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Still Here – A Post-Cocktail AIDS Anthology

Toronto writers tally losses & celebrate survival

If silence equals death, can speaking out transform one’s life? In Still Here: A Post-Cocktail AIDS Anthology, 66 stories by 31 local writers living with HIV testify to that effect.

The book’s contributors are all participants in the therapeutic writing group at Mount Sinai’s Clinic for HIV-Related Concerns, operated for the past seven years by occupational therapist Julie Hann and author and psychiatrist Allan Peterkin; both serve as editors of Still Here.

For the most part the writers are gay men and long-term survivors of HIV. They manage to straddle a precarious bridge between the past and present, facing an uncertain future with equal measures of trepidation and dignity. Some are well-known AIDS activists and scribes, while others share deeply personal stories using pseudonyms or initials. The book covers five major themes: change, hope, severance (from family, friends, the workplace), treatment and loss.

A controversial notion, most recently espoused by leading Canadian AIDS researchers in an op-ed in the National Post, suggests “treatment optimism”— the idea that HIV is now a more-or-less easily manageable condition — has led to decreased vigilance around protected sex.

But many studies indicate people’s motivations around sexual safety are more complex than that. I suspect very few people actually believe life with HIV is a picnic. In case there’s any doubt the contributors to Still Here provide plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Yes, there have been great advances in medical treatment — the “cocktail” in the book’s title refers, of course, to advanced multidrug therapies that have helped render HIV/AIDS a chronic condition rather than a certain demise. But not all regimens work for everyone and side effects can vary, sometimes brutally, from person to person.

Scarfing down a kaleidoscopic array of pills, never knowing when they might stop working or what unexpected side effects could arise, sounds like a recipe for hypertension in itself. As Edward Berger explains, sometimes the cure just seems to make things worse. His introduction to Sustiva, a drug characterized by peculiar interactions with the central nervous system, sent him barrelling toward the nearest hospital in the grip of extreme anxiety attacks.

The mixed blessing of these powerful medications does little to erase the lingering stigma of living with HIV — or the emotional trauma that can accompany surviving the deaths of friends and lovers, bearing witness to the precarious nature of mortality.

Peter Scott delivers a wrenching story of a lover’s painful decline, ending in death just months before the first protease inhibitors began to transform the lives of people with AIDS. Other kinds of losses generate a strange, lingering emptiness: in “My Gift to Science,” DV laments the fact he’ll never be able to donate his organs to help someone else.

But there’s room in Still Here for humour as well… and for the erotic. In Derek Thaczuk’s “Doctor Blaylock,” a prominent physician serves his patient population while secretly wearing nipple clamps and a butt plug. It may be fiction, but part of me hopes it’s actually true.

Not every narrator is likeable, and the book includes some moments of painful — if understandable — melodrama. Sometimes the emotions in these short essays are both starkly sketched and perfectly calibrated. In “Dear John,” Berger reaches out to a lover with whom he had a brief but intensely passionate affair 10 years earlier, only to find out from his sister that the man died of AIDS years before.

The lover’s family had all assumed Berger was the source of the infection. “I don’t know if you can hear me right now,” Berger writes, “but if I am responsible, I am sorry if I am the reason you died. Please, please forgive me.” This must have been painful to write; it was heartbreaking to read.

Still Here offers no saints or martyrs — just brave stories of loss, survival and hope likely to touch most readers on a deeply human level.