Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
From the time Daniel Garza was 5 years old, he knew he was attracted to boys. But coming from a Mexican Catholic background, facing the realization took years.
When he was 3 years old, Garza’s family left Mexico to immigrate to Dallas, Texas.
“As a first-generation American and only son of a Mexican, Catholic, conservative family, a lot of pressure and expectations that come along with that,” Garza tells Healthline.
When Garza was 18, he was outed to his family, who confronted him on Thanksgiving weekend in 1988.
“They weren’t happy with how it all came out. It took a lot of years of therapy to cope with their reactions. My dad was of the mentality that it was just a phase and that it was his fault, but that I could be changed,” Garza recalls.
His mom was mostly disappointed that Garza didn’t trust her enough to tell her.
“My mom and I had been very close when I was young, and she’d approached me many times asking if there was something going on or if there was anything that I wanted to tell her. I’d always say ‘no.’ When I was outed, she was most upset that I didn’t confide in her sooner,” Garza says.
Drinking to cope with his sexuality
Before he was open about being gay, Garza began a battle with alcohol around age 15.
“There’s a whole package that comes with drinking for me. It was a little bit of self-imposed peer pressure and wanting to fit in with other kids, as well as wanting to feel comfortable with my sexuality,” he says.
When he was 17 years old, he discovered a gay bar that allowed him in.
“I could be a gay guy and fit in. I craved bonding with other guys. When I was young, I wasn’t close with my dad and my mom was a little bit of a helicopter mom. I think she knew I was different somehow and so to protect me she didn’t let me hang out or do a lot with other boys,” Garza says. “Going to a gay bar and drinking is where I didn’t have to be the perfect son or straight brother. I could just go, escape it all, and not be concerned about anything.”
While he says he searched for friendships with men, lines were often blurred with sex and companionship.
Receiving an AIDS diagnosis while battling addiction
Looking back, Garza believes he contracted HIV from a casual relationship in his early 20s. But at the time, he didn’t know he was sick. He was, however, beginning his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
“Now I was 24, and I didn’t know how to handle a relationship. I wanted the type of relationships that my mom and dad had and that my sisters and their husbands had, but I didn’t know how to transfer that into a gay relationship,” Garza says. “So, for about five years, I’d drink and drug and found my tribe of others who did the same. I was filled with anger.”
In 1998, Garza moved to Houston to live with his parents. But he kept drinking and doing drugs while working at a restaurant to make money.
“I got really skinny. I couldn’t eat, had night sweats, diarrhea, and vomiting. One day, one of my regular guests told my boss that I didn’t look well. My boss told me to go home and take care of myself,” says Garza.
While Garza blamed his state on drinking, drugs, and partying, he says he knew deep down his symptoms were related to AIDS. Shortly after he went home from work, he ended up in the hospital with 108 T cells and weighing 108 pounds. He received an official AIDS diagnosis in September 2000 at 30 years old.
While in the hospital for three weeks, he didn’t have access to drugs or alcohol. However, after he was released, he moved back to Houston to live on his own and fell back into drinking and drugs.
“I met a bartender and that was it,” Garza says.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Garza entered 90 days of court-ordered rehab. He’s been clean ever since.
“They broke me down and helped me put everything together. I’ve spent the last 10 years filling in the pieces again,” Garza says.
Advocating for HIV and AIDS awareness
With all his gained knowledge and experience, Garza dedicates his time to helping others.
I believe we all have overcome hard things in our lives, and we can all learn from each other.
His advocacy first started with his HIV diagnosis. He began volunteering to hand out condoms at a Texas agency he leaned on for support and services. Then, in 2001, the agency asked him to attend a health fair at the local community college to talk with students.
“That was the first time I introduced myself as HIV-positive. It was also where I began educating myself and my family, as well as others, about AIDS because we handed out pamphlets on the disease that I would read and learn from,” explains Garza.
Over the years, he’s worked for Southern Texas organizations such as The Valley AIDS Council, the Thomas Street Clinic in Houston, the Houston Ryan White Planning Council, Child Protective Services of Houston, and Radiant Health Centers.
He also went back to college to become a drug and alcohol counselor. He’s an outreach ambassador and public speaker for the University of California, Irvine, and Shanti Orange County. If that weren’t enough, he’s the chair of the Laguna Beach HIV Advisory Committee, an organization that advises his city council on HIV- and AIDS-related policies and services.
By sharing his story, Garza hopes not only to educate young people about safe sex and HIV and AIDS, but also to dispel the notion that AIDS is easy to manage and treat.
“Those who aren’t part of the HIV community often think people with HIV are living all this time so it can’t be that bad or it’s under control or the medications today are working,” Garza says.
“When I share my story, I’m not looking for pity, I’m getting the point across that HIV is tough to live with. But also, I’m showing that even though I have AIDS, I’m not going to let the world go by me. I have a place in it, and that is going to schools to try to rescue kids.”
But during his talks, Garza isn’t all doom and gloom. He uses charisma and humor to connect with his audience. “Laughter makes things easier to digest,” says Garza.
He also uses his approach to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds with his Put It Together podcast. During the pilot episode in 2012, Garza discussed sex, drugs, and HIV. Since then, he’s broadened its scope to include guests with a wide variety of backgrounds.
“I want to share stories about people putting their lives back together,” Garza says. “I believe we all have overcome hard things in our lives, and we can all learn from each other.”
Getting sober and facing cancer
During sobriety, he faced another obstacle: a diagnosis of anal cancer. Garza got this diagnosis in 2015 at the age of 44 and underwent months of chemotherapy and radiation.
In 2016, he had to be fitted for a colostomy bag, which he named Tommy.
His boyfriend of several years, Christian, was by his side through his cancer diagnosis, treatment, and colostomy bag surgery. He also helped Garza document his journey on the YouTube video journal called “A Bag Named Tommy.”
My videos give an honest portrayal of living with all I have.
Garza has been in remission from cancer since July 2017. His AIDS symptoms are under control although he says side effects caused by medication, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, fluctuate. He also has a heart murmur, is tired often, and deals with arthritis.
Depression and anxiety have been a struggle for years, and some days are better than others.
“I wasn’t aware that there’s health-related PTSD. Because of everything my body has been through my whole life, I’m on constant alert that something is going on with my body or, on the opposite end, I can deny that something is going on with my body,” Garza says.
… even though I have AIDS, I’m not going to let the world go by me.
Garza’s at a point where he can take a step back and understand everything he feels and thinks.
“I realize why I’m depressed or angry sometimes. My body and mind and soul have been through a lot,” says Garza. “I’ve lost a lot and gained a lot so I can look at myself as a whole now.”
As told by Daniel Garza to Cathy Cassata
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.