Nowadays a diagnosis of HIV or even full blown Aids (CD4 below 200) shouldn’t strike too much fear into the heart of the afflicted person sitting in front of their doctor - but back in the day when Aids swept through London claiming so many friends, things were very different. Horrific, in fact. After witnessing my best friend’s diagnosis and death, I swore I’d never let myself get infected. When I did, I had to learn that my fate would be different.
One summer day in London in 1994, my best friend Steve – a gentle, jovial guy with the most disarming chuckle – called and asked me to meet him for lunch. He looked serious that day. As we settled into the outdoor cafe in London’s West End, he got straight to the point: he had just been diagnosed with Aids.
I froze with terror. Aids was a death sentence. Steve was telling me he was going to die. He was admitting to me and to himself.
We ditched our lunch plan – neither of us had an appetite. We stood up and took a long walk instead. He was far more in control than I was. We talked and walked, and I promised him I would be there. He, in turn, tried to reassure me that he’d stick around for awhile. But he withered away before my very eyes, dying just six months later, aged 32.
I loved him. We were like twins. He was African American and I am white, and we would tell people, just for fun, that we were twins. We would call each other at exactly the same time and he would joke: “We are in tune today
We were in tune every day; when we were pubbing and clubbing and tripping the light fantastic in London we were always laughing, and people gravitated to us. We never once had a disagreement.
I visited him most days in the hospital, as did many mutual acquaintances, and a friend approached me with a grave look in a club one night and told me Steve had died. When I got home, I buried my head into a pillow and screamed the loudest I had screamed, ever.
Grief can have much in common with psychosis. We hear our late loved ones’ voices. We see and feel them. We dream about them. When Steve died, I had a vivid dream of him going through a door and beckoning me to follow him through it, to a beautiful fairground with multicolored lights and fun rides and people screaming with laughter. But when I went through the door, he was gone – I couldn’t find him. But that was OK, in my dream, because it was beautiful. Wherever he was. When I was awake, though, I was overcome by the feeling that Steve couldn’t enter paradise unless I stopped grieving and let him go.
After Steve died, London became lackluster, and old haunts that had been full of music, dancing and laughter reminded me of departed friends. It was all too much. I was growing up, too, and quite by chance I acquired a green card in the US diversity lottery program. That’s how, five years after I lost my friend, I gave away most of my belongings and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, the setting of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which had long enthralled me. Goodbye London. Time for pasteurs new.
After a ten hour non-stop flight I landed in a gloriously sunny San Francisco. I was so excited to be in a city I had dreamed of since I was a teenager. I worked hard during the day and socialized in brilliant San Francisco in the evening. So many glitzy bars and so many handsome men … so little time! I also underwent a routine, work-related health check that I forgot about as soon as I left the doctor’s office.
After repeated calls to return for results, though, with a reluctance born of irritation, I found myself seated opposite a clinician who was wearing a mask covering his mouth and nose. That was curious, but I was unused to hospitals in America. Maybe this was common? I could not shake the fact that Aids would claim me. I stopped sleeping, irrationally afraid I might not wake up
“Mr Martin,” the health advisor said, “I am sorry to inform you your tests came back positive.”
“You are HIV positive,” he replied. “Your T-cell count is 90. You have full-blown Aids.” The immediate waves of fear made me dizzy and nauseous. I had lost so many friends to Aids in London. This can’t be me – not here. Not now.
It was pouring as I left the clinic. I never enjoyed walking any distance, but that day I just let the rain lash down and drench me as I walked slowly home. I had been determined not to get infected, and I had failed. I was utterly furious with myself.
I spent the first year post-diagnosis terrified that I’d meet the same end as so many friends. There were medications available now – they were tough to handle, but I took my 14 daily pills. Some with food. Some without. Some in the morning. Some at night. I watched my CD4 count like a hawk as the drugs slowly increased it above 200.
Still, I could not shake the fact that Aids would claim me. I stopped sleeping, irrationally afraid I might not wake up. Something had to change, because I couldn’t live while constantly fearing an end like Steve’s. I bought a journal with a black cover with huge white letters on the front that said “never ever ever give up”, and I tried to follow its advice.
Somewhere during that process, over a period of about two years, I lost the all-pervading fear and things gradually fell into perspective. Dealing with my anger at myself took a while, but that finally subsided too. You stop sweating the small stuff and focus on what you like. Ten years later I’m still here, and it’s more likely, according to my doctor, that I’ll die from something other than Aids.
“Trevor,” he warned me, “Aids won’t kill you – but those cigarettes will.” I still smoke, and I swallow my two Aids pills daily, and I am not afraid.
I plan to give up smoking.