Coping with AIDS Terror: A Guide for the Urban Gay
"It left just as if someone turned off a light. Joy is gone from my life."
There have been over 14,000 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United States. But those stricken by the disease are not its only victims. AIDS is a dark cloud casting a pall over the gay community, and those who live in its shadow, the medically well but scared, have been referred to as "the worried well."
This phrase is catchy but inaccurate because it is much too broad. With the daily newspapers carrying hysterical story after hysterical story about this disease, everyone is frightened and concerned, however "worried and well." But there are those among the numbers of the worried-well who are so preoccupied that the worry itself becomes a central part of their lives. And there are those who may not even be worrying but whose behavior and life so show the effects of fear, anxiety or depression that they lead lives vastly and unnecessarily changed from the one they once led, lives now mostly sad, joyless and unsatisfying.
Each of the quotes at the beginning of this article qualifies the speaker as AIDS-terrified. The following is a list of behaviors or attitudes which these or other men could exhibit as "symptoms" of AIDS terror and are offered here as a guide for "self-diagnosis."
Several points deserve stressing. To qualify as a "symptom," all should involve changes in behavior or attitude and occur more or less simultaneously with the knowledge of AIDS. For some this may have been only a few months ago, for others it may have been as long ago as five years, when AIDS was first reported. For example, a man who always had difficulty sleeping should not be concerned if that is his only symptom. A man for whom sex never was an important part of his life need not fit this pattern if he often went a considerable length of time without sexual contacts.
Secondly, these items might occur without conscious thoughts or feelings about AIDS. Sometimes, the mental process called "denial" keeps troubling thoughts our of awareness, even though the person behaves and acts as if wracked by worry. This is as true for a person troubled by AIDS as in any other emotionally difficult situation.
Clearly, there is a difference between appropriate fear of AIDS and AIDS terror. Today, almost everyone is afraid of AIDS. This fear is reasonable, concrete and is an emotion signaling danger to be avoided. It is an emotional call to do something to reduce the perceived danger of AIDS. The kind of feeling and behavior to be concerned about are those that do not help solve the problem of the danger and are an irrational, self-defeating response to AIDS.
Now, once identified as a victim of AIDS terror, what can you do? The hardest task may be over. Recognizing the effects of AIDS terror is the difficult part of this process. In fact, this in itself may establish the momentum that will make the rest seem easy by comparison. The next strategy is twofold. First the person should consider the following active suggestions:
The second aspect of this suggested strategy is more subjective. Each of you should look closely at your life, what you do that is enjoyable and is not enjoyable. What is satisfying and what is taxing. Try making a list with two columns and label the joyful side "healthy" and the taxing side "unhealthy." The criterion for the list is however you define what is "healthy" and "unhealthy" for yourself. Next, compare the "healthy" and "unhealthy" columns. Which column has the most items? The task then is for you to do whatever is necessary to be sure that this inventory is weighted in favor of the healthy column. The inventory should be evaluated and updated weekly.
If these suggestions seem difficult to follow, if they are even difficult to consider, or if they have been tried and have not helped your "symptoms," then another approach may be needed. Though sometimes isolated, AIDS terrified people are still part of the gay community and they can use the community as a resource. Throughout the country numerous AIDS service community organizations have been formed in response to this health emergency. Many of them, as well as other gay community social service organizations and private practitioners, offer groups to help the worried well. Merely being with other men in similar situation and talking about all the issues and concerns, may make it easier to deal with these feelings.
Terror of AIDS, AIDS induced anxiety and AIDS itself may stir deeper rumblings than this article has dealt with. Sometimes, stress induced by a present situation reawakens old demons that need to be looked at with more attention. If that seems to be the case you can always call for a consultation with a well trained psychotherapist who has experience working with gay men.
These suggestions should not be considered as easy as these cookbook like steps may suggest. In fact, they may involve real struggle and efforts at increased self-awareness. If this struggle is too difficult, then it might be the time to consult a mental health professional. Especially during this health emergency, no one should be self conscious in asking for a psychotherapist's help. Local AIDS service and gay community social service organizations should be helpful in finding a psychotherapist familiar with this problem. We are all in this war together and no one need suffer it alone.
Daniel Bloom, MSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan.
©1986 Michael Shernoff & Daniel Bloom
Permission is granted to copy or reproduce this article either in full or in part, without prior written authorization of the authors on the sole condition that the authors are credited and notified of reproduction.
It is a part of the publication In Style for Men.