Read part 2 of a special preview of Love is the Cure, Elton’s book which was launched on 17 July. If you haven't read the first installment, please click here. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter and let us know what you think!
There’s a scene in The Lion King where Rafiki, a wise and trusted elder, leads Simba, the young hero, to a pool of water. There, at first, he sees only his reflection. But then, the image of Simba’s father appears in the pool.
Rafiki tells Simba: ‘He lives in you.’
When I was writing and recording songs for the stage version of The Lion King, that scene always reminded me of Ryan White, and it still does.
Ryan lives in me. Ryan helped me see the meaning of dignity, the importance of self-respect, the power of compassion.
Ryan White was 18 when he died in April 1990. He had suffered enormously in his short life as a haemophiliac who was then ostracised when he developed AIDS following a blood transfusion. His compassion and his grace in living and dying made me want to change, to tackle my drug, drink, sex and food addictions. My problems had a cure – Ryan’s did not.
Less than three months after Ryan had died of AIDS, I was on a plane to Chicago, determined to change my life. That was July 1990 and I am proud to say I have been sober ever since. My time at Parkside Lutheran Hospital was as challenging as it was transformative.
The first days were especially difficult. When you deprive your body of cocaine after having used so much and frequently as I had, the craving for it is enormous. I went through bouts of extreme anxiety and irritability. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think about anything but my own misery.
This was compounded by the fact that I had stopped using not just cocaine but everything I had self-medicated with: the booze, the food, the sex.
I was depressed and alone. I felt sick and weak and foggy. The first stages of rehab were among the most trying periods of my life. I was not Elton John the rock star. I was just Elton. Elton the addict. For years I had thought that my station in life provided me with the tools I would need to help myself. How wrong I was.
The path to recovery wasn’t a straight one by any means. I remember quite clearly, on many occasions, wanting desperately to run away.
On two occasions I came awfully close to doing just that. It didn’t merely seem to be the easier path; it categorically was. I could have been on a plane back to London, back at home with the relief that would come with the buzz of cocaine and a drink. If not for Ryan and Hugh (my then boyfriend) I would indeed have run away.
Thank God I stayed. Over time it did get easier. I could feel a transformation happening inside me.
Every day of staying sober was a challenge, but it was invigorating to feel that I was regaining control over my life. The biggest driver of my progress was the overwhelming kindness of the strangers I met in rehab.
I still get emotional when I think of all the friends I met there. It brought me back to life, I really believe it did. Enormous empathy. Enormous compassion.
I talked a lot. But mostly I listened. And I spent a long time on my recovery, sometimes kicking and screaming along the way. But I did as I was told. And it worked. You can change. But it requires learning to become a human being again first.
Six weeks later I was released. It was September 1990 and I returned to London. I chose to take a year off. When I returned to my career, I wanted to return transformed. This was, after all, a second chance I hadn’t deserved. In Ryan’s memory I could not afford to squander it.
In sobriety I was constantly reminded of the good I could have been doing to help those with HIV/AIDS, but how little I had actually done.
There were many potential acts of selflessness that I chose to forgo in exchange for another line or another drink. I had been lucky to emerge from the Eighties without having contracted HIV myself.
I had relocated to Atlanta and started volunteering for Project Open Hand, a charity that arranged the delivery of home-cooked meals to AIDS patients.
My dear friend John Scott and I would drive around the city and deliver meals to house-bound people who were very sick.
I’ll never forget the tragedy we witnessed doing this work. The stigma at the time was punishing. If you had AIDS, you were ostracised – just as Ryan had been shunned by his community in Kokomo, Indiana. The people to whom we were delivering meals were literally shut out of the world – a retreat not of choice but of unjust circumstance.
To the people we were visiting, I wasn’t a celebrity. To most I was just a rare friendly face, coming for a brief social interaction, offering a meal and what little comfort came with it. There were some who opened their doors and were happy to greet us.
There were others who cracked their doors just wide enough to take what we were offering, give a quick thanks and shut themselves back in.
And, sadly, there were still more who had completely closed themselves off from the world that had betrayed them. For these poor souls we just left the meal on the front porch. We would ring the doorbell, but no one would answer.
I imagine that everyone I delivered a meal to is dead. I am still haunted by the thought of how many good, innocent people suffered horrible deaths completely alone in those years. I had to do more. It was an atrocity. And I wasn’t going to sit idle any longer.
David Furnish and I met in 1993 when I was still focusing on my recovery and health. In addition to conquering the addictions that had imprisoned me for so long, I had purged many of the people around me who were enabling my destructive lifestyle. After completing rehab and returning to London, I was introduced to David at a dinner party I held.
But David would become so much more than a friend. We shared the same passions, the same sense of humour. We quickly fell in love. It’s impossible to overstate David’s impact on my life at that time, and ever since.
I would not be the man I am today if not for David. He was, is, and always will be the most important person in my life, alongside our 18-month-old son, Zachary.
We are partners in everything, including the work of The Elton John AIDS Foundation, which was set up in 1992. The charity has raised and distributed $275 million (£177 million) in 20 years.
It was important to both of us to obtain our civil partnership on the very first day it became legal in Britain: December 21, 2005. We went to the town hall in Windsor and we weren’t sure what to expect. We were happy, and relieved when we received nothing but warm wishes.
In 2009, David and I visited an AIDS orphanage in Donetsk, Ukraine. Dozens of children, many of whom were HIV positive, were living in dorm-like conditions.
A boy gravitated towards me. He was 18 months old and his name was Lev. In an instant he stole my heart. I held Lev and I was in love. I had always said I was too old, too selfish, too set in my ways to have children, even though David was keen for us to have a family one day.
The truth is that I love children – David and I are godparents many times over. But with our hectic schedules, with my travelling on tour, it didn’t seem as if it would ever work for us to have a child of our own.
All that changed the minute Lev’s eyes met mine. David and I tried to adopt Lev. We were heartbroken that Ukraine’s draconian laws prevented us from doing so without waiting several years, during which time he would have to remain in the orphanage.
I couldn’t stomach that. Instead, with help from the foundation, Lev and his brother were able to leave the ophanage and went to live with their grandmother.
It was then that David and I decided to have a child. Lev had sent us a message we could not ignore.
Zachary is the light of our lives. Already he has taught me so much about life, and so much about love. I would not have Zachary but for the strangers who demonstrated such care and compassion for me at the lowest moments of my life. I would not have Zachary but for my friendship with Ryan White.
I would not have Zachary but for my decision 20 years ago to make it up to Ryan and those I had let down because of my addictions and indifference.
Right now, while we don’t yet have a cure for AIDS, we do have the next best thing: medicine that can return dying AIDS patients to near perfect health and give them long lives.
HIV is no longer a death sentence. With treatment, HIV morphs from a lethal virus into a chronic condition that can be managed.
With treatment, almost every HIV-positive person can live happily, comfort-ably, productively and – to echo my friend Ryan’s only wish – normally. I am the first to stand up and say that I did not do enough. I did not care enough. But I have changed. I won’t give up, I never will, because I have seen the power of compassion.
The Pope's Deadly Words
Just a few months after Ryan White died, Pope John Paul II travelled to Africa, where he emphasised even while talking about the need to combat AIDS that contraception was a sin. It is not an exaggeration to say that his words were deadly.
I hold him responsible for all those who died as a result of heeding his advice or who could not access condoms due to his ill-founded and immoral decree.
I’ve said before that his words resulted in genocide and I stand by that statement. The correct use of condoms reduces the risk of HIV transmission by 90 per cent.
Liz's Red-carpet Coup to Help AIDS Victims
Despite being in horrible pain and very poor health and on her birthday, no less, Elizabeth Taylor, pictured left, attended a fundraiser for my AIDS foundation.
It was a viewing party for the Academy Awards to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.
There were dozens of photographers and reporters, perhaps more than 100, cramming the long red carpet at the entrance.
Elizabeth had a terrible time getting around at that point, but with David on one arm and two of her grandsons on the other, she walked the entire stretch.
And not only that, she spoke to every single journalist and posed for every single camera that was aimed her way.
She spent the whole time talking about the importance of the foundation’s work and the urgency of the AIDS epidemic. She never once strayed from that topic and must have been on her feet for an hour and was as energetic and graceful as ever.
Finally, when she reached the end of the red carpet, Elizabeth turned her beautiful smile to David and whispered into his ear: ‘Get me my f****** wheelchair!’