Recovering Your Balance After the Doctor Breaks the News (And Your World Turns Upside Down)

You and I can let ourselves be defined and weighed down by a medical diagnosis or any other of our lives' difficult experiences. We can keep our world flipped over if we choose to. Or we can choose to claim our power and live while we are alive.
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You just never know when your whole world is going to be turned upside down.

Your life is swinging along nicely. You just finished renovating your 1924 condo in a great area of booming downtown Washington, D.C.

Your work has taken you to Africa and the Caribbean within the last few years.

There's a new man in the picture and you're hearing that old devil called love calling your name again after so many years.

Then your doctor calls. You expected him to call, as he's done for the last 13 years, to give you the results of the blood work you had done a week before as part of your routine annual checkup.

Only this time, he begins the conversation with "I have bad news on the HIV test."

You're startled. You can't quite believe what you just heard.

When he suggests you come in "so we can get you started," you want to shout, "What do you mean, 'get me started?'" As if you've been waiting for this moment? As if it was my destiny all along, to be killed by the same thing that killed so many of my friends when we were in our 20s and 30s? As if it's my fate merely because I'm gay?"

So here I am, three weeks to the day after I turned 47 -- on the October 27 birthday of my late beloved friend Rich -- and eight little words I never expected to hear (I was careful, took only calculated risks -- like most people) flip my world on its head.

Being the skeptical sort, I insisted on a second blood test. I wanted to be sure the positive result was actually mine.

Twenty minutes later, my own eyes confirmed what my doctor had said.

A week later, further blood work showed that not only did I have HIV, but it had already wreaked havoc on my immune system. I had only 198 T-cells, the white blood cells the virus attacks. "That's an AIDS diagnosis!" I said to my doctor. "This is so 80s!" There was no reason anyone who gets tested regularly should find out he has HIV only after it has had a chance to do serious damage.

But there was the rub. It turned out that, despite my faithful yearly checkups and visits in between if anything unusual in my health warranted it, my doctor hadn't tested me for HIV for the past couple of years. I could have been infected for several years without even knowing it.

Now on top of my diagnosis and the terror I felt, I had to deal with the possibility that I could have infected someone else during the time of my own ignorance without ever realizing it.

I started taking medication right away, and within a few months my viral load dropped from its initial 50,000 to the optimal undetectable level. My T-cells began their ascent back to the normal 600 to 1,600 range.

Eight years later, I am still on the same drug regimen. I have missed maybe one dose in all this time, and my blood counts continue to be good. Other than the Allopurinol I had to add to my daily pill collection -- to control the uric acid in my blood, perhaps a side effect of one of my HIV meds, which has caused the painful arthritis known as gout to afflict both my hands -- I am in great health for a man who just turned 55.

I still lift weights and ride the stationary bike at the gym several times a week, walk as much as I can -- a harder proposition now that I live in a place where we drive everywhere -- and eat a healthy diet. I credit my lack of serious gastrointestinal issues -- a common side effect of my medications -- to drinking lots of iced green and peppermint tea and Greek yogurt. Those things are outstanding for the gut, one of the main areas where even well-managed HIV still hides out and can flare up almost as soon as someone stops taking his meds.

I also still practice what I told my friends I would do right after my diagnosis: I refuse to make HIV my "primary" identity. I have proudly claimed for myself the bravery and defiance of my gay brothers who in the earliest, darkest years of AIDS refused to call themselves "victims" and insisted they be known as "people with AIDS" or later, "people living with HIV."

Drawing on their strength makes me a strong advocate for my own health care needs -- and active in trying to consistently make healthy choices in what I eat and drink (I miss my Bombay Sapphire martinis!).

Through and all, though, I am still John, and don't wish to be known by any other label. I don't think of myself as "HIV-positive John," or "Gay John." Just John.

But I can tell you that John is a different man in many ways from the man who answered his doctor's phone call on October 27, 2005.

You don't have your world turned upside down and not get changed by the experience. How you change, though, is largely up to you.

As for me, I decided many years ago, when my friends were dying and we were all so young, that I would not cave in to despair. Rather I would wring whatever wisdom I could from all that suffering and sorrow.

I like to say that living with HIV has simply underscored, boldfaced, italicized, uppercased and set off in blinking neon (fuchsia-colored, of course) what I began to learn in my young years. Life is short no matter how long it may be. Time is precious. Our bodies are fragile. Our life itself is a candle flame that can be snuffed out in an instant.

I see so many people who have no clue whatsoever of the power they have to choose between existing as a victim and living as a victor.

The challenge I face is to claim the power I have to recover my balance, even after something terrible beyond my control has turned my world upside down.

You and I can let ourselves be defined and weighed down by a medical diagnosis or any other of our lives' difficult experiences. We can keep our world flipped over if we choose to.

Or we can choose to claim our power and live while we are alive.

For more by John-Manuel Andriote, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.