Positive Voices: (In)Dependency
By Jesse James Kendall
Illustration by Owen Freeman
In March, news broke of a young girl in Mississippi who had been cured of HIV. The spread of the virus in her system was not halted through pre-exposure prophylaxis, nor by the genetic fitness of unknown donor cells that could combat the virus. She was cured by the exact same medication I began taking for my own HIV treatment on the day the story came out.
HIV has wiped out millions of lives, but the news that day, of the girl from the South, made my pills a little easier to swallow.
It’s hard to decide quite where to begin. Often, I like to start with the car accident I was in when I was 18. Well, it wasn’t really an accident. It was a traumatic event that anyone could have seen coming miles away. It was three childhood best friends drunk off a case of stolen wine. It was metal and concrete and blood. I remember fleeting moments from that night, a paramedic cutting off my clothes and another asking me to recite my phone number. Right before I lost consciousness, I remember thinking they were cutting into my favorite pair of jeans, then realizing I couldn’t remember my phone number. I didn’t know who I was and I knew it wasn’t good.
Only a few moments before the accident, one of my friends and I had switched spots in the car, sealing our fates forever. I was the only one to sustain physical injuries. My friends walked away untouched.
My story ended with a broken neck, a fractured skull, the loss of my right ear, dozens of scars, and nightmares that still follow me. Though it was nine years ago, I still look at my face in the mirror as I snap my prosthetic ear on in the morning and off again at night, not completely sure that I know who I’m looking at.
My history with drugs and alcohol also made it hard to determine who I was looking at in the mirror most of the time. I spent many years trying to make myself feel as lonely and ugly as I did during my recovery.
I’ve always found a reason to panic or feel overwhelmed by the physical marks of my past: a missing ear or, more recently, my T-cell counts. But the day the girl was cured marked a change.
Being diagnosed HIV-positive is the clearest example of how completely powerless I am; I don’t even have control over the blood that runs through my veins. Granted, I did have a say in many of the precautions that should have been taken to ensure safer patterns of behavior—but that is a topic for another time.
The point is, all I have to do is show up and do what I’m told. And really, that’s all any of us have to do. It’s very comforting to realize that.
When I show up at the doctor’s office, they present my options and I take the next step by doing what makes the most sense based on what I’m told. The same, I’ve found, goes for work, the gym -- even the grocery store.
And the strangest part is, the more I do what’s instructed, the more independent I truly am. As of today, I am incredibly dependent on my new meds. They fight a ridiculously powerful yet tiny nonliving structure capable of completely annihilating my body, and because of them, I’ll hopefully never have to confront that simple little acronym that has caused so much destruction and pain. I depend on the knowledge of doctors and the resources around me to stay as educated and informed as possible. And I depend on the love, support, and understanding of the people closest to me because I don’t want to do this alone. But through all of this dependence I am awarded the utmost independence.
I did a lot of things I regret to a lot of people I hope never to see again. But I no longer have to dwell on the past. Life can be an extremely tall order all on its own, and factoring in car accidents, illness, and loss doesn’t make it any easier. But it comes in courses, and there’s usually dessert in there somewhere. From the everyday struggles to the once-in-a-lifetime traumas, it can feel like a tough pill to swallow. Fortunately, today, the only pills I have to swallow are the ones that are prescribed to me. And that’s not so bad.