The Show Must Go On: Turning Pain Into Artistic Purpose

Sean came to Denver to attend Loretta Heights College, an art school in the city. During his first year, he arranged an audition for the Julliard School, a well-known institution for performing arts education located in New York City. After his trip to the city, his life took a significant turn after he received an HIV diagnosis in 1981.

The power of sharing your story  

Following his heath news, Sean found himself at a loss on how to proceed. He returned home to Rapid City, South Dakota and was committed to keeping his HIV diagnosis a secret.

Everything changed when he met a hospice nurse who spearheaded a program aimed at instilling a positive outlook among newly diagnosed HIV patients. Through this program, Sean engaged with various groups to share his personal experience and discovered the transformative power of sharing his story.

“Talking with other people about my experience was the best choice I ever made,” said Sean. “I thought people were going to be repulsed, but they genuinely wanted to know how to talk to others about HIV.  It lightened the boulder I felt I was carrying on my back.”  

At the time, the entire state of South Dakota had only 14 individuals diagnosed with HIV. To seek better resources and opportunities, Sean moved back to Denver and received medical attention at Denver Health, where he felt his medical team was genuinely rooting for him.  

Sean was able to merge his artistic talents and his desire to share his story by creating awareness videos in collaboration with Denver Health. “People need good information,” said Sean. “I’ve known so many people who have died tragic deaths and I wanted to show what it was like to flourish in life with HIV.”

Acknowledging mental health and substance use  

Upon referral from the Denver Health team, Sean sought mental health care through WellPower. He was introduced to NextChapter, a WellPower program that offers employment and education training, serving as a pathway to the larger community.

At NextChapter, Sean met a vocational counselor who was instrumental in his journey. She taught a Life Skills class to help the people we serve better manage their mental health symptoms and thrive in recovery. Through this course, Sean thought about the changes he needed to make in his life. “I realized there was more to life than burning the candle at both ends, which is what I was doing,” he said.

Sean went back to school and sought help for his substance use disorder. “I never saw how much the drugs were holding me back from reaching my full potential,” said Sean. Once Sean accepted help, he began adhering to his prescribed medication and regularly seeing his psychiatrists and therapists.

Pursuing well-being through theatre

Theatre has contributed to Sean’s well-being as he navigated various mental and physical health challenges. For years, Sean’s involvement with Phamaly (Physically Handicapped Amateur Musical Actors League) has offered steadfast support.

Fourteen years into his HIV diagnosis, Sean contracted AIDS. Today Sean is starting to lose organs, his heart is malfunctioning and is kept pumping by medication. Yet, he smiles and says: the show must go on.

Earning a degree and leading a theatrical production

Sean will graduate from the Community College of Denver (CCD) with an associate degree in May and he plans to return for his bachelor’s degree this summer. He is involved with sound production for CCD’s spring musical, Evil Dead, The Musical.

Sean is also directing a children’s fairy tale about wizards and dragons titled “The Golden Grotto, The Frog Prince” that will play at the Mercury Café in August. This production is in assistance with CCD’s theatre and disability department.

Sean first came to WellPower in 1989 and he reflects on how far he has come. “I was going to go to New York City and make it big on the Broadway stage and it was me, me, me,” he said. “That was quickly taken away from me when I contracted HIV, and everything was ripped away. I’ve learned that it’s about other people, too, and once you start looking outward and not just inward, lots of positive changes happen.”