Eighteen years. In the United States, one’s eighteenth year marks the transition into adulthood. The year teenagers graduate from high school and say goodbye to longtime friends. A time to move out of childhood homes and into college dormitories. It is the time we Americans first earn the right to vote for the leaders of our country and are invited to fight for those same leaders. For us, the eighteenth year is a long awaited milestone signifying a time of change.
This year I will be recognizing an eighteenth anniversary. It will be a look back at years spent growing and learning. A time to reflect on the past and plan for the future. A future that, for many years, I never thought I’d see. For, although this anniversary marks the past eighteen years of my life, it does not represent the first eighteen. In 1990 I had already become an adult but experienced a different kind of transition. I was young. I was strong. And, I was infected with HIV.
I was twenty years old then. Now, nearly half my life has been spent living with HIV. My entire adulthood. So much time. So many experiences. A book full of stories. Stories that, even now, I’m sometimes surprised I’m here to share. But hidden within those many chapters are four distinct seasons. The same four seasons with which we’re all familiar. However this story doesn’t begin with the birth of spring. No, it starts in the autumn; a time of dying.
I was told I had acquired a virus for which there was no cure, no successful treatment, and only one probable outcome: early death. In 1990, the average life expectancy for a person with HIV was between eight and twelve years. Hit hard by my mortality and the realization I’d probably never celebrate my 30th birthday, I began preparing for the last years of my life. Not in a morbid or self-destructive way; neither of those is my style. For me, this was a time to relish the beauty of the world. A multicolored world full of texture and change. Of crisp breezes on cool days and warm nights by the fire. It was time to gather life’s experiences. I moved from city to city. I hopped into cars, sat on trains, and boarded planes. I came to know many amazing people. I watched sunsets and moonrises. Rode roller coasters, read great novels, parachuted from the sky. I absorbed everything.
I also shared my life in order to help others live theirs. Early on, I spoke to others who might be at risk from HIV.
Hundreds of groups each year; sexually active teenagers, female prostitutes, heroine addicts, prisoners. I started a support group for HIV-positive young adults. I held friends’ hands as they took their last breaths and comforted their partners at memorial services. Finally, as the internet became popular and accessible, I reached out beyond borders and started a webcam and blog as a way to show others the inside life of a person living with this illness. Then, one day, I turned 30.
The cold winds of winter blew across my face and numbed me. The stream of my life continued to flow but it moved slowly; deep below a frozen surface of ice and snow. My days were short and blustery and my nights were long and black. Looking back, I’ve come to realize I had never prepared for my thirties. Subconsciously, I couldn’t believe I was still alive; therefore, I stopped living. I gave up on my accomplishments of that first decade. I left the field of HIV support and education and took any non-related job I was offered. My personal website stood neglected, left standing as a memorial to a life already passed. Retreating from the world, I no longer pursued real interactions with others. Depression took over. Alcohol and drugs fed it. I wasn’t dead… it was worse. During those few years, I had become a ghost.
Some internal strength helped me survive that cold, gray time until I again opened my eyes. When I did, the ice melted away and the stream ran freely. The first buds flowered on a tree and color began to seep back in to my world. Once again, I experienced beauty and, for the first time in my adult life, I could see beyond the immediate horizon. A future—my future—was visible. I prepared for it. Much of this preparation was mundane. I began to follow a defined career path. Retirement accounts and 401(k)’s became reality. I bought life insurance. I purchased a modest home I would be comfortable in for years to come. More importantly, I began to love and care for myself again. Whole foods. Regular exercise. No alcohol. No drugs. I had been reborn.
Since that rebirth, I’ve been cruising through the bright, sunny days of life. A sail on a boat on a bay in summer. Convertibles with the tops down and crickets singing me to sleep. I whistle at work and paint the walls of my home red. I grin when my loving beast of a dog licks my face silly. And glow when the beautiful soul with whom I share my life kisses me goodnight. As for the future, I still have one but no longer think about where it will take me. You see, not long ago I took a moment and looked around. It was then I realized I had everything I’d ever wanted in life. I’ve spent eighteen years looking back or looking ahead. Sometimes not looking at all. Through those changing seasons, I’ve learned the best place to look is right where I am. For it’s here that the living and the laughing and the loving reside.