January 4th, 2001, is the 10th anniversary of my HIV diagnosis. Because I'm working and healthy, I will be able to celebrate it doing what I like to do: cook a pork roast, rice with fresh pigeon peas, and for dessert, a flan, for my friends -- my friends who have always been with me and who I know will always be there for me.
After having been without work for four-and-a-half years, if I hadnt had the support of my friends, I know I would not be working now. I must admit I have the best therapist, who has also helped me with the decision to go back to work.
I'm a teacher. Its not the profession I aspired to when I entered college, but I have to admit that it is a profession that I like very much, and most of the time I feel very satisfied with the work I do. I finished college in December 1993. My only teaching experience until then had been the experience I had gained as part of my academic training and practice at the university. In Puerto Rico, the experience was more or less good, but not frustrating.
When I came to New York to work as a recently graduated teacher, it was a terribly hair-raising experience! I had no idea what teaching in the South Bronx would be like; I only knew how to teach in a classroom where students respect you and behave the way students are supposed to behave.
These students are different from the students in Puerto Rico or in any of our Spanish-speaking countries because they live in New York, one of the most famous cities in the world. It took me a long time to understand that concept because I didnt yet know what it meant to live in a mega-city.
Work became a nightmare for me. No one had ever taught me how to handle the students or how to teach in a school with thousands of students. I used HIV as an excuse to stay away. If I got to school and didnt feel like teaching, I would go to the bathroom and make myself throw up so that I would look sick when I went to ask for permission to go home.
I was there for two years. I was terrified of work. I would try to befriend my students because I was scared of them. Sometimes I succeeded -- once, for my birthday, several students gave me some marijuana as a present, something I would never, ever do nowadays!
Well, toward the end of my second year, I could no longer handle my job. Now I was really getting sick! I was getting sick with guilt because I wasnt doing my work. I went to school to only watch over the students, literally. My conscience was killing me: I would constantly tell myself, "Fag! Youre stealing the money!"
And the moment arrived when I was no longer eating; I would eat nothing all day. To gain some courage to go to work, I began to smoke marijuana before leaving the house, and then I would smoke cigarettes all day long. I couldnt take it anymore, so I quit.
Now I could dedicate myself to what I really wanted to spend my time doing: smoking marijuana all day long. I hadnt realized that I was completely depressed. To top it all off, I developed Kaposis sarcoma of the throat and spent a whole month getting radiation therapy for my throat and not being able to eat any solid foods. And what little I was able to eat had absolutely no flavor. It was a horrible time in my life.
For the next four-and-a-half years I did nothing. I had a partner for three years, someone who was also HIV-positive and loved marijuana as much as I did. At the end of our relationship last March, I was sick of not doing a thing, of smoking marijuana all day long, of not having any money. I want to go to Europe next summer with my friends, I want to get another tattoo, I want to get more piercings, I want, I want, I want. But for everything I want, I need money.
When I quit my job, I swore I would never go back to teaching in New York. I've always liked challenges, so once again I accepted the challenge of education. First of all, because I've enjoyed good health for a while, something for which I'm extremely grateful, since I don't believe in medications and almost never take them. Second, because all my friends gave me a lot of support, telling me that they believe in me. And third, because of the health plan and all the vacation days and holidays, especially the two summer months.
I was very nervous the first few days, but everything is fine now: I'm not afraid of my students. The revelation that I can do the work and derive satisfaction from it is one of the best things that has happened to me lately. I've noticed that I've lost some weight. I think I'm being too self-critical, expecting myself to give more than I can give. Thanks to my wonderful therapist, who is helping me to adjust to the routine and discipline of work, my appetite is coming back. And I'm so happy that I'm earning money and full of health. The only thing missing is that I'm not going out with anyone at the moment.
I hope that I can continue working. I love the fact that I'm no longer smoking all day long. I love to get home and feel tired, and I love how time flies while I'm at work -- the day goes by very quickly. And I always go to bed tired.
I think a lot about what would happen if I were to get sick, but I immediately stop thinking about what would happen, and instead think about enjoying it while it lasts. I hope it lasts a long time.
José M. Díaz is an HIV-positive writer living in New York City. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2000 issue of Body Positive's Spanish-language magazine SIDAahora and was translated by Eduardo Gomez.