“Sweating, heart palpitating; suddenly I’m awake, sitting up in bed. “My body, something is happening inside my body.” The spot where I was sleeping is soaked. It’s 4am in the morning. Kenny is laying sound asleep next to me. “Something is happening inside my body.” Thoughts of AIDS rush around my mind: Flu symptoms, night sweats, high risk, enlarged lymph nodes, no cure. My anxiety is replaced with a decision to get tested immediately.
I try to go back to sleep, but when Kenny wakes at 7am I’m still wide awake. “We’ve got to get tested.” Kenny doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I show him the soaked spot on my pillow, and explain this dread fear that I have. “I may have AIDS and I need to know.” Now, Kenney is the type of man who feels that as long as he isn’t sick, he doesn’t want to know, or need to know, whether anything’s wrong. It’s important to me so after a couple of days of discussion he agrees to go with me to get tested for HIV.
It’s early October, 1989, the leaves on the trees are emblazoned with colors ranging from lush browns to bright yellow, vibrant red and orange. The air is crisp and clear. On the way to Henry Ford Hospital, where HIV/AIDS anonymous testing is done, I look out of the car window at natures kaleidoscope of color as if I’m looking at it for the last time.
When we arrive at the hospital we’re directed to an isolated wing where one person is drawing blood and counseling. Very little is known about HIV at the time. We’re told that we would have the results of our blood test in two weeks. “Two weeks.” Needless to say those two weeks are filled with visible anxiety for me. Kenny on the other hand appears apathetic. I call Kenny’s apathy invisible anxiety.
The phone is ringing. It’s 9am October 27, 1989. “Hello.” “Hello, Mr. Skipper, this is Bill Townsend. We need for you and your partner to come in to the clinic to receive your test results.” It’s the counselor from the testing center at Henry Ford Hospital. “Can’t you give them to me over the phone?” “No,” is the response, “Against policy.” I knew that. I don’t know why I asked. “OK, we’re on our way.”
The Palmer Park area off of Woodward Ave. and six mile road in Detroit was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Now it’s a predominantly gay neighborhood. Most of the gay black males and females in Detroit pass through Palmer Park at some time in their life. The rent for apartments and housing surrounding the park range from moderate to very expensive accommodating tastes for the simple as well as the sublime. The park is about six miles in diameter, with a wooded area, a pond and an old log cabin with some historical merit. Summer art fairs are held there, the Hotter Than July Gay Pride picnic is also held there. There are areas for family picnics, a playground, golf course, tennis courts and a swimming pool for the children. The parks diametrically round landscaping makes it ideal for inner city joggers. Its large parking lots also make it a superb cruising spot for straight and gay cuties eager to show off their sexy bodies, and their array of wonderful new cars that only Detroit can produce.
After leaving the appointment at the Henry Ford Hospital clinic, Kenny and I drive to Palmer Park and park in one of the lots under the canopy of the magnificent autumn sky. We finish of a fifth of rum and coca-cola, and smoke a joint. Our HIV test results came back positive. We don’t discuss how we got the virus or who infected us. We don’t accuse one another because we have always practiced safe sex. We must have had the virus when we met. At this point where we got the virus from is not important. What to do next is. Although the doctor told us that we would be dead in a year, I’m not depressed. I’m a child of the sixties, the generation that questioned the inherent value of everything, and believed that we could achieve anything. “Pass the joint Kenny.”
That was twenty-five years ago. I watched and waited for death while my friends and lovers passed away before my very eyes. Kenny passed away in 2005. I woke up one day and realized that I had survived what they now call the “AIDS Generation,” those of us who contracted HIV over twenty years ago when it was a death sentence. We helped to build the successes that the newly infected now enjoy through years of advocacy and caring. We are the last of our generation. We hold all of its memory, all of its history. In the throes of a plague no one thought about those of us who would survive. How do you deal with life after expecting to die?
The national strategy to tackle HIV/AIDS now is focused on the youth and prevention, as it should be. The needs of Long Term Survivors are somewhat different and are only beginning to be addressed. Many HIV long term survivors suffer from what is known as AIDS Survival Syndrome (ASS), a form of PTSD. In 2012 Tez Anderson and Matt Sharp launched a grass roots community group for people who survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic, called Let’s Kick ASS. ASS is defined by chronic anxiety, isolation, survivor guilt, depression, substance abuse, insomnia, sporadic anger, sexual risks and a lack of future orientation. Those without partners often have less income making them vulnerable to financial hardship. Some are too emotionally damaged to form new relationships or friendships for fear of being abandoned. Given a year to live some liquidated their assets, signing away their financial future. Between 2009 and 2012 suicide accounted for 4% of all deaths among people living with HIV in San Francisco, far above the national average of 1.5%. Like in the early days of the AIDS epidemic when we rallied to care for each other and ourselves, we must rally once again to understand and overcome ASS.
UNIFIED – HIV Health and Beyond salutes our long term survivors. Since 1983 UNIFIED has been a port in the storm and trusted ally for people living with HIV. UNIFIED remains dedicated to servicing the needs of those infected and affected by HIV by advancing prevention, access to health care, community research and advocacy. After Kenny died I reached out to AIDS Partnership Michigan, now UNIFIED – HIV Health and Beyond. They helped to educate myself and my family about the realities of HIV. For more information about ASS and the Lets KICK ASS campaign visit their website at http://letskickass.org/UNIFIED is available to assist you with any issues you may have. Please feel free to contact us, 313-446-9800. www.miunified.org You are not alone.
PLHIV Stigma Index Leadership Council member
Author, Motivational Speaker