Living the Questions
BY Tyler Helms
February 22 2011 3:55 PM ET
COMMENTARY: I woke up last Wednesday screaming — partly because I had a nightmare that someone was trying to kill me with a computer mouse and partly because it was 8:45 A.M. and I had a 10:00 A.M. flight to catch. Bizarre dreams are a common side affect of the medication I take to control my HIV. Though far less frequent than they used to be, each dream is still very intense. Picture your worst and best dreams in high definition, on an IMAX screen and with real actors running around you — that’s close to what it's like. It’s an unavoidable and sometimes humorous part of my new normal.
This particular dream was no doubt the result of having read through some of the colorful feedback and numerous emails in response to my last column. E-mails that ranged from supportive to ones with the subject line “SLUT.” Shocking even to me, I had received 17 death threats based solely on that column. These were e-mails from strangers, flat out proclaiming their desire to kill me so I would stop “killing others,” as they put it.
On this morning, in my rush to the airport, I read through a few more. I have somehow started to find a certain curiosity in examining hate mail I receive — how could someone equate me to a “slut,” “sexual predator” or “HIV-deserving pedophile,” as a nice man from Ohio recently corresponded? On this Wednesday, I received a note that concluded I should go to jail and not be allowed to have sex ever again. Little did they know I was living part of that sentence already. That e-mail, ironically, was followed by an AmFAR e-mail blast, asking for support as they celebrated another year of progressive research for HIV/AIDS. The one thing these two missives had in common — much like the ones calling for my death, and all the ones before — was that they each expressed a different perspective on the message surrounding HIV/AIDS. Particularly the message this year, it being the 30th anniversary since HIV was first documented in the United States.
I had contemplated this message for months. For years, really. This message, for me, remained so hard to articulate. I truly believe there is power in the conversation around HIV/AIDS today, but I have struggled to elaborate beyond that. What message should this conversation be supporting, debating, or developing? What makes this disease so very different from any other illness? Why is it still so hard talk about? How would conversation help? On one hand, HIV is manageable; in its 30 years they have made advancements unlike any other terminal illness of its kind. But on the other hand, there is this huge social stigma, perception, and cloud of preconceived notions that follow even the healthiest HIV-positive person. This message somehow had to articulate that difference, being sensitive to everything in between.