Choosing Life
An Intrepid Advocate, YA Author Shaun David Hutchinson Encourages Readers to Protect Their Mental and Their Sexual Health
by Dann Dulin

Photos by Chris Piedra

Suicide. Who hasn’t thought about it during one of the darker moments of their lives?

Shaun David Hutchinson, author of queer books for young adults (YA), did more than think about it. He took drastic steps to manifest his wish. At nineteen, Shaun was struggling with coming out and suffered severe depression. To relieve tension, he would slam his fist through walls, and cut himself, as well.

A student at Florida Atlantic University, Shaun was living in the dorms. It was spring break and he decided to not go home and continue to work at a nearby mall.

For several years he had been retreating within himself. One bleak night he was wrapped in isolation, despair, and fear, feeling he’d never fit into the gay community, and that eventually he would die of AIDS. Shaun’s morbid thoughts turned to suicide. Swallowing sixty Tylenol, he slept for several hours then woke up, puking nearly uncontrollably on the bathroom floor. Eventually Shaun realized he wasn’t going to die, and called 911.

He lay in ICU for two weeks, nearly losing his liver, then spent another week in a hospital room, followed by two more weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

What precisely led up to Shaun’s desire to leave this planet?

“I’d absorbed so many wrong ideas about gay people and what the gay community was about—ideas that felt completely incompatible with the life I wanted to lead.  I lost the ability to imagine a future for myself where I could be happy.  The way gay people were viewed by society, the way they were portrayed in media, made me feel like I was going to wind up the victim of a hate crime, spend my life engaging in meaningless sexual encounters, and would never find love. I might even contract HIV and die of AIDS. The few guys that I’d met and dated by that time fell into all of those stereotypes and reinforced the feeling that I could never be gay and have the life I wanted. Coupled with depression, it eventually led me to believe that suicide was my only option.”

 At this time, Shaun saw the film, Philadelphia, which affected him in a profoundly negative way, contributing to his despair.

“I know that many people viewed it as the first mainstream film to humanize gay men and those suffering from AIDS, but for me all it did was drive home the feeling that we needed to be humanized, that we needed a film so that non-queer people could see that we were just people, deserving of respect. It might have helped humanize us in the eyes of non-queer folks, but it made me feel less than human, and it took a long time for me to work through that.”

 After Shaun came out to his parents, he was in a rough place emotionally.

“There was a part of me that felt that contracting HIV was what I deserved, and therefore I wasn’t always careful. My behavior was one more way of trying to kill myself.  Thankfully, I was not very sexually active at the time, and I’m incredibly ashamed of that period of my life, mostly because of the ways in which I put the lives of others at risk.” 

As Shaun reflects in his upcoming memoir, Brave Face: “I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.” In Hutchinson’s book, We Are The Ants, Henry Denton cautions, “Depression isn’t a war you win. It’s a battle you fight every day. But the great thing about life is that it’s a battle you don’t have to fight alone. Please don’t fight it alone.” Shaun sums up, “Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, and asking for help is not a weakness.”

What came out of all his teen turmoil is that the self-proclaimed geek is now extremely passionate about suicide prevention, and is a heartfelt advocate for the suicide-prevention LGBTQ nonprofit, The Trevor Project, which incidentally was formed in the same month—in fact, a few days—of Shaun’s decision to off himself. As to his life being splashed onto the written page, he responds, “I’m extremely nervous for people to read it….”

Mr. Hutchinson did not kill himself, and this has afforded us the pleasure of his artistic gift! We have the opportunity to revel in his works of fiction; his ninth book, The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried, was released earlier this year. Other works include At The Edge of the Universe, The Five Stages of Andrews Brawley, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, and fml. In two of his uncommon format books, Violent Ends and Feral Youth, Shaun collaborates with a barrage of other YA authors, stitching together one dramatic theme. Inimitable.

Shaun’s own life experiences are fodder for his books. Invariably what prevails in his teen stories are mental illness, loss, bullying, gay life, family, grief, and depression. These themes are all wrapped in diverse thoughtful characters, in Shaun’s own unique style of dark humor, and then topped off with a sci-fi twist that leaves an empowering message.

The award-winning author has captivated critics and has a faithful fan base that he’s passionate about, being acutely concerned that they receive the most up-to-date education about HIV. Consider Shaun a big brother.

He has participated in various events including AIDS Walks, and, when it comes to giving, he solidly supports organizations that readily disperse HIV information out into the African-American community.

My conversation with Shaun took place over several months, during which time he made a major move, uprooting from Jupiter, Florida, to Seattle, Washington, where his gay brother lives with his husband.

Dann Dulin: How’s life in Seattle? Have you settled in okay?
Shaun David Hutchinson: Seattle is amazing, Dann. Moving is one of the best life choices I’ve ever made. There’s a sense of community there that I never felt in Florida. Often, South Florida is all the worst parts of a city—urban sprawl, traffic, too many people—without any of the cultural benefits. There are more independent bookstores in a three-mile radius of me in Seattle than are in all of South Florida.

Way cool. I know mental health advocacy is important to you, so could you please share with our readers anything you want about your suicide attempt?
My brain was a mess at the time. I hated being gay because I didn’t feel like I fit into the gay community. I looked down on them while simultaneously wishing I could be a part of it. More than anything, I just wanted to not be gay anymore.

You decided to do yourself in with Tylenol.
It was dumb in more ways than one. Tylenol won’t kill you quickly. Instead, it poisons your liver, causing you to slowly die in excruciating agony. None of which I knew at the time. After I took the pills, I expected never to wake up again.

What an absolute concept. After you were released from the hospital, how did you feel?
I got out of the hospital uncertain whether I was happy to be alive or not. The problems I’d had before attempting suicide were still there. It took a lot of years to really come to terms with what I’d done, to figure out who I was, and to embrace who I was.

Thank heaven Shaun you came through! You have dealt with the terror of depression. How do you cope with it today? Are you on meds?
I don’t take anything at the moment. I tried quite a few different medications after a second major depressive episode in my twenties, but the side effects did more harm than good for me. With the help of doctors, I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms that allow me to manage my depression from day-to-day — exercise and healthy eating are beneficial — and if I have another major episode, I know that I can always go back on medication if I need to.

 You’re tackling it from an organic perspective. That’s noteworthy. In all of your novels, did you ever write about HIV or the global epidemic?
I haven’t. Because of the way the threat of HIV and AIDS hung over my life when I was younger, making sex something that many gay men in my generation feared, I worried about doing the same to teens growing up now.

I get it. When you think of the epidemic, what comes to mind?
Fear. Fear. Despite knowing that prevention and treatments have both come a long way, HIV remains a specter to me; the disease that kills gay men. Most of which probably has to do with coming of age when it was considered a death sentence. It gives me hope that, for many, that is no longer the case.

When did you first become aware of HIV?
HIV seemed like one of those things that was simply part of my life, but I remember the first time it became real for me. It was in 1997 when I learned that my mom’s best friend, Terry, was HIV-positive. The disease shifted from being an abstract notion to something real. Something a person like me could be infected with. Something that was putting the community I was part of at risk. I was coming out when Terry died, which had a profound effect on my ability to tell my parents.

Sure, most certainly. Were you close to Terry?
We were friends in the way that most kids are friends with their parents’ friends…vaguely. He wasn’t someone I would have gone to for advice. Not that he wouldn’t have helped me, but I’m stubborn and hate asking for help, and it never even occurred to me to reach out.

Where did you learn about HIV? Were you taught about prevention in high school?
I was not. Sex education was woefully lacking at my high school. For me, HIV-prevention was something I learned from the Internet and from other gay men I met after I came out.

Many I encounter say the same thing. How old were you when you first tested for HIV?
I was nineteen and actually got tested because there was an HIV awareness drive happening on my college campus, and I figured I should go. It was terrifying, but there was also a part of me that assumed I was positive and that it was what I deserved. Obviously, I was pretty messed up at that age.

Are you currently in a relationship?
I am not. I was in one from 2010-2016, and when I got out of that I decided to take some time off.

 Do you meet guys on apps?
I’ve tried all the apps, but I don’t really like them. Every time I make a profile and log in, I usually delete the app within minutes. For me, attraction really follows getting to know someone, so apps are just not geared toward me. Truthfully, I don’t date all that much. The guys I’ve dated in the past were all people I met through friends.

Ever date a guy living with HIV?
I dated a guy who became positive after we’d broken up. We dated on and off for a couple of years when I was about twenty-four. He was open with me right from the start that he loved sex and sleeping around, so we were always incredibly careful. He was educated when it came to safer sex, so it struck me as ironic when he called to tell me he’d contracted HIV. We hadn’t been together for a while, but I still felt the need to get tested, to be sure.

Safeguard, of course.
That was the closest I came to HIV personally, but I remember sitting with him later and talking about it. This was probably around 2003–2004, and he was so optimistic. Even though I knew treatments had improved dramatically, I still thought of HIV as an eventual death sentence, but he was describing it as a manageable condition no worse than diabetes.

Have you always used protection?
No. But after I got help and treatment for my depression, my attitude changed and I began using condoms every time. The only time I don’t currently is if I’ve been with someone a long time and we’ve both tested negative.

As you know, in the teen and twenties population, unfortunately, they have high HIV infection rates. What’s your take on how to protect them better?
I think we have to stop treating them like children. We have to accept that young adults are going to have sex, and then do everything in our power to provide them the education and tools they need to keep them safe. We need to lower the barrier [for them] to [obtain] prophylactics and preventative HIV medications.

We fail young adults in so many ways in this area because we know this is a problem and we know how to fight it, but we make it so damned difficult for them to get the tools and education they need.

I hear your frustration. Indeed. Who inspires you in this pandemic?
The folks in the trenches who work to educate and protect young people; teachers who hand out condoms; and doctors and nurses who educate their patients on current preventative measures. They’re the people who help prevent the spread of HIV….one condom and mind at a time.

Can you elaborate on your choice to donate to AIDS organizations that specifically reach out to the Black community?
In 2016, African Americans made up almost half of all the new HIV infections. I’m not an expert in all the reasons, but just as I believe our government has and continues to fail Black Americans in a significant number of areas, it has failed them in education, and in access to testing and treatment. That’s something I’d like to see change.

Agreed—a lot needs altered in this area. Where does your altruism originate?
Probably my mom. She instilled the idea that we’re all better off if we take care of each other. It’s a difficult thing for me because I’m not a very social person and am a bit of a loner, but I think she’s right. There’s a saying, “A rising tide lifts all ships.”

What do you wish for, Shaun?
I really hope a near-future generation will come of age and not have to fear sex the way we did, and that they’ll appreciate and remember all those who died…and can live in a better world.


BOND WITH SHAUN 

What motivates you to rise from your bed in the morning?
Anxiety! There’s so much to do, and I don’t want to miss any of it. Honestly, most days I’m excited by all the opportunities I have to read new books, write new stories, meet new people, and eat plenty of new desserts. There was a time when those things held no joy for me, so I’ve learned to appreciate everything I can about being alive.

That’s certainly an accomplishment. What was the best thing about growing up a geek?
Being exposed to ideas that maybe other people weren’t. Embracing shows like Star Trek taught me to question the world around me and to think deeply about humanity. Also Dungeons & Dragons. I used to hang out with five other people who loved D&Das much as I.

…and the worst part of growing up geek?
Hiding things I loved. These days, I’m happy to throw on a Star WarsT-shirt or profess my love of Doctor Wholoudly, but that wasn’t really an option when I was growing up. I was forced to enjoy those things in isolation until I found other geeks to hang out with.

What kind of support did you receive when you were pursuing a writing career?
I was encouraged along the way in both small and big ways by teachers and friends and family, and it was their belief in me that really inspired me to keep working at it. Now authors I know constantly inspire and push me to do things I never thought I could.

 What can we expect from you in the coming months?
Right now I’m working on a secret book that I fondly refer to as Gays in Space!  I’m also working on a book for younger readers that I’m incredibly excited about.

 I know you will suspend disbelief with your trademark edge-of-seat writing and continue to create a magical tour-de-force. Tell us something we don’t know about you, Shaun.
I skydived once — though I almost chickened out. I don’t regret it. It really was one of the greatest experiences… of… my… life.

 


Get booked with Shaun at: www.shaundavidhutchinson.com.


Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.