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How best to love?
Apr 4, 2000

I am in a very strange situation. I am having a long term love affair with a married HIV+, Hep C+ man. This is against my morals(I think?).

Two years ago, having rebuilt my life after the collapse of my social group and my five year relationship due to widespread cocain and heroine addiction that was amongst the men in my community, I declared my own war on drugs. Working from the hypothesis that the drug addictions could not be fought through cutting off my friendships with the men I love, and that only by trying to help my friends feel unconditionally supported could I help them, I devoted myself to my cause. Since we all grew up together living on the streets as teenagers, I felt that I was one of the only people who could understand the dark holes inside them that had led them to drug addiction. Although I didn't seek therapy, I did a lot of my own research, especially about co-dependency, which I fear for myself. I was especially careful about not forcing my help on them, but waiting to be asked, while keeping myself available.

What an intense two years it has been! I have found myself visiting my ex's crack house (once my happy home) with pencil crayons and paper as my buffer, coloring with the hookers while my friends made deals in the other room. I have found myself downtown in the middle of the night buying black market methadone, developing friendships with drug dealers, their girlfriends, whoever can tell me where my friends are sleeping. I have found myself holed up in hotel rooms with sick and sweating men who weigh half as much as they should, trading money and favors (not THAT kind of favors) for valium and other pills that help dope sickness. In a way this was one of the strongest times of my life. I felt like an angry mother owl, ever watchful, head turns round 180 degrees, up all night. Together with other strong women (my relationship with some of these men's mothers has become quite close) and with the help and wisdom of those men who first gave me the power to be of help to them, I am so relieved to say that as of last November, there are no more hard drug users among my friends. But I have crossed boundaries that I thought were integral to my being and have become totally uncertain as to what my morals really are.

I had known the man I am now with for seven years before anything romantic developed between us. He was one of the first to start using in my community and he is the only one, so far, that contracted fatal diseases from sharing needles. I had always liked him, but considered myself someone who respects marriage, and so, hands off. When I began trying to help my friends, he was the first priority. He had not taken the news of being HIV+ well, and was holed up in his studio on drugs. He had already OD'd twice. His wife was at home with his two kids, worried sick and ready to accept help in any form. I am attractive, and I admit that I used that to grab his attention. I told him that the chemicals we had between us were not something that could be found on the streets. Together, we went through the recovery process, wrestled with the issues of mortality and tried to help others, (my ex was the toughest and last, but is now doing well). The problem was, that when he got clean, he was in a tough situation... return to his wife, who loves him, or stay with me? My problem was that the person he turned into on the other side of the crisis is so beautiful to me, that making the right decision and backing off seems impossible. Instead we reached a compromise with his wife. He has returned home to be a father to his children in a non-sexual relationship with his wife. I see him down at his studio and try not to rub our romance in her face. She accepts our relationship and carries most of the weight financially, but struggles with her own feelings of insecurity.

He's been clean for a year, and our love for each other doesn't seem to be burning out. The health issues are more and more obvious, mainly with the Hep C although he still experiences crashing depressions around the HIV. I want to support and love this man in the best way possible. I know he won't be able to work much longer, and I am hurrying to finish my MA so that I can help provide for him financially. But I feel horribly guilty about the situation with his wife, as does he. I find myself wondering if the strength of our love is based mainly on the intensity of the issues we have faced over the last two years, and if so, can it be healthy? I think of his wife and kids and feel like I am a home wrecker. I resolve to give up the relationship. Then I think about how isolated and lonely he was before and worry about him going through that again. Which course of action is least likely to cause suffering? I know the really tough work is still to come. He is committed to dying on his body's own time rather than using the cocktail or other drugs to prolong his life. I realize that this could still mean a long wait before the HIV becomes AIDS, but when that time comes, I am committed to being by his side. I am also tired. Can you offer any words of advice to me in this situation? I don't expect that you can magically give me the solution to my situation. But some guidance might help me to figure out how best to love.

Response from Mr. Shernoff

Unfortunately I really do not have much to offer you other than respect for you and the man you are involved with to have found and worked out such a creative solution that seems fair to everyone, his wife, his children and the intensity of the feelings that you and he share. As you so well know, often life takes us in directions that are totally unexpected. I am very concerned that in your letter you spoke of finding yourself in an immoral situation. Dishonesty is immoral, expressing love and nurturing it in a difficult world with sensitivity to the complexities that are part of each of your lives is a very brave act.

Michael Shernoff, MSW



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