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The private hell of an AIDS scare 'I did something very stupid'


I HAVE just gone through months of personal hell. No one close to me has known a thing about it -- not my husband, not my three grown children, not my friends or the people I work with.

I held all of the turmoil and fear within me -- panicky thoughts about where to run, bouts of explosive rage, visions of my own slow, painful death. I must have hidden all of this well because no one who knew me said a thing. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I was alone with my nightmares. Completely alone.

Two and a half years ago I did something very stupid. It was an affair that lasted a couple of days with a guy I hardly knew. The sexual tension was powerful, the circumstances were right, and I let go too easily of my usual clear thinking.

I remember the one moment when I did try to be insistent: "I won't do this unless you use a condom." He brushed me aside like a pesky child: "It's OK. Don't worry," were his only words. And I accepted that!

You must understand that I am not an adolescent with illusions of being indestructible. I am not a young gay man exploring my sexuality for the first time. I am a 45-year-old college-educated woman with a professional career and adult children. And I jTC accepted, "It's OK. Don't worry."

My relationship with this man was over days after it began. I rationalized it as a response to a rough spot in my marriage. And I did not give it much more thought -- until a few months ago when I began to feel sick.

At first I looked for logical explanations. Maybe the nausea and fatigue I was experiencing were related to an upcoming professional decision.

Then I heard the sad, strained voice of Arthur Ashe talking about his AIDS, and I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach. Could it possibly be? No, I must just be suffering from delayed guilt.

But what if it is HIV after all this time? What would I tell people? (It's funny how quickly that thought surfaced.) Would I have the courage to kill myself before I had to suffer and make everyone who loves me suffer? Did I transmit it to my husband? Would I ever receive forgiveness from him?

I alternated between dwelling on death and dismissing myself as a hypochondriac. My energy level was very low, and I was losing weight because of the nausea. One day, alone in the house, I began beating my fists into the bed pillows and screaming out curses -- at the man I suspected of infecting me, and at myself.

Venting my rage on the pillows exhausted me, but it also shook loose my lethargy, and I started thinking about a course of action, about how I could quickly and discreetly find out for sure. How hard it is to take that one simple, logical step! As long as I didn't have an undeniable test result in my hands, I could keep playing mental games and make it all go away. But if I were to know for sure. . .

When I called the AIDS hotline, it seemed I was watching myself from a distance. Who was that woman standing in my kitchen, answering questions about whether she uses IV drugs? Answering the questions was, of course, voluntary. I agreed to do so because I was working hard to act nonchalant and in control. But when I hung up, panic set in. I tore to shreds the paper on which I had written test center addresses.

A few days later I called the Red Cross. That agency discourages people from giving blood as a way of testing for AIDS. I went anyway. Ironically, the nurses at the Red Cross office could not draw any blood at all from me. My veins are small and slip away easily. I wore long sleeves for a week afterward to hide my bruised arms.

But by then I was determined to know. Giving up hope of remaining completely anonymous, I went to our family doctor. It was obvious that this young internist had heard stories like mine before. I held on eagerly to his reassuring words: My symptoms did not fit the picture of HIV activity; all I was experiencing could be explained by anxiety; he had yet to have a heterosexual patient test positive.

Nevertheless, he did draw blood. I watched with a strange sense of detachment as the tubes filled with the deep red liquid. With contaminated blood? I needed to wait four days before I could telephone for the results.

I sat down at my desk to make the call. I fussed for a while, getting out a note pad and pencil. If the news was bad, I would have to write down the next steps to take, I reasoned.

The long months of my personal hell ended in seconds with a single word: "negative."

I closed my eyes and waited, expecting to be flooded by a rush of emotion. But the feeling was more subtle -- like a small, warm center of light deep within me.

Grateful? Of course I was. I whispered, "Thank you," and I wasn't speaking only to the doctor. I sat still for a long time after I hung up, felt that small center of light, felt my breathing become easier, felt my heartbeat return to normal. In the days since, I have found myself moving with such lightness and joy that I wonder whether I might have been carrying a shadowy burden of fear with me for years, rather than for months.

I write all this down with the hope that it may be of help for someone -- perhaps for a man or woman secretly struggling with fear and uncertainty; perhaps for those who need to know more about the demographics of this tragedy called AIDS; perhaps for myself, as a way to sort out the chaos, as a way to reflect on those fleeting moments when profound choices are made.

Karen Johnson is a pseudonym for a Baltimore writer.

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