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Personal Demons October 24, 2006

Posted by Benji in Journal.

            Twenty-five minutes after: My mind is adrift, lost in a proverbial haze of emotion.  Yet, in considering what I feel, in trying to quantify and qualify it, I seem to be in more of an emotional desert.  My mind is dry, sterile.  There is something concrete – I can feel it – but when I stoop to pick it up, the sand pours through my fingers, and I am unable to construct a response or emotion from the tiny glass pieces.

            Without meaning to, I confronted my own mortality.  I also came up against a stereotype I don’t want to acknowledge.  Is it my own prejudice in assuming one word begets another – at least in the eyes of others?  Am I wrong for trying to be “better” than the majority to avoid falling into this stereotype?

            I am a gay man.  Honestly, it is not something I am always proud of.  Why would I want to celebrate something that has made me feel a slight distance from even my closest friends?  Why would I want to celebrate a non-choice choice – something I have to embrace to be true to myself, but something that makes me inferior in conservative American politics?  For all the struggling I’ve done over my sexuality, I’m surprised how quickly it can cut me down.

            Sexuality, I thought, was who you have sex with.  Apart from requisite boasting in the locker room as an adolescent, or the birth of an infant, why would this information be shared?  But I realized: I’m gay whether or not I’m pursuing what my body’s chemistry tells me is attractive.  I’m gay 24/7 – it’s an integral part of who I am.  So to this end, I feel most at ease with my so-called “own kind.”  They, too, share the same (potential) secret.  What other single issue would worry me more to reveal?  So pair me with another guy my age – that’s a start.  We share the same religion?  I’m feeling more at home.  If he’s gay, too, well, then, I feel an unspoken understanding.  As a future physician, though on the one hand I worry about giving unfair attention to people “like me,” I also feel a responsibility to protect them.

            And as a physician, there will be times when I fail to protect my patients.  As a human being, I will fail to protect my friends and peers.  Sometimes this will not result from anything I did (or did not do), but I will still feel awful.  Drawing the line between “fault” and “guilt” should be clear enough, so why have I taken on responsibility that is not mine to take?

            Sixty minutes prior: It all started because I was hungry.  Well, my insertion into this piece of history came as I was driving down I-84.  I didn’t know yet the lengthy prologue that hadn’t included me.  I was driving back to
Hartford to both appease my empty stomach and to see an old friend who had been incommunicado for a year and had just yesterday reestablished contact.  Two birds, one stone, I thought.

            Emerging through the drafty diner door, my friend looked like the day we first met – back in 1998 by the pond in the arboretum, two future homosexual teens deciphering their sexual orientation.  Either my memory of his past hugs failed me, or he squeezed me tighter than usual this time.  We proceeded to “sit down and catch up.”  Somewhat naïve to his evasiveness in answering questions the day before and mostly unable to add a word of conversation to his excited, stream-of-conscious monologue, I sat back and watched.

            Have you ever sensed when something is not right?  You wonder if maybe you’re being a little paranoid but you’ve got an uneasy feeling that can’t be attributed to the greasy diner bacon burger you just wolfed down?

            He kept setting me up for me to guess what had gone on in the past year.  I just interlaced my fingers and asked, “Is it something I’m going to get mad at you for?”

            And so he confessed: He had been using crystal meth, a drug that has gained somewhat recent notoriety for its use in the gay population.  A numbness crept over me, and I couldn’t shake the memory of my previous drug-addicted patient.  “Okay,” I was thinking, “I’m not sure how to feel.  This is so out of character… isn’t it?”  I wondered if I really knew my friend anymore.

            “That’s not all.”  The monologue looped back to something that had been mentioned earlier: He had been sick with meningitis.

            “The doctor said, ‘It’s not bacterial, or you would have been dead by now.’  And I appreciated his bluntness…”

            And I knew.  I knew.

            What other type of meningitis is there?  Viral.  Pair that with crystal meth, and I saw what he was circling around but not saying.

            He continued: “Remember back in May when I had a scare…?”

            Now in the gay community, this immediately means, “there was a chance I had been infected with HIV.”  I had had them, too.  I remembered vividly the question posed by a counselor when I went in for a routine check: “What would you do if the test came back positive?”

            “But it wasn’t just a scare…  The doctor called me up – she left me a message, actually – that we should discuss some blood work in the office.  Yeah, right.  Blood work.”

            Without ever saying that he had become HIV positive, my friend had communicated it three times, at least.  I was speechless.  Again I felt like a child, unable to offer a solution or even meaningful comfort.  I had known him “before and after” infection.  Two things could not be further apart in my mind – my friend and HIV.  I struggled to face the (un)reality.

            I felt badly for him and then got mad at myself for feeling that way.  I tried to decide if I should feel or act differently or if our relationship was the same.  It was and it wasn’t.

            He pulled out a card from his rubber band-looped make-shift wallet and showed me the black numbers that recorded his CD4 count and viral load.  I wished to have some emotion – any emotion.  I worried that a gay man with HIV was fulfilling a stereotype.  I was angry for his choices and angry how that reflected on a minority community that had to bond together, but then recognized the futility, thinking “water under the bridge” – what I had thought when I accepted his apology for ignoring me for a year.  As soon as I realized I felt something, I deemed it “inappropriate” and tried to cast it away.  I didn’t know what to do.

            “I love you,” I said before driving home.

Twelve and a half hours later: After leaving the dichotomous road-side diner and confessional, I had called one of our mutual friends, spoken with one of my roommates, and written to another friend whose brother had died of AIDS.  Whereas my friend had had months by now to get used to his new “status,” it was a heavy surprise for me, and I didn’t want to bear the load alone.

            “That’s how I felt at first,” the third friend wrote me back.  “I was numb, too.”

            I imagine my thoughts will change eventually.  There is something unique to a personal friend who acquires an illness.  It nails you to a railroad track of empathy where you are bound to get crushed periodically.

            All I could do was take note that the weather had gotten warmer and the violet crocuses had come out.



1. The Persian - October 27, 2006

I do not know much about Crystal Meth, but I would think that using this with an HIV infection is a bad thing. I would imagine it’s a shock hearing this news, you don’t know what to think, how to react, what to say. I don’t know anyone who has told me they are HIV Positive, I can’t help but wonder how I would handle news like that.

2. Doug - November 9, 2006

And as a physician, there will be times when I fail to protect my patients. … why have I taken on responsibility that is not mine to take?

If I understand, you’re on the edge of blaming yourself for others’ illnesses. At some point, others must take responsibility for their actions, which I’m sure you know. You seem to find yourself wondering, “What else could I have done?” Nothing.

I felt badly for him and then got mad at myself for feeling that way.

I’ve never understood why people don’t want to feel badly for others who have HIV (or any other serious illness). If I were HIV positive, I know I wouldn’t want people to feel sorry for me, but I would also know that most caring individuals would feel pity or sympathy or empathy as a first reaction. Caring people do that.

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