Healing Out of Others' Hurt

BY Thomas Fransen

April 26 2007 11:00 PM ET

A couple months ago I met a man 20 years my senior and was instantly drawn to him. We have a lot in common'we're both gay, we're both HIV-positive, we're both therapists, we're both addressing our substance-use issues. I felt as though I had an instant mentor. We went out to eat, shared colorful stories about what we've been through, and started a friendship. We even started collaborating on some work. And then he got sick.

What started as a nagging leg pain became a debilitating illness. No one knew what it was. His doctor, who also happens to be mine, suggested lymphoma. Other specialists speculated differently. Tests were conducted. Blood was drawn. Scans were made. When I visited him at home he was in pain, thoroughly agitated with how his body was shutting down'and he was scared. While he is a longtime survivor who is used to the fluctuations in his health that come from living with chronic illness, he still becomes afraid'as most of us do'when confronted with the unknown. This was clearly the unknown. As we spoke at his home and he recounted his frustrations with having a compromised immune system, hobbling around with the assistance of a walker, I felt sadness. I was uncomfortable witnessing someone I love becoming so physically vulnerable. It reminded me of when my mom was dying, or when I was first diagnosed with HIV in the hospital. And mortality again was staring me in the face.

Why do I share this story? Because it's a story that needs to be told. Because people still get sick. People still die. And many of us still live in a state of blissful denial that prods our HIV-negative brothers and sisters toward complacency, saying 'It's just like diabetes' or 'All you have to do is take a pill.' While there is certainly ample reason to be hopeful, people like my friend'and many of you as well'can attest to the fact that not everyone is climbing mountains or taking great vacations on the beach. Some of us are seriously ill. And we do a disservice to all if we don't on occasion deal with our mortality.

I have had some somber moments with my friend. In being with him, in tolerating my discomfort with watching his body fail, in contemplating his mortality, I have contemplated my own future. Perhaps ironically, the more I inhabit that space, the more clarity and contentment I feel. Sadness and fear in the short term yield serenity later.

He is on the mend after being diagnosed with a strange zoster infection that spread to his spine. He's on antibiotics and is in a rehab facility for physical therapy, where he awaits a long road of recovery. Amazingly, throughout his illness he has been present to his feelings and optimistic at the same time. He has proved himself to be an exemplary mentor.

This update is certainly good news'and it constitutes an important chapter in his story. It also constitutes an important chapter in mine. I once read something about the importance of stories. There is something incredibly healing about hearing someone else's story and realizing that they are telling yours as well. I hope there is something in this story that you hear as your own. And that perhaps you too can experience sadness in the short term but serenity later.

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