This past January I awoke to the news that David Bowie had just died. My partner Stephen told me as I walked into the kitchen. I thought it had to be a mistake, some kind of horrible, twisted hoax. When you are 57 years old, as I am, 69 seems way too young to die.
When I graduated from high school in 1976, my parents gave me an all-in-one stereo system that I would play my vinyl records on (it even had a built in 8-track player!). I would listen to Bowie’s album “Young Americans” over and over on the turntable, and was spellbound by Bowie — his music, lyrics, the androgynous look. Everything about him spoke to me, and as a slightly effeminate, young, gay man who was still in the process of coming out, he gave me confidence that everything was going to work out, and that I would eventually come into my own someday. He gave me, and others like me, hope, and made it cool to be different.
After testing positive for HIV in 1989 at the age of 30, I wasn’t sure I would live to see 35, as there were still no effective treatments for HIV. When those treatments did finally arrive they were often difficult to take, and some had debilitating side effects. While recent treatment advances have made HIV therapy much simpler and safer, there can often be underlying issues such as mental health, substance abuse and financial instability that need to be addressed in order to be successful in treating HIV.
Take it upon yourself to create your own plan and path to wellness. If you’re depressed or feel isolated, talk to someone at a support group or even an online community (there are many on Facebook such as the “International place for people with HIV/AIDS, and the people who love us” or “HIV Long Term Survivors”). If you are using, there are resources to help you get and stay sober (AA, NA or CMA) or at the very least play safely and sanely (such as tweaker.org). If you’re HIV-positive, seek out an HIV case manager at the nearest AIDS service organization in your area who can help you see if there are financial resources available to you to help ease some of the stresses of day-to-day living. Consult with a provider who is knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS, and come prepared with a list of questions about potential side effects and drug interactions that you might be concerned about. If you want to simplify your treatment or help make it easier for you to take it every day as prescribed, see if there is something available that will work for you.
If you are HIV-negative, PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a daily pill you can take to prevent HIV. Truvada is currently the only approved medication for PrEP. While any doctor can prescribe PrEP, you can find a list of providers who are knowledgeable and familiar with PrEP at greaterthan.org/get-prep. If you are HIV-positive, and are on effective HIV treatment, your virus will be suppressed to a level so low (undetectable) that it is virtually impossible for you to transmit the virus to others.
Much has changed in 20 years: the dawn of the internet, smart phones, social media, even treatment and prevention for HIV. But one constant remains. Treating and preventing HIV is as much an art as it is a science. Change is inevitable, but by embracing it we “turn and face the strange,” as Bowie said, and become the architect of our own future, and master of our destiny.
— Jeff Berry is the editor of Positively Aware magazine. This column is a project of Plus, Positively Aware, POZ, TheBody.com and Q Syndicate, the LGBT wire service. Visit their websites at hivplusmag.com, positivelyaware.com, poz.com and thebody.com for the latest updates on HIV/AIDS.