In 1981, I was 21 years old and living in New York City. I had just graduated from NYU, and lived in my own small apartment in an East Village walkup (next to the Hells Angels, but that's another story.) It was a decade into the sexual revolution, a heady time to be young in what felt like the center of the gay universe. I went out almost every night and rarely went home alone. When it became clear that the mysterious immune disorder that appeared that summer was spread by sexual contact, I suspected I would not emerge unscathed.
My brother was a medical student, and also gay. He almost immediately urged me to use condoms. My head told me this made sense, and yet I scoffed. It was so "straight," I told him. I see now that this was just a form of denial. If I'd admitted the necessity of safe sex, it would have meant confronting the potential enormity of what lay ahead. I needed to believe some explanation or cure would be found before too long. I could not wrap my head around the idea of an epidemic that might kill hundreds of thousands, not to mention most of my friends. No one could.
In 1983, a lymph node inflamed in the back of my head that made me think I had a brain tumor, but was no doubt the moment of my infection. That would mean this past fall I marked a quarter century of being HIV+. I would imagine less than 10% of the men who became positive when I did survive to this day. I'm 50 now, a battle-scarred veteran, an elder. I have become an expert on something no one wants to be an expert on.
Ironies abound. My brother not only used condoms, but could count the men he'd slept with on both hands. He died of AIDS in 1991. If life was fair, it should have been me. But life isn't fair, and neither is this disease.
Which doesn't mean it isn't a logical disease, even a brilliant one. The HIV retrovirus just happens to spread sexually -- it doesn't care what the sex or the sexual orientation is of its hosts. It is nothing to take personally. So I never experienced shame, nor had any issue with disclosing my status. If potential partners demurred, that was absolutely their right. Hell, I'd much rather be rejected for my serostatus than my personality.
I learned many wrong lessons from this disease. I was so realistic (i.e., pessimistic) about the likelihood of my demise that I didn't know how to deal with salvation when it finally appeared in the late 1990s. The logical reaction would have been joy and gratitude, but I felt disoriented. I'd expended a considerable amount of effort making friends with the prospect of an early death, and this profoundly altered my thinking. It was as if the part of my brain that made plans for the future had shriveled, forgotten how to function. I could no longer compute living a long life any more than I'd been able to imagine living a short one back in 1983.
The fear of mortality had provided me with a huge rationalization to seek out as much immediate gratification as possible. By the time the prospect of hitting 40 and beyond went from fantasy to reality, another disease -- addiction (camouflaged as the hunt for as much fun as possible) -- now defined my life.
One disease fertilized the other. Since I'd been spared death, I started to think of consequences as things other people suffered. This arrogance led to drug dealing, and eventually a ninemonth stint in the California Institute for Men at Chino.
Prison taught me that the worst thing that ever happened to you can turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you. It was the closest I could get to dying without really dying, so it gave me, at long last, closure. And the fear of returning to prison launched me into a lawful, sober life, where I've dwelt happily for over four years.
It's a terrible gift to survive when so many you loved have died, but it is a gift. This I'm clear on. And I'm also realizing that the fear that so marked over a decade of my life was not confined to me, or even to other long-term survivors. I'm actually convinced that AIDS, along with things like global warming and terrorism, have created a society-wide anxiety with far-reaching effects. For the first time in history, anyone watching the news was inflicted with a sense that the continued existence of the world could not be depended on.
From the hope for instant stardom on reality TV, to the emphasis on short-term profit on Wall Street or via housing speculation, Americans seemed to have become fixated on cramming all the rewards or excitement of a long life into a short time frame. It's as if everybody -- not just people with AIDS -- became afraid they wouldn't be around in another decade.
I've learned to think in terms of living a whole life again, and I'm hoping our new President is leading the country in the direction of that kind of thinking as well. Surviving AIDS and addiction has taught me the difference between living in the moment and living for the moment. I take things a day at a time, but I also plan ahead. I have my future back.
Mark C. Olmsted is an LA-based writer and editor. His blog can be read at www.makemarc.blospot.com.