I miss New York. Today would have been a perfect day in the city. The morning was cool and overcast and I know that there sounds would be muted. The city’s constant din would be dimmer. It would be a good morning for a long walk with just a hint of rain dampening jacket and scarf. Squirrels and birds would be out, taking advantage of the calm to work harder than they can when distracted. How like humans they are and we like they.
Then, in mid-afternoon, the sun breaks through the fading clouds. The world is suddenly bright though less bright than a day without clouds at all. The sun is civilized on a November afternoon. The clock has returned to its normal routine after being altered by people’s tinkering. From the afternoon to night is but a small space now and this is how it should be at this season of the year.
In New York I would be rested and I would be calm. But I realize I am those things here, in the South, at home, now. I realize this is unusual. It is not as it has been. Life is better and I am glad.
The last eight months have been trying, tiresome, depressing, endless and seemingly hopeless. My husband Angelo fought multiple diseases. The diabetes he bears was untreated and uncontrolled. The medical industry and all its brilliant practitioners failed him with bumbling disinterest. His body was out of control. As we traveled back and forth from New York to Richmond and to and fro from elsewhere Angelo would suffer what I came to call attacks. His mood would shift without notice from kind and caring to violently abusive. I was the target of his terrible wrath.
Over the months the attacks worsened and became more frequent. We blamed it all on his diabetes but we had no diagnosis. It was speculation. In seven emergency hospital admissions Angelo received no relief; he was merely stabilized and then turned away. His health insurance did not permit psychiatric services and he had no counselor. His blood sugar raged to frightening heights. He assaulted me three times, once raising a bloody wound and leaving me with a black eye I wore for weeks. Angelo and I were alone with nowhere to turn. We could only await the next attack.
Angelo’s turmoil sickened me. I became depressed, more depressed than even the worst days of my life in 2012. I could not understand why I was faced with a seemingly insane partner for the second time in fewer than eighteen months. “Why”, I cried to God. “Why has my life been ruined again after I have just regained my health and my mind? Have I sinned so grievously?” God provided no answers.
I lost hope and committed to take the advice of my family and many friends. I left Angelo and began plans for a single life after less than a year of marriage. He was beyond distraught and I feared for his health and his future. I could do nothing else because I was dying, in my heart and in fact.
Then, like a biblical miracle all changed. In the span of ten days Angelo received access to an endocrinologist - a diabetes specialist. He was accepted as a client of Richmond’s Daily Planet, a decades’ old effort providing health care and mental health treatment to the city’s impoverished. His specialist prescribed self-administered insulin. It had an immediate effect. His therapist prescribed Celexa. This was the miracle. Angelo’s mood cleared and his attacks disappeared. Once again he was the man I married and we reunited, grateful for what we were sure was a gift from God.
Today, six weeks later, Angelo is happy and calm and so am I. We celebrated the first of our anniversaries in love and today will join friends to mark the second.
What about me? My physical health is very good. I joke that I am the healthiest man I know, “but for one thing.” This joke seems real and unreal simultaneously. My fight for health has been long and hard and my victory is my proudest achievement, more important than the position, prestige and “power” that marked my life before it disintegrated. I have decided to move through life in a mode of watchful waiting. I will mind my disease as I must but I will not allow it to rule me as I once did. My decision is the same as many of yours. Did I come to it sooner than you, or later?
There is much more to well-being than physical health. In the years I practiced law I represented many men and women charged with serious criminal offenses. Often in these cases I decided it was important to document my client’s mental state at the time of the offense and compare it to his state in the present. To do this I retained counselors and psychologists to offer professional opinions on point.
When I provided the required notice that my client’s mental state was at issue the prosecutor always involved her own professional to conduct an examination and usually to testify counter to my expert’s opinion. The common result was two experienced, degreed professionals offering diametrically opposing opinions on a question of fact.
This result perplexed and concerned me. How can the description of a matter of fact differ to this degree? Who is telling the truth? Is the other lying? I was no innocent. I did what was required to obtain the best outcome possible for my client. But this situation left a bad taste in my mouth.
I came to disrespect these professionals for this example of men and women testifying in what seemed a duplicitous manner. I decided I would never seek counsel myself from a professional counselor or psychologist. When I needed help I sought it from family, friends or colleagues who while untrained were reliably honest.
I have written of the effects on my mind caused by my disease. When I “came to” six weeks after my discharge from the hospital I entered consciousness depressed. I say this not because I was capable of a diagnosis. The situation was entirely unfamiliar to me. I simply knew that life had little meaning, that my relationship had become hollow and that I was lost and unanchored, just drifting from daylight to blessed sleep that removed my torment.
After a month of pain I decided I must seek help. I did not know who to call; that is, I did not know what kind of person could help. I knew little of the hierarchy of mental health practitioners. My experience was limited to one artificial circumstance. My pain was not artificial. It was the primary focus of my life.
I remembered a man I met in my work among Richmond’s LGBT people. Dr. Donnie as he was called was basically the psychologist for gay Richmond. Some people joked he had shrunk half the population of the bars. Despite this joke his reputation was solid, and a friend recommended him. I called him and scheduled an appointment.
As I entered his outer office the morning we were to meet my mind raced through unlettered possibilities. How would a session run? Was there a couch? Was he going to mine my mind for every guilty sin? Could I respect myself when he was done? After a short time Dr. Donnie escorted me back to his office.
There was no couch and there was no desk, just tasteful decoration and two comfortable chairs, one facing the other. We sat and he began.
After running through insurance requirements we began the substance. He did not question. He asked me to explain why I was there.
I did, with a depth of detail that surprised me. I told him things I had discussed with no one, not because I did not want to but because I could not. I had no one with whom to share my thoughts. Speaking to Donnie felt right and the words erupted.
As did the tears. I found myself choking, gasping for breath as dry sobs racked me. I felt my soul was being ripped from my being as months of trapped fear and worry and hopelessness gushed forth into the air between us. Donnie offered comfort and had tissue handy. I was so glad he did.
When the session closed he said that while he normally saw new patients two weeks after the first session he wanted me to return in one. I had insurance then and so we made the date. I had a psychologist.
So began my journey through the worlds of psychoanalysis and later psychiatry. Donnie was Godsent. In the months following my start we killed the demons of my termination from my job and the end of my 24-year relationship. The moose in the room remained my disease. It was impossible to slay that and my counts were unsteady, prompting fear. Donnie consoled and counseled patience and faith. In time that lesson took hold.
In September 2013 I moved to New York City and was left without Donnie. In my year there I fired three counselors. I could not find one that fit me. None could live up to Donnie. I had learned enough to carry me through, to bull myself through as I had become used to when confronting a problem of any sort. Still the depression returned and at times it was hard. It was very hard indeed.
A year later I returned to Richmond and immediately messaged Donnie. We had three sessions but I had no insurance. To my deep regret I left him. Money was too tight.
Then late last month another miracle occurred. I was given access to a “charity counselor” through Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Paula, a licensed clinical social worker and I met four times and we are coming to know one another. She is a vibrant woman, approximately my age and very different than Donnie but as good I think. Paula helped me persevere through Angelo’s troubles. I am blessed to find help just when I need it most.
I have become an evangelist of mental health counseling. When I speak to others of my life I include news of my progress there along with my progress containing my virus. I always receive expressions of interest, caring and support.
Many people are frightened to admit they need help to deal with problems of cognition, clarity, courage and consciousness. Mental illness suffers from an ancient stigma. People living with HIV who need mental health treatment face this stigma together with the newer, very sharp stigma that comes with our disease. This can be overwhelming and it deters many from seeking help, either for their mind or for their virus.
This fear must be overcome because as I have testified progress and health is attainable on both counts. Do not be ashamed to seek help. Do not fear what others may say. Your disease is just that and is just the same as many others that bring support from all in society. Claim your right to respect and accept the help you are offered. Your life will change if you do. Mine has and I cannot imagine what it would be without the help I received from Donnie and Paula and my psychiatrists, Drs. Daniel and Kogut.
My life has changed in uncounted ways since… . It will never be what it was and now I am glad it will not. I have received tools that will aid my travel down a path that is uncertain. Today I believe that no matter what befalls me the journey will continue for a long time, how long only God knows. I have reached an armistice with my body and mind. One will work to keep me strong, the other to keep me happy and loved. I believe both, together we three as one, will succeed.
God bless each of you as you travel your path. Peace, my friends, and strength