Thirty-two years ago this month, I received a phone call from a nurse at my doctor’s office telling me that I had tested HIV positive. We didn’t schedule a follow-up visit or begin a treatment plan, because there wasn’t a single medication approved for the virus, which had only been identified the previous year.
The story of those times is achingly familiar to many of us. I lived in two-year increments, waiting for whatever illness would signal the beginning of my decline. I spent a lot of time attending memorials for friends while writing my own. And then, astonishingly, I actually lived. And then lived some more. A lot more.
Or, as Mark Twain famously once said, after a newspaper mistakenly printed his obituary, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Today, my cholesterol is measured in lab tests and scrutinized with the same level of concern with which I once monitored my t-cells. The lines on my face bear witness to decades I never counted on. My back hurts. I worry that I haven’t saved enough for my retirement. And God knows I had better cut out the cigarettes. Those things can kill you, I hear.
It is an ironic place to be, bemoaning my increased years when I miraculously dodged a hail of bullets earlier in life. Life is strange, especially when one has been faced with the alternative so explicitly, and for so long.
Thankfully, a free one-day event sponsored by Sunserve, the “HIV/AIDS Seniors Conference,” on March 31 will bring together experts in the field of HIV and aging to untangle the practical and emotional concerns of growing older with HIV. You can register online at sunserve.org/HIVseniors or by calling 954-764-5150.
The event, divided into tracks for both professionals and members of the HIV community, will address physical topics such as neurological complications and medication interactions (now that we’re adding drugs into the mix to treat conditions related to aging), while other sessions will focus on substance abuse, stigma, nutrition, social support, ageism, and healthy sex. A complimentary breakfast and lunch will also be provided.
I am honored to be featured as a keynote speaker at the event, even if, at the age of 56, I am only now approaching an age that we typically consider “senior.” I may be forgiven for not yet reaching that threshold, if for no other reason than the fact that living with HIV has been proven to accelerate the aging process. Medical issues usually seen in our elders, such as inflammation of the tissues and cognitive problems, have been associated with those who have lived with HIV for many years.
The event isn’t limited to long-time survivors, of course. The health and vitality of people of post-retirement age also means there are many seniors who are sexually active – and newly infected.
And, as far as I am concerned, anyone living with HIV in our community of a certain age is a survivor, regardless of when they were infected. We’ve been here all along, and we’ve seen plenty. The HIV Seniors Conference will surely give us an opportunity to compare notes and enjoy social support among those who understand our life history.
Despite the serious nature of the event – and of the aging process itself – I intend to bring a message of hope and even humor to the conference. My joy is a constant in my life, and I see it as a fully extended middle finger to AIDS. It has served me well through the ebbs and flow of life with this virus.
I may be cobbled together with HIV medications, facial fillers, blood pressure pills, vitamins and Viagra, but from the inside looking out, I’m still an energetic gay man who is looking past my HIV diagnosis to everything else life has to offer. And by God, I intend to be damn proud of being a senior member of our community.
Here’s to us, to our glorious age, and to the irony of life itself. I hope to see you on March 31.
Mark S. King is a writer and activist living in Baltimore. His blog, My Fabulous Disease, is a 2017 GLAAD Media Award nominee.