Spirit -- That which is traditionally believed to be the vital principle or animating force within living beings.
The times in my life when I have been most afraid, I've been able to draw upon an inner strength, a voice within myself, to help guide me through the darkness.
I can remember sitting in the doctor's office when I was having my blood drawn for my HIV test. It was September 13th, 1989. I hadn't come that day to take the test, but here I was, sitting in a chair waiting to have my blood drawn. Suddenly I became very afraid, and a palpable fear fell over me. It was unexplainable, but nonetheless very real. It was a feeling of dread, of what was to come, of what the future held in store.
As the nurse began to draw my blood, an image popped into my head, of Jesus sitting next to me, holding my hand. Now, please understand, I'm not religious, by any stretch of the imagination. But at that moment a sense of peace washed over me, and a feeling as if everything was going to be alright. And it got me through that office visit.
As I was growing up in Michigan, our family belonged to a Protestant church. My father directed the choir, which my mother also sang in, as did I and other members of my family. My brother, sisters and I all went to Sunday school, and attended services on a regular basis. But I never really felt like I belonged to that church, and I always felt out of place. Most of the members of the congregation were from "upper-class" families from a much wealthier side of town, while we were a working, "middle-class" family. And as I got older, many times I would feign illness just to get out of having to go to church.
But I think it was important to both my parents that their children learned a certain "moral code," the "golden rule," and that we learn the importance of treating others with respect, while honoring our differences, and "religion" was just one of many ways of instilling those values in us. Both my mother's father and her grandmother were Methodist ministers, so "religion" ran in the family.
I practiced yoga and meditation as a teenager, but as I grew into adulthood, I stopped attending church, and began exploring my sexuality. Back then, I guess spirituality and sexuality seemed incompatible to me. I remember at one point coming to the realization that, indeed, I had devoted much of my life, up to that point, to getting in touch with the spiritual side of myself. Now, I was making a very conscious decision to explore my more "human" side.
And so I did, and with a zest and enthusiasm that sometimes surprised even me! I moved to Chicago to deejay at Dugan's Bistro, which was our "Studio 54." I hobnobbed with celebrities, and indulged in all the excesses of the times, and had a blast -- at least what I remember of it.
When I tested positive for HIV, I suddenly was forced to re-examine everything I thought I had come to learn about life, relationships, why I was here, where I had been, and where I was headed. It was as though, all of a sudden, I had been sent back to the drawing board. The things that had seemed so incredibly important to me, now no longer held the same allure or appeal.
Many of us, when faced with a life-threatening illness, are forced to re-examine our lives, look at some of the choices we have made, and perhaps wipe the slate clean and start over.
When I tested positive, I had already begun to make some definite changes in my life. I had gone back to college several years earlier, after taking a 10-year hiatus. I was still "spinning" records in the clubs, while working towards getting my degree, and was in a long-term relationship.
When the doctor gave me my positive test result, he referred me to the HIV clinic at Northwestern hospital, because he felt that they could provide the kind of specialized care and treatment that I required. I was actually kind of surprised. It was like breaking up with a lover. I hadn't anticipated losing my doctor, but he explained he didn't have any experience in HIV, and so I agreed to go to the clinic for treatment.
And I'm glad I did. At the clinic, they offered me the option of seeing a psychologist. I felt it might be a good idea to be able to talk to someone about my diagnosis, as my partner had tested negative. I began to meet with the psychologist on a weekly basis.
And that man literally saved my life.
I was already "out" as a gay man to my family, having come out many years before, and they had always been extremely supportive. So although my psychologist repeatedly assured me that I did not have to disclose my status to them, and that there was certainly no rush, I felt empowered to do so, mainly because of the love and support of my family.
So that Thanksgiving, I revealed to my family that I was HIV-positive. And as we all stood in a circle, holding hands, I knew I had made the right decision. I thought then that it was the most difficult thing I would ever have to do, but little did I know -- I was on a "spiritual" roll.
During the course of my therapy I opened up to my psychologist about the sexual abuse I had experienced as a child. It was a pivotal moment for me, because I had vowed to myself to never tell another soul, and had kept the secret buried for some 20 years. As I uttered the words aloud, unable to look him in the eyes, the emotions welled up within me, and a release sprang forth from the depths of my soul. I felt a huge weight being lifted off of my shoulders.
Over the following weeks and months, I increasingly gained more self-confidence, and began to let go of the feelings of guilt that had hounded me most of my life. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt like I was taking back control. I had begun to let go of a secret that was eating away at me, body and soul. Finally, I was able to start to work through some of those feelings, and to begin the healing process.
And so, little by little, I began to let go of the things in my life that no longer seemed quite so important. I quit my job as a deejay, hung up my headphones, and walked away from the whole lifestyle. It just seemed like it was time for me to move on to something new. And I embarked upon a lifelong journey of self-discovery and self-awareness.
I started to read everything I could get my hands on about HIV and spirituality. I bought books by Louise Hay and Michael Callen, and devoured them voraciously. I began to study "A Course In Miracles," and attended a weekly study group. I began to get my feet wet with alternative, or complementary therapies, such as Tai chi, yoga, acupuncture, and massage. I sought out HIV support groups, which ultimately led me to volunteer at Positively Aware magazine. And most importantly, I started to get outside of myself, and my own self-absorbed little world, and began to reach out to others.
I also began the difficult process of re-examining my old belief systems, and attempting to look at things from a different perspective. I started to realize that, while I cannot change the past, I am able to choose how I look at it, as well how I perceive the present. And this has brought, at times, tremendous peace into my life, and has allowed me to more freely trust my own instincts. I am less afraid to look within, to really look at myself, for fear of what I might see. Because I like who I am now, and I realize that I'm not that different than anyone else.
And that's truly all I ever really wanted, was to belong.
This is not to say that it's all been easy. It's not all peaches and cream once you make a choice to look at life in a different way. In fact, it can be more difficult in many ways, because when you eventually veer off the path, and you do, trust me, it can be even harder to get back on course. But I've learned, for me, the trick is to not be so hard on myself. I've come to realize that, just as I try not to judge another for his perceived "shortcomings," it is equally important not to judge myself for my own. As someone once said, we are all spiritual beings having a human experience. And you just never know where someone else is on his or her own spiritual path.
I do know, in my heart, that we are all in this together, and that whether we realize it or not, we are all on a spiritual journey.