Stand-up comedian Mike DeStefano presented a talk titled “Wise Words from a Wise Guy” Tuesday night in the Chapel. DeStefano, who is HIV-positive due to years of drug abuse in his teens, aimed to educate students about bad choices and even worse consequences.
Phrases like “heroin addict” or “dying from AIDS” may invoke gruesome mental images, yet Stefano is neither of these things. Clean of drugs since age 18, DeStefano has lived HIV-positive for the past 20 years without ever needing medication.
Frank and to-the-point, DeStefano began by saying he had a problem with political correctness. He complained that people are way too touchy about issues such as race.
“Do I look like an anthropologist to you?” he said. For a man who has to constantly confront the idea of death, something like speaking “correctly” doesn’t hold much value.
The Bronx native also had no problem poking fun at his audience. “You’s all got the same look,” he said, dropping his jaw and gazing blankly at the hundred or so students facing him. “That was funny. What’s wrong with you? You don’t know s— about funny. This is A-material.”
DeStefano used his humor to transition to heavier topics. His Catholic-school teachings, he said, didn’t make sense to him as a kid.
“[They told me Christ died to save us] and I was like, holy s—! Some guy is dead for me!”
Growing up with a physically abusive father, DeStefano spent most of his time wandering the streets.
“The only feeling in my house was anger,” he said. “I wasn’t a happy little kid at all.” He didn’t realize until later that the issues in his childhood led to his substance abuse. Like many substance abusers, his problem progressed. He began with drinking.
“Alcohol was a medication to me,” he said. “I felt better when I drank.” Gradually he experimented with more types of drugs.
“I went off the deep end with drugs and alcohol,” he said. “I’d take the pill first and then ask what it was.” By 17, he was a full-blown heroin addict.
After an overdose at age 18, his parents intervened. Thanks to intensive rehab, he overcame the addiction and began to reorganize his life, but this was only the beginning of his struggle.
In the 1980s, HIV infection was a virtual unknown.
“[I thought that] it only happened to gay people back then,” he said. When the blood test came back positive, it didn’t register with him. He was actually pleased with the outcome.
“That’s how I reacted, because ‘positive’ means good,” he said. Only later did reality sink in.
“I wasn’t afraid of dying. I actually wanted to die,” he said. He watched as members of his support group “got sick” and wasted away, and dreaded his own impending suffering.
He considered committing suicide or returning to drugs as an escape, but he did not want to make the same mistake again.
When you get sick, he said, “People leave you, don’t want to get around you.” He didn’t want this to be his fate, and fought disease and defeat with a will to live more fully.
When he was diagnosed with HIV, doctors gave DeStefano five years to live. For the past twenty years, DeStefano has not needed any HIV medication. He is now clean of drugs and full of life.
Though he deeply regrets the mistakes of his past, he sees facing death as the most powerful way to learn about life.
“You know why I didn’t die at 21?” DeStefano said. “Because I hadn’t started living yet.”