Tina Chow is not a name you hear often these days. Back in December I asked my best friend if he remembered her, to which he replied, “I kind of remember her; she was kind of fierce back in the day.” As a footnote to our conversation he added, “she died of AIDS didn’t she?” The comment gave me a pause. Tina Chow, whose death meant so much at that time had by now become the subtext of a conversation about the depressing state of European fashion. When Tina passed in 1992 we were all frightened of what AIDS was doing to all of us. Tina Chow was the first woman whose AIDS diagnosis made the disease real among the chic woman crowd; at least we told ourselves we were chic. Her death also gave us a purpose. We became advocates for those who suffered from HIV and AIDS. We joined organizations like Act-up and preached tolerance to the masses. For those of us touched personally by the AIDS epidemic it all seemed so urgent, the need for research and answers. Admittedly losing friends to the disease caused me to get involved but it also caused me to pull away from some relationships as fear of losing those I loved became more real to me. And then a wonderful thing happened. Research and awareness yielded results. Drugs were introduced which allowed our friends to live longer and have more productive lives. Those infected with the HIV virus were given a glimmer of hope that a diagnosis was not a death sentence and slowly we all returned to something just south of normal. While still there, AIDS and HIV related illnesses became not the topic of conversation but the subtext of a conversation regarding something more pleasant, our latest loves or our latest shoe acquisition. I no longer worried about receiving phone calls from that friend whose same-sex relationship worried me for their safety and ultimately their health. I didn’t have to hold my breath when my long-time friend and I visited the clinic to have HIV testing done out of support for the “Know Your Status” campaign. We all were in a good place, winning the good fight. But as with all good missions, you one day realize that you have plateaued. The troops are holding down the fort and the threat has passed. You let your guard down and become complacent. Recently I learned that my long-time friend, the same friend with whom I’d visited the clinic several time in the 90s, the one who was my rally partner during the “Know Your Status” campaigns, had passed away due to AIDS related complications. According to his partner he had become depressed in recent years and stopped taking his medications. It was a sobering realization. It was more sobering to discover that what my friend suffered from was becoming a new kind of epidemic. Living with HIV has itself become a condition. According to some research some of the side affects of taking medication or the day-to-day routine of managing HIV is negatively effecting those inflicted with the condition. And could we all be to blame? Perhaps our new fight or the new conversation we should be having is one of maintenance. How can we help after a diagnosis? At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I’d say that AIDS is not going away and as we develop ways for those affected by the disease to live longer, perhaps we ought to be developing ways for them to not become complacent in the fight. Recently, Jacob Bernstein (NY Times) penned an article about Spencer Cox, the AIDS activist who lost his battle to AIDS. His also is a cautionary tale, having gone off his meds for reasons still not clear to those of us who respected his work. Perhaps mental illness is the next phase in our fight against AIDS. I don’t claim to know the answer but what I know for sure is that as with any war, the enemy of war is the war itself. Having many side affects and many victims, the fight is never truly over; it only reinvents itself in new forms.
If you’d like to read about Spencer Cox’s story, Bernstein’s article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/fashion/what-really-killed-spencer-cox-aids-activist.html?ref=fashion&_r=0
- Understanding HIV in Men: Is it an Infection or Something More? (aids.answers.com)
- The Battle Against HIV: Your Medication Options (aids.answers.com)