Personal Perspective: Growing Older With HIV
In 1987, my partner and I had the conversation about what would happen if we tested HIV positive. We decided that we would take care of each other if one or the other became ill. We had been together since college, when he was 19 and I was 22. We got tested and both came back positive. He died in 1993 after a long struggle with different complications. We had been together 14 years.
I was left without company and with no one to take care of -- all of a sudden I was alone in the apartment that we shared. Soon, I began to have suicidal thoughts and just couldn't find anything worth living for. Although my health had never declined severely, I wasn't feeling the same as I had felt when my partner was living. Moreover, I was feeling guilty that I had survived -- I was a few years older and we had always joked that I would probably be the first to die of old age. It didn't happen that way.
Although I never attempted suicide I came very close to following through with my thoughts. When he passed away I was feeling physically better and stronger than when I was diagnosed; I had been exercising and was able to build muscle mass. The HIV meds that we were both taking worked well for me. But they never did much for him -- he improved very little and had continuous bouts with opportunistic infections leading to frequent hospitalizations. After he passed away I felt there was nothing worth living for, although I can't really say I wanted to die.
I became a loner. Most of our friends had moved or had passed on, so I did everything alone and really didn't socialize. My sister lived relatively close to me and would stop by almost every day to check up on me, and she made every effort to include me in her family activities. But I still felt alone, so at her insistence I made an appointment to see a therapist who diagnosed me with depression. (My doctor had also referred me to see a therapist or a psychiatrist, but I never followed through, telling him that I was feeling better.) I knew I was depressed -- that wasn't difficult to see -- but what I didn't know is how much better I would feel after beginning treatment. I began to see some hope. I had my health -- yes I was HIV positive, but my CD4 counts were terrific, my viral load wasn't high and I looked and felt well.
It wasn't until I needed to take protease inhibitors, because my viral load began to shoot up and my CD4 cells were slowly decreasing, that some signs of the disease began to show, especially the terrible "L word" for people living with HIV: lipodystrophy. This happened around 1997. Moreover, signs of aging were also beginning to show. I began to feel depressed again; it seemed like the anti-depression medications I had been taking were not working any more.
I had already begun to socialize and make new friends, participating in social activities, going to the gym and joining some sports leagues. But even so, I began to feel tired again, and lonely -- sometimes I would randomly cry, just feeling terrible and sorry for myself. I didn't know if it was the aging that was bothering me or the signs of lipodystrophy. I never sought out another relationship, but had continued to enjoy sex, and now even that was gone. In not wanting to get into another relationship I mostly ventured out to public sex places, but now I became aware that nobody paid any attention to me, and the erotic games going on around me proceeded undisturbed. I felt like I no longer existed and I wasn't young anymore. I began to think again that the best thing for me would be to die, although I never acted on the idea. I immediately recognized the symptoms and spoke with my doctor and therapist. I am now taking another anti-depressant and feeling emotionally well.
I know that aging, lipodystrophy and the sense of loneliness leads me to feel the way I do. Every once in a while I feel down, but not enough to make me want to give up. I've built new support systems aside from my family which has always been there for me, and continue to see my HIV specialist who I have a good relationship with. I also continue to see my therapist. I understand that I not only have HIV and depression but I have also aged, and all three play a part in the way I feel every day. It's taking one day at a time and dealing with all three issues that keeps me going.
This article was provided by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. It is a part of the publication ACRIA Update. Visit ACRIA's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.