Monday, December 1, 2008

People Living with AIDS

I was gainfully employed in the Broadway theatre when HIV/AIDS hit our community. I knew more than a hundred young men who manifested it and died in the early 80s. It’s almost 30 years later as I write these words to participate in Bloggers Unite’s World AIDS Day. Bloggers all over the world are writing about HIV/AIDS today.

One of the major moments I remember in HIV history was when the then-current acronym switched from PWAs (people with AIDS) to PLWAs. People LIVING with AIDS. It was a big switch. In fact, it transformed the collective consciousness around HIV from dying to living.

The thing is: an HIV diagnosis today isn’t a death sentence, especially in Western nations where health insurance makes the outrageous cost of pharmaceutical cocktails workable. HIV has manifested everywhere on Earth now. A full 33 million people have HIV or AIDS. For most of us, HIV/AIDS has become about statistics.

Unless, or until . . . we get a phone call like the one I got recently. One of my closest friends called in a panic.

“I’m HIV,” he said.

“HIV what?”

“HIV Positive!” He burst into tears.

“Whoa!” I said. “Wait, you’re not HIV. You’ve tested HIV Positive.”

Does it seem a flimsy distinction?

I have lived with a chronic disease for almost twenty years. One of the first things I did for myself in the process of learning to live with it was to refuse to identify myself as the disease. I did the same thing for my friend automatically.

Diseases are diseases, dear one, and persons are persons. The two ought not to be confused. Not in the 80s, not now, not ever.

A person who has HIV, who has seroconverted, HAS HIV. That person isn’t HIV itself.

My friend is very blessed. His body is dealing well with the virus. In fact, through some spiritual work he’s doing, he’s actually reduced his viral load.

I remember AIDS before it had a permanent name. For a while, it was called GRID—Gay-Related Immune Disease. I forget why they changed the name.

The thing is: it’s not a mystical mistake that the acronym AIDS ended up what it is. It’s also a word in English: aids, helps, assists, abets.

Personally, I think that gay men made an agreement to act as avatars to our world to prove to humankind once and for all that we need to aid one another. There is no me or you, only me and you.

So what did my friend need after his diagnosis? Aid. Help. To navigate the medical system around HIV. To find information on the disease. To learn where there was appropriate support for his process.

What did I need after his diagnosis? Aid. Help. To deal with my own helplessness and anger. To stop taking personally what didn’t really touch me personally except through my friend. To bless those scientific minds that ever seek a cure for it.

You see, AIDS reminds us that if one person is affected by it, we all are. Having a diagnosis come close to home takes it out of the realm of statistics and into the realm of the personal. My friend is a person living with AIDS, and so, because I too live on Earth, am I.

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