As I was saying in Part 1, I'm bringing 'The Drifts Live: the novel onstage' to NYC (United Solo Festival, Nov. 6, 7 pm) and have been asked a lot about my longevity in show business. There are thousands of people like me, in and out of the business. We all have to take it on the chin from time to time. It's akin to coming out, I suppose. Eventually, we have to stand in our boots. They're the only ones we have.
Most recently two major New York theatre festivals threw cold water in my face and I was reminded just where I stand. I wrote a critically-acclaimed novel, The Drifts (Coach House Books, 2010) and have been staging excerpts. Bully for me that the Globe & Mail called the book "magnificent"; audiences have said very nice things ("hilarious and heartbreaking...stricken and dangerously poetic", etc.) and I've gotten some nice press.
Unfortunately, one festival got wind that another fest was announcing my participation and selling tickets. The first (you know who you are) decided to penalize me (and others) $500 because the second announced my participation. You'd think that two major theatre festivals could navigate a turf war somewhere besides on the backs of artists. But, no. Of course, news of the fine took the bloom off my rose. I was very distracted, demoralized and angry. But, with the help of @maurahalloran and others, I kept my eyes on the prize. I know what I'm there for. The turf war and penalties are likely more of an expression of the pathetic state of arts funding in America. According to the most recent NEA data, most non-profit arts orgs get around 1 per cent of their budgets from federal funding. It's not personal.
But this is. War story. The reason that early know I mentioned in Part 1 is key to my longevity is that it has been an unbreakable beam leading me through long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While being an actor apparently came through the rear window, self-respect did not. While I have always had a core of undimmed self, I came up in a family whose parenting strategy was humiliation, diminishment and abandonment. This, my folks would tell you today, is how you raise strong independent people. Maybe. But, not in my case.
Everyone experiences stress. But some of us have endured long-periods of sustained and unrelenting trauma that we re-live, fight like hell to avoid through numbing (through work, busy-ness, drugs/alcohol, sex, etc.) and that causes our hearts and brains to seize -- like deer in headlights. To breathe, think clearly or have faith that you're not falling off the edge of world is next to impossible. Or so it seems. When we are triggered, the world can collapse into a cone of terror. At the apex of that cone is a trigger. A comment, a look, a loss, a success. Good or bad it doesn't matter. If it triggers, we leap from the train. Until we figure out what's going on.
Everybody's got their stuff. My own life was, until a few years ago, one of doing everything I could to outrun four sites of long-term trauma. First, my parent's idea of good child-rearing was humiliation, mocking, suspicion, demonization and terrorizing my three siblings, me and each other.
Shame was the game. Getting out with skin intact meant sucking it up, shutting your mouth, looking the other way and a lot of ducking. I was, and am, good at all of that. Much better than my poor siblings who, in adulthood, took to alcohol, depression, food and other addictions. My drugs of choice have been work, running, writing and acting. And cigarettes (I remain a devoted non-smoking smoker).
My parents believed that the worse we felt about ourselves, the stronger and more independent we would become as adults. The universe seems to love a good chuckle. You can see how the idea of "play" or improvisation might have been akin to standing in front of a firing squad. Now, the two places I am most at home is on an empty stage with no script in front of a full house or in front of blank page. I've come a long way, baby.
Second, I grew up in central lower Michigan. Maybe Lansing was the state capital but it was a very homophobic environment. I'm writing other pieces about this period and it finds its way, transmuted, into my fiction. I'll let your imagination gather you a picture of our local paper regularly publishing the photos and names of men caught seeking cold comfort at the rest stops out I-96 or elsewhere; of derision, mocking and sexual abuse. Enough said. My eyes were opened.
Third, on July 14, 1987 I tested positive for HIV. Those were early days in the epidemic. Increasingly, I meet folks coming up who have no idea that for most of the time HIV/AIDS has been here, there has been no treatment. We're on a good roll now with the anti-retrovirals out there but every single one of us know there are no guarantees. I have the stamina of a horse, run for up to two hours on a go, can do a whole one-person performance (up, down and around) and am still ready to go after so many of my colleagues tucker out. But, funnily enough, it hasn't been the physical that's been my challenge with HIV.
Nope, it's the 27 years of institutionalized demonization that confirms everything my parents and every other homophobic asshole has spit into the world. That will drain the life out of you. For instance, when my mom said that me and my sister-in-law (our lovely Susan who'd tested positive when she married my brother) belonged in concentration camps, I saw that sentiment echoed by television pundits and discussed openly. I told Mom, hurtling down a dirt road in the back seat of my parent's car, that she should work as hard as she could to make that happen. I would work much harder to make sure it didn't. And it didn't. Susan -- and so many others -- didn't make it. I did.
On a profound level, it's a life of terror (is that red bump it?), fear of exposure (try being a gay, positive actor in Hollywood in the early 1990s. Although I'm sure there were thousands of us, we sure as hell didn't tell anyone). There was the loss of friends, family and lovers, the rejection by the government (we weren't worth mentioning, let alone finding a treatment for) and so on. It wasn't just that, but those were the parameters governing anything I did or hope to do. My eyes were opened.
And lastly, having to go into exile as a sero-discordant couple (I'm positive, my guy is not) to stay together. There is nothing like being utterly rejected by your own country and being forced out. Trust me, there are two kinds of people nobody wants. Africans (my guy's from Zimbabwe) and HIV+ people.
We spent years looking for a country to go to. It was impossible to continue in the business at that point heading off to France here, back to Canada and back to Los Angeles there. Under the gun and my guy on the verge of being picked up in the War on Terror at any moment. Sobering. We don't choose who we fall in love with, we choose to live authentically.
Each of these sites of trauma have lasted years. It is only now that I am in a place where I am not being subjected to constant trauma and can even imagine what it is like to live without being subjected to more or wishing I was someone else. Part of that is being more public about my status. I no longer seek safety in hiding.
The truth is, everybody's got their HIV. Everybody's got trauma. Trauma shape-shifts, moves right or left, ducks out of sight and leaps up in the middle of a call back. But my parents and the haters were wrong. Their efforts don't diminish me. Nobody forgets trauma, no one forgets abuse. Fingerprints remain. If that's the case, then now what?
Then I get to step up with the experiences and life I have had. End of story. Today, I understand the richness that I bring to the table. I have been allowed more access to my capacities, not less. It's true, I can't manage the survival traits (approval-seeking, doubt, fear, etc.) that I developed to cope with life then.
But I can see them, acknowledge them and maybe integrate them. I'm a work in progress. Today, I accept my fantastic journey and am spiritually sober enough to hold it as the gift it is. This is the essential key to longevity to life in this business (or any other). We put one foot in front of the other, led by intuition, impulse and interest. That's all we've got. That's all anybody else has got too. We're all feeling our way forward through the dark. Isn't it terrific?
At 23, I tested positive two years before I even got my first professional acting job. Everything I've done professionally has happened since I tested positive. Back then getting cast bolstered a sorely wounded ego. But when that doctor looked into my eyes, told me I was HIV positive and then said, "You're going to die." I had a decision to make. It wasn't if I was going to go, but how I was going to live.
I knew that if I was going to survive, I had to take care of myself the best I could and that meant (and means) staying firmly and actively engaged in what thrills and interests me. Perhaps, I do not have the luxury of disinterest. I understand that the universe saw fit to put me here, in this situation, in art and creativity and exploration in order to move the whole project of life on this planet forward.
Our intuitions, interests and impulses are all we've got to go on. Every single person has something unique and particular to offer this human project. We are on the planet to nurture and express this. Our intuitions, impulses, interests are the flashlights lighting our way. We've got nothing else. So stop looking and stop listening to other people. They are as much in the dark as you are. My eyes are open.
Now we're safe in Canada, my guy's a citizen and I'm plowing forward. I shot a Lifetime movie this summer and am getting into voiceover. My second novel, a book of essays and a Young Adult novel are on deck. I teach at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and in a growing private practice.
Where I am today -- versus when I was on the lam from the mob all those years ago -- is that I consciously accept that beam of light streaming in the window. It's not an accident, cruel hoax or misguided ego. It is what it is. I keep the focus on myself, and my work. People will or won't approve of me. My beautiful parents did the best they could given that they had no idea what they were getting into. Me too; I've done the best I could and let myself off the hook. I take no prisoners for the crime of being human. When Richard asked me to share, I thought the only reason I would would be if one of you--especially those who're positive or who've suffered some trauma--might see a little of themselves reflected here and take a little water for your own journey. Eyes open.
Only one quarter of the 1.1 million people with HIV have their condition under control, where "under control" means the virus has been suppressed, according to a report released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CORRECTION: The first sentence has been reworded to more accurately reflect the number of people with HIV.
Even though two men were, for a time, able to go off antiretrovirals because their HIV had been reduced to undetectable levels after receiving bone marrow transplants, the HIV eventually returned in the men, according to news reports. In 2012, the news of the men’s undetectable HIV levels made headlines. The men, who were both HIV positive and taking antiretroviral drugs, had received bone marrow transplants for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They had received the transplants while they were also taking the antiretroviral medication. However, in late 2013, preliminary results showed that the HIV had returned. This slide has been updated to note more recent developments related to the procedure.
New HIV infection rates can be dramatically lowered by making antiretroviral drugs free, a study from Canadian researchers found. The Canadian Press reported on the study, conducted by B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS researchers, which showed that British Columbia -- a province that offers free access to antiretroviral therapy -- had the lowest rate of new HIV infections over a more-than-10-year period, compared with Ontairio and Quebec.
More than half of HIV-infected young people are unaware that they have the virus, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. "Given everything we know about HIV and how to prevent it in 30 years of fighting the disease, it's just unacceptable that young people are becoming infected at such high rates," Reuters reported CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden saying. The report also showed that for young people, 72 percent of the new HIV infections were in men who have sex with men, while almost 50 percent were in young, African-American males, Reuters reported. These figures are based on 2010 data.
The number of people living with HIV has increased by 18 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to a report released this year from the United Nations Programme on AIDS. An estimated 34.2 million people around the world are living with HIV. The report also showed that deaths from AIDS have dropped, from 2.3 million in 2005-2006 to 1.7 million in 2011, Reuters reported.
According to the same United Nations report, costs for the cheapest UN-recommended antiretroviral therapy drugs have also decreased over the past 10 years, Reuters reported. A year's worth of the drugs used to cost $10,000 in 2000 for one person; now, it costs $100 a year.
The Food and Drug Administration this year officially approved the drug Truvada -- which has been used since 2004 as a treatment for HIV -- to be sold as a preventive measure for people who don't have the infection, but are at high risk for it. The FDA said that the pill should be considered for preventive use not only by gay or bisexual men who are at high risk for HIV, but also heterosexual men and women who may also face HIV risks, the Associated Press reported. Heterosexual men and women make up more than one-fourth of new cases of HIV, and "that's not a portion of the epidemic we want to ignore," the CDC's Dr. Dawn Smith, who was the lead author of the new recommendations, told the Associated Press. The FDA also approved a new drug this year, Stribild, to treat HIV, Reuters reported.
In findings published this year in the journal PLoS Pathogens, scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles found that it's possible to genetically engineer stem cells to attack living HIV-infected cells in mice. While the study was only for "proof-of-principle," it "lays the groundwork for the potential use of this type of an approach in combating HIV infection in infected individuals, in hopes of eradicating the virus from the body," study researcher Dr. Scott G. Kitchen, an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, said in a statement.
People should be screened for HIV even if they're not at high risk of contracting the infection, according to draft recommendations released just last month by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The recommendations would mean that everyone between the ages of 15 and 65 should be screened for HIV, even if they're not at high risk for it, Reuters reported. "The prior recommendations were for screening high-risk adults and adolescents," Dr. Douglas Owens, a member of the USPSTF task force and a Stanford University medical professor, told Reuters. "The current recommendation is for screening everyone, regardless of their risk."
All HIV patients should be treated immediately with antiretrovirals, according to new guidelines issued this year from a panel of the International Antiviral Society-USA, as reported by TIME. The recommendations are counter to previous guidelines, which said that antiretrovirals should only be used if the CD4 count -- a measure of immune cells in a person's body -- becomes less than 350 cells for every mm3 of blood.
Follow Thom Vernon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thomvernon