Thursday, May 25, 2006


I found out last night that someone close to me is HIV+.

This person ("Peter") and his partner ("Sam") have been together for about 4 years, so presumably Peter acquired the virus before he met Sam. Peter is in his mid-40's, so he was a young gay man during the early days when HIV/AIDS was killing so many and the medical community was helpless to stop it. Sam, on the other hand, is not quite 30, so he grew up in the 1980s and became sexually active in the early 1990s, by which time everyone knew that HIV was transmitted through sexual activity and that the use of condoms could greatly reduce the risk of getting HIV. Sam told me last night that even though he and Peter had only had "safe" sex perhaps 5 or 6 times over the course of their 4+ year relationship, he is not HIV+, at least for the moment.

Horrible as it may be, my first reaction was, "How stupid could you be?" As a young gay man in the early 1980s, Peter had a front-row seat to the carnage of HIV/AIDS and knows first-hand what the disease can do. Sam, on the other hand, learned about "safe sex" as part of the birds and bees, and can't say he didn't know that the risk existed and how to reduce it.

When I asked if he and Peter were going to take proper precautions at this point, Sam said, "Well, it depends on what we're doing." Again, I was incredulous. I can't imagine doing anything to hurt my husband. If I knew that I could potentially expose him to an ultimately lethal virus, I would do everything in my power to keep that from happening. I do not understand why Peter would not insist as a matter of course that he and Sam use condoms so that Sam does not get HIV. And why is Sam so lacking in the instinct of self-preservation (never mind common sense) to insist on this for himself? I don't understand!

When my husband and I were dating, before we had sex, we talked about our respective sexual histories. In our case, each of us had been in only one other significant relationship and had only slept with one other person. Furthermore, as frequent blood donors, we had been tested for HIV and had always tested negative.

Are we unusual in this regard? Don't other people do this before they hop in the sack without a condom? I guess I am just naive, but I would have assumed that Peter and Sam (1) would have had some discussion of their past sexual histories and (2) used a condom until they had (3) both tested HIV-negative.

I know that what is done is done. The past cannot be unwound and rewoven into a new present. And the future cannot be known, so all we can do is mindfully and with lovingkindness live in the present moment, which is really the only moment we have. But that said, I do not believe that one should blindly and recklessly live in the present moment without regard for the consequences of one's actions. And in a way, that looks like what has happened, and is happening, for Peter and Sam.

I feel as if my reaction is compassionless, and I feel bad about it. But right now I feel less sadness and more of a swirl of incredulity and anger. I want the best for Peter and Sam. I love them both. I do not want them to suffer. But I cannot help but look at this situation and think that these two men have not done what they reasonably could to avoid the pain of this situation.

Any thoughts?

. . .

In my own experience, the period of greatest gain in knowledge and experience is the most difficult period in one's life. ...Through a difficult period, you can learn, you can develop inner strength, determination, and courage to face the problem.

-His Holiness the Dalai Lama


tatiana said...

This is sad news. I don't think that you are being compassionless... no matter how we view different situations, and no matter what the method of reasoning we employ is, we are human. We expect that people make informed and smart decisions, but often times, even the most together, brilliantly intellgient person has lapses in judgement.

While I agree - How could these two men continue on practicing unsafe sex faced with the reality of the ultimate price for being so reckless........? Perhaps there is more to this than what we see on the surface. Maybe the thinking in Sam's mind is that he is in love with Peter.... and rather than make Peter feel as if he is somehow damaged, and a threat, Sam is trying to maintain some sort of normalcy in their intimacy & relationship. . . . I don't know that the reaction to AIDS in the hetero community is the same as in the gay community...... I think there is a different mentality associated with this disease among gay men.....I base this on interactions with my own gay friends. . .and being privy to their discussions about love, sex & relationships. I may be way off the mark here, but think that Sam's fear of making Peter feel unloved or unworthy of his pure, affections has something to do with why he is not wearing a condom during every sexual encounter....

Dharmasattva said...

Tatiana, you're probably right.

I know that Sam loves Peter very much, and I can appreciate his desire to maintain normalcy. I hope though that they have the strength to do what is safe and prudent even if it means an open acknowledgment that Peter is ill.

Thanks for your thoughts.


Soen Joon Sunim said...

Aigo, Tatiana's got a good point: relationships don't tend to bring out our rational selves, or make our rationals feel safer than the complexity of emotions, needs, and interactions--and love. Which is why we need good friends who *aren't* in our relationships with us and can keep things in perspective. Peter and Sam have a lot at stake in practicing safe sex; actually, everything is at stake. Going down together in illness isn't a good idea (not that that's what they're thinking; I wouldn't know).

If there's a way for you to work from that feeling of compassion and concern and talk to the two of them about what it is exactly you're afraid of, you might be able to help in some way. A lot of gay men I went to college with--educated people!--weren't having safe sex, and I was as flabbergasted as I was angry, and afraid for them.

In the meantime...prayers for Peter, many many prayers.

"James" said...

Anger isn't always a terrible thing. Anger can motivate us to do something about our feelings. When anger arises it helps to step back a bit and watch it unfold and say "hello habid energy," (as Thich Nhat Hanh says).

In his book, "Anger" (which I HIGHLY recommend) he gives a little analogy that I try to remember everytime I get angery.

Imagine your house was set on fire by an arsonist. If you run out of the house and chase after the evil-doer then our house (our inner peace) burns down to the ground and is destroyed.

If, however, you concentrate on the fire (your anger) and put that out first you save your house (peace) and can then deal with the arsonist later. It's hard to(and easier said then done) do in the heat of the moment but it is worth while to practice it.

I use to have quite the raging anger but it has softened quite a bit since adopting deep breathing, meditation, and remembering Thay's teachings on stepping back, watching the anger, embracing it, thanking it for looking out for us and letting it go to dissipate. I have found greater peace in the chaos.

I understand your anger too in the sense that you care for these two friends and do not want to see them suffer. That is where I see your anger coming from. It does not appear to me as an irrational anger. Understandable anger can act as a catalyst to let go of the anger after it pushes you up to a level of more compassion.

I think that the fact that you have anger shows that you DO have compassion for them and do not want to see them suffer.

And one more thing, do not forget that even the Dalai Lama gets angery. ;) Try not to be so hard on yourself.

I hope this ramble makes sense and that i'm not coming off as "preachy." If so, please accept my deepest apology.

By the way, my wife and I got an HIV/AIDS test once we decided that we wanted to have sex. Some might thing it takes the intimacy out of the sexual beginning of one's relationship but it is so worth it.

Kalsang Dorje said...

I have to say I understand our subjects in this case. I've been more 'active' than some and haven't been safe. Every encounter was always preceded by a few questions. Usually people know when one of thier partners has become HIV+. This isn't a fail-safe method, but then again, neither is any form of protection saving abstinence. Safety is just an errant thought - mitigating risks is awareness. I've always been pretty diligent about being tested and always came out negative. This is just luck.

I don't necessarily disagree with Sam here. His point was 'depends on what we were doing'. For some forms of sexual contact, barrier protection isn't required. Oral sex has a very low probability of infection. I feel like this is an acknowledgement of the facts. For more penetrative sexual acts, there's no reason why not to use protection when you know the facts. This looks to me like acting based on the reality of the situation.

Your anger is based in caring. That's a good thing. It's getting past the judgemental part of it that I always have trouble with. Very sticky.

dragonflyfilly said...

it's natural to feel anger, which is probably born out of feeling helpless - helpless agains this horrible virus, and helpless because you don't want to lose your friend...perhaps the only way to get some perspective is to do some of the "Exchanging Self with Other" meditations recommended by Shatideva...that usually helps me when nothing else does.

love and light

Abe said...

Wishing "Peter" well in the face of unpleasant news...