I'm Too Old For This
I first encountered the word "homosexual" at age 14 in a 1954 Time magazine article and shuddered with the dread suspicion that it described me. The surprise of knowing that I was not "the only one" was completely annihilated by the disgust and derision I realized was implicit in the word. I resolved to do whatever necessary not to be "one of them." This was possible for me because I also found females entrancing and proceeded to date, marry, and father two sons. I did retain an active interest in (and craving for) male anatomy, which was partially satisfied by my work as a general surgeon, which required the regular examination of men's bodies.
I successfully "passed" as straight until I suffered two episodes of bleeding in my brain around age 50. These afflictions resolved quickly, but left me with an exaggerated propensity to honesty. I lost my surgical practice because of a mild case of "frontal lobe syndrome," which led to careless comments made to patients, usually dealing with some sexual topic. I came out to my wife regarding my desire for sex with men. She was surprised and hurt. We continued to live together but had no further sexual contact. I did not feel free to pursue gay contacts because of my guilt over leaving her "high and dry." After several years, she found a lover and I then began visiting the only gay club in our area. We agreed that divorce best suited our situation.
After six months of "What's that troll here for?" looks at the club, a guy approached me for a "yours gets mine" exploratory phallic comparison. The next week, a different young man wanted oral sex. The third week, a beautiful stranger went to a motel with me. I enjoyed the taste of his pre-cum, believing that HIV was not present in this fluid. At my request, he introduced me to anal sex. I put the condom on him. After he ejaculated, I found the condom in the sheets. I do not know when he removed it. He told me that his older brother had died of AIDS, but even with that information, I neglected to ask him his status. The next morning, while I was in the shower, he left without saying goodbye.
Three weeks later, I had a three-day bout of flu-like symptoms. Soon I had a sore, patchy white tongue ... thrush. I took an HIV antibody test at the county health department. It came back negative. The thrush responded to oral Diflucan. Then it recurred. Six months later, I repeated the HIV test. This time it came back positive.
The health worker who informed me of the results was very respectful and supportive, but I couldn't help but wonder what he was thinking about a stupid old fart who contracted a potentially lethal illness by allowing lust and denial to prevail over knowledge and good sense. I left the office shaken and confused. I felt a need to tell someone but was afraid. Eventually, I called my ex-wife and told her, then my sons. They all were alarmed and confused, but comforting.
Fortunately, I had joined a support group for HIV-positive men. I had thought that a gay physician would be a useful resource for such a group. As it turned out, many of them had been living with the virus for years and were better informed about the disease and its treatment than I was. Now I had new friends who didn't bat an eye when I revealed my terrible new secret. I polled them about whom to tell, and the unanimous opinion was to keep it private, to inform only those with a need to know. They also reassured me that sex was possible, but to be safe. My subsequent visits to the gay club felt furtive; I was certain that guys could tell I was a leper. Each day when I awoke, my first thought was a renewed realization of my infection.
I was 62 years old at the time of my HIV diagnosis. I had already lived a lot longer than many and had few regrets, so I was not terribly threatened by the prospect of dying. My professional career was over anyway. My main regret was that I had not experienced my dream -- the love of a man. What worse barrier to the realization of that dream could I imagine than HIV infection? My greatest chagrin about my status was that it severely limited my dating prospects!
I took Trizivir, and within five months my viral load was undetectable. As I became inured to my status, I occasionally forgot to take my twice-daily dose, especially if I was at the gay club until 3 am. Getting a pill box to carry in my pocket helped. The expense of the drugs led me to the Veterans Affairs hospital, where the co-pay is $7 a month for each prescription, roughly 1/100 of the retail cost of Trizivir. I have received my infectious disease outpatient care at the VA from the same specialists I saw as a private patient. (This is the same VA hospital that Dr. Abraham Verghese references in his book about treating early AIDS cases, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story.) The providers there are up on the latest information and very encouraging. One even told me, "You will die of something other than AIDS." -- music to my ears! I was accustomed to the VA style and culture, since I volunteered there before my HIV diagnosis. It involves a lot of "hurry up and wait"-ing. Many folks not accustomed to the VA find it demeaning, but I am grateful for the good care. I pay roughly $40 - $100 a month for all of my care there above what my private insurance covers. This involves more than my HIV care, since I have other health problems. I was hospitalized there for blood clots in the artery connecting my heart to my lungs and received very good care.
Since my retirement at age 50, I have depended on disability insurance for my income. This will cease at age 65, this year. My retirement savings are not enough to support me, so my main concern at present is how to supplement the social security income I will receive. Although HIV infection causes severe financial difficulties, my VA eligibility covers most of the cost, so being old enough to have been in the military is a big advantage.
The chief challenge in finding "My Man" is my exclusive attraction to men who are 40 years younger than I am. I cherish many friends of my own generation, but have no desire to share orgasms with them. Upon reflection, HIV infection, although I know it remains an ominous threat, has not yet been the calamity for me that it has been for others. My most urgent concerns are financial and romantic. In those areas, my advancing age and previous health problems cause more grief than the HIV.
Name Withheld, 65, is a retired general surgeon living in Tennessee.
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.