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Living Life Wide Awake

Living Life Wide Awake


In some of my previous columns, I've written about more general topics -- such as dealing with one's feelings and how to navigate life in general -- rather than about HIV specifically. I usually write on these more broad topics during times when I am busy living my life and not preoccupied with my positive HIV serostatus. Those columns reflect the common challenges that are essential to being human, not the unique challenges of living with HIV or AIDS. However, at other times I've been very worried about my HIV, seized with fear regarding my health issues, or confused over disclosing my serostatus -- and so I've written about those very HIV-specific topics. These two ends of the HIV spectrum reflect my own process of living with the virus: at times troubled by it, at others only peripherally aware of it or aware of it only in the most basic sense -- like twice a day, when I take my anti-HIV meds. Today, right now, I'm somewhere in the middle. On one hand, I'm considering something that is not unique to living with HIV. But interestingly enough, this very same subject also elicits painful feelings with respect to my experiences with HIV. It is the death of my mother four years ago. Last month, the actual anniversary of her death -- January 4, 2005 -- I purposely avoided writing about her passing even though it was heavy on my mind. As far back as I can remember the act of avoidance has been a staple in my repertoire of defense mechanisms. Last month was no different. While my mother's death was front and center in my mind, dwelling near me ever close as the 2008 holidays approached, I didn't want to revisit those early days of stunning loss in this column. So I wrote about something else. I didn't want to dwell on my feelings. But as the month progressed I found myself more and more preoccupied with how her death shook my fundamental sense of who I am. The person who brought me into the world had passed; it was a loss like no other. The one who had known me the longest was gone. Her passing came nearly three months to the day after I received my positive HIV diagnosis. There are never good times for either event to occur, but that they happened in such close succession seemed especially intense. I use the word 'intense' because the coupling of my diagnosis and my mother's death significantly jolted and confronted me at my core with the simplest truth of what it means to be human -- we all die. Prior to my diagnosis and my mother's death, I had been on a path of self-destruction, presuming life to be one big party. I had presumed that there would always be time later to right things with my mom and improve our relationship. But the party had come to an end, and fixing my relationship with my mom was no longer an option. The realm of make-believe in my head was over; reality was staring me in the face. I could write about how awful that period in my life was in an attempt to garner sympathy, but I won't. Don't get me wrong, it was an enormously painful and confusing time. But the one-two punch of my HIV diagnosis and my mom's death also was a profound spiritual gift that transformed my life. In fact, I truly believe those two events saved my life. Left to my own devices at that time, I would have rather partied. But the sobering reality of 'endings' helped me break my patterns of avoidance and addiction. They were sobering. They woke me up. And a life that is lived wide awake is a far more gratifying and exciting place to be. Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker who is in private therapy practice in Chicago. He welcomes feedback at

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