Lost & Found
The disorientation of survival calls for us to create new ways to navigate
by Mark Olmsted
I came out very early, at sixteen, in 1975. I spent my college years in Manhattan, availing myself amply of every delight that carefree gay playground offered at the time. When HIV appeared on the scene, I was already old beyond my years—or so I thought. While there was the premature jadedness that came from sleeping with way too many strangers, way too young, it didn’t compare to the bone-tired despair that came from having to bury way too many friends, way too young. When my positive status was confirmed, my own proximity to death added another layer of intensity to the sensation of living outside of a life’s typical chronology. By the time I hit forty, I was so used to this temporal dyslexia that “normal” thinking was as unfamiliar to me as a language I hadn’t spoken in twenty years.
I’ve been struggling to regain fluency in it ever since.
Like many long-term survivors in those fairly hopeless early years, I found every advantage I could in the prospect of early death—reframing it as never having to suffer the disappointments and indignities of growing old. But living for the moment (as opposed to “in” the moment) had the effect of reinforcing my shallowest values: grabbing at every chance for artificially-induced euphoria; getting as much validation via sex as possible; aiming for instant prosperity instead of building it up. Eventually, I found a marvelously efficient vehicle to satisfy all three desires: using and selling crystal meth. I was the dealer who answered the phone on the first ring and had a sling over his bed. I was very prosperous, and very popular.
My reckless disregard for consequences eventually led to arrest and prison. While I certainly didn’t consciously choose such a drastic path, I see now that continuing to take such obviously insane risks probably had a lot to do with a desperate need to resolve the suspense that has been killing me when AIDS hadn’t. In other words, prison was the closest thing to death I could find without actually dying.
Most of us who seroconverted in the nineties, and all of us who did so in the eighties, knew the intense fear of confronting the very real possibility of death way ahead of schedule. A cancer survivor could say the same, certainly, but not while most of his or her circle of friends was also sick and dying. We had to be the support system for others as our own support system was decimated. Fear, grief, and isolation battered us month after month for years.
PTSD is a tempting diagnosis for many of us, but it is so heavily associated with the aftermath of kinetic violence that claiming it as our own feels like a wrong fit. Ours was a different kind of war, a trauma just as real but one that unfolded in slow motion. Likewise, we eventually got relief in slow motion, too. We weren’t liberated from one day to the next, but unoccupied, one house at a time. Who among us started to trust the cocktails would really work until the third or fourth time we tested “undetectable?” How long was it before no one we knew had died that year?
What I think almost all long-term survivors have to deal with is a profound sense of disorientation. We thought we would live a normal life span, then thought we would not, then slowly realized we would. (This psychic yo-yo of expectations may even have had some neurological effects. It’s a possibility certainly worth investigating.) In a final ironic twist, we are arriving at the age where many of us would have started to die the same way most people have always died—cancer and heart attacks and accidents. And if you’re like me, you bristle at the notion that all that work you did to embrace your unexpected second act does not mean your play is going to have a longer run. I reclaimed my inner thirty-five-year old, but fifty-nine is looking at me in the mirror.
Luckily I know how to keep my pity parties short and private—I think we’ve all learned that skill. And my gratitude always bests my resentment when they go toe-to-toe. But this is the second time in my life when I have no time to waste, so I feel the need to operate with a maximum awareness of all of the factors influencing my decision-making, and that includes the possibility that my inner GPS may have a permanent glitch or two in its software. That’s not my fault, but it is my responsibility to bring the latest maps along for the ride.
Sometimes I forget, and that’s okay too. Just because I don’t always know where I’m going doesn’t mean I’m lost.
As a long-term blogger for several prominent websites, Mark writes extensively about the intersections of the personal and political, whether the subject is HIV, the criminal justice system, or creativity as the ultimate expression of personal spirituality. He recently published a memoir about his experience in prison, Ink from the Pen. Visit his website at: www.lavenderisthenewblack.com.