My A.S.S. (AIDS Survivors Syndrome)

After reading a startling honest and fresh blog entry by Leslie L. Smith this morning, (Why A.S.S. Is About So Much More Than Guilt), I was unwittingly startled into an acceptance I am in a period where the forces at work in my life are joining together to take me beyond the troubles of the last decade and to help me solve a major creative problem:  what to do with about 30 short stories I wrote two winters ago.  I used to facilitate a health enhancement course called the L.I.F.E. program (Learning Immune Function Enhancement) at the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod.  It was a perfect fit:  my background was not only in teaching, I was HIV+, with an AIDS diagnosis, and currently working in the Prevention and Education arm of the agency.  One requirement of our MA grant was to provide some sort of health curriculum to agency clients. The only downside was that I never had the opportunity to actually take the course.  I was relatively newly positive (about 5 years) and hadn’t had much opportunity to process with other HIV+ men.

You see, I’ve been saying I used HIV.  That’s my survivor’s guilt.  I’ve been saying that in a path of self-destructive behavior, I was ‘chasing’ HIV.  And in a way, I was.  This piece isn’t about that, so I’m going to stop right there.  What this piece is about and what Leslie’s blog piece helped me see, is that all those stories are somehow based on my HIV.   I have struggled trying to figure out where to take them, how to join them, how to tie them together so that I can move on to something else.  Because I haven’t given my chance to step back from the story I have been telling for the past 10 years, that I used HIV, I’ve been anchored in one spot unable to unfurl my sails and let myself glide to a new destination.  I have been stuck in my story, with my 30 short stories, unable to to move on.  Reading this article helped see that I need to look at these past 10 years as a THEN, not a NOW.  As soon as I read that today, it all came together.  The outline, the order, the themes of a collection of short stories.  I felt the anchor lift as I egged the boat forward over it, felt it give way, and I am now pulling for my life.  Afloat, gliding, sailing on.

Breaking the Cycle: Writing Down a Dream

I normally don’t remember my dreams beyond the first few moments of waking.  And I usually sleep like a rock (daily swimming/biking will do that.)  But this week, almost every night, I have been not only waking and remembering my dreams, I have been able to carry them into the day, able to sequester the images, the feelings, the story, and able to return later in the hopes of wringing out meaning.  At first there was a series of plane crashes; not the scary, “I’m gonna die” sort of thing but instead the kind which fosters a curiosity.  They are the “Hmmm….ok, here’s how I’m going to survive this” sort of dream.  In one, I’m forced to take a seat on the wing….literally laying down on the wing with my feet clipped into a ‘chip-clip’ contraption and my arms over my head hanging onto a handlebar of sorts.  Next night, bigger, fierier sort of apocalyptic plane incident in which I simply managed my way through.  Often I’ve been yelling at my family.  On Tuesday after an evening having dinner with two couples (we don’t do dinner/have very few couple friends with whom we interact) I woke up screaming, ‘Why?’

I knew exactly why.  I tried to calm myself after the scream, starting thinking about the dream, and quickly told myself that I’d probably not remember it, that if I turned on a light I would wake myself further and not be able to get back to sleep, that I needed sleep more than I needed to write down or remember the dream, that yes, the dream was really significant and held a piece of a puzzle I have been searching for for a very long time, that I was clearly just lazy because I wanted sleep over truth and insight, that I wanted to stay in my own vortex of avoiding the truth, avoiding hard work, of demeaning my existence, my gifts, my talents, that even if I did turn the light on and write out the dream it would surely not have the same significant in the morning that I was attributing to it while in bed, tears streaming down my face.

I realized in the hour long conversation with all of the voices in my head that I was at a tipping point.  For years my baggage, my stuff, and my process kept me just under the surface of understanding and change.  I have been as addicted to my story as I have been to my drugs of choice so much so that even subconsciously, I have not allowed my true self to break through even in my dreams.  I have held it at bay, necessarily so, until this point in time where now I am allowing a deep voice to bubble up and force me a little further up to the surface, perhaps even breaking through into the air above.

My subconscious cried out, “Why?”  The dilemma?  In my dream, after an evening with new friends explaining to them how I wasn’t an artist but something less than, wasn’t an actor but something less than, wasn’t a musician but something less than, wasn’t a teacher but something less than, wasn’t a writer but something less than, I cried out, “Why?” in tears.  Why am I still doing this to myself?  Why am I still demeaning by natural talents whether they are top-notch, have-assed or new developments/talents/abilities?  Why am I still defining myself as ‘less than’ when in reality, when I look at my gifts, my life, my experiences, my soul, I am clearly something more than ‘less than.’  I am more-than.  I am what I define myself to be.  Law of Karma.  I am what I put out there.

I shared with my partner the next morning with unbridled excitement:  “I clearly heard myself at dinner last night,” I said, “because my subconscious will no longer let me get away with it.”  It felt wrong in the moment at the dinner table, and clearly in the middle of the night I realized I have had enough of the same behavior.  All those voices in my head telling me that I should just try to go back to sleep?  I ignored them, turned on the light, and wrote out my dream.  It may not sound that significant to those of you who make a habit turning on a light to write or who use this tool, dream journaling, regularly.  But for someone who has been listening to all these voices in my head for so long, who has been so comfortable going from “I’m going to change the world” to a “I want to die” on a regular schedule, giving myself permission to see a roadblock and to know it’s not real, to know I can overcome it, to accept the voices are just voices, that the true voice, a “Why” in the middle of the night, is my “barbaric yelp,” breaking my sleep cycle to write out a dream in the middle of the night was breaking a bigger cycle.  A much bigger cycle.

I did it again the night after and last night again.  New cycle.  New voice. New neural pathways….re(dis)covery.

Andrew Says it All

It was a welcome sight to see Andrew Sullivan come out of Dish retirement to sum this all up for us:


 

As Gandhi never quite said,

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.

I remember one of the first TV debates I had on the then-strange question of civil marriage for gay couples. It was Crossfire, as I recall, and Gary Bauer’s response to my rather earnest argument after my TNR cover-story on the matter was laughter. “This is the loopiest idea ever to come down the pike,” he joked. “Why are we even discussing it?”…….. read more here


Nothing I can write will add to this celebration.  Except to say our celebration should also be an homage to those people who were fighting for this right while many of us were just spinning on the dance floor. The people who were doing the work, who were fighting on the front lines, deserve our acknowledgement because, let’s face it, we weren’t on the front lines fighting.  We were just trying to survive however we knew best.

I can’t help but think about yesterday and what this will do for those of us who suffer from our various issues of addiction, mental health issues, etc. etc.  The Supreme Court may just have saved more than a few lives yesterday by giving hope to those prone to despair and self-destruction.  But there are scars everywhere we look.  Scars to remind us.  There will be new wounds to tend and future scars with which to live.  What much of the world doesn’t understand is that we are scarred.  We are suffering from various degrees of trauma which won’t just disappear with yesterday’s decision.  But at least now we have a chance at life with a more level playing field.

The fact is, I’m not going to run out and get married.  For a variety of reasons.  My ex-partner and I got a Civil Union in Vermont on our 15th anniversary together.  We did it because we had moved to Vermont, and what they heck, we could. But right down the road were huge signs painted on the sides of barns, in store windows, on lawns, telling us that our right to have a union wasn’t supported by everyone.

**FILE**A man , who would not give his name, puts up a "Take Back Vermont" sign at the polling site in Barre, Vt., in this Nov. 7, 2000 file photo. Eight years after suffering through a not-so-civil war over civil unions, Vermont is weighing whether to go a step further and legalize gay marriage. But the tenor of the debate is markedly tamer this time around, with none of the vitriol and recrimination that surrounded the state's first-in-the-nation law recognizing same-sex relationships in 2000. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)542

But our relationship had been built on a foundation which, I imagine, few straight relationships would ever have understood. The man above certainly wouldn’t have understood.  No, the relationship didn’t last, there was a divorce years later, but that man is still someone I will grow old with because of who we are, what we built, and what we lived through.  He’s not, however, the man with whom I am celebrating a 10 year anniversary this summer.

I am a man who has found peace, safety, love, and support in the idea of commitment. Long term commitment. The kind of commitment that didn’t need the acknowledgement of the government.  The kind of commitment that transcends.  But I know the relationships I have are special.  The men I love are special.  We may not have been out there publicly fighting for this miracle of a day to happen, but we have been and will continue to make a difference in the lives we have chosen to live.  A poet, a teacher, and me.

There will be a lot more signs going up.  Be ready for them.  Then walk right past them and go get hitched.  It’s your right and no “take back” sign can do anything about it.

For the Love of Birds

Jackie loved birds. She had become an amateur bird watcher often spending weekends with binoculars in hand nestled in a marshy spot along the coast of New Jersey. I actually didn’t know of this passion for birds; it had never come up during our college and post-college years. Those years were a time of black makeup, the Cure, partying and the occasional suicide attempt. She and I shared that passion, the journey into that deep, dark place where our only escape seemed to be to inflict pain on ourselves. After meeting Jaf in an elevator the first day of freshman year, we became almost inseparable. Except when she would go out to concerts or to parties with an edgier crowd than I was used to. I’d sit in my dorm room and burn myself with metal object heated over a candle or put cigarettes out on my hands.

I slit both of my wrists in the freshman towers that year. The next year Jackie took an overdose of pills in my apartment, was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped, and wasn’t allowed to come back to Pitt. In many ways, it was best for both of us. I believe we loved each other passionately. I know we were soul mates. But we shared a darkness.  After we had sex freshman year, I cried after because I really hadn’t wanted to do it.  I believe I broke her heart in a couple of ways; she realized we’d never be together, and she realized the extent she had gone to try to have me.

That determination was soon funneled into an extraordinary return back to school and with her leaving Pittsburgh and eventually getting a PhD in chemistry in her late 20’s. She was one of the top chemists in the country, working at Merck, and had, in many ways, the world at her feet. People couldn’t help but fall in love with her. But she still had her darkness. It was a darkness passed on genetically from mother to daughter. I had never actually met her mother in all the years we knew each other; I just knew she hadn’t left the house in years. Literally.  Her mother couldn’t leave the house. That was how Jackie grew up.

I know Jackie suffered from mental illness just as I can safely say I do as well. I often thought my issues were strictly addiction issues, but addiction doesn’t necessarily manifest itself at twelve years old, my first suicide attempt. I have spent more days of the past 40 years looking at the sun coming through the branches of the trees and feeling both elated and also wondering which branch would hold a noose. That’s been my reality, and while I don’t exactly know Jackie’s thoughts, I know she loved too much. As do I.  And she didn’t ever get to the point where she allowed psychiatric medication to do what it could have done for her: save her life.

The last time I visited her home in New Jersey was a difficult visit in several ways. She was devastated by the fact my ex-partner and I had split up after 18 years. And I believe she was probably even more devastated I was launching a porn career. She feigned excitement for me, but I could see the pain in her eyes. She could feel my ex’s pain from 500 miles away, and I could see her own pain rising up as we talked. She didn’t ever think she would be loved. And what I couldn’t give her, I was about to give to guys while filming in front of a camera.

Did she really think that? I don’t know, but it’s the guilt and shame I have been carrying for ten years.

She told me she hated her job, and I did my best to encourage her to find another path. This is when she shared her passion for birds, and I told her to go be an ornithologist; she was young, she could do anything! There was something missing in her eyes during that visit, and I left feeling badly. Not just for her but also because of the doubt about my own recent life changes.

I got side tracked with an extended trip back to South Africa with my father. Jaf and I shared one email in January, and by the end of March, I was in Joshua Tree contemplating suicide again. I didn’t find out until weeks later that Jackie had been contemplating the same thing at the same time. Only she succeeded.

Why does this story matter outside of my wanting the opportunity to process what I haven’t been able to process in ten years? It matters because Jackie gave back her chance to recover, to rediscover the passion in her heart. She gave away the kitten she had just adopted, strung a rope around her neck and swallowed enough pills and alcohol to make her pass out. The week before she told a friend that she had unsuccessfully tried to gas herself in the garage with her car. As far as I know that was the only attempt to reach out, and unfortunately, it’s was over drinks in a bar listening to a band.

A suicide attempt is not always the often demeaned cry for help or call for attention people like to label it. It’s often an attempt to die, to end the pain. For me it’s always been a desire to start over, a do-over. My first suicide attempt was swallowing a cabinet full of over-the-counter cold medicine. I was essentially ’tisk, tisk’d,” by my mother, asked how I could do that to her and sent to school the next day high as a kite. After slicing my wrists freshman year, I was able to talk my way out of psychiatric care; I knew what to tell the emergency room doctors. In my late twenties while receiving outpatient care from Western Psych, I quickly got fed up with the help being offered and decided to make some personal changes. It lasted a good 8 years: sobriety, positive and healthy living. But I had never taken care of the real issue, that darkness.  Days in to my 90 day stay at my first rehab in Canada I told my counselor I had been contemplating suicide. She, having just gotten to know me, said, “Honey, leave the drama for the stage.” I learned over the years that people don’t want to know about the darkness. Most people don’t know what that darkness looks like and it must scare the hell out of them.

Jackie and I both found comfort in the darkness. And I have battled it incessantly all my life. It wasn’t until this past autumn when, after an amazing run of Venus in Fur, a challenge unlike any I have ever had, I realized something was terribly wrong. I was on two different psychiatric medications but I was getting closer and closer to, deeper and deeper into, my dark place. I finally told my therapist I thought I should see a psychiatrist. I had been prescribed my medications 4 years earlier by a psychiatric nurse, but I had never actually seen an psychiatrist. I went, and he listened.  He investigated. He asked the questions about these thoughts and feelings, and he suggested switching one of my meds. That was back at the beginning of December of last year.  From the middle of December on, until today, I have stopped looking at tree branches and seeing a noose. I have stopped looking at the exhaust pipe of my car every single time I get in it. I have stopped worrying about shaving, about taking a bath, about driving. The darkness just isn’t there.

Again, why do I write this? Because therapy, psychiatric help, case management, a loving partner and family, a 12-step program, endless self-help books, all my years of life and experience have brought me to a place where I don’t want to die on a daily basis. Those of us who suffer and go into the darkness do not have to white knuckle it. We do not have to allow others who don’t understand where we go tell us that we should go it alone, without the assistance of a properly prescribed psychiatric medication, or worse, shame us into thinking we are cheating by taking a medication.  I believe a visit to the doctor and then to a specialist should always be the first step of a recovery program.

Jackie loved birds but wouldn’t let them into her life fulltime, as a way to live, as a way to earn a living. That’s her greatest gift to me: I get to live my life through my passions. I remember her every time I have to make a decision: is this taking me closer to my passion or closer to my dark place? I have my answer in every bird at the feeders outside my windows..

photo credit: Gulls at Venice Beach via photopin (license)

Plane Thoughts

[Originally written February 28, 2011]

I just have to tell you I had a transcendental experience on the plane here yesterday.  Messages flying at me left and right while I was finishing a book, Writing About Your Life, by William Zinsser.  In the chapter, “Writing as Ministry,” the following: “Most people are on some kind of pilgrimage, whether or not they recognize it as such.  If you put your writing in the form of a quest you will make a connection with your readers that will surprise you with its power.”  The author is describing the artist, Maya Lin, and her memorial to those who died in the civil rights movement, and I’m glancing up at the screen in front of the person in front of me and seeing glimpses of a Pink video in which a young girl is slashing her wrists in a tub only to snap out of it, get up, cut her long hair, and start painting.  Many people have asked, “Why Quest,” and in the above is the answer as well as I could ever put it.

I believe I’m less tied to my body on a plane, literally closer to home, my spiritual home.  It was a lovely experience of finding comfort above the clouds.  I had brought 3 writing books with me, one of which, Julia Cameron’s “The Right to Write,” I had purchased and started years ago during the first year of my “Quest” in Palm Springs.  But many unexpected things happened during that year; I never got  far in the book.  Yesterday on the plane I found a boarding pass in “The Right to Write” dated June 2005 from a trip from SF to Dulles.  It was on that plane during that trip that a war broke out, HIV battling for it’s permanent place in my body.  I barely made it to the airport from my SF hotel and was almost unconscious the entire flight.  My life changed forever. And now, nearly 6 years later, yesterday, I was opening the same book with the same intention of trying to write but this time on a flight to Denver to go to an incredibly important training to learn a new HIV/STI risk reduction intervention, one that, had I been given the opportunity to truly examine my own behaviors 6 years ago, might have changed my life.  Coming full circle in the sky when my thoughts are as clear as the endless cloud-free sky around me, I couldn’t help but be grateful for every path I’ve taken,  for the  choices I’ve made, and for the quest on which I embarked.  They all led me to today.

photo credit: Delta Airlines DL0148 : New-York JFK to London Heathrow Airport : ” Night Flight “ via photopin (license)

Recovery at 22,000 Feet

Did you know you can see IKEA from 22,000 feet? You can actually read those bold yellow letters over 4 miles above the earth. On a clear day like today (cue music), I could literally see forever. Into my past.

I am one of those fortunates who spent many years of my life along the coast of the North East from Washington DC, Baltimore and Annapolis across the Chesapeake into the C&D Canal to Philly, all along the beaches of NJ to NYC, across the sound and along the CT coast to Boston, up as far as Portsmouth and Portland. I could see each of those cities today from the plane, pick out the highways between each, the rivers and safe harbors in which we dropped anchor along the Eastern Shore, the spanning new bridges in New Haven and Providence. As far as I could see were years of travel, exploration, adventures, mishaps, missteps and mistakes all mapped out below me in a cartographer’s dream, a crystal clear vision from the sky.

It seemed a fitting moment of reflection, albeit an hour long and at 600mph. In so many ways my life began the first time I stepped on that Pan Am flight in 1974 on our way to live in Cape Town. Since then I have had an affinity and love for flight that transcends jet fuel and carry-ons.  Packing, boarding, take off, a view from above have been my chosen means of reflection even if I did spend most of my adult life on the ground digging trenches and shallow graves.

Today starts another flight, another journey, another adventure in the sky with my feet now flat on the earth. I’m calling it RE(dis)COVERY.  I am proudly IN RE(dis)COVERY.

What does that mean? I plan on figuring it out along the way even though I have meticulously researched the destination, plotted the course and travel stops and even planned for the unexpected mugging and lost wallet.  My journey into and IN RE(dis)COVERY is one of self exploration, recovery and creative rediscovery.  I believe the journey you are on might follow a similar path. Yes, it is clearly the road less traveled but the road less traveled is uniquely yours. Your life, your past, your passion, your essence, your spirit, your RE(dis)COVERY.  Recovery from whatever it is or was will be a lifelong process starting from the moment you realized you wanted or needed help.  RE(dis)COVERY goes beyond that, goes back further to rediscovering who you are and further forward to rediscovering everything you once thought or hoped you would be.  You have so many answers, you have unlimited potential and drive and hope.  We just need to RE(dis)COVER where you hid it.

Welcome aboard.

photo credit: IMG_3419.jpg via photopin (license)