How My Diagnosis—and My Sense of Humor—Have Become Major Assets to My Resilience
by Sean Paul Mahoney
August 11th, 2009 was a lot of things, but hilarious was not one of them. Tragic? Panicked? Emotional? Yes, yes . . . and hell yes. But funny? Not so freaking much.
See, that hot, muggy Santa Monica afternoon was a roller coaster of all the emojis (except for the laughing face one), because it was the day I found out that I am HIV Positive.
Before I continue, let’s get something out of the way. I knew at the time that HIV would not end my life. I was well aware that it was 2009 and not 1989. HIV Positive folks were now living long, happy lives.
I also knew you knew this too because you told me. You told me this repeatedly as a matter of fact and usually without me asking.
Good lord, people. Here’s a hot tip: when someone tells you they have HIV(or any disease for that matter) for the love of God, don’t share that your cousin or your cousin’s coworker or a neighbor's cousin has HIV and they seem happy and really healthy. That’s like trying to tell a homeless person not to be upset because you saw that movie where Will Smith played a homeless guy and everything worked out for him. It’s just not helpful.
A newly diagnosed person like I was knows all of this, but give a brother a few moments to feel sad and figure some shit out, will ya? Personally, I have found, “I’m sorry to hear that” or simply, “I love you” to be more helpful, for what it’s worth.
So yeah, I knew that it wasn’t the end of the world, but I also knew I wasn’t exactly dancing in the streets so then what?
Well, immediately and upon the advice of people who didn’t try to smother me with examples of people they knew with HIV, I cried. I cried for days, actually. See, the timing of this diagnosis really blew. I was just 7 months sober and had ended an 11 year relationship.
I remembered blubbering to my sister on the phone, “Oh great. What’s next? Now would be an awesome time to find out that I also had a brain tumor or that I was adopted.” It felt like 2009 was the year I could not catch a freaking break. It felt like getting sober had only opened bigger cans of worms and my health was just the latest casualty.
Crying and having friends bring me food was about all I could handle for the first week. While I knew that HIV could be treated, I also knew that an addict like myself could use this diagnosis for a relapse of Shia LaBeouf-like proportions and therefore I tried to stay as close to other sober people as humanly possible. I’m glad I did, too, because it was through them all of it started to feel a little less heavy.
“Meh. You take your pills and stay sober and it’s no big deal,” my friend Rick, who was also sober and HIV positive, told me one night on the way home from a meeting. That he was so cavalier about something so life crushing was mind boggling. I mean here was my defining moment to be really, really dramatic and he doused it with an incredibly simple answer. He was right, though.
Getting sober had taught me the sooner I could get into a solution, the better I would feel. After 7 months of hearing people in meetings laugh about the horrific fallout of their alcoholism, I also knew that the sooner I could find some humor in all of this, I’d really start to feel better.
The great and dearly departed Carrie Fisher once said, “If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” I identify with this on a deep, spiritual level that only a fellow smartass can. Being able to laugh and make others laugh has been my golden ticket ever since I was a little kid growing up in an alcoholic home.
My sense of humor had saved me from getting fired, from getting my ass kicked by bullies and from slipping into the abyss of depression, which also happens to be another illness that I’ve been gifted with. Now it was time for my sense of humor to save me from relapse, from shame and from myself. By talking about it in meetings and laughing with other people, I started to see that those well-intended folks who blurted out unwanted advice were right about their cousin: I was gonna be okay.
And more than that, it all started to get sort of funny.
LAUGHTER IS HEALING RESILIENCE TO BOUNCE BACK INTO LIFE
Sure, having a fatal but manageable condition's in and of itself is not really the stuff of comedy gold. But taking 7 pills a day that make me pee at 4am like your grandmother?
That’s pretty funny.
Also funny? An extremely sassy nurse at my HIV clinic in Venice once struggled for several minutes to find a vein that would deliver the goods, I quipped, “I would have been a terrible junkie.” She replied, “Child, you would have been out of business.” I also live-tweeted an anal pap, pretended my medications were the names of my adopted children (“Prezista! Isentress! Come in here and help mama cook dinner!”) and generally started to lighten the hell up.
Why? Because the reality was this was something that I was going to live with for the rest of my time on the planet. Laughing has made something painful and seemingly so insurmountable feel less powerful and more human. It's made me a more resilient, authentic human being.
Now, 8 years later, August 11th is just a day. Sure, it’s a day that changed my life . . . but it doesn’t carry the weight that it once did. I take my meds, I stay sober, I help other people, and I laugh a lot. And that’s the thing they never tell you about your sister’s neighbor's cousin with HIV: he laughs and probably all the time. Because he really needs to.
About the Author
Sean Paul Mahoney is a writer, playwright, blogger, tweeter, critic, podcaster, and smartass for hire. He's also the founder of the wildly fun and interesting blog Seanologues: Conversations with Sean Paul Mahoney. There, you'll find him and many others talking about pop culture, music, movies, and lots and lots of television. Sobriety, food, and generally the fun core of life also come into play. He lives with his family in Portland, OR (which includes Larry the cat!)