Keep Yourself Alive

December 1 is World AIDS day. While I am no means an expert on the topic, I do know a little something, and it’s my blog so I can say what I want to:

When I was a teenager I started to do volunteer work at a local AIDS task force office, in the small city where I went to high school. Mostly, I handed out condoms at drag shows, which was a lot of fun. I also answered phones from frightened individuals wanting to know about symptoms and helped to organize candlelight vigils for those who had passed, and that part was not so much fun. I saw people who had once been healthy and vibrant practically vanish in front of my eyes. It remains to this day one of the hardest and best times of my life, and it made a huge impact that has stuck with me in the mphmph years since.

Several years after leaving home I had the immense pleasure of meeting Rebekka Armstrong, a gorgeous and vibrant former Playboy model who has been HIV-positive since the age of sixteen. She spends a great deal of time touring the world, visiting college campuses and talking to young people, because guess what? Kids these days, they don’t care very much anymore.

See, things have changed a lot from the landscape that existed when I was growing up. Medical advances mean that infection is not quite so scary, no longer an immediate/automatic death-sentence, and people can continue to live full and productive lives for a long time if they take good care of themselves. That’s good news. No, it’s GREAT news. But the flip side, is that a growing number of young people are getting infected because they think “No biggie, I’ll just take the same drugs that Magic Johnson takes.” Seriously, Rebekkah said that was one of the biggest comments she heard.

So, this casual attitude has resulted in a strong uptick in infections, largely among a) young adults and b) older heterosexual women who figure they are old enough not to need birth control and hence do not use condoms during sex. In the US alone there were 54,000 new infections reported. That seems, to me, like quite a lot.

And yes, you can take the same drugs that Magic Johnson takes probably, but you probably don’t have the budget and resources that he has. As I understand it, these drugs are very pricey. As much as thousands a month if you do not have insurance. THOUSANDS. And you are looking at being on medication for the rest of your life. And there’s the fact that the strain of HIV one person carries can be compromised by the strain of HIV that another person carries, so it’s not like you suddenly have license to stop worrying about safe sex (Not to mention that a man was recently imprisoned for using his body as a weapon; he had unprotected sex with several women while knowing he was HIV positive, and those women got together and turned him in).

So HIV infection may no longer be a death-sentence, but it seems to me that it is pretty much still something of a life-sentence. We have come along way in the world of medicine, but safety should still be respected. Your health and your body should be respected. Thinking that it can’t happen to you is a dangerous place to be, in my opinion.

And finally, it bears repeating that one can carry the virus without showing symptoms for some time, and that symptoms can mimic other illnesses to a certain degree so it is important not to assume and not to self-diagnose (this was my number one advice to callers back in the day, and I think it still holds true). So get tested – most places will do it for free (and anonymously!) at the health department, so bring a good book to read while you wait, and get it over with. I’ve done it many times, and aside from the wait-and-see part, it’s not so bad.

Oh, and if you’re breaking into a cold sweat the first time they motion you into that little room, it may be a good time to consider whether you are being as careful as you could be. I know it was for me.

Okay, I’m all done preaching everybody. Stay safe.

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