Elmer Bisarra Helps HIV Patients Heal
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2013 Honoree
Elmer Bisarra learned early on what was expected of him. As the son of a Filipino father and a Chinese Hawaiian mother, he knew that the man is supposed to be the provider for his family, and that women serve best as educators, healers and nurturers. He remembers how this belief was embedded in his culture, passed down to him by his parents.
Bisarra, a 2013 Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Local Hero, knew he wasn’t going to fit in to the mold. Being gay in his small village on the island of Kaua'i, he thought it best to keep this part of himself a secret. But doing so carried with it a heavy guilt, one he could not appease.
“I felt guilty because I knew I’m not going to marry, or have a wife,” he explains. “I’m not going to have children. In my culture, being a gay son meant I wasn’t fulfilling my duty. It’s all about family, passing down the culture to your kids, your grandchildren. It’s all about tradition. Naturally the guilt trip sunk in, so that’s what dragged me down.”
When Bisarra was 19, he relocated to the mainland. “I left the island in 1964 because I joined the service,” he recalls. “I served here, in San Diego, at Balboa Hospital as a medical corpsman. I went to physical therapy school, and later, I was a physical therapy technician at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Towards the end of my career in the Navy, during the Vietnam era, I was stationed in Japan and doing triage. I served three and a half years there, until I received a medical discharge.”
Around this time, from 1976 to 1994, Bisarra was in the throes of an addiction to crystal meth.
“I am a crystal meth addict, and what brought on my addiction was a feeling of not being good enough because of my lifestyle as a gay person. As a young person, I didn’t tell my parents, and I isolated myself from my family for 25 years. When I finally told my dad, he said, ‘I already knew who you are, and I still love you. So, why didn’t you ever call me?’”
Seeking help often means having to hit rock bottom first. Bisarra admits, “I was doing whatever I needed to survive. Then, in 1994, a friend with whom I was staying told me to get out of his house. He’d had enough of me and my addiction and it was time to get out. So, I checked into a treatment center.”
Bisarra sought help from St. Vincent De Paul’s Bishop Maher Center, a two-year program that helped him get back on his feet.
Meanwhile, in addition to his addiction, in 1991, Bisarra learned he was HIV positive. After completing his treatment for his addiction, he turned to Being Alive, where today he remains as a volunteer. Being Alive is a non-profit organization that provides, according to its website, “quality, compassionate services to people affected by HIV/AIDS, and education and referral services to those in need.”
“In 1996, I decided to deal with my HIV, so I came here,” Bisarra says. “They told me, ‘Yes, you do have the virus but you’re okay.’ I needed to know that. They gave me a job distributing food vouchers. That validated me that I’m okay. I might be HIV positive, but I’m okay. I’ve been partial to this agency ever since. Thanks to Being Alive, I’ve had training in counseling, and I decided to pursue a career, serving as an HIV case manager for ten years. In 1997, Being Alive helped me become certified to do HIV counseling and testing.”
Bisarra found his calling in supporting others living with HIV. “People come in all the time for the services. One morning we had 70 come in,” he remembers. “What Being Alive provides, includes the commodity program through the food bank. We have the Helping Hands program that helps people who have to move from one location to another. We also have a peer counseling program. Everybody who helps at Being Alive is HIV positive, so we understand what our client is going through.”
Bissara has gained a new outlook through his work at Being Alive. “What I’ve learned from this experience is to be positive,” he says. “I put all the negativities together and see what I can do to turn it into a positive. So my legacy today, as far as I’m concerned, is self-acceptance of who I am. Turn your life around and help others. One of the things that keep me going is when someone comes in the door in need of support. By helping them, it takes me back to the person I was. It took me 18 years to admit I needed help, and to come to the point that I’m okay.”
Bisarra, who last January celebrated 19 years of being clean, accepts who he is and how he will always be an addict. “My addiction is a reminder of who I am. It felt good, but I wasted 25 years," he says with a sardonic laugh. "I internalized it, until I exploded. It’s simple things but in the process it took away my life. Now, I really have to be proactive and adamant as far of what I can do, versus what I did in the past. Once an addict, always an addict, no matter how much time you have."
What helps keep him in recovery is the knowledge he can help others and four little words that he often repeats to himself.
"What I’ve learned in my recovery is, no matter what, do not pick up,” he says thoughtfully. “This means that no matter what happens in my life today, don’t drink, don’t use. That’s my personal mantra and I’ve said it many times in my life. It helps me cope.”