It’s that season when people resolve to adopt various healthy approaches to life, or is that already over, promises put away for next year? I’m going to assume we are still firmly in the season to share with you the problem that many — if not all — of you would reach around to write onto my list. Yes, it’s all about my weight.
Let me start at the line I will define as the beginning. About eight years ago, I started gaining weight. It started with something over which I had very little control — a developing “buffalo hump” after about seven and a half years of my first treatment of Crixivan, d4T and 3TC. That’s the point at which I decided to change my meds, but the hump was there to stay. Then I made a healthy decision that I ought to have made much earlier in my life, quitting smoking definitively. I later learned that that act probably also slowed down my metabolism a bit. If I had started earlier, I might have been able to adjust to the tobacco-free metabolism loss before the age-onset version caught up with me. But that aside, I won’t ever go back to smoking; it was far too difficult to quit and I am too proud of the accomplishment.
There remain a couple more elements to the “perfect storm” that led me to my current size and shape. First, I have psoriatic arthritis in my hands and feet, which caused me to reduce certain other physical activities that I probably should have been increasing in light of all the other elements. Second, I’m one of the “live to eat” people, not one of the “eat to live” people. Third — and related to the second point — I have no designs on being elevated to sainthood by leading a life of deprivation. (Yeah, it would probably take more than that, I agree.) I once told my doctor that I would rather have a quick heart attack than a long life without chocolate. He didn’t laugh at the time, but I have to say I’m reasonably stuck in that philosophy.
So why am I going on about this? It’s because of what comes next: gaining weight has had a much more profound and devastating impact on my social life than being diagnosed with HIV.
I benefit from the advantage of being an openly gay man in that this is probably the community that is the most open and supportive of people living with HIV. Not that it is always peaches and roses (are those good things?), but it remains way better than a lot of other communities in our North American society. The downside, however, is that I am also a part of the community that might be the most “lookist” of all, and I have probably internalized many of those attitudes myself. I try actively not to project those on others, but they gnaw away at how I feel about myself.
Not that I need to worry only about my own self-judgement, as I have plenty of unsolicited commentary and looks that I likely over-interpret as hostile or derisive. The first couple of times I got a comment in a place that I had felt safe in, I reacted badly. I met the “Are you gaining a little weight?” question with an overly serious “I can’t believe you think you can say that to me.” (That made us both feel bad.) The next time was worse, as my reply was “You’re not so thin yourself.” (Not proud of that one.) I ended up doing the worst thing possible, which was leaving that social group and isolating myself at home.
I have developed some responses that I will use for my future commenters, using a little humour to make them think twice about sharing their judgements with the objects of their rejection. One plan is to thank the person for having pointed out something of which I was totally unaware…yes, sarcasm. I still also have the direct method up my sleeve…something about my having gained weight but my commenter having lost tact. I’m still not sure those things will make me feel any better, but maybe they will protect someone else from having to hear some of those comments in the future.
I guess my point here is that we people living with HIV are not alone in being stigmatized by others in society. We have at least succeeded in making some people think twice about sharing their negative attitudes toward HIV publicly, if not privately or internally. Some other forms of stigma thrive in the open.