There is a tired old cliche that says “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” After a year and a half of very concentrated thought and work on the issues surrounding AIDS I find myself meditating more and more on the wisdom of this old adage.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the current AIDS crisis assaulting the gay male community spiritually, physically, and psychologically is the powerlessness many of us feel when grappling with “it.” This sense of powerlessness is fueled, in large part, by the many unknowns involved with AIDS. Though some very interesting, and I am sure valuable, inroads are being made, every tantalizing discovery uncovers many more unanswered questions. It seems that it will be some time yet before the causative agent(s) is found and much longer, perhaps many years, before a “cure” is available to us for full blown AIDS. In the meantime, what are we to do to keep from going crazy? A first step is to realize that we are not defenseless against AIDS and that we can empower ourselves to deal effectively with AIDS – those of us who have it, those who have experienced some of the vague early symptoms, and those of us who worry about it, letting it affect our lives, sometimes in very profound ways.
There is an assumption, taken as gospel truth by many of us, that must be examined closely and exposed for the myth that it is. A fellow named Chapman writing in 1974 summed it up quite well in these words, “When people experience themselves as ill and the assumption is that medicine produces health, the logical conclusion is that there is not enough medicine.” This assumption is vocalized quite often in the gay community these days by those wanting AIDS monies raised from the community to go to research rather than to local education and self-help programs. The rationale seems to be that if we just throw enough money at the.medical authorities they will solve the problem for us. Kenneth R. Pelletier, in his book Holistic Medicine, elucidates this position further saying, “Both doctors and laymen are laboring under many false assumptions concerning who is responsible for alleviating the modern plagues. It is evident that there are no villains, only misplaced efforts.” By sitting back and waiting for the medical establishment to cure us this misplaced effort (or perhaps the lack of effort all together!) renders us powerless victims.
I am not arguing against research efforts into the AIDS question – this is without doubt an absolutely necessary component in the overall struggle, but only one component. It has, of course, been very appropriate for us to confront the slow (homophobic) response of federal agencies in allotting monies for AIDS research. The money seems to be flowing a bit more easily today than a year ago, but this has most probably been fueled by straight fears that AIDS is crossing-over into heterosexual society!! Many researchers will still tell you the amount of funds available is inadequate and those receiving money are those with the best ‘connections’ – not necessarily those with the best qualifications. That, unfortunately, is how modern America works. The myth of the free enterprise system with the most competent being rewarded is, of course, as ludicrous in the medical field as it is everywhere else in our society.
Assuming that the federal government was a truly benevolent, paternal entity concerned only about our welfare, to leave the task of dealing with AIDS to these wonderful people would still be a major abdication of responsibility on our part, a move rendering us powerless. That the federal government (headed by Reaganites) is not benevolent and is only maliciously paternalistic is, of course, the case.
All social welfare programs, not just monies for AIDS research, have been dealt with in a slash and burn manner the past three years – and all in the name of responsible government. This bold-faced distortion was grossly exposed on September 30 with the end of the nation’s 1983 fiscal year. The Defense Department found that it had $4.2 billion left over…money they had been unable to spend (Rocky Mountain News/ 10/3/83, pg.( 3), so instead of returning it to the nation’s treasury they went on a spending spree awarding 234 contracts in a twenty-four hour period. $4.2 billion dwarfs the total amount spent on AIDS by the feds to date (plus the amount proposed for fiscal 1984.) So our efforts to empower ourselves around the AIDS issue does not mean neglecting a continual harrassment of the federal government to provide adequate research monies. We just need to keep it all in perspective and not neglect other important facets of the struggle.
The first step, as I mentioned earlier, is to realize that more is not necessarily better. More medicine does not necessarily translate into more health. Recent events in Denver around the publication of our increasing rate of cancer emphasize this nicely. Colorado’s cancer rate now surpasses the average national rate. The lesson is not that more money is needed for cancer research, but that by not smoking cigarettes and avoiding over-exposure to the sun we could, ourselves, significantly reduce the incidence of cancer.
The second step I would suggest in our AIDS empowerment battle is to examine another assumption and to also expose it for the myth it is. This one is going to be more difficult because it is the cornerstone of modern Western medicine. “Western medicine has long viewed the body as a machine that could be analyzed in terms of its parts, as in the eighteenth century model of La Mettrie’s intricate clock.” (Holistic Medicine, Pelletier, pg. 31.) We gay people as part of the whole that makes up our society have bought this bogus concept. Organ transplant is the most recent prostitution of this idea. Barney Clark’s transplanted heart and the plans neurosurgeons have to transplant a head (I’m not kidding folks!) top the list. No need to take responsibility for what you may be doing to your body over the years with unhealthy habits. It can be fixed or replaced! This is unfortunately a cruel hoax and the same mindset that is affecting how we, as a community, are approaching the AIDS issue. Hurry up and fix it so we can get back to the good old days.
I would like to suggest some very concrete actions we can take to AID our empowerment, in addition to examining the above assumptions. First, however, I would like to share some information I gleaned from a recent article in the New York Native (September 26 – October 9, 1983). The article is an interview by James E. D’Eramo, Ph.D. with Dr. Elena Buimovici-Klein and Dr. Michael Lange, both AIDS researchers at Manhattan’s St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital.
One of the most powerless statements people make is “well if I’m going to get it (AIDS) I’m going to get it” or a variation on that theme, which is, “if I haven’t gotten it yet I’m not going to.” Either statement is kind of a risky thing to say about a disease that may have an incubation period as long as three or four years 1 Well into the interview D’Eramo askthe researchers if people who do not fit the strict case definition of AIDS, but who do have some signs and symptoms of the disease, do not have to go on to develop full-blown AIDS (i.e. – one of the life threatening opportunistic infections such as Kaposi Sarcoma or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.) Dr. Lange responded affirmatively stating that he has “seen people with lymphadenopathy, and oral thrush (Candida in their mouths) and who have lost ten or more pounds and with a T-cell ratio below 0.5 (which he considers very serious) – take a total turn around. They’ve gained weight, the thrush has disappeared, the lymph node swelling has gone down.” Dr. Buimovici-Klein goes on to say: I think it is very important to emphasize. I also know about three other patients with this type of prodromal AIDS, including persistent CMV infection. They took it upon themselves to change their lifestyles (emphasis is mine), abstain from sex, eat properly,t rest, and exercise. Two of them were abstinent for two months, and their T-cell ratios improved remarkably. When they came back’I hardly recognized them; all the prodromal signs of AIDS had disappeared. The third one found a steady lover, formed a monogomous relationship, and he was better within one year. One of the other two I mentioned felt that he had become so well that he started back again to promiscuous lifestyle. He returned in four months-withlymphadenopathy, and fever (this time), and his T-cell ratio was again very low. He then began to abstain from sex again and now he seems fine. So I do believe that this needs to be emphasized: at this early stage, if you do lead a healthy life, you will eventually get better.11
Now before everyone flies off the handle screaming that this business about sexual abstinence and monogamy sounds like homophobic Christian fundamentalist clap trap – level off!! We need to expand our, definition of sexual. We need to continue to be sexual and I think it is better to be sexual with lots of folks rather than a few. However, take off your strait blinders and begin to explore forms of sexual expression that don’t involve the sharing of bodily fluids. BORING – you say … maybe not!! Give it a try. We need to be naked a lot with each other – touching and cuddling (naked or not) are essential to our well being. AIDS is not.
Lifestyle changes are difficult to make and it’s easy to fail if we don’t approach it realistically. “Programs of lifestyle change are far less appealing and compelling than the pro grams of massive innoculation, or the exotic drama of coronary by-pass surgery. Prevention is both simple and subtle,which it its greatest asset as well as its most severe liability.” (Holistic Health, Pelleteir) Going cold turkey with various habits can work for some of us but taking it a bit at a time works well for others. If you are continuing with a sexual lifestyle that includes many different partners try exploring the various suggestions now available for decreasing the sharing of bodily fluids. Take a hard look at your recreational drug use (including alcohol and tobacco!) Exercise can be believable and not a drag. Take it slow, perhaps discussing with your health care provider what would be a good program for you. Changes in diet are often very difficult to initiate. Go slow and eliminate some of the junk food replacing them with other, more healthful, items. We have many people in the gay and lesbian community who know a lot about good diets. Come on! How about some organic quiche recipes?
These changes can be made with a non-penance attitude if kept realistic. Celibacy, a brown rice diet, and six miles of jogging on the first day is not a realistic approach. Beginning to spend a few minutes each day thinking of your body as a beautiful and intricate whole, a thread in the fabric that is the universe, is realistic.
Writing in 1936, a physician named Jesse F. Williams said: “It is of value to think of health as that condition of the individual that makes possible the highest enjoyment of life, the greatest constructive work, and that shows itself in the best service to the modern world …. Health as a freedom from disease is a standard of mediocrity; health as a quality of life is a standard of inspiration and increasing achievment.”
I am confident that we can empower ourselves in regard to AIDS. We can heal ourselves. Those of us with AIDS can recover. Those with the early symptoms can reverse them. And those of us at high risk can eliminate or at least greatly reduce that risk.