Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World AIDS Day

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Today was a day dedicated to honoring those who have lost their lives to AIDS and those who fight onwards in the present day in the search for a means to stop the spread of HIV. I was fortunate to be a bit too young to be able to count myself among that generation of gay men who lost many, many friends and lovers to AIDS. I can vaguely remember hearing about the development and spread of AIDS on the evening news when I was a kid. I wasn't even technically a teenager until 1986. By that time AIDS had spread throughout the world. The epidemic was in full swing by the time there was any chance I would be sexually active and thus be at heightened risk of infection. Had I been born in a different time (earlier) and place (the San Francisco Bay Area or New York City area) I might easily already be dead today. Our life journeys can lead us in unexpected directions.

In the autumn of 2004 I did some extensive traveling. I was a graduate student at that time. I went to the Netherlands to visit the village where my paternal family of origin lived before coming to the United States in the 1870s. Upon returning to the United States I visited Boston and New York City. My visit to Boston coincided with World AIDS Day that year. I can still recall attending an AIDS Day event  during my visit to Boston. I walked a labyrinth and contemplated all the people who had died in the two decades prior to 2004.

The appearance of the AIDS epidemic has relevance to my blog focused on trauma. How? The AIDS epidemic was a cause of immense loss and suffering for many people. Many gay people lost friends, partners and even whole networks of people. And as HIV continued to spread around the world it became quite clear that AIDS was not a "gay disease". Heterosexual people, married couples, injection drugs users and others fell victim to HIV infection. HIV was (and still is) an equal opportunity destroyer of lives. The loss and suffering many people endured was so extreme that it is not an exaggeration to state many people were genuinely traumatized by what happened. The AIDS epidemic thus exemplifies how serious physical health issues can ultimately compound upon themselves and lead to additional burdens such as psychological trauma. It's a wonder more people in the healthcare community did not burn out given the demands they experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. And the trauma of the AIDS epidemic was still further compounded by the hatred, hypocrisy and hysteria many infected with HIV found themselves confronted with in American society.

HIV and AIDS is a very different reality today. Those who became infected but nonetheless survived the early years of the epidemic now face realities that were quite rare decades ago. Having survived two or even three decades those first infected with HIV long ago now also face the challenges of aging. These circumstances will undoubtedly bring both new opportunities and challenges for those living with HIV as well as the healthcare industry.

I thought of the changing face of the HIV positive community today as I reflected on the significance of World AIDS Day. I have a good friend in his 60s who is HIV positive. It is wondrous that so many people were ultimately able to survive the early years of the epidemic. And I think it's even more amazing that some of these survivors' mental health is as good as it is. I wasn't an adult in the early 1980s so I can't know what it was like to be a young man and suddenly discover myself to be HIV positive. I can imagine it felt positively harrowing for all too many people.

As I prepare to end yet another productive day marked by numerous blessings I feel quite fortunate to be me.

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