I want to write about HIV, but I have to go to work. I haven't been able to write about HIV much lately. I don't know why. Maybe because, with work, I feel like I don't even have HIV anymore.
I work on a dairy farm. Now this may not seem the most ideal place to be if you're HIV positive. There's a lot of dirt, shit, danger, and stigma here-just like everywhere else I suppose -- but out here in rural Pennsylvania they don't know from HIV's limitations. What we know from is hard labor. You either gets up and do it, or stays at home and wish you had.
If you do your job, you get through. No one asks me if I'm gay, and no one asks me if I'm HIV positive, and I like it like that. I like minding my own business, and I like it when people mind theirs -- as the song goes, "mind your own biscuits, and the rest will be gravy." I can keep a secret about myself and never lose a thing.
I don't need their sympathy, and I really don't need their shame, stigma or another reason to be fired. There are so many HIV positive people unemployed right now. I know from that pain, and what it feels like to spend years looking for work, because I was unemployed for a long time, and I hated every minute of it.
Work is critical for our survival. Without work, we suffer. We suffer the inability to find community. We suffer physically and emotionally -- our health is at much greater risk without work. Getting up, going to the farm, that gives me a destination every day. I am so grateful for that barn, the pastures and the feed bin. And when the pay envelope arrives it's nominal, but it's massive food for my soul. I love my job on most days, but I am grateful for it every day.
I am working harder than I have ever worked in my life. I am up at the farm by five a.m., milking cows, feeding, cleaning stalls, and running the milk house. There are all these little chores that make up my day. Twice a day, I milk a row of thirty-six Holsteins. By hand, I carry buckets of water and feed for their twelve (and growing) calves. These tasks have put muscle on my bones, and over the last year, I've watched my hands grow in size. I can no longer see veins; I see muscle instead-I see strength and resilience, perseverance and tenacity-I see life. They ache sometimes, and at night the pain keeps me awake. I prefer this to the anxiety, and the pain of an empty kitchen. I can suffer this pain; I can take an aspirin for it. But the pain of hunger, debt and self-doubt, that is something I can't easily medicate away.
I like what my body can do now. It is far stronger than it has been in years. This is hard labor. This is the effect of it-my body is a tank. And in my mind, I no longer worry about depression and suicidal thoughts. I worry if I can still do it as the years gain, but those fears dissipate before the sun rises, when I am out there doing it all over again, every day, with a sheepish pride.
I wish that every HIV-positive man and woman had work to see them through. On top of everything else, the HIV community faces one of the highest rates of unemployment in the nation, and equally dismal prospects for changing all that. The reasons are there: fatigue, depression, the need to keep insurance and welfare intact. The system does not make it easy on us to reemerge as employed. But I would bestow even volunteer work on every single able-bodied one of us. The benefits of getting up and getting out are many. As I said: community, having a destination, the reward of a paycheck or even praise from our co-workers -- this gives me purpose and a connection to others. This saved my life too.
Of the many social programs out there for HIV positives, I would recommend we not forget those that get us back to work. It's a four-letter word I know, but it may add years and real happiness to your life. With or without a paycheck, being HIV positive and working full-time, part-time or as a volunteer is essential for your wellbeing, and for making connections in this life.
When the alarm clock goes off at four AM it may not seem easy, but when my head hits that pillow at night, I have won something more than money or faint praise -- I've won back my life through hard work. I have seen the changes, and the thin line between them and me evaporated every time I lift a new calf up in the air, haul a stack of bales out of the barn, re-wire the feed bin or fix the fencing. I have seen these changes and felt them with every part of my being; enough to say that hard labor returned to me my dignity and my soul.