Living with AIDS

August 08, 1994|By H.B. Johnson

FROM THE moment the prison doctors told me I had AIDS -- some two-and-one-half years ago -- my mind became a battlefield: On one side the guns of determination to live a normal life. On the other, the equally loud guns that tell me my life has irreparably changed for the worse, nothing is the same.

To be informed that you are HIV positive is one thing: you still have room for hope. To be informed that you have full-blown AIDS is something else. You know you are going to die sooner than expect. You know there's a 99-percent chance that your death will be ugly and painful.

A couple years before the AIDS diagnosis, the evidence that the virus had invaded my systems was slight at first. It appeared as a burning and persistent rash on the sole of my right foot and on my genitals. I attributed the rash to a near-fatal dose of bad heroin I had taken 20 years earlier, because otherwise I had been in good health.

Then the ugly affliction assaulted my vanity. My usually taunt, unblemished face suddenly was marred by the unsightly rash. The sores on my face were intolerable, and they were frightening. I began to tell myself everything except what I knew to be true: I had AIDS. I tried to desperately find any explanation other than HIV and AIDS, but I knew that something was terribly wrong.

The rash would appear on my face for several days at a time and then disappear.

After five or six months, it disappeared altogether. But my elation over its disappearance was short-lived. A few days later, it was as if the force driving the rash decided to turn itself inward and tackle my internal organs.

Late one night, I woke up in a cold, dark prison cell, doubled over in pain, hot with fever and my sheets cold and wet from night sweats. The demon had invaded my stomach, causing diarrhea. I almost passed out from the pain. Where would it strike next, I wondered.

Not long after that, the prison doctors told me my HIV test had produced a false negative; a second test showed that I was HIV positive.

I was shocked, numb with fear and confusion. The war had started; it only accelerated a couple years later when the prison doctors told me that I had full-blown AIDS.

There is a sweet mystery to life. But it is not something you can enjoy when you know pretty much how soon you will be dead and most likely how your death will occur. This fact hit me in the face with the force of a slugger's baseball bat when the doctors told me that I had AIDS.

Since leaving the Maryland State Penitentiary eight months ago -- thanks to Gov. William Donald Schaefer who commuted my armed-robbery sentence to time served -- it has been a struggle for me to retrieve and retain that sweet mystery that seems so determined to be gone from my life. That mystery defines for us our limitations of normal behavior and affords us the luxury of taking life for granted -- affords us the luxury of a rational participation in the game.

I still have the rash. In fact, there are several different kinds, each doing its own thing. The most aggravating of the lot is the one that pops the skin open, leaving little craters of dried blood. These wounds refuse to heal properly. Each crater serves as a reminder that I'm dying a little bit each day, a piece at a time.

This abnormal reality is now what's normal for me. It is as real as the sound of gunfire. And you know the grip that can have on your attention.

H.B. Johnson, a playwright and poet, is the Other Voices' AIDS columnist. He writes from Baltimore.

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