CHAPEL HILL — There was a time Rob Hill could barely get out of a chair.
Today he can bench press 350 pounds, and 12 years ago he biked from Raleigh to Washington, 330 miles, in three and a half days.
Until now, Hill, 50, hasn’t talked about his transition from a heroin-addicted DJ to a personal trainer and athlete.
But his path out of drugs also brought him into isolation. As he remade himself, he retreated, scared of what others would think if they knew. He is one of 35,000 people living with HIV in North Carolina in 2010, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
His silence became a burden, he says. He didn’t tell his training clients; he didn’t tell friends because he didn’t make many. He didn’t tell his only child or his father.
Misty Dawn Hill was born when Rob Hill was 17. He’s lived in another state for most of her life, but they’ve stayed close, talking on the phone often, Hill says.
As she grew up, she faced struggles of her own; Hill knew she wasn’t ready to learn about his, too.
Now, as a stay-at-home mom with a 2-year-old son and five stepchildren, she was ready to hear, Hill said.
He wasn’t so sure about his father, J.W. Hill, a 25-year Vietnam veteran now retired in Arizona.
“I’m afraid that he might disconnect with me,” Hill said.
The elder Hill, 74, has advanced lung cancer and breathes with an oxygen machine. Last summer, he was given one year to live.
Telling them his secret was the last stop before letting it go.
The spiral down
Hill first tried marijuana at 13, the same year his parents divorced.
By 23, he had dropped out of high school, married and divorced Misty’s mother, and had moved to California.
For four years he worked as a DJ, ushered country music stars like Tammy Wynette and Garth Brooks on and off stage until 2 a.m., then partied with co-workers until 7 or 8 in the morning.
“It’s like putting jet fuel in a Corvette; it’s not going to last very long,” he said. “It’s really not my personality to be that way. I believed that I felt at the time the drugs helped me to do the things I needed to do.”
After work he routinely shared a needle to inject drugs in his veins. Sometimes he didn’t know what was in the drug cocktail, but he tried it all – cocaine, heroine, speed, acid.
“I didn’t care what it was; I just wanted to get the next high,” he said.
After one night of shooting up, he said, he felt more tired than usual, and his lymph nodes were swollen.
‘It woke me up’
Carolyn Brown flew to California to see her son in the hospital. She thought Hill had lymphoma. Years earlier, when he had tried to get into the Army, he was disqualified because a medical test falsely showed that he had lymphoma.
After giving him a blood test, the doctor told him he was HIV positive and that he likely had two years left to live.
“I was terrified for him; I just couldn’t believe it was happening,” Brown said.
Hill only remembers one thing from that day.
“All I can remember was that it woke me up,” he said. “It was like a switch went off …”
He stopped taking drugs. He wouldn’t even take the antiretrovirals his doctors prescribed to prevent AIDS.
He moved to North Carolina to stay with his mother and sever the relationships with old friends.
For about six months, he huddled in a chair, wrapped in a beige and blue afghan Brown had crocheted, to break his addiction.
After the sweating stopped, Hill began a strict exercise regimen and radically changed his eating habits.
Now he is militant about what he puts in his mouth: no chemicals, no processed foods. He preaches that mantra to his clients at the gym.
“I saw the benefits it gave me. I knew about exercise. I knew what to do,” he said. “I thought, ‘If only I could pass that along.’ ”
Training with Hill has changed their lives, said Laurel Gropper, an optometrist in Chapel Hill who sees Hill with her husband, Carl Stice. The couple were among the first Hill told about his HIV.
His story and the changes he’s made are inspiring, she said.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how strong a person to be able to live with this, to live with this kind of secret and endure the fear of what could be going on for him and his body [and decide] he was going to make a change.’… It takes an incredibly strong person,” she said. “I don’t know too many people that would have that much courage on all levels.”
Battling the virus
Hill is one of eight HIV-positive patients in an ongoing study at UNC, where researchers are using a drug used to treat lymphoma to lure the virus out of hiding. Researchers will examine the immune system’s response to the virus and the drug’s effect on the body.
The first phase of the study was a success, a second phase will begin in August.
His antiretroviral medication costs $3,700 a month, covered by health insurance. He takes seven pills, four times a day.
His hyperdisciplined path to health was a lonely one. Hill never got to know people well because he didn’t want to invite them to his house. If he had people over, he’d have to tell them he was HIV positive, he says.
“I really don’t have close friends. I have a trust issue I think in some regards and also the food was a big issue as well. If you’re trying to reel yourself in with food, it’s hard to be around most people because they want to feed you bad food,” he said.
He’s dated three women in North Carolina and told each one about his HIV status upfront, he says. Though each woman took it well, the relationships never lasted.
“Eliminating stress was a big issue as well; the average stress a relationship brings is too much for me,” he said.
Before doing this article, he also made sure each of the women supported him sharing his HIV story.
His contestant companion has been Zeka, his 8-year-old Australian-Jack Russell terrier mix, who often accompanies Hill on bike and canoe trips down the Haw River.
He let the secret go with one person at a time week by week.
In the beginning he was tentative to talk about his past, now it seems he’s almost compelled to share his journey, start him on one aspect and he’ll start telling it all.
He wants this story to connect with people who may have fears about HIV-positive people. He wants to help others like him who’ve been living their secret alone.
He wants a new start, to live like a “regular human being,” he said.
Now he has begun to.