Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Agate generously supports MinnPost’s Mental Health & Addiction coverage; learn why

An HIV diagnosis and addiction at the same time. Not easy. Daniel Sannel walks people through it.

As a chemical health counselor with the Positive Care Center at HCMC, Sannel’s job is to work exclusively with HIV-positive patients who have these challenges.

Daniel Sannel: “At one point I had overdosed and none of my friends knew what to do. I could easily have died. That’s why I try not to judge.”
Courtesy of Daniel Sannel

Imagine for a moment you are HIV-positive. That stops you right there, doesn’t it? Now go further and imagine you are HIV-positive and  suffering from mental illness or chemical addiction. Life might seem pretty hopeless. But that’s where Daniel Sannel comes in. Literally, that’s when he might come into your room and talk to you. That’s what he does as a chemical health counselor with the Positive Care Center at HCMC. His job is to work exclusively with HIV-positive patients who have these challenges. He’s been on the job for six months now, after coming over from a methadone clinic. He believes in keeping things simple.

“When I get to the center in the morning, I’ll see who’s in-patient and has HIV. Then I just go to their rooms and say, What’s going on?” he says. “It works well to have these brief interventions at the hospital, when people are assessing things.”

And how does that go?

“Some say they’d like to get into treatment and some don’t. Either way I say I’ll work with them,” he says.

Article continues after advertisement

Sannel brings a lot of credibility on the addiction side. He’s been there. He used drugs for 12 years; marijuana and LSD mostly. It opened up worlds to him and gave him a sense of family with his friends, who were also using. Then he got into methamphetamines, which made him feel clear-minded and sharp and full of energy, until the drugs changed on them. He used for a two-year period until he crashed. “Everyone has their own bottom,” he says softly. 

He cleaned up in Seattle, where he stayed with his sister. He was nervous to return to Minneapolis as he was sure he would die here. But after years of meditation, therapy, luck, and a pivotal trip to India, he got healthy and found his way back. Don’t discount the luck part.

“I was really fortunate,” he says. “At one point I had overdosed and none of my friends knew what to do. I could easily have died. That’s why I try not to judge.”

That’s the micro. He can speak to the macro as well. 

Sannel is a fan of harm-reduction programs, which focus on treating symptoms, even though it contradicts the Minnesota model of abstinence treatment.

“The thing with abstinence programs is that they work great for some people, but not this huge segment of other people, who are often poor or homeless,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of the treatment center to look at what’s working and what isn’t and adjust their services.”

Sannel believes that people in recovery need to first retrain their thoughts, which can be difficult when your program is all-or-nothing. It can feel like you’re being set up for a face-plant.

“I’ve worked with people who have gone to treatment 26 times. What I see in stories like that is that it reinforces in people’s minds that they suck,” he says with a laugh. “I mean, I have people apologizing to me all the time that they use. I’m like, you’re not a bad person. Why are you apologizing?”

His position is funded from a grant by the Ryan White HIV/Aids Program, which is administered by the Minneapolis Medical Research Foundation. It’s a smart investment in social policy as it keeps people away from expensive urgent care.

Article continues after advertisement

And here’s another upshot: People with HIV these days actually have a great chance of surviving if they take their meds, since the meds have so improved through the years. (That’s still mind-boggling to all of us who grew up in the 1980s.) The trick is to make sure people take them.

“It just makes sense to help people do that,” Sannel says.