I loved my friend Ryan. It wasn’t the way he held his head high as he struggled with two terrible diseases. It wasn’t the way he bravely confronted death at an age when most children have no clue how precious life is. He didn’t have a speck of self-pity in his soul.
Ryan was a true hero, a true Christian, because he unconditionally forgave those who made him suffer. Ryan changed the course of a deadly epidemic and helped save millions of lives. But when Ryan died in April 1990 at the age of 18, I didn’t know how to speak to someone unless I had a nose full of cocaine and a stomach full of alcohol. After his funeral, I returned to London and locked myself away at home, as had become my habit. My sense of values was buried under my self-destruction. But I’m here today because of Ryan.
It was 1985 when I first learned about Ryan White. I was flipping through a magazine in a doctor’s waiting room when I came across an article that would change my life. I couldn’t believe that a boy was being kept out of school, his family shunned and tormented, because he had AIDS. I was incensed and immediately wanted to help.
Ryan lived with his mother, Jeanne, and younger sister, Andrea, in the small town of Kokomo, Indiana. He was born with haemophilia, a rare genetic disease that prevents blood clotting. Today it is a manageable condition, but in the early Seventies, when Ryan was born, it was often fatal.
At Christmas 1984, Ryan was admitted to hospital with pneumonia, where doctors discovered what really lay behind his illness – it was AIDS caused by blood transfusions for haemophilia. At 13, the doctors gave Ryan less than six months to live. Yet Ryan made an extraordinary decision: to live out the rest of his days as an ordinary boy.
He wanted to go to school, play with friends and asked his mother to pretend he didn’t have AIDS. But that would not be his fate. Ryan would never be allowed to live a normal life, let alone die a normal death.
Shortly after he was diagnosed, a local newspaper discovered Ryan had AIDS and ran a story. Suddenly the whole town – and then whole nation – knew about his condition.
As a child with haemophilia, Ryan had been treated with compassion. As a child with AIDS, many treated him with contempt.
As a child I loved Bible stories full of hope. To this day, while I do not practise any religion, I am inspired by Jesus the man because He loved and forgave unconditionally and died for the sake of others.
The same can be said of Ryan White. He was a modern-day Jesus Christ.That’s a bold statement, I know; some might even take offence. But to have witnessed his extraordinary qualities, as I did, is to come to no other conclusion.
There was simply no risk of infection from being around someone with AIDS. But there was so much fear surrounding AIDS – like a ghost that shadowed Ryan’s every move. Ryan was too weak to return to school until the summer of 1985 when he felt well enough to get a paper round.
But a month before he was due back, the school announced Ryan would not be allowed to attend. He was told he posed a health risk and would have to learn by telephone instead. The fear was, I suppose, understandable as AIDS was fatal at the time.
But it was well known that Ryan couldn’t transmit the virus to others just by being around them. Besides, the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention assured the school district that Ryan posed no threat and offered guidelines for him to safely return.
Ryan and Jeanne unsuccessfully sued the school and the appeal process was long, nasty, and public, with Ryan, now 14, at the centre of it. Even as he dialled into school lessons every day, more than 100 parents threatened to file a lawsuit.
After several more appeals, Ryan walked through the school gates in February 1986. But on the first day back he was taken out of the classroom and appeared in court. A group of parents were there to witness the judge issue a restraining order against him.
The packed room began to cheer while Ryan and Jeanne looked on, shocked. Ryan’s lawyers fought the order, and he again won the right to go back to school. This time the decision was final.
On April 10, 1986, with press gathered and students picketing outside, Ryan returned to school.
He was banned from gym and made to use a separate bathroom, water fountain, and disposable utensils in the cafeteria. He agreed to these precautions in order to assuage the fears about his misunderstood disease. Nevertheless, 27 children were withdrawn from school and parents opened an alternative school where 21 of Ryan’s school mates were enrolled.
The fear intensified. Customers on Ryan’s paper round cancelled their subscriptions. When the Whites went out to eat, restaurants threw away dishes they used. The parents of Ryan’s girlfriend forbade her from seeing him. Tyres were slashed on Jeanne’s car. A bullet was shot through a window of their house. When the local paper supported Ryan’s right to attend school, the publisher’s house was egged and a reporter received death threats.
There was little refuge for the family, not even at church. The Whites were people of deep Christian faith. But after Ryan’s illness became public, the parishioners at their church were so afraid of developing AIDS that the family were asked to sit in either the first or last pew and no one would use the lavatory after him.
Ryan wrote in his autobiography that on Easter Sunday 1985, when parishioners turned to offer one another the sign of peace, no one would shake his hand. It incensed me that not a single person would offer this sick child a blessing. As they left church, Jeanne’s car broke down. Not one member of the congregation stopped.
Everywhere he went, Ryan was teased and tormented. It’s easy to think that Ryan’s time on Earth was Hell. He was called homophobic obscenities in public and terrible rumours were spread.
One anonymous teenager wrote to the local newspaper accusing Ryan of threatening to bite other children, spitting on food at a grocery store, even urinating on bathroom walls. These were lies but it didn’t matter. Having AIDS made Ryan a freak.
The truth is, I was a huge cocaine addict at the time. My life was up and down like a yo-yo. I was still a good person underneath, otherwise I would never have reached out to the Whites in the first place.
All I hoped was that I could bring this boy some comfort. In the end the Whites would do far more for me than I ever did for them.
In spring 1986 I watched Ryan and Jeanne in a television interview about AIDS after his return to school and I wanted to meet them. I invited the family to one of my concerts but Ryan was too sick to attend. Eventually I flew them out to see two of my shows in Los Angeles.
Then in October I took the family to Disneyland, where I had arranged a private tour and a party for Ryan. I wanted to give him an adventure – limos, planes, fancy hotels – a carefree time to take his mind off his pain.
I felt instantly comfortable with the Whites, instantly connected to Ryan. The Whites were common-sense, straight-shooting people. They were caring, humble and always grateful.
But Ryan was dying. At Disneyland, Ryan was so weak I often pushed him around in a wheelchair. Ryan loved every minute. I can’t remember when he complained about anything.
After the Whites came to LA from then on, I did whatever I could for them. Little things, mostly. Ryan came to more concerts. I sent gifts and flowers and cards. I called them.
The White family put their Christian faith to practice and worked hard to educate others about AIDS.
In the end, Ryan reached far more than those in Kokomo. He was on national talk shows and the cover of People magazine.
He was quite shy but Jeanne felt it their duty to speak out and make life better for thousands of others who were suffering – not just haemophiliacs who had contracted HIV, but everyone with AIDS.
Here was a dying teenager and his mother, thrust into the spotlight, was standing up for those with HIV/AIDS. For me, it was the height of bravery and compassion.
In 1987, after Ryan had confided in his mother that he didn’t want to be buried in Kokomo, Jeanne moved the family to Cicero, a small town in Illinois, to escape the place that had caused them such grief.
In Cicero, the Whites were welcomed with open arms and Ryan thrived in school, where he made good friends. Ryan found peace in Cicero, though not from his disease. He never wanted to give up, but his fragile body had endured too much. In spring 1990, Jeanne called to tell me Ryan was now on life support. I immediately flew to be by his side.
I grew close to Jeanne during Ryan’s final week. She described me then as her guardian angel, but Jeanne and her family were guardian angels to me. And the message they were sent to deliver was clear: it might be my deathbed next.
I had all the money in the world, but it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t well. A cure existed for my substance abuse, for my self-destructiveness. As I stood next to Ryan’s hospital bed, holding Jeanne’s hand, seeing his bloated and disfigured body, the message was received. I didn’t want to die.
By coincidence, on April 7, I was due to play a concert in Indianapolis, not far from where Ryan was being treated. But with Ryan near death, I didn’t want to leave his bedside.
I rushed to the stadium and hurried onstage wearing a baseball cap and a windcheater. I was so upset I didn’t care what I looked like. Even 60,000 screaming fans couldn’t chase away the grief. ‘This one’s for Ryan,’ I said before playing Candle In The Wind. They burst into applause.
Everyone knew Ryan didn’t have long to live and I looked out into the stadium to see people holding up lighters, thousands of little vigils flickering in the darkness for my dying friend. As soon as I’d finished the song I dashed back to the hospital. That’s where I was, hours later, when Ryan died on the morning of April 8, 1990.
I’ll never forget the funeral or the numbness of tragedy. I’ll never forget Jeanne thanking me, in the middle of the greatest loss of her life, taking the time to acknowledge my being there with her.
Jeanne had asked me to be a pallbearer and sing at Ryan’s funeral but I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep my composure. However, I went back to my first album, Empty Sky, and the song Skyline Pigeon, which Bernie Taupin and I wrote together. It’s a song about freedom and release, and it seemed fitting.
I couldn’t be alone on stage, though, so I taught Ryan’s school choir to sing along with me. A picture of Ryan was on the piano in front of me, his casket behind.
More than 1,500 mourners were at Ryan’s funeral – not only family and friends but celebrities he had touched. Michael Jackson, talk-show host Phil Donahue and First Lady Barbara Bush were there, too.
Kokomo residents attended, including the lawyer for the parents’ group that had tried to block Ryan from attending school. He asked Jeanne to forgive the way the town had treated Ryan. She did.
Yet over the year following his death, Ryan’s gravesite was vandalised four times. The poor child couldn’t even rest in peace. Still, Ryan’s message lived on. On the base of his tombstone, seven words are inscribed: patience, tolerance, faith, love, forgiveness, wisdom, and spirit.
I’m deeply ashamed that I did not do more about AIDS back then when my friends, including Ryan, were dying all around me. I just did not have the strength or sobriety to do anything about it.
I would go to funerals, I would cry, I would mourn, sometimes for weeks. And my behaviour got worse, I was sleeping around without protection and it is a small miracle that I never contracted HIV myself.
I remember watching television after Ryan’s death and seeing footage of the funeral. It was one of the lowest points of my life. My hair was white, my skin pale. I was bloated and gorged. I looked tired, sick and beaten. I looked horrible. It was almost too much to take. I had been overcome by addiction; I was completely out of control. I looked, quite frankly, like a piano-playing Elvis Presley. As messed up as I’ve ever been. There was no question: I was going to change, or I was going to die.
And I desperately wanted to change. I remember many days when I would sit alone in my room, drinking, using, bingeing, listening to Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush sing Don’t Give Up over and over, weeping at the chorus.
I was falling further down the rabbit hole with every gram of cocaine. But I couldn’t – or, I should say, wouldn’t – ask for help. Many people in my life suffered through my rage, my denial, my refusal to listen. I was an arsehole and knew I had a problem.
My boyfriend at the time, Hugh Williams, loved me dearly, and I loved him. But the drugs had taken over my life. So had the alcohol. And the food. Then one day, Hugh told me he was going into rehab. He didn’t want to be a drug addict any more. I was furious. Hugh calling himself a drug addict might as well have been calling me one.
Self-obsession had morphed into an incredibly low self-image. I could no longer control anything.
Not how I acted, or what I took, or what I ate. About the only thing I could control was whether I kept it down. So in addition to bingeing on coke and booze and food, I was purging. Then I’d rinse and repeat. I was an addict. I was bulimic.
Each day, I would think about how much I wanted to change. But each day, disappointment that I hadn’t changed drove me to use more.
But I believed, wrongly, that I was intelligent enough, wealthy enough and famous enough that I could get control all by myself.
I was reminded of Ryan constantly, of how disappointed he would be in me. I am relieved he never knew that side of me.
Hugh left for rehab and I withdrew to my house in London and used solidly for a week. Locked in a room with my cocaine and my own stubbornness. As much as I tried to convince myself that Hugh had betrayed me, I was the true culprit. Besides, I missed him terribly. I was alone with my addictions, my self-pity, my self-loathing.
One day, somehow, I worked up the courage to track down Hugh to a halfway house in Prescott, Arizona. I still remember how nervous I was when I called him, my fingers trembling as I dialled. I wanted to visit but thought he might hate me for the things I had said, the way I had acted.
‘Listen,’ he said, ‘you need to speak to my counsellor on the phone beforehand. There are things I want to say to you. I’ll have a counsellor and you’ll have a counsellor and we’ll talk.’
Hugh’s counsellor told me, before I did visit, I needed to write down three things I disliked most about Hugh. And he would do the same for me. I knew what was about to happen. It was going to be some kind of intervention. This needed to happen.
Hugh opened the door looking absolutely terrified to see me. He introduced me to the two counsellors and one asked me to sit directly across from Hugh and said that we needed to look each other in the eye throughout. I was to read my list first.
‘You’re untidy. You don’t put the CD back in the case. And you don’t turn lights off when you leave a room.’
That was all I could come up with. Then Hugh pulled out his list from his pocket – he had written a full page. I can’t remember everything but I’ll never forget: ‘You’re a drug addict. You’re an alcoholic. You’re a food addict. You’re bulimic. You’re a sex addict. And you’re co-dependent.’
His voice was quivering, terrified at my reaction and my temper. He must have thought I was going to tell him to fuck off. I remained silent, shaking as much as Hugh and scared. I kept saying to myself: ‘You’ve got to stay. You’ve got to hear the truth.’
‘You need to get help,’ Hugh said finally.
‘You’re right,’ I said through tears. ‘I’ll go somewhere. I’ll get help.’
In that moment, my soul came alive again. It’s a strange thing to say, but it was as if my pilot light came back on. Instead of fear, I felt relief.
Instead of anxiety, I felt calm. It was as if Ryan were sending me a message, letting me know it was going to be OK.
Being around the White family made me want to be a better person. It took Ryan’s death to do so.
When his eyes closed, mine opened – and they’ve been open ever since.