The following essay is anonymous. The author wanted to share his experience of grieving — and not grieving — during the early years of the AIDS epidemic with a degree of honesty that made it impossible to publish under his own name.
I know I’m not the last man standing, and I know that thinking I am is a self-centered, narcissistic response to a selection of bad shit that happened in my life. Yet looking back on the day I got a call at work saying that a second housemate of mine had died of an overdose…well, perhaps you could cut me a little slack. I was the last man standing that day.
Spoiler alert: My life has actually been pretty good in the last few years.
But the day Don died, not so good.
Nor was it all that great on the day 11 months before when Barbara also died of a heroin overdose at that same house. A succession of other days weren’t so good either, in the years before. Those were the seemingly never-ending days when a whole hot mess of other friends, acquaintances, political allies and enemies all died.
Ah, yes, the bad old days.
Dead Housemate Number Two day involved a sunny South of Market morning, warm and bright. I walked into my boss’ office face blank: “Another roomie of mine just ODed and is dead. Can I get a lift home?”
I remember being stunned, probably even in shock, and muttering to myself, “This can’t fucking be true. Not again. Not after Barbara. Not fucking again.”
On the ride home I slumped down in the car seat, slithering to oblivion, making bleak disbelieving jokes. But honestly I don’t remember much more of that day or those after. I am not sure if this was the alcohol, the kindness of forgetting, or both.
I do know that since then, every so often (and frankly as seldom as possible), those days in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s come screaming back out of nowhere. I don’t live with it; it lives in me. It is a part of me and makes me what I am. That does not mean I want it. I am not alone in this. And I am not alone in finding that loss accumulates and is sticky and hangs together like lumps of tar and sticks and sand on the beach after a storm.
If my version of memory and remembrance is a vast warehouse full of piles of paper and detritus, where I bounce from heap to heap to get to that particular memory or thought, well then these thoughts, the ones of dead friends and loved ones, are in the heap in the back corner. They lurk behind the door with a skull and crossbones saying; “Fuck Off, Asshole,” in 72 pica. Then in smaller type: “You know who and what’s in here, so why don’t you just walk the fuck away?” And every so often I walk through that door for whatever reason and it takes days to recover.
This time it was a long conversation with a deeply loved partner, familiar with all of the above, that opened the door. And there I was, remembering how the departure of Don marked a turning point, a coup de grâce of sorts. Don’s death — and before that Barbara’s — changed what I could do and what I could work on and what I could write.
But that is getting a little ahead of things.
Let me explain. For years I had been a reporter covering HIV/AIDS, so death was nothing new. At least death from AIDS was not new. I was inured. But Don’s death, to recycle a hoary phrase, was the final nail in a coffin that had been slowly closing since Barbara died. In some weird way I was not shocked when Don died and I got the call about him being gone. But ultimately the death of Barbara and Don ejected me — or I ejected myself — from being almost exclusively an HIV/AIDS reporter.
With no disrespect to Don, it was the death of Barbara that upended my safe little AIDS world. It was Don that chased me out. Why? Three reasons.
First, Barbara died of a heroin overdose. This was a new way to lose someone.
Second, I found her. She was still warm to the touch. Barbara would be pissed at me about talking about this. To understand why you would have had to know her. But simply put, (a) she would have been irritated about me going on and on about emotional crap; (b) how I found her is none of your business; (c) I should have just gotten over this and shut up, because with all the shit she had had to deal with, death might have been one of her lesser worries.
Third, she did not die of AIDS. Yes I mentioned this, but it is important, at least to me.
Each fact was a bludgeon.
Context, people. Those old enough to remember the first decades of the epidemic will understand. Those not old enough might get another metaphor—war. Not the Afghan or Iraq wars, those where only those who enlist ‘voluntarily’ for all sorts of reason go, fight, serve and die, mostly invisibly. No not that war; try instead the Vietnam War where everyone could get drafted, there were no special exceptions (Dick Cheney excluded) and anyone could die. But, instead of bullets, mortars and booby traps, they could only die of AIDS.
This was my life. But that was okay. No one was allowed to die of anything but AIDS in my life. I could cope with that. I was used to it. By that point in the early 90’s it was just a thing. People died around you. Repeatedly. Let me emphasize: Repeatedly. There were no protease inhibitors. No Truvada. Just blind hope, determination, anger, solidarity, organizing, guesswork and gambling on whether to take a drug or wait for the big one that will work — and die waiting. This was not a time of long-term sustainability.
This was the second wave of death from HIV/AIDS. Wave one was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: Just accept it and die; it’s okay. Wave two was, “What The Fuck! Are we just gonna sit here and die?! Or are we gonna try and save our asses and raise hell and scare the fuckers who want us to die?”
Let me explain: Death for me between 1986 and 1992 was normal. If I did not hear from someone for a few weeks or three months I, we, all my friends, we assumed, assumed, that he or she was dead. Have you any idea how enraging it is just to write that sentence? I have no idea how many of the people that I knew then are dead now. I really don’t. I suspect it is in the low hundreds, but I don’t know and I do know that my personal death count is absolutely on the low side compared to many other queers that I know.
How did I function? I normalized it. I did drugs. Lots of them, but then I might have done that anyway. I drank heavily. I’m English so this came naturally. I reported on the epidemic and hung out with the AIDS activists in ACT UP and got arrested with them. You could say I was a fellow traveler. Looking back, hilariously enough, I would get all irate when the cops busted me again and again with the other demonstrators. There I was screaming, “I’m a fucking reporter, let me go, can’t you see the goddam press pass?” Except I looked just like all the other demonstrators. They probably thought I stole the press pass.
The fact that people were dropping dead all around me was, well, that was just ‘life.’ We all just went on fighting AIDS. Grief was not a part of this. Grief was contemptible. Grief was what the first wave of gay men died of. They grieved instead of fought. Kubler-Ross: FEH! If we had been fully present with what was happening to us all it would have been immobilizing. Best to keep moving. There was a lot of midnight craziness. A lot of great parties and a lot of great friends, some of whom lived. And even then, I thought: This is war. This is what war is.
Then I remembered my history. This is what my father went through when he trained as a pilot. This was when I realized what it was like for a generation to lose itself and not be able to talk about it.
It was during that period of time that I took part in the only demonstration I have ever been a part of that made cops back off. Terry Sutton, the first member of ACT UP San Francisco to succumb to AIDS, died. There was a memorial in the Castro. Then there was a march. All I remember is the rage hair-triggered to go off. It was like an entire sub-community lost its shit and dared, DARED, anyone in authority to even touch us. It wasn’t like we wanted a war, but I know deep in my heart that if any cop had so much as touched any one of us all hell would have broken loose. The cops backed off. (In retrospect I realize that had the demo not been almost all Caucasian, the outcome might have been very different.) Of course the cops had to come back two months or so later and get their revenge, but that is a different story.
So I had gotten used to this and functioned quite well. Like all of us did. There were minor problems like not really being able to be present for each other, because we were all traumatized. One or two issues of substance abuse. [Editors Note: Are you REALLY not going to say anything about sex here? Because you know that fucking like bunnies was a response to all that death, right? Author: Editor has a point.] Then there was somewhat bizarre behavior and moments of intensely, hysterically funny, droll gallows humor. We did it all.
Then Barbara died of an overdose.
I wailed. “That’s not fair! You are not allowed to die of anything other than AIDS!”
I was a little upset. This situation was deeply fucked up. Does this make sense yet?
And, oh yes, I found her.
This is too is embedded. I went to her room and there she was. I will not share all the details; there is still some privacy left. But yes she was still warm. And yeah it is still heart breaking; Every Fucking Time I Read This Sentence To Edit This Essay it is heart breaking. Just so you know, there will be a brief interlude while I go get bourbon.
I was stunned, frantic calling 911, calling friends. I could not be in the room with her. Yes that was pathetic and cowardly. I went to the living room and drank coffee. I paced. I went back to the room. I left. I was afraid. That will never leave me: standing with her in disbelief.
Then the EMTs showed up and one of them made some asinine comment about god and praying and I just remember being so pissed and snapping, “Yeah. Right. I don’t believe in god.” At least I could concentrate on being irritated about that instead of thinking about Barbara dead in the next room who I loved and was now gone away.
The fact that both Barbara and Don had been clean and off heroin for a good while was what killed them. If you stop drinking you are a cheap date who gets wasted easily. With heroin the consequences are a little more permanent.
Add all that together and you get a lovely mixture. During that time—and before and after—I was not the most reliable human being. I swung easily from a sweet, caring, listening, good friend to a cantankerous, impossible, self-centered, demanding mess. (Admittedly I might have been like that anyway, but we will let that pass.) And don’t forget the evenings that just aren’t there in the memory banks. I think that’s called a black out. Nothing like sharing deeply felt emotions and then not remembering them the next day. That goes over real well with those to whom you shared them.
At one point of hysteria after Barbara died I had completely lost my shit and was making an unholy racket, wailing. A very dear friend came up to me told me to stop. When I didn’t she bequeathed unto me a really good hard slap right across the chops. It worked and broke the cycle. I shut up. This was a good thing. A hug would not have helped.
Now, I am sure that those who know me may well say I could have been just as impossible in my early years, with or without lots of dead people. Some probably say I am still impossible. But, I do believe at the very least the whole dead people thing had a multiplier effect.
And there were other effects:
After Barbara died I stopped being as politically involved in writing about HIV as I had been. It was no longer the primary, absolute focus of all my work. I had to distance myself a bit because death could now lurk at every turn. And worse it could lurk with surprise.
After Barbara and then Don died, I started distracting myself. According to our local video store our household (formerly of 5 housemates and then down to 3) rented more videos than any other rental household in the area. The second highest following us was a shelter for runaway and homeless teenagers, or was it the other way round? In any case that gives you an idea of just how well our happy little house of fun was doing. Ah the chloroform of culture.
One side effect: I became paranoid about my friends dying. If I didn’t hear from someone I was close to, or they didn’t return my calls for three or four days I would get very, very scared. It is only recently that this has calmed down. It took about 20 years to calm down, and it can still flare up.
When someone I know does die, or a relationship dies, all the old buttons get pushed and I don’t even have to step into the room of memories I mentioned above; just proximity to those recollections can make things go south pretty fast.
Distance. I acquired a certain closed-ness and difficulty being emotionally present and open. Now again this may just be me, but such shutting down has certainly been helped along by death.
Then, when someone does get close, it is easy to go overboard with heart sleevey-ness. Oversharing can get ugly, let me just say.
I think that’s about it. Please don’t ask people about other endearing traits they have noticed in me. It won’t help.
So there you have it. I would just like to note in my case this whole concept of healing and growing and becoming a better person as a result of grief is absolute bullshit. Yes it can happen and I can say it has happened to me once. Yes, once out of all the death I have dealt with. And frankly I would trade it in for not having that death.
Otherwise I have dead people. I miss them. What we did with ACT UP was amazing. But again, I would happily trade it in for a government at that time that did not want us dead and for a virus that was not deadly.
I didn’t heal; I grew scar tissue. I actually like my scar tissue now, because I don’t have to look at the hurt. It covers the hurt up nicely. I know it is still there. I don’t believe that the longer you don’t talk about it the worse it gets. I do believe that being aware of it is necessary, but I don’t believe that means I have to live in it and revisit it that often, or even once a decade.
This is how I have lived and how I have lived with death. You may be very different. I have survived and that matters. I have done better than survived. I am not perfect. But I have found some happiness in my life, not by achieving resolution, but by acquiring wounds, then healing some and developing scar tissue that will always be there, and by just keeping going.