Continued from Part 3
“So how does it feel to know your own death?”
I did my very best to do as Mother Nature was clearly (and loudly) demanding me to do: dive into my fresh, free, and newly single life as a gay, and amazingly HIV-free young ‘mo living in bleak and dangerous times, trying to find true love in the big city—while having inhuman amounts of sex in the meantime.
But also while also trying hard not to die horribly. Or drag anyone with me. All while loathing condoms. Also while the SGN obits were bulging bigger than a phonebook and friends and lovers and neighbors were stricken and visibly sickening all around me, without pity and without pause…
So I developed some rules: Adrian’s Desperate Rules to (Hopefully) Prevent Getting (or Giving) the Dreaded “Butt Flu”. The data was in and it all seemed so obvious: HIV was transmitted through semen and blood. (Saliva? Pre-come? Pfffft. Of course they contained the virus, but if they were a serious threat, we’d all be dead.) So my strategy seemed simple enough: no swappy the pecker sauce, no getty the virus. These rules amounted to this: NO EXCHANGING BODY FLUIDS… PERIOD. The end.
Come on the floor, fine; the rug, sure; my beautiful new Bill Blass sheets, DON’T YOU DARE! Come on the cat, the wall, the quiche, come twenty-two times in a row until your knees turn to jelly and your hair falls out, whatever, BUT! No intentionally swapping the baby gravy—not ever. Simple. Fool proof. Perfect!
There was always something, dammit. Something.
No matter how desperately cautious I tried to be, there is a certain chaotic determination semen possesses to go wherever the hell it will. “Whoops! Didn’t mean to shoot in your eye dude, sorry,” or “OW! You came all over my paper-cut, man!” or even my favorite, “Oh my god, you did NOT just scooge in my mouth without telling me after I expressly told you not to… RIGHT, darling?”
Always. Fucking. Something.
“How does it feel to know your own death, faggot? How does it feel to know your own death…”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”
A dizzying blur of dinner-drink-coffee dates and Internet hook-ups and desperate crushes and broken hearts and erstwhile boyfriends rushed through my manic little life, each and every one of them a potential risk of ugly death. It didn’t take long until my mortal dread of the HIV test came roaring back with a vengeance—a dread that made me hyperventilate and want to jump off the nearest cliff.
And so it went: Lather. Rinse. Sex. Terror. Panic. Anxiety. More sex. Force myself to go in sweaty and terrified for The Test—occasionally. When I could muster the courage. Which wasn’t often, believe me. Repeat.
The emotional roller coaster of it was killing me.
Of the aforementioned, “Oops, sorry darling!” moments, one even landed me—sweaty, furious, and again in mortal terror—in Harborview’s HIV clinic to take an emergency battery of tests and a monstrous pile of toxic pharmaceuticals that were then considered the “HIV day-after pill”.
The pills left me barfing, shitting, listless, and feeling like my skin was eating itself… a stark and miserable lesson in what positive people had to endure every day. I remember looking around the clinic waiting room at the drawn and sickly faces surrounding me and writing down in the notebook that never leaves me, “Remember Adrian, don’t ever let this happen again…”
Then there were those soul-withering moments when I learned second-hand that someone I dated or randomly bonked or knew or worked with had gotten the virus… or died.
Beautiful Blake, the graveyard bell boy I used to screw-around with on the rooftop of a downtown hotel, gone. Vlad, who wooed me desperately, gone. Keith, who read tarot cards for a living and had a really mean African Grey parrot called “Blooper”, gone. My friend Troy, who took me on my first trip to San Francisco, sick and going down hard, fast. Richard, tall, sweet, and so handsome, who I had dated for nine months before breaking his poor little heart, recently infected and very sick…
Lather. Rinse. Terror. Repeat.
Then a very dear friend of mine who lives in Portland seroconverted. I was crushed. I rushed down to Portland to show my support and share everything I had learned about the virus and self-care, and I signed him up for the same program that I put my old boyfriend on—the IEP’s regimen of immune boosting potions and vitamins and extreme de-stressing, acupuncture, massage, the works. And then of course came the juicing and juicing and juicing…
I remember a specific conversation we had then quite clearly. My newly-poz friend said to me, “Well, Adrian, we just to have faith that medical science will find an answer,” and I burst out laughing in his face. I told him he was insane. I knew what current “medical science” did to a person as far as HIV was concerned—I’d been watching it for years.
At best “the pills” transformed you into a miserable “protease monster” with hollow cheeks and legs and arms like ropey sticks, wasting away, waiting for the other shoe to drop. At worst, the other shoe just dropped.
But sooner than I ever imagined or could have even dreamed possible, we all found out that my newly poz friend was right. 100% right.
To my shock and utter incredulity, the Dr. put him on a brand-spanking new cocktail of pills that, um, well… drum-roll please… somehow actually worked. “Medical science” actually seemed to have done it. Not long after, it went down from a cocktail of pills to a single, once-per-day pill. And he was suffering no horrific side effects, either. His face wasn’t wasting, his arms and legs weren’t roping, the strange rock-hard pot belly situation never reared its ugly head. The Dr. could no longer even detect a single virus rushing around in his blood…
It was the first time I had ever heard the mysterious and unfathomably hopeful term, “undetectable”.
HIV was still in there, scheming, of course, they couldn’t fix that. The shit basically camped out deep in your DNA. But his T-Cells were off the charts, and he was healthy as Jack Lalaine’s horse ranch—healthier than he was before his diagnosis. It was weird. It was fucking incredible.
And it was when everything about HIV and AIDS in America changed. Permanently.
The obituary section of the SGN shrunk down to a single page, then nothing. Overnight. It seemed people just shrugged their shoulder and stop dying of AIDS altogether. After all of that terror, all of that inhuman suffering, all of that god damn JUICING… it all just sort of… stopped.
Then in 2012, the Center for Disease Control made a shocking announcement—one that I, for one, had serious trouble even wrapping my brain around: all gay, HIV-negative men should immediately begin taking this marvelous new wonder called “Truvada”…
And the rest is recent history.
The latest studies on Truvada (published just this week) found zero transmission of the virus among Truvada users. Even with positive partners. Zero transmission.
But Truvada isn’t without side effects. In fact, each bottle comes with an enormous list of possible trouble—from liver failure to the horror of good old-fashioned lipodystrophy. For the most part, these symptoms only manifested in people who actually had HIV, except one…
Truvada can seriously beat up on your stomach, especially if it’s already sensitive. Loss of appetite, mysterious aches and cramps, eternal diarrhea… which was common with the drug, but luckily went away in a week or two after taking it, never to come back. Except for in just a wee 5% of users. They are stuck with it, I’m afraid.
Lucky, lucky me. I am the 5%
I’ve had a valid prescription for Truvada for a little over a year now. The minute I swallowed the first pill, something miraculous happened. That oftentimes literally paralyzing fear I had suffered all my life, the anxiety, the serial nightmares, all simply… evaporated. It felt as if a car alarm had been going off in the background of my life forever, and somehow it suddenly just stopped. It was gone. Everything was put right. It was all over.
I was finally free.
At first, I just suffered through the stomach explosions and wrenching ache. The benefits to my peace of mind alone made it more worth the trouble and misery—Truvada was the most efficient, the most perfect anti-anxiety medication I ever could have taken. And for a full year, I did suffer: I never finished a meal, was woken every night feeling like I’d been sucker-punched, spent a ridiculous amount of time on the toilet, and threw up once a day at least. (Charming, I know.) I began to suspect that Truvada’s effectiveness came from giving you the “Hershey Squirts” forever… trust me, no one was coming within 100 yards of my butt.
But still it was worth it. So entirely worth it.
Until it just wasn’t anymore.
Last June, I finally hit my wall. I knew that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to discontinue my PrEP. I had no choice.
Which brings us to this very moment.
Earth-shaking new medical breakthroughs seem to happen every day, as far as HIV is concerned, just like my friend in Portland predicted. And it looks like we really are, after this long and horrible journey, at the end of the epidemic. Every day you see new articles about scientists successfully “deleting” the virus from DNA, or “clearing it” from someone’s blood, or allegedly successful vaccine trials. Hope springs eternal. Finally.
My friend in Portland is doing brilliantly, thank you for asking. Better than ever. My friend Troy pulled back from the brink at the last moment, and he’s working for Costco. Even my ex, who went into more than one dire death spiral and lost a few teeth, has stabilized and is doing okay.
And me? I’m just dandy, thanks for asking. A bit damaged, but managing.
But until one of these allegedly “successful” vaccines actually becomes available, and HIV is finally sent to hell where it belongs (or they come out with a pill that does not play wrecking-ball with my guts), I am back to square one. Sort of.
I will never fear the virus—or the damn test—with a soul-shaking mortal dread again, as I once did. Never. The terror train has left the station. The poison air is out of the balloon. I will be smart. I will be patient. I will be brave. And I will survive this. And so will we all, I think.
But me? I just have to get back to basics…
No exchangey the fluids. The occasional tremor of fear. A lifetime of seriously scary memories. Maybe a nightmare or two.
I have faith in medical science these days. And the occasional glass of juice. And I can live with that. For now.