When I returned to Chicago in the late 1980’s, I remember reading the obituaries in Gay Chicago Magazine and related publications. Every week there were longer lists of gay men who had died. It was the first section of the paper I turned to each week, wondering who of us would be listed and, if there were friends I hadn’t talked to in a long time, who had died before I even knew they were sick. Going out socially also meant seeing people who were sick. We all just knew. That’s how it was.
Since then, much has changed in the world of HIV. Many have written about advances in HIV treatment and prevention. People who had previously prepared to die are miraculously living today, thanks to newer combinations of medication and the medical training of today’s HIV/infectious disease specialists. And still, there are those living with HIV whose health improved or maintained for a period of time, but are now dealing with long term effects of HIV and a compromised immune system. For many of us not alive in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there is no frame of reference or context for this.
As Our World Turns
I was in graduate school during part of this time. I was one of the few men in my program and, at the time, one of two men who were openly gay. I wrote papers about HIV. I gave presentations about being gay. I showed movies and documentaries to my classmates and remember grunts of disgust in the room when I showed a film including two men holding hands—and worse yet—kissing. It was a complicated time of oppression, hope, illness, and mobilization. Change was palpable and yet uncertain.
Flash forward. Now I work with people dealing with all sorts of challenges. My clients are teenagers, young adults, gay, straight, male, female, trans*, individuals, couples, those who have histories of trauma, and those with and without HIV. And there are several men I see who are warriors of the time I’ve described earlier. Their health improved or maintained for many years, but now they are weary of the fight. Like many veterans, their plight is not fully understood by those who did not fight the war. For many young people, they are invisible. And like others who have benefited from the battles of our soldiers, many young people don’t realize that their freedom and good health were won at a cost.
Even as I write this, I feel like my father, telling me stories of my grandparents’ immigration; how they sacrificed to come to this country so that my father and those who came after him would have freedoms my grandparents did not have. I would always listen to my father, but on some level, my grandparent’s fight seemed so far away from me. My father insisted though, that my life was better as a result of their struggles. Now, although I am not a biological father, I feel some responsibility to convey this history of “my people” to young people whose biological fathers were not part of the war I remember.
Life as a Wounded Warrior
I’ve been seeing Ray in therapy for almost 13 years. Even when we met, his health was compromised. Still, he worked as a physical therapist, had a home with his partner, and had a community of friends and family from whom he derived support. As the years have progressed, he has dealt with countless health complications arising because of a compromised immune system. His partner died five years ago. Most recently, he has not been able to work and for unexplainable reasons, his muscles are experiencing rapid atrophy.
Today, I received an e-mail from Ray. “You know I don’t cry” he wrote. “You know what a cold person I am. I believe that it’s because I’m alone and I never grieved any of the losses of my life. There was too much responsibility, too much to do, two jobs, a job and school, everything but sitting down and feeling, crying”. He wrote that he would soon be in a wheelchair. “When can I come in”? he asked.
War is War
I’ll see Ray this week. And I’ll see a number of other veterans from this war. Most are not able to work anymore. A lucky few continue to have a network of supports. But most of the men I see like Ray, live alone and struggle with psychological isolation as much as they struggle with health. In some ways, Live Oak serves as their VA. I mean no disrespect to any of our soldiers who are fighting or have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan or other wars that have come and gone. Instead, I think the history I describe parallels theirs in a number of ways.
Like advances in HIV treatment, other medical advances have allowed many of our wounded soldiers from current wars to survive injuries that in the past would have resulted in death. Many return from the war alive, but with visible and invisible injuries that are painful and longlasting. And for those of us on the sidelines of these wars, we benefit from their courage and their losses, sometimes without even knowing it.
I don’t know if Ray sees himself as a warrior. I don’t know if he sees himself as a veteran. Or a hero. I needed to write about him, though. Much like my father told me as a child, I want those who come after him to know his story. People growing up today don’t think about Ray because they don’t have to. For that, we should all feel grateful.
“Within the war we are waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not-I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.”
Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS