Abandoned, abused, addicted, diagnosed … then came the hard climb back to health and happiness for Stephen Keough
Friends. Health. A great job. Stephen Keough is grateful for all the usual stuff. But mainly his health. And the friends who saved him.
World AIDS Day is December 1, and as he looks back on 18 years of living with HIV, he’s beyond grateful that he’s survived abandonment, abuse, attempted suicide, addiction, diagnosis … and has come out the other side laughing, larger than life, and finally accepting of himself.
“I guess my story starts when I was eight. That’s when my mother walked out on us,” he says. “She left me and my brother and sister, and took her older daughter with her.” He never saw either of them again.
“I feel like that’s what really started my spiral into anxiety and depression and addiction.”
His father remarried a couple of years later, but his relationship with his stepmother was not a good one. And when he graduated high school, he came home to find a packed suitcase on the street.
“I remember thinking, ‘Stephen, you can either die here or get your shit together. That was the catalyst that changed my life."
He became a born again Christian, joining the Nazarene church. But, while the church community loved him, they didn’t love his gayness. There was the sense that he somehow needed to be “fixed.”
So, at the age of 21, overcome with a sense of worthlessness, he tried to kill himself. He ended up in a lock-down psychiatric unit. “It was the scariest moment of my life,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Stephen, you can either die here or get your shit together. That was the catalyst that changed my life. I started accepting the fact that I’m gay – It was like a weight off my shoulders.”
A promising dancer, he took an about turn and trained as a hairdresser. He built a name, a reputation, moving to New York from California at the age of 23. The boy had big dreams.
“I thrived here. I was done with suburbia, I wanted to reinvent myself.”
"I’d finally found where I belonged. I loved being around artistic people.”
Working in a salon on the Upper West Side, Broadway connections led him to work on a show called Company at Roundabout Theatre, starring Jane Krakowski. “It was an amazing experience. I’d finally found where I belonged. I loved being around artistic people.”
After Company closed, he was hired for, first, Big, The Musical, then the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Then came the gig of his life. Chicago was about to be revived on Broadway, starring Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking (Neuwirth eventually won a Tony for her role), and they needed a hair supervisor. A senior role.
“I didn’t know it was going to be as successful as it turned out to be,” says Stephen. “I was there for nine years and it was the most amazing experience of my career. I’ve done a lot of shows since then, but that was the thing. I was in awe of these people. I was living the dream, I looked amazing, I was working out, I was in my early 30s, I thought I was set for life.”
But he was partying as hard as he was working. And it took just one taste of cocaine to get him hooked. “I’ll never forget. I was at Splash, a gay bar, and I was off to the races. I literally could not get enough of it. I became a coke head. I’d go to bed on it, I’d wake up on it.”
The roller coaster continued. He lost his dearest friend to an unexpected illness, then his father died after a short battle with cancer. The drugs? They were the only thing that numbed the pain.
He’s convinced it was this – and the bad decisions he made while high – that resulted in him contracting HIV in 1998. He remembers hearing the diagnosis. “It was horrible,” he says. “At that point it was still considered a death sentence. I was sitting there planning my funeral.”
The news threw him deeper into addiction. “I figured, if I’m going to die, I might as well die on top. I stopped existing, stopped showing up. I looked at myself in the mirror one day and I was gray. I started bawling. What happened to my life? What happened to who I was? I went from cloud 9, great career, to the lowest of lows.
“I started doing it so much I wasn’t showing up for work. I forgot to go to work for two days because I was so high.”
"All my friends were addicts. My fun friends. My drunk friends.”
His colleagues and employers at Chicago had watched the car crash from the sidelines, and enough was enough. They took him into the office and told him he was fired. But first: rehab.
“Getting sober was difficult. I was known as the fun gay boy that everyone loved. But unless I was on something, I wasn’t comfortable in a social setting. And all my friends were addicts. My fun friends. My drunk friends.”
He’s now been clean for ten years. He takes his HIV meds every day and the disease is undetectable. “I’m still a carrier. And it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve learned to accept that. I’ve only now been able to say, ‘You know what? It’s OK.’ For a long time it defined who I was.
“I no longer worry about what people think. I still love people, but I feel I love me more."
“I feel, honestly, the best I’ve felt in years. I spent so much time and wasted energy worrying about if I was pretty enough, if I was built enough, gay enough … it’s overwhelming to have all these feelings of not being accepted.
“I no longer worry about what people think. I still love people, but I feel I love me more, and it’s time to start living my life as the positive, happy, joyful person I am.”
His career’s taking off and, on a personal level, he’s joined Empire City Men’s Chorus and is dancing again.
“I want to tell people with addiction: you can get better, you can move forward, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But you have to want it. I survived all of it.”
This interview originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of W42ST magazine. Stephen lost his battle with cancer on July 21, 2020.