First Generation by Chuck Willman
Combating the Blues
There’s one essential to living with HIV/AIDS and battling depression—you!
I’ve suffered with depression and mental illness since high school, though it went undiagnosed and I decided to “treat”/medicate myself with enough booze to run a gay cruise to the Caribbean Islands and back. I was voted “Most Likely to End Up on Skid Row” in my class of 1979’s yearbook; not a single photograph of me sober—including my class picture! In 1981 I wanted to start fresh, moving to L.A. after being accepted in a small film school. My depression just worsened as I continued to try to hide my sexuality, for one thing. But I just never felt right.
I left film school after only six months, landing my first production job at MGM Studios in a casting office, working on TV shows and films in the eighties. I had other jobs in “the biz,” and eventually was the youngest make-up artist at CBS Television City and NBC Studios in Burbank. However, despite my success I was still sinking, and fast. After years in Hollywood—addicted to anything I could find that would shut off my head and numb the pain I thought would never go away—I finally admitted myself into rehab. By then I had literally lost everything, all of it spent on whatever I could find to swallow and/or snort. But rehab didn’t change much for me, though I did “clean up” from my addictions.
Long story short: I made a rash decision to leave L.A. to become a flight attendant. (Something my head “told me” was a good idea.) I ended up in a much smaller town, starting all over. That’s where I found out I was HIV-positive on October 23, 1988. There, I began working with a wonderful therapist right away. She finally saw my symptoms of severe clinical depression, and had strong suspicions that I had bipolar II disorder, along with what’s known as “rapid cycling.” (My moods could—and did—turn on a dime.) A psychiatrist concurred and joined my “team” of physical and mental health professionals. I was treated with proper medication and finally felt “fixed.” But I was twenty-seven-years-old! I had gone all those years making impulsive decisions and doing things that were harmful without a thought, undiagnosed and existing under the radar. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon with those living with various mental illnesses.
But living with HIV/AIDS and depression—or any mental illness—is not easy. I still struggle at times. Especially for us “old timers,” depression often becomes an automatic part of living with HIV/AIDS. We’re sick, exhausted and burned-out, feel alone and defeated, and often feel sad and isolated. And all of these negative feelings can have tremendous debilitating effects on our already taxed bodies, not to mention our psyches.
I do yoga (when my neuropathy isn’t too bad) and meditate, both of which help to reduce stress and stimulate my brain. I take my “head meds” and have a prescribed Emotional Support Animal, my best four-legged friend, Buddy. But there are still days I’d rather just stay in bed and have a good cry. Occasionally that can be therapeutic, too.
My therapists have always told me I need to find something to do “just for me.” It could be anything healthy, and it had to be for my own pleasure—it had to make me feel good. So I paint as a hobby, and have found writing as that healthy outlet. I’ve kept journals for years, sometimes just scribbling four-letter words on several pages to release frustration and anger! I write poems and stories, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had some of my work published, which is just icing on the cake. But I really write for me. And I talk—sometimes loudly, but always honestly—to my mental health care professional(s). That can be the most helpful of all: having an objective “sounding board” to listen without judgment but calls me on my crap.
Through therapy I’ve learned that everything passes, and it’s crucial for me to mind my head as much as my body. My life depends on it. (You do not want to see this old queen OFF my bipolar meds and manic!!) The physiological destruction caused by depression and other mental illnesses on our immune system is well-studied and documented. I owe it to myself to do everything I can to prevent any more damage.
Chuck Willman has had poetry, essays, fiction, and erotica published or forthcoming in anthologies, journals, magazines, and e-books. Find links to some of his work on his Facebook page.