Mental Health and HIV in Prison

Tim Hinkhouse
Tim Hinkhouse
Selfie by Tim Hinkhouse

Recently, I was reading the title of my blog, which is "HIV on the Inside."

Originally, I meant HIV inside these prison walls. After giving it some thought, I want it to mean the HIV inside my body and how it affects me mentally, emotionally, and socially, as well as in whatever other aspects it could affect me today. For those of you reading this who have been diagnosed in the last couple years and don't know my story, I have been HIV positive for over 28 years now.

This chronic illness will obviously affect you differently than it has me after all these years. Sure, lots of newly developed medicines are out there that will sustain your life for many decades and give you a decent quality of life. Blood work every so often will show your doctor how the HIV virus is acting inside your body. Tests will tell your doctor what meds will react with your body the best so the HIV virus will stay suppressed.

As long as I have kept my viral load undetectable and my CD4s over the 800 cells/mm3 range, my health has been stable. That's great, right? Yeah, I'd agree. But do you want to hear what my biggest struggle has been all these years living with HIV inside my body? It's what this illness has done to my mental health overall.

Related: 24 Years Ago, I Was Arrested for Having HIV and Unprotected Sex and Failing to Disclose

With me being in prison for decades and not having direct internet access to sites such as TheBody, I have no idea whether mental health communities have conducted studies on the long-term effects of the HIV virus on the human brain. Can anyone email me the answer? I can contribute to this subject if anyone is interested in researching this as a study for a college paper. Feel free to contact me with any questions you have on this subject, and I will be at your disposal.

As I was saying about mental health: HIV has affected the way I think about my own mortality. I don't fear death anymore because living with the threat of dying each day no longer has the same effect on me as it did before I had HIV or was newly diagnosed. I refuse to focus on negative things around me in this prison, such as the constant reminder that I am an HIV-positive inmate. Certain people still treat me as if I belonged in a leper colony because of my illness. I don't like small-minded folks.

This grates on me, which could put me into a downward spiral of depression with my questioning, "Why people don't like me?" The wall that I have built around me protects my fragile emotions, so all I show on the outside is a man who doesn't give a rat's ass what people think. This painful facade sometimes rips me apart on the inside so badly that I stay in my cell away from people for days. Imagine how it affects me when I self-isolate and keep it all bottled up inside? This is why it is essential for everyone to have an outlet so they can feel heard and validated by those who have lived with the same pain.

Have you ever heard the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" This saying is total crap!

One thing I have experienced in life and in prison being HIV positive is that if someone says something hurtful, the words cut deeper and the wound stays around longer than if someone were to punch me or stab me. Emotional scars can never heal, and the damage they cause can be irreparable. Being told things that devalue our self worth, at some point, we tend to believe them and our behaviors reflect our lack of self worth in social situations.

As a male maturing in lockup from a young age while being HIV positive, having mental health issues since childhood, and suffering abuse from my captors and peers, I think that I am doing pretty well for a 48-year-old man. I have witnessed weaker-minded people over the years who have tested positive for HIV while in prison and taken their own lives. Believe me when I say that I have been in the cesspool of hopelessness and just wanted to give up my life to stop the immediate, painful emotions rushing through me.

Looking back at those times, there had to have been something greater than I was that kept me from following through. Perhaps it was a higher power? Maybe a fear of the unknown on the other side of the ethereal abyss? I had a close relationship with my mother; maybe I didn't want to disappoint her? Death is the final chapter to this life, and whatever is on the other side is whatever you believe it to be. I hope one day to see you over there. Right now, I want to share my words with people that are reading this and hopefully impact their lives in a good way.

Stay strong and stay healthy.

Tim Hinkhouse has been HIV-positive for over 28 years and has been in prison in Oregon for almost as long due to non-disclosure of his HIV status.

Send Tim an email.

Read Tim's blog, HIV on the Inside.