“I had real love in my life once with Doug and I would desperately like to have it again. I know this is a big trap…sex and intimacy are not one and the same thing. But I always wind up acting like they are the same. I always have it in my head that maybe my next sexual encounter will bring me love. It’s maddening.”
My friend Kevin is 39. He is living with HIV. He tested positive twelve years ago. Luckily he continues to be asymptomatic.
Kevin is a music teacher and member of a jazz quartet. He is currently single and shares his house with two roommates. His lover, Doug, died five years ago just one month shy of their tenth anniversary together.
Kevin is trim and buffed. He works out at a local gym four days a week. He is boyishly handsome with tousled red hair. He rides a motorcycle and is a wicked pool player.
Kevin says; “Even though I’ve had many friends die of AIDS, I still have plenty of my own death stuff to deal with.” He reports that he has recently engaged in some questionable sexual practices. “That’s a sure sign that I’m shoving a lot of this under the carpet. And I know this kind of thing could be, well, a fatal mistake!”
Kevin was born and raised a devout Roman Catholic. His Boston Irish Catholic family had high hopes that one day he would become a priest. “I know I disappointed them and I don’t think they ever really got over it. Ya see, when I came out in college I left the church at the same time. It was a preemptive strike, if you want to know the truth. I wasn’t about to wait around for them to throw me out just because I was gay.” His inability to find a suitable spiritual home makes him sad. “Sometimes I feel lost and rudderless. I know God loves me, but the sweet and easy connection I once had with God as a younger man eludes me now.”
My friend Kevin and I meet for lunch about once a month. We talk about life and death and what makes us tick. At a recent lunch we started to talk about life and love after the love of our life dies.
Kevin tells me; “My sexuality has always been a driving force in my life, but sometimes I simply feel driven. A manic pursuit of pleasure is no pleasure, if you know what I mean.”
“I do know what you mean. That’s how so many of us pursue our pleasure. It’s exhausting, huh?”
“Yep, sure is! Do you think it’s just a gay thing? I don’t want to suggest that I’m a sex addict or anything, but I sometimes feel out of balance. I know a lot of this has to do with my relentless pursuit of love. I had real love in my life once with Doug and I would desperately like to have it again. I know this is a big trap…sex and intimacy are not one and the same thing. But I always wind up acting like they are the same. I always have it in my head that maybe my next sexual encounter will bring me love. It’s maddening.”
I smiled knowingly and said; “I wish I had a nickel for every time I head a similar lament. We gay men, in the age of HIV/AIDS, have a unique set of sexual issues that need to be understood and addressed. Besides the obvious safer sex concerns, there are all the issues that arise with the death of a partner. Unresolved grief can and does cause sexual dysfunction. When a relationship ends with the death of a partner, the surviving partner has an array of new concerns. How and when does he begin to date again? If he is sexual with someone new, does this violate the memory of his deceased partner?
I frequently hear the same complaint. ‘I’m so lonely, but my grief is getting in the way of my having any kind of sexual feelings.’ As a therapist I try to help the surviving partner face these concerns as soon as possible. I often find myself saying; ‘Listen, I’m sure your lover wouldn’t want you to stop living. Choose life! It will be the best testament you could offer your deceased lover.’
It’s been my experience that if these concerns go unresolved for too long, the likelihood that they will develop into a full-blown dysfunction increases exponentially.”
I sense that I’ve hit a nerve in Kevin, but I push on.
“Kevin, you said you’re looking for a partner, but that you are only meeting men who are interested in sex. Searching for a life partner isn’t easy even under the best of circumstances. Looking for someone new after the death of a partner is even more difficult. There is always the tendency to compare the new love interest to the one who’s died, and that can be disastrous.
On top of that, where does one go to meet a potential partner? One thing’s for sure, it’s not likely that you’ll find this person in a sex club or in a bar. I suggest that you look in a less seductive environment like a café or at the gym. An HIV support group might also be a good place to look. Or perhaps you could try a common interest club, like the ones they have for line dancing or playing bridge.”
Kevin thought for a moment and responded. “I’ve considered all those things and have tried them all too. But then I begin to think; what happens if I meet someone who is HIV negative? I don’t want to get attached to guy who might reject me just because of my HIV status. That’s why it’s less of a gamble if I keep the connection more casual. So you see, I’m in a double bind. I want the intimacy that comes from a long-term relationship, but I’m afraid of the rejection. Or, what if I infected him? That would be the worst. And, even though I’m doing okay now on the medications I’m taking, but what if I get sick later? I don’t want to put anyone through what I went through with Doug.”
“If ya focus on the fact that you could be rejected for your HIV status, or infect a partner, or get sick and die yourself you simply won’t be able to live each day to the fullest. And all the love you have to give will die on the vine, so to speak. Fear is ruling your life; it’s not pleasure, and it’s certainly not love.
So many of my friends with HIV consider themselves damaged goods. That’s no way to approach the rest of one’s life. I understand the stigma, but HIV is simply a chronic illness like any other. And nowadays it’s manageable and there’s very little to interrupt one’s quality of life.
So Kevin, do you honestly intend to live without the intimacy you need and desire and sabotage the very thing that will enrich your life, just because you’re afraid? Gosh, I hope not.”