Yes, I’m Sober, HIV Positive and Happy About It

Yes, I’m Sober, HIV Positive and Happy About It

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reader-spotlight-how-i-got-sober-seanMy face got hot. My legs locked. My head shook up and down as the nurse practitioner with the frizzy gray hair and kind, narrow face delivered the news. As I suspected, I was HIV positive.

It was 2009 and I was also newly single and just seven months sober. Every part of my life was exploding at the same time. Later that day, I whined to a friend, “Fantastic—now would be an excellent time to also find out that I was switched at birth and that I have an inoperable brain tumor.” As I rushed out of the clinic trying not to erupt in a volcano of tears and vomit, I called my sister. She had nearly five years clean at the time and she’d served as my early sobriety Yoda. I broke the news but added, “I really want to drink right now.”

See, intellectually, I knew that HIV positive people now lived happy, healthy lives and yada yada yada. But my default wiring said, “Gurrl, you need a few cocktails to deal with this.” It was another crushing defeat in a series of heartbreaking losses, one more piece of crappy news that I had to process, one more opportunity for growth, which—quite frankly—I’d had enough of. Like, no thanks—give the growth to someone else. I was pretty sure that if I drank over this, everybody would understand. They’d text one another things like, “I’d drink too if I had his terrible luck.” As I waited for the Santa Monica Big Blue bus to take me anywhere but near the clinic, my tear-filled conversation with my sister continued.

“Isn’t being an alcoholic enough?” I sobbed. “I don’t want another thing to deal with. I don’t want to be an inspiration.”

She sighed and said, “Just go home and don’t pick up.”

Inexplicably, I did what I was told. My sponsor instructed me to lie on my floor and not move for a while. A friend brought me food. I cried for several hours. I didn’t go to a meeting. I didn’t do my homework. I went to bed. Despite the fact that it sounded like the best idea ever, I didn’t drink. This was terrific but really freaking weird. I mean, I’m the guy who’d drink while he did his laundry or drank more because he hated a season finale of Six Feet Under. Why I didn’t use my Get Wasted All Day Pass on an occasion like this was utterly confounding. Staying sober through this diagnosis was proof that I was changing and maybe I could actually handle life without getting hammered.

Today, I’m far from an inspiration but just a person living with a “chronic manageable disease.” Or that’s what they called it on my first doctor’s visit. This handsome doctor told me I had something that was treatable but it was also something that could kill me if I didn’t take care of it every single day. Funny. That’s kind of what I heard about my addiction and alcoholism since getting sober in January. Doctor Cute Face also added, “Don’t think of it as the end of the world, think of it more like diabetes.” Bless his adorable doctor heart for trying to make me feel better but diabetes never really sounded like all that much fun either. Nevertheless, here I was. Under a year sober and now dealing with yet another disease that could kill me if I didn’t handle my business.

The handling of said business, however, has not always gone swimmingly. I dealt with a bone crushing bout of depression when I first got diagnosed. The shrink I was referred to by my new HIV doctors informed me that despite my best efforts, I was still pretty miserable. I wanted to say, “Um, I just found out that I’m positive and I’m sober so forgive me if I’m not busting into a dance routine from Footloose right now.” Instead, I just nodded, grabbed my Wellbutrin in a huff and left his office. Also, due to an oddity in my blood cells (because even my chronic diseases like being terminally unique), I’ve had rotating med regimes, playing Goldilocks until finding just the right combo. Plus just last year, I was hospitalized with pneumonia.

There are days when all of it still feels like too much to handle and that’s okay. A gift of being HIV positive is that I have to avoid stress no matter what. Naps, saying no to plans I kinda didn’t want to do anyway and making sure I get plenty of quiet time every day all help keep stress away. There are other gifts too, like the group of sober positive people who just showed up in my life out of nowhere and know better than anybody else what I go through on a daily basis. I even found and married the man of my dreams, despite feeling completely unlovable and like damaged goods after my diagnosis.

Yet despite access to support and miracle meds, the fight for people like me is not over. The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is “Leadership. Commitment. Impact.” As a former governor with an abysmal track record on HIV AIDS healthcare gets ready to step into the role of Vice President, it’s hard not to look at those words without a fair amount of side eye. We’re suddenly at a crossroads again where bigotry, ignorance and the wrong leadership could send the HIV/AIDS movement back to the Reagan era in the blink of an eye. Startlingly high suicide and infection rates reinforce the fact that HIV/AIDS hasn’t magically vanished just because there are now ample medications to keep it at bay. Mercifully, policies, government and red tape all comfortably under the “Things I Cannot Change” heading so I have to let anger go and do what I can.

What I can do is open my mouth. For me, talking about HIV/AIDS helps dissolve some of the stigma. When I sit in a meeting and say, “I’m Sean and I’m an alcoholic,” I’m also saying, “I have what you have and you’re not alone.” I’ve gotten to do the same with being HIV positive. Sharing about it in meetings and writing about it provides a relief that no hot doctor or medication can deliver. Every single time I share about being sober and HIV positive, someone undoubtedly comes up and says, “Me too!” The isolation and shame we jointly feel suddenly loosens.

If you would have told me that this diagnosis that made me want drink back in 2009 would now turn into an incredibly healing thing in my life, I would have said that you should stop smoking crack and come with me to a meeting. And yet that’s exactly what’s happened.

Though I still stand by the fact that the season finale of Six Feet Under was bad enough to drinking over.

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About Author

Sean Paul Mahoney is a writer, playwright, blogger, tweeter, critic, podcaster and smartass for hire. He lives in Portland, Oregon with two ridiculous cats and one amazing husband. His book of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying will be published by Zephyr Bookshelf in fall 2018.