through Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN) and Chicago’s Haymarket Center, working with those who struggle with addictions, HIV/AIDS and other diseases that occur at higher rates in the African American community. He believes education is a vital key to overcoming addiction and illness of all kinds.
“Not being open to education gives you nothing to work with,” Jerome said. “How else will you understand why you are behaving in certain ways and acting out?”
Jerome said his own participation in Haymarket Center’s relapse prevention program was instrumental in helping him break through the faulty thinking that kept him bound to drugs.
“We don’t act out of what is true; we act out of what we believe to be true,” he said.
Jerome reports being sober since 2001, marking 10 years of clean living. He said that he is able to be around drinking in moderation, but that he avoids situations where drugs are around or people will not be drinking responsibly.
“The sheer knowledge that God delivered me from the experience of addiction that would have ended my life gave me the impetus to share with others that it could be done,” he said.
Events Jerome describes being delivered from sound like something from a suspense film: being chased, robbed, choked, held at gunpoint and pressed against the floor with an ice pick against his throat.
“God saw me through situations I shouldn’t have gotten out of,” Jerome said.
For Jerome, kicking addiction and accepting his AIDS diagnosis means that most days, Jerome has a relatively normal life. Though on bad days nerve damage can make his feet go numb or muscle problems can make it difficult for him to hold a pen, most of the time life doesn’t revolve around having AIDS.
In 2007, Jerome decided to finally answer the call to ministry and enrolled at McCormick. He graduated last May and claims his time there transformed him and allowed him to open his mind to a variety of different faith traditions.
“I had to take that chance and believe God,” Jerome said. “Health is improving for a reason – so I can reach back and help pull others forward. I’m just responding to God’s grace in my life by being an instrument to help others.”
How can I help someone caught in addiction? Lessons Jerome Adams learned on his journey:
1) Do not be judgmental. Be a listening ear and a caring and open heart. Have compassion and a desire to see someone else experience God’s grace in the same way God has extended grace to us.
2) Know that those using alcohol and drugs undergo severe “personality change” when they are using. Avoid even loved ones when they are under the influence and do not help them get alcohol or drugs even if they try to manipulate you into helping feed their addiction.
3) Know that you cannot take responsibility for the recovery of someone else.
4) Remember that God is gracious. Don’t just focus on how terrible things are – think of how many tragic things could have happened that have not.
5) Pray and ask for God’s intervention – addiction is not something that can be overcome only through willpower or community. It literally means starting a new life.