Thursday, December 1, 2011

Learning to Live on World AIDS Day

Unknown Source
Today I've been thinking about my very first patients. While I had worked for nearly a decade in a variety of human service agencies, it wasn't until 1997 that I sat down in my very first office with my very first patients. I remember the day very clearly. My first patient said:
"I just have three questions for you. Are you gay, are you HIV positive, and if you aren't, who the hell do you think you are trying to talk to me."
With those words, I started  my work at The Free Medical Clinic of Greater Cleveland. It was a tumultuous two years. The man who hired me quit the day I started, constant organizational upheaval nearly unraveled me, I was impaired by bad fashion sense, and thought it was a good idea to sponge paint my office in shades of pink. Most of my patients were always on the brink of death or actually died, and a suprising number of them sprang back to life as newer medicines changed the face of HIV treatment.

Most importantly, I spent two years trying to answer that patient's question: who the hell did I think I was trying to talk to people. I found my answer those two years working at the Free Clinic. My experiences there helped me weave together things that I had been thinking about and experiencing for the previous nine years. My experiences became the foundation of what I've built my entire clinical practice on.

I learned that most people don't know themselves, are afraid of themselves, or have otherwise become so traumatized by life that they have disengaged from the world. Not feeling, not living, I found that the people I worked with were neither here nor there. They were somewhere in between. They were, as I affectionately called them, the walking dead. Zombies.

One man, in particular, has filled my thoughts today on World AIDS Day. He really was the walking dead. Infected with HIV before HIV even had a name, he had suffered every opportunistic infection there was. He rattled off stories of countless hospital says and harrowing near death experiences. Somehow, he lived.

On bad days he was use a walker to get into my office--his leg on fire from neuropathy. On good days we would walk across the street together and sit in the beautifully manicured Lake View Cemetery. We had this conversation on the day I was leaving the clinic to move to New England and start my doctoral work:
"Jason, I think of you as more than a therapist. This will sound strange, but I think of you as my funeral director. In you letting me talk so much about death, and keeping me focused so I didn't look away, you taught me how to live. You did that. You taught me to be alive before I die."
Years later I heard through the grapevine that he had died. After being one of the first patients diagnosed with AIDS and having had a trial of nearly every medication, his body had finally failed and he died.

When he said goodbye to me I wished I would have known myself well enough to tell him this:
By sitting with you as you looked at death, I too found how to live.
So on this World AIDS day I'm filled with many warm cherished memories of this patient--and all the other men (and two woman) who came into my office every week as we stared down death every day only to discover how to live.

Each of you live on with me in my office every day. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment