photo credit www.butterstudios.ca.
Tim Bartsch has joined the ranks of other survivors and thrivers living with HIV in Toronto, Canada after driving across the country in spring 2015 from Vancouver. Toronto is not new to Bartsch, who has made the same move two previous times within a span of eight years.
Bartsch said, after his close call with death due to AIDS-related opportunistic infections that started during his second stay in T.O. back in 2009, he felt he had a new lease on life and wanted to resurrect his artistic ambitions as a performing artist in the very city that nearly killed him.
“After six months in hospital, I don’t take any day for granted. I beat death. I feel really blessed because now I can live the remainder of my life which I intend to live at least till I’m 80,” Bartsch said.
Bartsch wrote and produced an original rock opera, Southern Time, about his struggles before and after the HIV diagnosis, and performed it in December 2005 with a cast of local actors, dancers, and singers at the Wise Hall in Vancouver, B.C.
“In six months with the money from my uncle, my mother, and my credit cards, I gathered a team that put on this awesome multimedia stage show.”
But despite the catharsis he felt after the conclusion of the show, Bartsch found himself asking if that was it.
“I went exploring. I had a girlfriend, but the relationship ended miserably. I then went to South Africa, did all these adventures, came back to Vancouver, and my friend and I did a two-person version of the rock opera before we moved to Toronto together,” Bartsch said. “It wasn’t a very healthy relationship. We fought all the time instead of addressing the elephant in the room and then I started getting sick in 2008.”
For Bartsch, an HIV diagnosis came with a battery of challenges as he navigated the dating landscape.
“The biggest part of my journey with HIV wasn’t that I was going to die young, it was that I’d never find love, or be intimate with a woman again, or a woman that I’d find attractive and she me, that’s been the hardest part. For a heterosexual man, or one who identifies as mostly heterosexual, it’s their life blood. If they don’t have a good woman in their life, they don’t have any motivation,” Bartsch said.
Bartsch said, as a child, he was brought up by an aggressive and abusive father, and a mother who was devoted to her Christian faith. He felt that both played a pivotal role in his interactions later with a male authority figure at a time when his musical aspirations were just beginning to flourish.
“I found out I was HIV positive in 1996, two years after meeting this person. A month after I started studying at the Hochscule, I got my diagnosis. So I stayed at the end of the semester, and then I came home. My dreams of studying cello in Germany were dead,” Bartsch said.
According to Bartsch, overcoming the shame of what happened to him both as a child and an adult has been a life-long process of self-discovery and healing.
“I was rebelling at the time against everything I was raised with. I thought I was God and could take on the world. I’d been bullied at school so I had an axe to grind.”
Bartsch’s defiance also extended to the HIV medical sector after his diagnosis.
Photo by MarkurMusic.com/
“I said to hell with it so I read some dissident literature online. So I didn’t take meds for 10 years,” he said. “A large proportion of the HIV community at some point in their journey have toyed with the idea of becoming outright dissidents, what the medical establishment likes to call denialists. But I wasn’t in denial. It’s like growing up, you can’t swallow everything that the authorities, whether they be political, religious, or medical authorities tell you.”
But after encountering and struggling with the damaging intersectionalities around HIV health that included income insecurity, minimum-wage jobs, depression, alcohol abuse, and an unhappy home, Bartsch said things started to fall apart very quickly.
“My mom was freaking out back in Vancouver, because the doctors wouldn’t give her information since I wasn’t giving them authority to speak to her, and being stubborn in my delusion that I could beat the disease. She came a week later and I ended up going back with her. By that time, I was incontinent, I needed help walking, I was wetting the bed every night, and my skin was turning yellow from liver failure. I had cognition issues too.”
During his two-month stay in palliative care followed by four months in acute care, Bartsch said his mom and step-father nursed him back to health, along with the anti-retroviral therapy he had started that helped his body regain some functioning.
Bartsch said, he still bore the scars from those days including permanent spinal cord damage that affected his ability to walk. But Bartsch remains grateful to be alive and for the support he has received since his recovery.
“My friend suggested that I take a community-based research course through the Ontario HIV Treatment Network , which I’m doing now, and I’m also seeing a job counsellor at Employment Action at ACT and he’s encouraging me to take other courses.”
Bartsch said he hoped to start up a support program for people who identify as heterosexual, particularly heterosexual males.
“It’s a small demographic, but it doesn’t mean we don’t matter. It’s been really isolating, with a lot of maladaptive behaviours that occurred in my life, and again to do with shame. There should be support spaces where people could talk about it, connect with others, and even have a way for straight people living with HIV to connect with one another.”
Bartsch said his desire to be more involved in the HIV community was an extension of the themes and messages in Southern Time.
“My rock opera is really about social change. My journey with HIV really opened my eyes to all the inequities in our world, and how people have been hurting each other since humanity began,” he said. “We really need to figure it out because we’re fast approaching a zero sum game.”
Bartsch will be performing songs from Southern Time at the Musideum this Thursday, Aug. 27 at 8 p.m. accompanying himself on cello and piano. He plans to share parts of his story to complement his musical pieces, and may have his alter ego, T, make an appearance. For more information, visit here.