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It Changed My Life Forever

Today is the first “back to work” day of the new year. Twenty-six years ago today, I got my HIV positive diagnosis. I’d had my blood tested prior to a vacation in Palm Springs, and my first appointment of the year was with my physician. He didn’t hem or haw or mince words–told me straight out. I was stunned but stoic. In my heart, I had expected it. I had been a sexually active gay man in New York in the 1970s and 80s; more than a dozen close friends were dead from AIDS.

For many years, I had declined to get tested. What was the point? An HIV diagnosis was a virtual death sentence. There was no known cure. 
It was 1990. My year-end appointment with my doctor. As usual, the subject of HIV testing came up. The pragmatist in me decided to place the decision in my doctor’s hands. I gave blood and went off to California. I knew that whatever I learned upon my return would change my life forever. It most certainly did!
Minutes after getting the news, I set my jaw firmly. I did not feel sorry for myself. I did not cry. 
It was ironic: up to now all my problems had been emotional. I’d had a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder since the age of eight. I fought it hard with behavioral therapy and medication. I was also a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse. 
Now another fight loomed.
I was 37 and a successful, “high-powered” PR executive. Bring it on, I thought.
OCD and HIV turned out to be a lousy combination. The stress of my career became overwhelming. I was now having “safe sex” but enjoying it less. Small fears were magnified. I was decidedly off my game.
One evening, I sat alone in my living room and made a five-year plan of survival. I would immediately stop smoking. I would stop drinking. I would leave the PR madhouse. I would move to a smaller town. I’d get real serious again about my poetry and creative writing. 
In time, I did all those things and in time better medications came along. My closely-monitored virus became “undetectable.”
It’s now 2017. I’m a long-term survivor and I still burn with poetry. I’m retired, and I think golf is silly. So you’re more likely to find me at my local Starbucks tanked with caffeine, laboring over a poem. In hindsight, “getting the news” wasn’t so bad.

Dennis Rhodes
Naples, Florida


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