GREG LOUGANIS is the latest celebrity to report that he has Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. His revelation comes on the heels of a recent report showing AIDS to be the leading killer of young adults.
Whether you are celebrated or not, learning that you have AIDS is one of the toughest scenes anyone will ever have to play.
I'll never forget the day I heard my diagnosis. It was October 1988, and I was in my fourth year of a 35-year prison sentence in the Maryland State Penitentiary. After many years of simply drifting along, I had discovered a purpose for my life. I had begun writing again after more than a decade away from the typewriter. I was turning out newspaper articles, plays, poetry and novellas. My work was being published, and I was receiving awards and letters of commendation.
Waking up each morning was a joy. I jogged, played basketball, entertained positive thoughts and enjoyed sharing my sense of humor. I felt free, even though I was trapped inside a prison.
One reason for my boundless joy was my success at kicking my heroin habit in the prison hospital. It was an addiction that had dogged me intermittently from 1963 to 1988. While hospitalized, a blood test initially gave me a false negative report for HIV infection, but a subsequent test revealed that I had the virus, which I got from sharing dirty needles to shoot drugs.
That diagnosis, while frightening, didn't have the same chilling effect of learning -- just weeks later -- that I actually had full-blown AIDS.
I learned the AIDS diagnosis after being rushed to the University of Maryland Hospital, suffering from an extremely high fever. Upon hearing the revelation, I looked at the doctor in stunned disbelief.
To cope with the diagnosis, I meditated on a time in my life when I felt invincible -- the summer I was 9 years old. I convinced myself that I could feel that way again, though I was battling for my life.
I also thought of my mother. She had died while I was in prison. At some point I had made the insane decision to forget key things she had taught me. I thought of my father, too. A short, muscular little man with the world's biggest heart. He was a hard worker in the steel mills who spent all of his Sundays in church. They did not want a jaded and painful life for me. Well, I didn't fulfill their wishes.
But, eventually, I decided that I wasn't going to give a disease xTC total control of my life. It was, in other words, time for war.
Although I will never again see a day without the nagging physical problems that remind me that the virus is in my blood, I've made peace with it. That's all I can ask for.
H. B. Johnson, a Baltimore poet and playwright, is writer in residence at the Center of Values and Service at Loyola College. He writes from Baltimore.