Living With HIV and Taking Care of Your Health in Prison

Tim Hinkhouse
Tim Hinkhouse
Selfie by Tim Hinkhouse

Here it is, another November, but this one has meant something very special to me. Why is that, you ask? Besides the mid-term elections in which Washington, D.C., got swept by a blue wave, the State of Oregon had its gubernatorial race again, and Governor Kate Brown won a second term. And since Oregon limits governors to two consecutive terms, she can do whatever she wants without fear of repercussions from her constituents. Right now, my focus is the hope that she will grant me the clemency that I asked her for. I have sent her documents talking about the decriminalization of the HIV virus, including how California changed their laws surrounding HIV.

Let me tell you about how this whole clemency thing has been affecting me internally. Deep down inside, I am an absolute mess -- and it has my body out of whack. Normally, I find myself getting four to six hours of restful sleep at night. Since this past summer, I have been sleeping three to four hours at night, and it is very restless. Prison mattresses aren't really known for being the most comfortable way to relax. All through the day, I am very tired from lack of sleep. Then, I'm stressed from lack of sleep, which makes my muscles very tense -- and that makes my body sore from stress.

I have never been formally diagnosed with having migraines, but I do have sinus issues that cause headaches that have been a problem for me for many years now. This pain feels like I have someone behind my eyeballs hitting the back of them with a hammer. I have to sit in my cell with the lights off so I don't aggravate the pain. When I am out and about, I have to wear dark-lens sunglasses to keep out the light so it won't increase the pain. I don't experience any nausea, which is a common side effect with migraines.

My appetite hasn't increased, but I notice that when I'm stressed out, I eat more than I should. Over these past five or six months, I have put on some weight, and now I weigh more than I have ever weighed before. Can you believe that I've made it over the 300-pound mark? How do I know this? Every Sunday morning here at my prison, the officers put out a digital scale so the inmates can weigh ourselves. A few months back, I saw the digital readout on the scale that said I had reached 303.4 pounds. Oh my goodness! What was happening to me?

I feel that I am falling into a state of depression, which is a dangerous place for my mind to be. I have a mental health caseworker who I see every few months to just check in and review where my mind has been. Of course it helps to talk to someone, but I don't want to be one of those high-maintenance people who are always complaining about things they can deal with on their own.

This past summer, I saw the psychiatrist, and a new medication was prescribed to me called "desipramine." For several years I have taken around 150 mg of Zoloft (sertraline), which worked by itself, I suppose. I am still taking that, along with 50 mg of desipramine, which is supposed to be the supportive big brother to Zoloft. There have been slight differences in my day-to-day thought processes. Before the desipramine, I would pray to God before I went to sleep that I would not wake up the next morning, so I'd no longer suffer with inner turmoil and emotional pain. Thanks to having this treatment for my depression, I don't pray for that anymore!

I do have to worry about side effects to this medication, just like every other pill I take. On the "patient medication" information sheet that comes with all prison prescriptions, it says under "Possible Side Efects": "Even though it may be rare, some people may have very bad and sometimes deadly side effects when taking a drug." Does that mean not this drug? Reading this can scare the crap out of anyone! Do I have to worry that this pill can kill me now? That would be awfully inconvenient for me now, seeing as how I am trying to get out of prison and help people. Thankfully, since I have been on this new medicine, it has been an alright experience. My doctor had started me out with 10 mg and stepped me up to 50 mg by increments of 10 to ease my body into getting used to it.

Let me tell you about the weight that I've gained ... I was hovering around 275 pounds with the intent to lose 25 to 30 pounds. On my giant frame, it would have made me feel better. I have been feeling like just sitting around writing, watching TV, and working on personal projects. I am having a difficult time saying no to the sugary crap that I am offered each day. Never in my life have I been a calorie counter or have I cared about how much sugar and salt I consume. Surprisingly, I am not a diabetic! Of course, I am not trying to be one either.

The man I am currently celled up with is a 62-year-old man who looks 75 years old. He has diabetes and puts insulin into his body three times a day. He eats worse than I do and has 20-plus years left on his sentence. I watch what he has to go through on a daily basis, and it hurts to see that. I have a relative with diabetes, and he recently had part of a foot amputated. Please, God, don't let that be me! I take a multivitamin every day to ease my mind. I'll start walking or doing something cardio-related very soon.

I should have some blood work done in the near future to see where my HDL/LDL cholesterol levels are, along with my four-month CD4 count and HIV viral load checkup. The last blood draw I had showed all normal levels of everything. My CD4s were elevated, and my viral load was undetectable. Not bad for a man who has been living with HIV for over 28 years now.

One thing I have tried to live by is this: My HIV and health issues are 90% mental and 10% physical. Let's say that I wake up one day with a physical pain. It then becomes a mental block, which seems tougher, and which I have to overcome to get through it. Sometimes my back will be sore from sitting too long or lying down watching television. I tell my mind that I am okay and force my body to keep pushing on. One thing I am fortunate about is that when a cold or flu sweeps through the prison like an epidemic and infects people around me, it passes me by. I drink green tea and lots of water, and I take vitamin C. I wash my hands a lot. I keep the living space in my cell as clean as I can, too.

Living around more than 100 men who aren't all particular with their hygiene habits, I am solely responsible to take care of myself the best way I can. Each morning after breakfast is mandatory cell sanitation, a time when you can sweep, mop, use a toilet brush to clean the bowl, and get some disinfectant spray to clean every surface that is touched. Sometimes when my cellmate is out of the cell, I will bust out some soap and rags to wipe the cell down from top to bottom. This not only makes me feel better, but it makes the cell smell better too!

I am amazed at how much sickness gets passed around here by the staff who come into work with colds, flu, and whatever other crud they may carry with them from the outside world. The staff do have sick days earned they can take off, so why come in to work sick and make others sick too? Lots of staff who work here know I am HIV positive. Showing up to work sick and being around me puts my life in danger. Knowing what I know now, it is wrong to put someone's life at risk, even if I am an expendable inmate.

Talking with others in prison who have spent literally decades behind bars has sparked some good conversations. The most common theme is that they have learned their lesson(s), and they just want out to live a decent quality of life. One of my friends who got out after more than 20 years in prison did everything he could to make up for lost time. He went bungee jumping and rode a dirt bike all through the Mt. Hood National Forest. He has driven his car all over the place just to feel that freedom of going anywhere.

I still want to get out and live in a fifth-wheel trailer, which is going to be my palace. Most importantly, I want to go hiking in the woods and go fishing in a hidden lake somewhere up a trail miles from anywhere. I want to watch a sunrise and a sunset while sitting on the side of any mountain. One thing that I am really looking forward to is getting a laptop computer, making a pot of coffee, and sitting in the peaceful morning air while writing my thoughts. The sun is rising to the east with its morning rays warming everything it touches, and the birds are singing their song to welcome another day in nature. I miss the crisp morning mountain air that kissed my cheeks, reminding me that I was alive and to appreciate my blessings.

I have to remember to count my blessings each and every day and give thanks for that. Also, I'd like to encourage you all to do the same and appreciate all the little things in your life! Even if this moment in time for you looks like an impossible situation, don't panic, because you will get through it. Take care, my brothers and sisters.

Stay healthy and stay safe.

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Read Tim's blog, HIV on the Inside.