Sunday, February 22, 2009

The beginning of all this: the spectre of HIV

The next chapter leading up to this travel adventure to Africa comes from a less innocent interest than that described in my first post.

I now go back to the early 1980's; 1981/82 to be exact. This was the year of GRID - Gay Related Immune Deficiency, which soon morphed into AIDS - Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, when the scientists got over their homophobic bias and realized that a virus that affected only gay people did not and could not exist.

The news of this frightening new phenomenon emerged slowly in the first year HIV appeared on the western scene. We now know from the microbe gumshoes that the virus was travelling around the world and was making its way into the white world hegemony of North America and Europe in the 1960's and '70's and possibly earlier. This was possible as there is a non symptomatic period of up to 20 years and beyond after infection by HIV, before the HIV empowers the invasion of Opportunistic Infections into the body and marshalls the onset of full blown AIDS.

I was living in my sheltered little world, one person at work and with family and another person out and about on weekends. Soon I was hearing of people that I knew coming down with this new disease, or what ever it was as there no common name for it - it was totally unknown and had never been encountered knowingly before. Many gay people were affected. Shunning and discrimination was the mainstream reaction and we soon realized we had to help ourselves. People were getting sick and dying. When people I knew came down with it and then some friends, I could no longer say that it did not affect me. They were dying, in horrible isolation, rejected by families, isolated by the health system [it was not 'health care' for them], in awful conditions with horrible diseases like Kaposi's Sarcoma[ a very visible skin cancer that became the AIDS marker for years], PCP [a pneumonia], CMV and much more acompanied by wasting, fungi, diarrhea, and more and very toxic, experimental drugs.

I started to volunteer with the newly formed AIDS Committee of Toronto - ACT. At first, I worked on a few committees, then was elected to the Board as Treasurer [logical as I worked in Finance in my other life] and then as Vice Chair. I was asked to run for Chair but that was too public for my guilt ridden, closeted, homophobic self, as that meant having to speak to the press in those early hysterical days of the pandemic and I could not yet bring myself to do that.

I continued to work for years with ACT and the culmination of my work there was co facilitating a support group for People with AIDS. This was another logical step as I was also a qualified social worker and I had a big living room where we could have the meetings. There was no money or public meeting space available to 'those people with that disease'. Today no one would ever dream of having support meetings like that in their home, and we learned through harsh experience. I was with the group for 2 years and literally watched people die before my eyes. The conventional 'wisdom' was that one would live for 18 - 24 months after diagnosis and that is what happened. I felt guilty because I was healthy when all those around me were dying - now labelled 'survivor's guilt'. I never left the meeting physically as I was already in my home, so I left the meeting by drinking half a bottle of vodka on my own after the others had gone. This way I would blot out my thoughts, my emotions, my pain, and eventually fall asleep, so I could get up the next morning to go to my job, my other life as though nothing had happened.

At about the time I was ready for an emotional breakdown, I was spared that as serendipitiously, I was tranferred to Vancouver with my day job. I stopped my involvement in the HIV arena for reasons of self preservation and healing for some years. I resumed the HIV/AIDS volunteer work in 2000, quit my finance career and started to work full time for the BC Persons With AIDS Society in 2002, where I am today. In the meantime, the pandemic was and is still wreaking chaos, death and destruction in the Africa that had been the focus of my imagination for so long, for almost 50 years since those black grainy missionary movies back in the Baptist Church in Chatham, Ontario.

1 comment:

  1. Gripping tale, Adriaan, thanks for sharing. I'd never heard of GRID before.
    - Philippe