It all seemed to start one morning when I couldn’t walk the dog. It was a sudden attack of abject panic, a basic, visceral fear that I would…well, that basically I would die. My partner Randy, impatient to start his busy and stressful day as an executive, walked our Cocker Spaniel himself, palmed me a few of his Xanax, hastily kissed me on the cheek, and was on his way. I called in to the office and told them I was sick, poured a glass of Sancere to wash down my first pill, and curled up on the couch to watch TV. I felt like an abject failure, less than a man, more like one of the spoiled Beverly Hills housewives of my neighborhood. Well, if the Gucci loafer fits…. Soon enough though, I felt little if anything.
So began a long line of expensive doctors, eventually straddling both coasts. With the doctors came progressively worse, sometimes conflicting, diagnoses. And pills, my God the pills! I took them all, narcotic and non, in the proper dosages and often a bit extra on hard days. Things would get worse, much worse, before they got better. One of the first things that was clear to me and my first clinician was that something had always been wrong, I just didn’t have a name to call it. Now, suddenly, under the stress of a busy career and a partner struggling with even more stress as well as a major medical condition, the wheels had come off. I didn’t so much put those wheels back on, I eventually had to learn to ride a bike.
I had recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive, but I put that to the back of my mind as my mental health deteriorated. I was struggling, really struggling. To go back in to work and perform at a certain level, I had to be sedated, more and more heavily with Xanax. They continued to experiment with anti-depressants, mood stabilizers, even anti-psychotics. Eventually, a definitive diagnosis was reached, bipolar. And it had friends, the ever present Generalized Anxiety Disorder as well as ADHD, and PTSD, stemming from early childhood abuse. My moods fluctuated, I went from extreme highs that spun out of control to devastating lows that wouldn’t let me get out of bed for the day. I frequently missed work but they knew something was wrong, I wasn’t fooling anyone. They were patient and supportive.
Those were dark days for my partner and me. We periodically escaped through binges of cocaine or meth. In L.A., it took a simple phone call and the drugs were delivered right to our front door in thirty minutes or less. It was like pouring gasoline on a fire for me and it was hard to separate what was a result of my fragile sanity from what was simply drug abuse.
It was my infectious disease specialist who gave it to me straight. It was time, something had to give. Time to give up my career and take a long break. Just a year, he said. California has liberal disability laws, paying almost your full salary for up to that year. With my relationship continuing to deteriorate, it was important that I be able to stand on my own feet financially. My doctor knew Randy well, and was as aware as I was that he might not be able to provide the lifestyle I had grown used to for much longer. I couldn’t face that burden as well as the stress of my own career. My doctor saw clearly what my psychiatrist had long been telling me for some time. Stress was my biggest trigger—something had to give. We filled out the paperwork that day.
I’d like to say that things got better that year, but they didn’t. They continued in the same vein. Randy made more than one panicked phone call to my mother at home completely at a loss. She began to suggest that I come home and get my act together. I wasn’t ready. That seemed like failure. I returned to work, unwilling to give up a job I loved. That would be failure. Eventually, I resigned with my company’s full and unwavering support. Blessed with private disability insurance and cursed with those feelings of failure, I returned home back East.
So began an even rougher initial three years. There were suicide attempts aplenty and frequent hospitalizations. It still had to get worse before it got better. I eventually pulled it together. I gave up the Klonopin, Adderall, sleeping and pain pills that were exacerbating a diseased mind. Did it on my own, one by one. I surprised the hell out of my doctor when I gave up Klonopin, the last holdout. I faced the reality of my HIV status and the sometimes humiliating fact that I had to leave my career behind. Sober, and willing to receive help, I found good doctors that were able to give it to me, not further enable. I actually found a new career that’s progressing beautifully. I never really thought I could be a writer, but here I am, doing something that brings me joy and actually pays me. What a thrill that is. I feel ready now, sober, sane, and undetectable. Things aren’t perfect, I still have some nail-biting days, but I’m able to cope now. I’m ready for the rest of my life. Hopefully, it will proceed a little more calmly.
Being HIV-positive can exacerbate already present mental health symptoms simply through the stress of dealing with your condition. The very medications that are saving your life can, in and of themselves, cause psychiatric issues such as depression and anxiety. Living with HIV can be overwhelming. The important thing is to talk about it and ask for help. Your doctor, social worker, local AIDS organizations, and clinics are valuable resources. You are not alone.
Log on to www.aids.org, an incredible resource for information on mental health and HIV. An important contact if you’re struggling is 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.