Just One More Chapter by Gary Houghton

Nothing and no one could ever have prepared me for the way HIV came into my world, like a tidal wave crashing down on the shores of my life and laying waste to all that lay before it. I was diagnosed after being rushed into hospital with PCP pneumonia and a blood CD4 count of 21. I’d been ill for some time. A cough that just refused to go away, and a breathlessness which, at times, felt like I was drowning. I don’t know whether it was because I was too ill to care, or that I finally knew what was wrong with me, but being told I had HIV came as a relief.

At this point I made the decision to keep it from my family. When I came out as gay, it had been my parents’ biggest fear. How could I now tell them that the thing they dreaded the most had been realised. Perhaps in hindsight I should have told them. Constantly guarding every word. The fear of letting something slip. The fear of being found out put pressure on my already over-taxed body and mind.

So there I was in intensive care hooked up to a machine with more lights and pings than a pinball machine, an oxygen mask that felt like I was in a convertible car, top down, going 90 miles an hour and a drip pumping so much liquid in me that I was constantly on the verge of wetting myself. It was then that the Department of Work and Pensions, in their great wisdom, decided that they needed all their forms filled in ASAP.

WHAT? WHAT? Christ, I was weaker than a new born, my temperature was through the roof, I wasn’t even strong enough to hold a pen but they need their forms. We muddled through, my house mate reading out the questions while I tried to answer the best I could. Eventually the forms were filled in and I was free to get on with being ill.

A strange kind of calmness came over me. All my life I’ve had this morbid fear of dying. I don’t know where it came from but it’s always been there. But faced with the real possibility of it happening, it didn’t seem that bad. There was nothing I could do about it, what would be would be. The hardest part was seeing the faces of family and friends. The shock, the fear and upset sometimes got a bit much for me. I’d hold myself together through the visit, reassuring them that I was feeling much better, but when they left I’d let it all out.

After a week in intensive care and a further two weeks in a private room on an infectious disease ward, I was deemed well enough to go home on the proviso that there would be 24 hour care in place. So off I was sent with a suitcase full of meds and the prospect of a long drawn out recuperation at my parent’s house. With the meds came the usual side effects. The diarrhoea, the spots, the itching, the dermatitis, the mood swings. The list went on and on.

Christmas Eve 2011, eight months after leaving hospital I felt strong enough to go home. To be honest I really don’t think I was ready, but if I hadn’t gone then I never would have. It was hard suddenly having to fend for myself after almost nine months of having everything done for me, but slowly and surely things started to fall into place.

When I decided to write this piece I was going to call it the positives of being positive and believe me there have been some major positives. It gave me a different perspective on life. I learned to stand back and take life as it came. I became more aware of my body and its needs, more aware of my mind and its needs. I’ve always been very shy and introverted. I had a real hard time asking for help with the simplest of problems, but suddenly my need to know outweighed my shyness. I started going for counselling and support groups. Suddenly I was asking for help.

They say knowledge is power. Well, I needed that knowledge, I needed that power, I needed control. I found myself doing things I never would have dreamed of, taking courses in creative writing, drama and art. All these would have been unthinkable before I got ill. But all that said, you can’t ignore the negatives. Every day is still a battle throwing up more and more challenges. Every day is a fight just to feel normal, with the meds being a constant reminder that things are far from normal.

And so as I end one chapter and begin another. I do so without fear and a hope that this will be just one more chapter in a very long book.

©2014 Gary Houghton