By Darren Main
I waited on hold nervously—my index finger still a bit tender from where I had pricked it a few days earlier
I had used “mail-in HIV tests” in the past without incident. The process was rather simple: prick your finger, rub a blood sample on a card and mail it to the lab. A few days later, a robotic voice on the other end of the phone would ask for the unique serial number associated with my test kit, and then, after confirming the digits several times, the metallic voice would inform me that I was HIV negative. It was a very impersonal way to keep tabs on my status and be a responsible gay man, but it seemed somehow better than the litany of embarrassing questions associated with a trip to free clinic.
I was about to hang up the phone and call back later, when a young woman thanked me for holding. She nervously asked me to confirm the serial number several more times and then, informed me I was HIV positive—information that would have hit me like a ton of bricks had the woman on the other end of the phone not been so upset by having to give someone such horrible news.
After calming her down and assuring her I would be alright, I hung up the phone and started a whole new phase of my life. Since that time I have have passed through phases of denial, fear, hope, anxiety and finally empowerment. I realized very quickly that HIV was not just another diagnosis because to live with HIV is to be continually faced with irrational fear—my own fears and those of other’s.
Even before my own diagnosis, I had worked with HIV+ men and women as both a yoga teacher and a massage therapist. I had seen the disease transition from a certain death sentence to a condition in which crude early treatments were often-times worse than the virus itself. To eventually becoming a chronic condition controlled with medicine typically having few if any side effects.
In the beginning, I was quite hesitant to take HIV medications due to their extreme toxicity. In fact the first six years of my diagnosis I adamantly refused to take medication even as my CD4 count dropped to below 50—a level at which one can expect some very, very debilitating and potentially fatal opportunistic infections. Yet in spite of those low numbers, my health remained robust.
I was featured in several controversial films including The Other Side of AIDS and House of Numbers. Yet unlike some of the other people interviewed in these films, I was not what is often referred to as an AIDS dissident— one who questiones the existence of HIV or its harmful effects on the immune system. In fact I went to the doctor regularly and continued to monitor my labs closely. At the time, I simply didn’t feel comfortable with the very toxic nature of the available treatments options.
When my dear friend and well-known AIDS dissident Christine Maggiore passed away, I questioned my involvement in these films. While I stand by the statements made in these documentaries and remain friends with the filmmakers, I do feel that the films give the impression that HIV science is largely a hoax and that is a view that I most defiantly do not share.
Six years after being diagnosed, two things happened almost simultaneously. First, I was starting to see my health shift in a marginally negative direction which culminated in an episode of oral thrush, an AIDS defining condition. Second, newer drugs were hitting the market that were far less toxic and carried a much lower pill burden.
And so I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life. After an enormous amount of prayer and meditation, I decided to give Atripla a try. I tolerated the therapy beautifully and saw an immediate decrease in my viral load. It also corresponded with an gradual increase in my CD4 count. The oral thrush went away almost instantly and I have had near-perfect health ever since.
Given my vantage point as a yoga teacher and an author as well as being featured in some rather well-known documentaries, I have had the privilege of talking and corresponding with hundreds of HIV+ people, who, like me, have struggled with what it means to be positive and the very personal decisions we need to make about when and if we should take medication, when and how to disclose our status to friends, family members and romantic partners, and what place holistic medicine has in living well with HIV.
It is because of these conversations that I have decided to be as open as I can be about being HIV+ and to share my own experience as a holistic minded yoga teacher with regard to complementary therapies. My hope in writing this is simple, to give HIV diagnosed people hope. Not just hope for a long and healthy life, but also hope that dreams and aspirations can still be realized.
As I sat alone in my bedroom in the hours after my diagnosis, I wept for the first time in many years. I wasn’t crying for a life I believed would be cut short or the stigma associated with being HIV+. I have wanted to be a father for as long as I can remember. In that moment, I felt that dream die. In February of 2000, they were not allowing HIV+ men to adopt and the technology did not yet exist to biologically reproduce safely. So I needed to be content to be an uncle rather than a father—or so I believed.
I dedicated my energy to living well, eating right, exercising, meditating and doing yoga. Eventually I started medication and managed to dodge the bullet that claimed the life of so many over the past three decades and I was fortunate enough to avoid the harsh side effects of the earlier medications by waiting to start treatment until more benign options were available.
Then, in 2011, the most profound miracle occurred. A social worker from Family Builders Adoption Agency called me to tell me they had found my son—that I could pick him up at the hospital posthaste. And just like that, my life was turned upside down yet again, but this time for the most beautiful reason possible.
Being a single dad has been so much more than I ever thought possible. It’s hard to imagine that I almost gave up on that dream. Yet the realization of this dream came not by luck, but rather by making informed choices about the food I put in my mouth, the yoga and meditation that helped keep my body strong and my mind clear. And of course the dedicated scientists that have worked tirelessly over the years and transformed HIV into a chronic and manageable disease rather than a death sentence.
I have gathered some useful resources that you may find helpful in your quest for health and posted them to my website. The decisions you make—be they decisions about medication, diet, exercise or holistic medicine, are yours alone. I hope the resources here will help you to make the most informed and reflective choices possible so that you too can live your life to the fullest and realize your dreams too.
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