Op-ed: The Counselor Who Sought Help From a Dying Friend

Sobriety and the encouragement from a supportive friend helped Mike Deninger craft a tell-all of his childhood and lend a hand to others looking for closure and clarity.

BY Mike Deninger Ph.D.

August 31 2012 4:00 AM ET

It was in the summer of 1997 when I slept beside Jon Eikenberg at his condo in Baltimore. He was a handsome hulk of a man, a talented artist and AIDS activist known for his satirical comic strip, “The Endearing End of Emmett,” about the ironies of being infected with HIV. I know — sounds funky, but it was darkly clever and won first place in the Vice Versa Awards for Excellence in the Gay and Lesbian Press in 1998.

Jon and I had been casual friends for two years, and although we were definitely attracted to each other, we never had sex. I think we knew a tryst would complicate the relaxed connection we enjoyed. In the middle of the night I pulled a perspiration-soaked white T-shirt over his head, tossed it on the carpet, and dabbed sweat from his forehead and upper torso with a dry towel, a lasting reminder for me of the worst of the plague. It was that same night that he convinced me to get serious about reclaiming my life and writing the painful story I was reluctant to share.

He was intrigued by my history, probably because he delighted in the bizarre. He was an aficionado of the macabre, the convoluted, and the thorny aspects of life. You could see that in his paintings.

Prior to meeting Jon, I had been a prominent educator of deaf children with a stellar 20-year career as an administrator at Gallaudet University. But throughout that period no one knew about the desperation smoldering beneath my surface. I hid my demons well until one Saturday in my late 30s when I was so depressed and anxious I couldn’t move, frozen supine in my family room recliner like a mummy on ice. Until that day I’d been a meticulously closeted alcoholic, depressed, and consumed with anxiety for reasons that were unknown to me. With the help of a good therapist I left the closet, stopped drinking, and pushed off in a new direction. I began studying for a graduate degree in mental health counseling with the intention of embarking on a career as a private practice therapist. Unfortunately, my tumble was not over. One year after I got sober I began to remember events from my childhood that I had not recalled for 40 years.

My overnight with Jon was four years after the turbulence of those recollections. I was stuck in limbo. I finished my counseling degree and took early retirement from Gallaudet, but I had lost interest in becoming a counselor. Worst of all, work on the autobiography I had been drafting for years was at a standstill, all because it was time to write about those unpleasant memories. I told Jon about my fears that night. He equated his need to continue his fight against AIDS with mine to face the past. His advice was firm but sanguine. “That shit has you by the balls anyway,” he chided. “You might as well just turn off the phone, put on some music, sit down and start writing.” And so I did.

Tags: Health

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