When I first started working in an HIV clinic I always asked clients what were to me the most obvious questions: 'What is it like for you to have the virus?' 'What was it like for you when you initially found out?' 'How do you view HIV in your life?' Being HIV-negative at the time, I felt that contracting the virus was catastrophic--the worst thing in the world that could possibly happen to someone. I imagined that the responses would be in line with this catastrophic thinking--about how they lived in fear, how it ruined their lives. For some of my clients, these were their responses; however, they were the minority.
Most people's responses surprised me greatly, and they radically changed my perception of the illness, especially because their outlook was so positive: 'It was the best thing that happened to me,' 'It saved my life,' 'My life has more meaning than it ever has,' 'I'm grateful for things I used to take for granted.'
When I explored further, the people who responded this way elaborated that they had been on a self-destructive path that needed to change, or that they had been complacent in life, or that they had found themselves worrying greatly about things they later realized didn't really matter. Some realized that they had been shallow or more worried about image than reality. And some sensed that they had been complaining about insignificant matters.
On a certain level I understood these answers. However, I didn't really understand them until I experienced it myself. In my case I became gravely ill and required five days' hospitalization, fighting a major stomach virus at the same time that I was seroconverting. The doctor called it acute HIV Infection. I was so sick that I was nearly dead. In the hospital my viral load soared to about 700,000 and my body had not yet developed the antibodies to fight the invasion of the virus. I was terrified. Enormously sad. Disoriented. Confused. Changed.
My illness shook me profoundly. I found myself in a completely foreign world. I was faced with uncertainty laced with my own mortality, and I was questioning how I had arrived where I was--alone in a hospital room where I was constantly poked and prodded with needles and running to the bathroom every 20 minutes. And crying in between.
One of my close friends (the most spiritually inclined) once said physical illness is the modern equivalent of a pilgrimage. At first I thought he was crazy for saying so, but then I looked closely at the insanity I then inhabited. Cornered into a reality I couldn't escape, I was forced to look within for answers I had previously tried to find from outside. And while escapism was certainly tempting--and I succumbed to it from time to time--I realized that it ultimately ceased working. It never changed my ultimate reality.
Last month I revealed far more of myself than in previous columns. This month I say, 'While we're at it, I might as well go all the way.' In my case, HIV shook me into sobriety and brought a period of self-destructive escapism to a screeching halt. Rather quickly, in my own little forced detox otherwise known as my hospital room, I became one of those clients I counseled at the clinic, whose answers had baffled me but that I now echoed. Isolated on a floor in a hospital with other immune-compromised patients and unable to leave my room for five days, I was forced to think. And meditate. And reflect. And slowly, inexorably, I too realized that HIV was a tremendous gift that quite possibly--and definitely paradoxically--saved my life.