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Where Was I When HIV First Reared Its Ugly Head?

By ScotCharles

June 3, 2011

On June 5, 1981, when the CDC report on mysterious cases of young gay men dying of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in Los Angeles came out I was a very busy student in my senior year of college. I had begun college in 1977 with the intention of being an English major; however, I found out soon I was rubbish at writing literary critiques. A woman I met at lunch one day told me that Actuarial Science graduates made loads of money so I switched my major to mathematics. I finished courses sufficient to take the first two Actuarial Science tests; but in May 1981 I realized the Veteran's Administration War Orphans benefits I was receiving due to my dad's 100% disability suffered in Viet Nam were due to run out before I could complete the coursework necessary to take the next eight Actuarial Science exams. I needed to have a job by March 1982 when my VA benefits ran out, so I switched my major to Business with a concentration in Accounting. To graduate, I needed to take four courses per quarter in the coming summer, fall and winter quarters. I was consequently swamped with course work that June.

I have always been an early riser. I love the freshness of the world in the morning and I like listening to National Public Radio during my breakfast. As clear as a bell 30 years later, I remember an announcer and commentator discussing the previous day's CDC report. My partner and I were going to a dinner party that Saturday evening; and, it was at that party that I first talked about what would become the AIDS Crisis. Everyone except me though it was nothing to worry about; but the NPR spot had convinced me the mysterious outbreak of PCP in LA was serious.

As the dinner party broke up, we began to talk about which bar would be hot that night. I asked if no one was concerned about catching the mysterious plague I had talked about during dinner. I shall never forget a good friend, a doctor, said, "No, I'll just take some antibiotics in the morning." He died of AIDS in 1991.

The Party was still raging in June 1981. The discos were jammed. Sweaty dancers were snorting cocaine in the bathrooms and poppers on the dance floor. Truly, "Love was in the air." The straight people had discovered that the gay discos were the best, at least in Atlanta where I lived, and the gays and the straights meshed into a seamless whole on the dance floor. Outside the disco, the economy was in a recession and unemployment was near 8%, but inside the music was hot; the men and women were sexy; and, everyone knew we would end the night by making love.

It took a while for the party to stop. In September 1984, when I was diagnosed with HIV, the discos were still jammed. In December 1984, I experienced my first AIDS death. My grandfather clock stopped at the precise moment of his death. Over the years since, I have lost many friends and acquaintances to AIDS. Just how many people my partner and I knew who had died of AIDS was brought home to us when we returned to Atlanta in 2005 after an absence of 18 years. Not one gay man we knew from our Atlanta days was left alive. The lesbian friends we visited on that trip to Atlanta had survived to bear witness to the carnage.

A generation has come and gone since June 1981. There are very few of us left who were HIV positive in the early days of the AIDS Crisis, who can remember the fear that, like an incoming fog, slowly crept into our lives as the Crisis deepened. Or, the sense of an urgent hunger for life that led my partner and I in 1986 to buy an inn just north of Atlanta, a friend to move to Key West, or another friend to rise from his hospital bed pulling the IV needles from his arms as he did to take a trip he had dreamt of all his life. Not many people can remember the intense grief we felt as we attended funeral after funeral, nor can many people recall attending the lavish funerals dying gay men had planned from their hospital beds. After the funerals, we met in the apartments and houses of our dead friends and decided how to dispose of their effects. I have to this day an inkwell on my desk that belonged to the first person I knew who died of AIDS and stopped my grandfather clock.

For me, I have mixed emotions of joy, guilt and remorse at surviving. Joy that I lived to experience the wonder of life, guilt that I survived when so many wonderful people died, and remorse that I have few people from my Salad Days to share my older years.

I used to say aloud the names of the AIDS dead I knew during the prayers for the deceased in church. The list is long and I could hear the congregation start to shuffle as I said the names. Now, I say them silently. As I say their names, I see them with my mind's eye as the happy, carefree youth I knew "Dancin' the night away."

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See Also
20 Years of Magic: How One Man's HIV Disclosure Inspired Others
More on the 30th Anniversary of AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Bernard M. (Philadelphia) Sun., Jun. 19, 2011 at 3:38 pm UTC
Very nice article Scot. We have many things in common and I really do enjoy your writing. Especially the piece on HAD. Keep up the fight. We both know that it is a real bitch!
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Comment by: ScotCharles (Los Angeles) Sat., Jun. 25, 2011 at 12:58 am UTC
If you have or think you have HAD or its more common form, HIV Associated Neurological Disease or HAND (which by the way the Social Security Administration has recognized as a disabling condition)I hope you are receiving proper treatment. Depression and other mood disorders are very common side effects of HIV infection and are caused by the virus itself. There are several definitive papers that you can refer to in this regard. Put my neurologist's name, Elyse Singer, into Google and you will find many citations in this regard.

Just now, I have an infection in my spinal fluid which is causing a #$%@ of a headache. I have been taking Vicodin like breath mints for several days to stave off the pain until the antibiotics take effect. I won't know what the bug is that is causing this #$%@ of a headache until the test results come back in two weeks. Thanks for your kind post.

Comment by: tanya (zimbabwe) Fri., Jun. 17, 2011 at 3:06 am UTC
am also hiv positve wud like to know wat u r taking i mean the medication
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Comment by: ScotCharles (Los Angeles) Sat., Jun. 25, 2011 at 12:48 am UTC
I taked Issentress, Norvir, and Prezista. I have just stopped taking Truvada because I have become resistant to it. I also take neuropsych meds to counter the effects the virus has caused, but I would rather maintain my confidentiality about them.

If you have trouble getting meds, let me know. My doctor has a privately funded clinic in Tanzania and has contacts with other clinics in Africa.

Asante sana for your post.

Comment by: al (Jacksonville.Fl) Thu., Jun. 16, 2011 at 6:04 pm UTC
First, I am sorry for your numerous losses, but secondly have you ever thought that you might have survived for a reason?Think about what you are capable of offering others and once you determine your answer to that you will have answered your own question: Why did I survive?
Good luck :)
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Comment by: ScotCharles (Los Angeles) Sat., Jun. 25, 2011 at 12:44 am UTC
I was very lucky to find a vocation that allowed me to help people. Now that I am retired, I look back over those days with a great deal of pride. Survivor's guilt is a very real problem for me as it is for many people who have survived horrific circumstances. I have sought to assuage my guilt by being of service to others. For me that commitment to service has eased my survivor's guilt. You have given me an idea for my next post.

I have in my garden a Monterey cypress that has become a natural bonsai because it grows among the invasive roots of a liquidamber tree. This year, I noticed that the little cypress had grown out of shape. I read up on pruning bonsais and was most taken by the notion that a bonsai must be pruned so that it is open, showing its trunk and branches.

It is said that for every door that closes another opens. However, one has to turn from the closed door to see the newly opened door. We must learn openness. Remorse and regret are not the closed door, they are the turning to the open door. I don't think I shall ever forget those I knew that died of AIDS. I would like to think that because of them, I found the courage to walk through the open door.

Thank you for your post. I am exploring my ideas about openness thanks to you.

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Life Is a River



ScotCharles was born in Mineral Wells, Texas. He has been HIV positive since September 1984, and received an AIDS diagnosis in April 2004. He graduated cum laude from Georgia State University in Atlanta, and got his MBA with honors at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He's also a certified public accountant and a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. He's been married to his partner, Jim, for 30 years. ScotCharles' hobbies are gardening and water color painting. He and Jim have a sable tabby cat named Pickles who runs the house. ScotCharles is a retiree and regular poster to's Bulletin Boards.

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