Epidemic to Pandemic

Red ribbon from the 1980’s signaling support for people living with HIV/AIDS and researching treatment and cure,

I’ve been meditating for 29 years. I remember reading that about people and thinking wow! What would that be like? I was sure that after meditating so long, people would be peaceful all the time. It turns out that’s mostly true! Meditation changes our mind.

In October 1993, I was in my late thirties, stressed and burnt out. I’d been working at AIDS Calgary since 1987, when most people with HIV were gay men, most gay people were scorned and in the closet, and people were terrified because they didn’t know how the virus spread. AIDS is different from Covid-19 in that HIV is spread through contact with body fluids, not air. In the 40 years since HIV became known in the early 1980’s, an estimated 40 million people worldwide have died of HIV/AIDS.

Just like with Covid, reason and science didn’t always win over fear. As a lesbian in a monogamous relationship who didn’t do drugs (sharing needles spreads HIV), I was low risk. Still, I had a dentist refuse to treat me because I worked with people with AIDS. When people asked about the risk of working there, I would say “I don’t share bodily fluids with my co-workers. Do you at your office?”

Working there was a combination of grief and sadness combined with the toxic stew of suppressed grief and sadness. Monday mornings, I would open the door to the reception area and see notices for who died over the weekend. Many Friday nights I would feel so numb that I would watch a sad movie to get the tears flowing.

Many of the people living with AIDS were young gay men in their twenties and thirties. It was common for people to come out to their families as gay at the same time as they told them they had AIDS. It was devastating. Some never told their family. Some told and were rejected. Some told and were welcomed and supported. The clients, staff and volunteers at AIDS Calgary became chosen family.

Mr Rogers said that in any crisis, look for the people who are rushing in to help. Min and her husband were an older couple who made a nourishing lunch every Friday for clients and sat with them and listened. Edward Michell, a renowned artist, organized the support services volunteers, and was the one many people held hands with as they died.

Jordan’s dad spent his days speaking at schools about his son with AIDS and educating people about HIV. He told me that when he and his wife told their close neighbor/friend group who had been vacationing together for 20 years about Jordan, they rejected them for having a gay child. He was hurt and he said it’s better to know. The new friendships he made through AIDS Calgary were solid.

In important ways, I grew up during those years. The stakes were literally life and death and work/life balance was impossible most of the time. I cared too much. It was heart breaking. And I knew I was helping.

I was naive and attributed more emotional maturity and better motives to some than was warranted. When we’re under pressure, we don’t always show up as our best selves. We see that so clearly during Covid. When fear takes over we can lose touch with our humanity and caring for each other. I still have trouble letting in that truth. I want it to be different than it is.

I learned a lot about emotions and how people interact with each other, some of which took me years to process. My dad died unexpectedly after a minor surgery in 1991 and I grieved that loss. What I didn’t have then that I do have now was a healthy relationship with my mind and emotions. I didn’t know the powerful effects of breathing and relaxation. I was long on stress and short on tools.

That changed the day one of the volunteers suggested I try a meditation class at the local community college. I learned about breathing and when my boss came in with an unreasonable request, I took a deep breath and said no. A few months later he made it hard enough for me that I left.

That first several months I was obsessed with the unfairness of what happened. He had been a big fan of mine and I felt like we were a team. When I told him I thought the direction he was taking the agency was wrong, he told me in words that he didn’t think we could work together if I didn’t support him. I had seen him push other people out and I didn’t believe he would do that to me. Like I said, I was naive.

Meditation is what gradually cooled the fire of compulsive thinking. My body began to relax and soften. I walked an hour every day. It takes time for us to assimilate and process hard things. When we are overwhelmed, we store trauma in our body and it comes up later. I knew a lot of concepts about healing but it was daily practice of breathing and meditation that allowed me to actually heal.

So much has changed in the last three decades. I have very little catastrophic or compulsive thinking now, and when I do, I notice it and know how to work with it. I’ve made it through some hard experiences and decisions, and I’m happy now. I’m more able to see the truth and to act in my own best interest. As the confusion and compulsion cleared, I began to experience deep stillness. I am grateful beyond words.

Watch part 2 of arrested self-protection on my YouTube channel.

If you are interested in knowing more about the early years of AIDS and activism, there are many resources. These are two: Long Term Companion, and Act-Up



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