If you’re on-line and surf to the blog Acid Reflux — Life And Times Of A Poz Guy (Acidrefluxweb.com), consider yourself warned. With wit and brutal honesty, 41-year-old Brian Finch dishes up brazen and potentially offensive concepts about being HIV-positive in the city.
“Last night I took the Sustiva and then got up,” he wrote last month. “I felt as if I were kind of drunk. Not that I was slurring my speech, but my perception of everything just seemed so wonky.” He goes on to compare the drug to antifreeze.
Acid Reflux is a throwback to publications like Diseased Pariah News, which in the early 1990s produced shocking black humour about AIDS in the midst of an escalating crisis to help alleviate the unfunny reality of the ravaging disease. Finch offers up concepts like “HIV-glam” and “T-4 cell foster plans,” alongside his alter ego, Miss Retro Virus, an HIV-girl-on-the-go.
The blog offers a window — albeit a derisive one — onto how gay men in Toronto are living with the disease now. Between Aug 13 and 18, this city will host 23,000 delegates for AIDS 2006, the 16th international AIDS conference, where attendees will focus on big-picture issues like emerging epidemics in China and Eastern Europe, or how many billions will be needed to stop the spread of the virus in Africa. Meanwhile, on the ground here in Toronto, gay men affected by HIV/AIDS continue to struggle with issues of healthcare system bureaucracy and managing their meds, as well as how HIV affects their love and sex lives.
Finch describes his eight-month-old blog as a response to misconceptions and discriminations he was reading about HIV- positive gay men on a local website. With dark humour and upfront attitude (“For me it?s being a rebel, saying ‘fuck you’ and putting it out there”), he chronicles his own not atypical tribulations as an HIV-positive gay man in Toronto in all their bountiful glory: from health and quality-of-life issues, to ongoing stigma, to the search for a satisfying fuck.
“The thing when you deal with HIV is that you are constantly dealing with change,” says Finch. “That’s why I never ever take anything for granted. If you get a good set of medications that don’t bother you and you get through getting used to them, then you’re doing all right. But if you have a lot of side effects, it’s life-altering. And I’ve always had a lot of side effects. You can’t live life spontaneously,” he adds, citing as example a brand new drug regime he’s begun that includes one drug that must be injected twice daily. “Now it’s in the back of my mind that I need to take my injections. So do I bring a needle with me when I go out?”
Of course, there is also the bureaucracy that seems to be part and parcel of being HIV. Having been diagnosed positive 22 years ago, Finch now considers himself an expert in dealing with the red tape that can wrap itself around the life of an HIV-positive person.
Max (who did not want his real name used for this story) is a 36-year-old computer programmer and also HIV-positive, although not nearly as open about his status as Finch. Only his partner and a few close friends know his status. (“Not family,” he says. “Because I don’t think I’m going anywhere soon.”)
Having been diagnosed HIV-positive seven years ago, Max says he can relate to Finch when it comes to being mired in red tape. He recalls at one point being on an insurance plan that required him to get his prescriptions filled by a mail-order pharmacy.
“I once panicked trying to get my prescriptions at the end of the day on a Friday,” says Max. “They couldn’t find the order; the 1-800 number was closed. The stress involved with keeping your med supply in stock is huge. You’re not supposed to miss a dose for sometimes even more than a few hours, because that plays directly on your health and how the virus mutates. This is exactly the kind of stress you’re supposed to minimize when you’re HIV-positive.”
“If I want anything, I have to make it happen,” Finch says, citing the common example of having to jump through myriad hoops trying to get financial assistance for costly drugs, only to go through the same nightmarish process all over again if meds need to be changed. “I’m helping a friend right now in that situation…. Most guys I know give up when they get a ‘no’ and stay on the drugs that are giving them side effects.”
Which highlights a real challenge: finding a combination of meds that work and that can be tolerated. Trent (not his real name), a 40-year old teacher, says he feels extremely lucky in this regard.
“I was diagnosed with HIV last year and was advised to start meds right away because of low T-cell counts,” he says. “I was referred to a drug trial and I’ve been great so far, except it’s still easy to completely forget to take them. But my viral load was undetectable after about three months, and the only side effect I experienced was a lot of nausea and no appetite for the first few weeks.”
Thank you, modern science; neither Finch nor Max were so lucky so quickly. Max tried four different combinations of drugs over four years, trying to get his viral load decreased to undetectable. It made for a memorable ride.
“The third combo I was on made me crazy,” Max recalls, laughing. “I wrote a poem to a blueberry muffin. I remember sitting in a Starbucks, high in the middle of the day off this one drug.” Another drug he once took could only be ingested in liquid form. “It tasted like gasoline, the raunchiest thing you could swallow.” Max recalls trying to mask the foul flavour with peanut butter, chocolate milk, even numbing his tongue with ice before swallowing the drug. “I’d be out somewhere and suddenly throwing up in some coffee-shop bathroom just from the taste.”
Finch, who stopped working in 1998, has a high resistance to medications. He’s been through most of the options on the med menu after more than two decades of being HIV-positive.
“I’m at the point where you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. I don’t have the luxury of whining, ‘I don?t like that med’ anymore.” He has just begun a new drug combination, including one drug specifically for people facing drug resistance.
Besides health issues, there is the already tricky social minefield where HIV-negative and HIV-positive guys often divide themselves into two camps, many times sexually discriminating against each another. Max is quick to point out, though, that this is only one of the ways in which divisions occur between gay men.
“There are us/them lines in gay circles that are drawn in lots of ways: age, race, monogamy, the way you dress, whether you party or don’t. The poz/neg thing is just one more line.”
A very significant line, says Trent. When he learned his positive status last year, he told only close friends, but began disclosing immediately to potential partners when surfing on-line for sex, “only to find many guys blocking me from contacting them again once I came out to them.
“I was shocked. Putting on a condom was not going to be an issue for me, but some guys won’t take any chances, won’t even e-mail you back a no thanks.”
Trent says he now discriminates back, turning down offers from negatives; he’s poz-only. “I’d say that means fucking raw 100 percent of the time.”
“I’m an equal-opportunity whore,” says Finch, who explores sexual possibilities with positive or negative guys. But he admits that the last couple of years have not offered much of a sex life.
“The hard part is you go on-line, you’re in touch with guys, then you don’t feel great and so you disappear for a bit, then you feel better and start the whole thing again. But I finally decided there’s never going to be a perfect time health-wise to hook up with guys, and I should do my best.”
Max, also an equal-opportunity player, takes precautions. “I hope other people do the same.” But he acknowledges that status disclosure doesn’t always happen, especially not in very casual situations like bathhouse boinking. “People need to be reminded the only person watching out for you is you.”
In Finch’s experience, a similar attitude to casual sex has led to some unpleasant encounters. He recalls revealing his status early on while playing with another guy. “We were only messing around, and then when I came out, the guy freaked, even though what we were doing was not risky,” he says.
He agrees with Max that it’s a two-way street. “If you’re that neurotic and freaked out by HIV, you shouldn’t be having casual sex. My theory is that there’s a generation removed from this and they are just so completely inexperienced. They just get all freaked out and stupid. It just doesn’t feel good.”
If a simple shag can get so tricky, how does a long-term relationship bode?
“I know so many poz guys in loving relationships with other poz guys or with negative guys,” Trent says. “The idea that it can’t happen is only in the heads of the guys who buy into that shit.” Trent says he’s enjoying the single life but wouldn’t turn down the idea of something committed with the right guy.
“I’m in a loving relationship,” adds Max. “Plus I’m healthy and active and contributing to society — all the things that make a great quality of life. While I sometimes think I don’t have the full-steam of other guys my age, I made a conscious decision not to let HIV and all the complications of being positive affect my life.”
For Finch it’s a different story. “I’m fearful,” he admits, while also acquiescing that the idea of a relationship is appealing. “I wouldn’t mind getting back into a relationship situation. I feel like — I thought I’d never think this way — I feel kind of like damaged goods.”
Like Max, Finch says his energy levels are not as high as they could be. He also wonders if asking a potential partner to join the ride on the HIV-go-round is asking a lot.
“Not your average life at this point,” he says. “But maybe I’ll find someone who can live with that. I don’t know.”
Perhaps this is the perfect time for advice from his alter ego. As Miss Retro Virus unabashedly declares on Acid Reflux, “Becoming HIV-positive may not have been a choice — but how you pull it off is!”