Thinking about what I would write when speaking about HIV and aging for me has been a journey of self-reflection. I can't acknowledge all I have been through without genuinely reflecting on “That Day” I was diagnosed. You see, I never thought I would make it to 25 years of age. I truly thought my life was over, and there was nothing left to do but wait for my inevitable death. For three years after my initial diagnosis, I lived to die. The thought of aging was as mythical as some ancient Roman God. The idea of living was not a reality for me, when all I saw was death, devastation, fear, stigma, and hate. My 23-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend how I would make it to my next morning, how could I live with hope when my thoughts were only that of a painful, miserable lonely death? When those that were living with me, thought of me as some untouchable, unlovable creature who was a “dead man walking?” How would I dream of a life with love and happiness, that could fulfill my every desire and belief when every time I had a cough, an unusual bump, a sore throat, my thoughts immediately went to “was this the beginning of my demise, my death?” How could I think of aging when I felt I was living some wrath of a vengeful God who saw me as an abomination, not worthy of life, love or mercy?
I look back today and can say not only did I find a way to live but I found a balance of self- love, happiness and peace. After living my first three years in a self-imposed purgatory, I finally figured out that I couldn't survive in a place of peace, when my living was in a place of death. That I had to make a choice in not only how I lived, but if I was willing to choose life over death. I had to readdress what my life meant to me and how I wanted to live in it. I gave fear and hopelessness the first years of my post-diagnosis; maybe I could give hope, joy, and happiness a chance. Maybe I could in “This Day” live in the moment given and share in this gift of life I was afforded. Paying homage to those I had lost in this journey. Maybe, just maybe, I could use my voice to speak for the souls who poured life into me during my journey of becoming a same-gender loving black man, whose introduction to this life of loving was the real risk of death. Navigating what my purpose would be and could become was an epic part of my journey to aging with HIV.
I have aged with HIV the only way I knew how , and that was with reckless abandon. I take each day as a gift, a chance to truly make a difference in how others see those living with HIV. I continue to make mistakes, cry, get angry, hurt myself and others, and along with that, I also have loved, loved and loved some more. I have learned to accept grace in my life and I hope that I also poured back into the next generation of leaders a little of what I have been given. Aging for me with HIV is nothing more than living my life as anyone else. This realization has only come with the wisdom and grace of age. In retrospect, aging with HIV truly has been no different than aging without it, except I got to see life from death's door to life’s promise. I get to stand on the wings of angels whose voices and life permeate through me. I get to speak for the warriors who gave their lives, by living my life in honor of them.
To think, I have now lived more of my life with HIV than I lived without it. Sometimes, when I look back, it’s hard to remember the days before I was diagnosed because they were mainly filled with fear and dread that I would be one of the ones who would get this virus. I was 23-years-old when I was diagnosed, and I am 54 now. Thirty-plus years of living has taught me a handful of important lessons: Live each moment. Feel each moment. Love every second and give no energy to those who cannot see your purpose or dreams. Those are wasted moments that you can never get back. Live and make the most out of all you are given. Laugh and be at peace, because life is too short to waste on doubt, fear, and not living your best life.
I age with the mercy and grace I am afforded. I age with the hope that the lessons learned will serve as a daily reminder to help me make decisions that are more in tune to blossoming into my best self. I take each second given with a hope that I can still make a positive difference and I have lived these years trying to effect positive change for myself, my community and mostly for those not only living with this virus but also for those affected by this disease. Aging has given me purpose to be an example of a job well done. To never give up and know that no matter your circumstances there is always opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade. To understand that what seems like a mess can become a message.
Art Jackson is an advocate and activist who has worked to build equity for Black gay Men of Color.