Precious Mettle
Or, What I’ve Learned About Healing on the Eve of My 52nd Birthday
by John Francis Leonard

I don’t sugarcoat it; I had a very dysfunctional, often abusive childhood. I don’t remember my father—I was too young when he died—and my mother’s first husband raised me for the first fifteen years of my life. When I say raised, I’m being generous; he was my abuser and the ringleader of the dysfunctional circus in which I grew up. I’m certainly not unique in that and it’s not something, at fifty-two years-old, that I dwell on or let dictate how I conduct my life now, but that’s still a fairly recent development and frame of mind that has been hard-won. Much therapy by brilliant and generous professionals has gotten me there, but there’s one important conclusion I’ve come to on my own, and that’s the fact that often when you are raised in such an environment, you don’t really grow up, not fully. That’s true for me at least, and not to repeat myself, but I don’t feel I’m unique in that. I try to remember that whenever life’s challenges arise.

The most damaging manifestation of that childhood, but one that taught me so much, was a long, at times disappointing quest to find the father figure I never had. It’s still with me at times, but, when I indulge it, it just doesn’t work, at least not in any healthy way. I’ve had three serious relationships in my life. The first was my great love, my only love. But unfortunately he and I each were just too damaged to make a functional couple. It was doomed from its start, but I wouldn’t now wish that things would have gone any differently. “Je ne regret rien,” as Piaf would sing. I learned as much about what wouldn’t work for me as I could at the time. My next two serious relationships were more financial and social alliances than anything, but these two men are friends to this day. We don’t speak often, but I know that if I needed anything, they would be there for me, as I would for them. They were each generous men, not just financially, but in giving me the two key opportunities that led to a successful career. I’ll forever be in their debt.

Fueled by a lot of drugs and lots of cash, I led a frantic search to find something that would fill, or just numb, a wounded heart. I lived life on the surface, appearance was everything, but those closest to me and occasionally a kind and perceptive stranger would see right through my ruse and either give me pause, or send me fleeing in the other direction. I sent countless others fleeing with my nonsense, I must admit. There were many men who approached because of my looks and body who thought twice and abjured when in close range.

Suffice it to say, I conducted myself in ways of which I’m not proud. As well as a keen mind, I’ve been blessed with a thorough emotional intelligence. Not knowing anything better, I used it to manipulate and get what I desired, largely the pecuniary. I’m not proud of that, but again, I knew no better at the time.

I had moments of clarity along the way. When my partner at one time and subsequently myself, received an HIV diagnosis, I took it in stride. He had completely shut down at the news, and there was no time for me to fall apart. I’ve never resented that; it kept me together and allowed me to deal with my own diagnosis with practicality and not a little of my usual fatalism. Over the years, it’s brought many changes to my life, but, through all my crises, all my drama and messiness, I’ve dealt with that aspect of my life and health with practicality and pragmatism. Lately that’s been more of a challenge as health complications arise, but I continue on.

After several years of what I can only describe as a series of nervous and emotional breakdowns fueled by my dependence on prescription drugs, I slowly rebuilt my life. It wasn’t a quick process, and I stumbled along the way and continue to consider myself a work in progress. I can say with certainty, however, that weeks away from my fifty-second birthday, I can describe myself, proudly, as a grownup. My actions are ruled by empathy and kindness, not how much I can gain. My means are far more modest, but they’re hard-won and mine alone. I enjoy meeting with, and interacting meaningfully with, people of all backgrounds and personalities and my part-time position with an incredible organization gives me that opportunity often and allows me further opportunity for growth. I am surrounded by friends who support me and love me for my character, not the carefully curated image I present to the world. It keeps me grounded and sane.

Now, more than ever, I find myself challenged by life. I’m a happy man, mind you. I’ve effected some real personal changes: losing eighty pounds and gradually getting into something approaching the best physical shape of my life through diet and exercise. I’m living successfully with HIV, but, as it has a way of doing, there seem to be long-term effects that I hadn’t thought of and wasn’t told much about. Under treatment for rapidly worsening tremors and sometimes debilitating pain in my left leg, with some success, my neurologist discovered heavy scarring in the rear of my brain from blood clots. What this portends exactly is not known yet. I’m undergoing yet more testing to determine its source. It’s really done a number on my memory and that, coupled with family issues, has been a challenge to say the least.

Like so many families, a member of mine is dealing with Alzheimer’s. My mother was diagnosed a year and a half ago, and it was hardly a surprise to any of us. She had been struggling for some time. The symptoms have become worse, with episodes of paranoia and confusion, meltdowns of a kind. I’m doing my best to provide her with the support she needs and, in turn, my father and younger brother. My father welcomes and needs the support; my brother has met me with some hostility and his own agenda. I don’t take it too personally; he is struggling with our mother’s decline and, like many men, is frustrated because he can’t fix it. In a recent debate about her care, a debate in which I took the time to really listen and consider his point of view, he accused me of having a superiority complex. I felt attacked, but I let it go because, as the great thinker Harry Petsanis advises so many, the opinion of others shouldn’t dictate one’s sense of self. If my brother is made insecure by someone with confidence and surety of mind, that’s on him. I can’t control that. Just as he had a special closeness to his father, the man who raised us both, I share a special bond with my mother. She loves him every bit as much, just differently at times. That familial dynamic is at play here and it’s been difficult to navigate. A main sticking point is his stubborn insistence that she needs a caregiver, something she is not ready to accept; I’m trying to start the introduction of some outside support, but am met with resistance by my mother to that as well, but I’ve almost gotten her there. I’m the one person to whom she will listen, but a caregiver is not something she will agree to.
Eventually, I will become more and more involved in her care and I’m ready for that day.

But through all this, I’m good. I’ve had my moments, mind you, but good friends and a deep faith get me through. Losing one’s parent is a part of life’s journey, and we all face it eventually. I believe there is a lesson in everything if we only choose to see it and more than any time in my life my vision is clear and my purpose certain. I am not perfect; I learn to do a bit better each day. That opportunity to do it yet another day is a blessing in itself. I am many things, but most importantly I’m happy, despite all that I’m navigating right now. I can finally call myself a man, call myself a grownup.

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 fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.