Posts Tagged ‘body’
“I told you I was trouble,” Amy Winehouse sang, “You know that I’m no good.”
For me, that’s the most poignant lyric she ever wrote. It sums up the mind of an addict. You see, it wasn’t a brag; it was a mixture of ‘keep away’ and ‘help me’.
How do I know? Because not so long ago, I was Amy Winehouse.
For most addicts, there’s a constant presence on your shoulder telling you you’re not good enough, that somehow, you’re ‘less’ than everyone out there. Your thoughts go round like a washing machine on high-speed. The noise in your head is constant, loud and harsh. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a rich and famous popstar, or Mary Taylor in Islington, homeless and sleeping rough in a shop doorway; it’s that same mindset. Alcohol and drugs are merely the medication.
Addiction isn’t fun. Addiction isn’t “Let’s go to the pub and get pissed and have a right laugh” or “Let’s get fucked on drugs and get up to mischief”. Addiction is lonely, terrifying and insidious. Oh, sure, you start out like everyone else, a few drinks here and there, a dabble or two in something a little harder. You don’t realise when it stops being fun, but it does. Suddenly you find yourself alone in a room, afraid to go out, because ‘outside’ is too damn scary.
So you take that hit, and for a short while, the noise stops. Peace through oblivion. Then you come around and the noise starts again, louder this time, and coupled with the anxiety, fear and terror that come with withdrawal. So you take another hit. Sweet, blessed relief. And somewhere in the back of your mind you hope you don’t wake up from this one. You’re nothing but trouble, you see. All you cause is pain and worry.
I read a fantastic blog by Russell Brand today, in which he said:
“When you love someone who suffers from the disease of addiction, you await the phonecall. There will be a phonecall. The sincere hope is that the call will be from the addict themselves, telling you they’ve had enough, that they’re ready to stop, ready to try something new. Of course though, you fear the other call, the sad nocturnal chime from a friend or relative telling you it’s too late, she’s gone. Frustratingly it’s not a call you can ever make — it must be received.”
The problem is, addiction is the only disease in existence that tells you that you haven’t got it. Lock an addict away and they’ll be looking for an escape, or biding their time and playing the ‘yes, I’m fine now’ role until they’re alone again. I’ve had people in the kitchen pouring drink away while I’ve been climbing out of the bedroom window on my way to buy more.
I’ve been a day out of hospital after being found in my flat, hours away from death, and already I’m figuring out where I can get hold of some gear. I believed the booze and drugs were giving me something. In fact, it was the opposite. They were hollowing me out, alienating my friends and family and slowly stripping me of all that was real and good.
Sadly, all the love and support in the world wasn’t going to help Amy get better. She was trotted out on stage at every opportunity to make money for her record company. She didn’t have the luxury I’ve had of anonymity, of being left alone so she could get better. Contracts had been signed and albums were due. Her star had to keep shining, and all the while the press were snapping at her heels, waiting for her to fall again.
I can’t imagine anything more frightening than the whole world waiting with bated breath for me to fuck up, then posting it on YouTube when I do.
Yesterday evening, people shut down Facebook and Twitter on their computers, still in shock and disbelief at this tragedy, before heading off down to the pubs and clubs for a well-deserved weekend blowout.
Mary in Islington sits down in her shop doorway, begging for a few coins to get a can of beer. Just a little something to help take the edge off. You might have seen her last night, she may have come up to ask you for some change, desperate and devoid of pride, but like a lot of people, you probably looked away, annoyed and uncomfortable.
Sunday morning rolls around, and half of London wakes up with a hangover. Some might even still be going. iTunes seizes the opportunity to promote Amy’s albums on its homepage to make some cash, and somewhere in Islington, an ambulance arrives to take away the body of a homeless woman found dead in a shop doorway.
And all over the world, recovering addicts wake up and pray to a God they’re not even sure exists for the strength to stay clean one more day.
The world carries on. Then somewhere, a phone rings.
I often get contacted by people on Facebook or Twitter asking me about HIV, either because they’re curious or believe they’ve put themselves at risk and need some reassurance.
I’ve always been very open about my status, and I’m glad people feel they can ask me instead of sitting there stewing. But it’s become increasingly obvious to me recently just how many people there are out there who know almost nothing about HIV. I’m not judging anyone, just making an observation.
You may remember a while back I wrote a post called ‘Why we should never stop being scared of AIDS’, and I stand by that sentiment. You should be damn scared of AIDS — it may be a manageable condition nowadays, but it sure ain’t fun — but there’s a difference between those who fear it because they’re ignorant, and those who have the facts, protect themselves and still have fun.
So I’m going to give you the basics. I’m not a doctor, so this isn’t written with the education of someone with a medical degree. I hope I’ve managed to slim down the technical side of things without compromising accuracy, but I’m quite happy to be corrected if you want to leave a comment.
This blog has had over half a million visits in the past year. If I can make just one of those visitors think twice about taking risks, then I may well have saved a life.
So here we go:
The science bit:
HIV’s a clever little bugger. When it enters your body, it targets your white blood cells. There are many different types of white cell, and they don’t just live in the bloodstream. But in very simple terms, they’re your immune system — the more of them you’ve got, the healthier you are.
HIV latches on to the white blood cell and empties its DNA into it. In doing so, it effectively turns the cell into a factory for producing more HIV — when the white blood cell reproduces, so does the virus. Sneaky, huh?
But it gets sneakier. When HIV copies its DNA to human DNA it makes a small ‘mistake’ and mutates ever so slightly. This is why it’s so hard to find a cure — because by the time we develop one, it’s irrelevant because of how much the virus has changed.
If you imagine the yearly mutation of the flu virus to be the size of an A4 piece of paper, HIV’s equivalent could arguably be a couple of football pitches.
How do I know if I’ve got it?
Well, the simple answer is — you can’t. Not without a test. Once you’re exposed to the virus, your body will try to produce antibodies to fight off the infection. It’s the presence of these antibodies that the doctors look for when they test you for HIV, but it can take anywhere between thirty and ninety days before there are enough of them to detect in a test.
Some people will develop flu-like symptoms a couple of months after infection. Others may not show any symptoms at all. My experience was pretty traumatic. I was so weak I couldn’t even move, I barely ate. I lost nearly two stone and I had a blotchy red rash all over my body.
Attractive, huh? Thinking twice yet about barebacking?
It stands for post-exposure prophylaxis — and it could save your life. It’s basically a course of HIV medication that you take for a month after you’ve been exposed to the virus, and it could cut the risk of you developing HIV by around 80%.
But you need to be quick — you’ve got about a 72 hour window after exposure to get the treatment (the HPA in the UK say ideally within one hour and not beyond 72 hours). You can get it from Accident and Emergency or through selected GUM clinics. Have a Google and you can usually find where to get it in your area.
Accidents happen, condoms split or get forgotten in the drunken, drug-fucked heat of the moment. Nobody at a clinic is going to judge you, they just want to help. But make no mistake; this is not some magic ‘morning after pill’ — the side effects can be gruesome, and can include heavy vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, insomnia and dizziness — but it’s better than the alternative. It might be a second chance at an HIV-free life.
So don’t blow it — and take a bit more care next time.
So what should I classify as safe sex?
There are certain activities which can be said to be lower risk than others. Oral sex, for instance, is a lot lower risk than penetrative sex. But the actual risk is dependent on a number of factors.
For instance, if you have oral sex with someone who’s got a high viral load and is highly infectious, that’s obviously going to be a greater risk than if, like me, they’re undetectable (I’ll explain what that means in a second).
On the flipside, they could be undetectable, but if you’ve nicked your gums when you dashed to the bathroom to brush the taste of vodka from your mouth before you got down to it, then the risk goes back up.
And whether you’re male, female, top or bottom, barebacking’s a no-no. Just stick a bloody condom on. You may think you can’t catch it from a passive partner, but you can, and you probably will. If you rupture something while you’re banging happily away up there, you’ll be absorbing the virus straight through the head of your dick.
So should I avoid sex with someone who’s positive?
Sex with a positive person — as long as it’s safe — shouldn’t be something to be frightened of. If they’re kind enough to tell you beforehand, you should assume they are in control of their health, and are at the right stage of their treatment, and therefore won’t do anything they feel will put you at risk.
However, you always have a choice, and it’s your decision whether you have sex with them or not. Don’t just go with the flow’ while silently freaking out.
I’ve been turned down by countless guys because of my status, but the one thing I always say is: “I’m not the first positive guy you’ve slept with — I’m just the first one who’s told you.”
So why should I get tested?
Well, apart from the obvious peace of mind, there’s another thing to consider. So here’s science lesson number two:
There are two indicators of how an HIV+ person’s body is coping with the virus:
- CD4/T-cells: It’s a little complicated, but they’re pretty much the same thing. T cells are a type of white blood cell, and CD4 is the protein on a T cell’s surface that the HIV binds to. For this reason they’re sometimes known as CD4+ T cells. A healthy person can have a count of anything between 500-1500 per drop of blood.
- Viral load: This is the number of copies of HIV per drop of blood and can vary wildly. At my worst, it was over half a million. Now I’m on drug therapy, it’s below 50 — or in clinical terms ‘undetectable’
So therefore, high CD4+low viral load = good news. When the CD4 drops below, say 250, this usually indicates the immune system has suffered damage, and then it’s usually time to consider drug therapy.
So if you don’t get tested, you won’t know if you’ve got HIV, and if you’ve got it, how the hell can you know how your body is coping with the virus? The longer the virus goes unchecked, the more it’ll have the chance to damage your immune system — and that’s where the trouble starts.
Also, the higher the viral load, the more infectious you are to partners — even if you’re indulging in relatively low risk sex.
You may not need to go on meds straightaway. I didn’t start taking them until I’d been positive for six years (I was diagnosed eight years ago). In fact, my CD4 was still around the 1000 mark, it was just that the virus was multiplying exponentially, and it was time to bring it under control — I looked awful, I was about two stone underweight, I was ill all the time, eczema, night sweats, diarrhoea, the lot. I was quite glad, actually.
In a nutshell
Well if I haven’t hammered the point home enough already, I’ll just say it one more time:
Go. Get. Tested.
And if you feel you don’t know enough about HIV, make it your mission to learn about it. You can find out a lot about HIV from websites like AIDSmap, or from charities like GMFA or Terence Higgins Trust.
You may think it’s one of those things that just happens to other people — like a house fire or car accident. But it’s not. It’s real and it’s on your doorstep.
Knowledge is power as they say. And the more people who take control of their health, the better. There is no cure, but with the right care you can live a long and happy life.
I’d like to think of myself as living proof that having HIV and having a fucking great life aren’t mutually exclusive, but if I hadn’t got myself tested, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here now, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience all the amazing things life has sent my way.
Thanks for reading.
This is what I learned on holiday in Ibiza:
- I’m never again flying from Stansted…
…and the same goes for flying with Ryanair.
- Getting a tan may be bad for the skin…
…but it’s incredibly good for the soul.
- My friends are even more fantastic than I realised…
…and my best friend knows me frighteningly well.
- A jetski is guaranteed to make you look cool…
…and even falling off one is fun.
- Most of the island’s public toilets have run out of soap…
…and the hand dryers are all broken too.
- Mixing beer, mojitos, caramel vodka shots and gin is a tremendously bad idea after six months off booze…
…and smoking on top of it doesn’t help the situation.
- I never used to get knackered after five minutes of dancing…
…and my stomach never used to wobble either.
- The film ‘I, Robot’ in Spanish translates as ‘Yo, Robot’…
…and this makes me laugh like a seal.
- Laughing can make you forget you’re hurting…
…even if it’s only for a few seconds.
- I learned that saying goodbye always hurts like hell…
…but even more so when it’s your decision.
- And that I don’t know what’s worse — only having part of someone…
…or not having them at all.
- That sometimes you shouldn’t dare to hope…
…because it can be as destructive as despair.
- And when you’re missing the person you love…
…there’s little difference between one mile and a thousand.
- That you can run as far as you like from a broken heart…
…but eventually you have to return and try to mend it.
- And even though I didn’t want to come back…
…it’s also really nice to be home.
Everyone…everyone at some point in their adult life has wanted to have super powers.
Come on — admit it.
Are you seriously trying to tell me you’ve never fantasised about using the power of thought to scatter those slow-walking commuters like skittles as they shuffle through Bank station at 8:30 on a Monday morning?
Tell me you haven’t, just for a split second, imagined casually nudging the air with your fingers at the arrogant cyclist who just jumped the lights while you were trying to cross and sending him flying onto his sweaty, pedestrian-startling backside?
Not even a little bit?
OK, maybe I have anger issues, but superheroes rock. Superheroes are HOT. They never get sick, they can dispatch six or more bad guys simultaneously with ease. They don’t feel pain and they heal instantly. What’s not to love about them?
When I was a kid, I’d spend all my spare cash on growing my library of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Fantastic Four and X Men comics. I’d happily lose myself for a whole afternoon in that hyper-real world of bright colours, loud explosions and ass-kickings on every page.
I’ve never grown out of this — OK, maybe the ass-kicking bit — but at the ripe old age of 31, I’m not ashamed to admit I still have fantasies of waking up one day with the power of telekenisis or something.
Yes, I know now that my interest didn’t just end with the storylines and the cool drawings. The baby-homo in me was attracted to their perfect, lycra-wrapped torsos. They were like a schoolboy’s version of Tom of Finland — jaw-droppingly erotic, but safe in the sense that Ma and Pa stayed blissfully unaware that their son was appreciating the artwork on a whole different level.
But as well as the obvious sexual element, superheroes appeal to anyone who’s ever felt different. As a young gay man, I walked around feeling like I was somehow separate from the world. An outsider who didn’t understand why.
When you feel you have to protect something about yourself, it’s only natural you gravitate towards characters with a secret as well, their solitude resonates with you and in some way, makes you feel like you’re not alone.
And to see someone whose secret doesn’t make them weak — in fact, quite the opposite — should be comforting to anyone who’s hiding and feeling vulnerable.
I love that look they get in their eyes right before they unleash hell on the bad guy. That cool appraisal of their opponent and the faint, knowing smile that says: “You have NO idea, do you….?”
Who wouldn’t want to have that unbridled confidence? That feeling of invincibility?
For us homos, the first experiments with the scene, and the wonderful, terrifying feeling you get when you step inside your first gay club isn’t a million miles from the feeling Spider-Man must get he hears the crowd cheering him on. The feeling that finally you’re no longer an outsider — that you belong somewhere.
Is this why gay boys like our tight t shirts? After so long spent hiding, feeling different, scared and alone, do we subconsciously pick this childhood image of strength to make us feel protected in the outside world as we walk along with our pecs and biceps rippling under a thin layer of fabric?
When I was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 23, I went on a mission to prove I was superhuman. I partied from Thursday to Monday, stayed up for days on end, threw pills powders and booze into every orifice I could find and generally tried to push my body to its absolute limits. I wanted to prove I could withstand anything and that I was stronger than this thing that had invaded me: “You’ll see, body of mine! I can take this!”
It didn’t work. HIV was my Kryptonite, and pretty soon I realised if I carried on, I’d end up going to that great Batcave in the sky sooner rather than later.
And then there’s the other crappy part: No matter how many times a superhero saves the world, he or she is always alone. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, all of them have to sacrifice love and relationships to protect their secrets, and the lives of those they love.
And no matter how many wounds they heal from, their hearts can still break.
So when you think about it, are we really all that different from superheroes? OK, so we can’t fly or shoot lasers from our eyes, but we all have our strengths and weaknesses. We all love and get hurt and we all feel alone at times.
And anyway, who needs powers? I’ve seen human beings do some pretty amazing stuff in my time.
What about our armed forces in Iraq, who risk their lives daily in the name of peace?
Or the New York firemen, who saved hundreds of people from the burning wreckage of the Twin Towers in 2001, or the doctors and nurses who treated the victims of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005?
What about the single mother who works night and day to provide a home and food for her children and never takes a break?
Or how about the man who spent his life raising awareness of HIV, in the hope he could spare others from hearing the words: “It’s positive”?
Are we so different from the characters in the comics?
I’ll never look good in lycra, and I’ll never be able to read minds or hurl boulders (although I really wish I could), but despite this, are we not all — in our own small way — real-life heroes?
We all wear some sort of mask.
From the woman who can’t let her partner see her without makeup, to the hard-bitten cynic who secretly just wants to be loved.
The life and soul of the party who never feels more alone than when they’re in a room full of people.
The guy who says ‘I’m fine’ when asked how he is — when he’s anything but.
Yes, masks are a fact of everyday life.
I saw my trans friend, Mandi, the other night — a gentle soul with the dictionary definition of a singsong Irish accent. Lovely to talk to, lovelier to listen to.
Mandi has, for some time, wavered between knowing she doesn’t want to appear to the world as the man she was wrongly born, but lacking the confidence to present herself fully as a woman in every day life.
But she turned up that night looking absolutely beautiful.
At some point in the three or so weeks since I last saw her, she has transformed into some sort of red-headed Diana Ross.
Her hair was loose from its usual scraped-back ponytail and was sitting to her shoulders in lovely natural waves, she’d had a fringe cut, a subtle copper colour put in her hair and her eyelashes tinted. In short, she looked utterly gorgeous.
“I’m going to the hospital in a few weeks for my first consultation, hopefully soon after that I can start hormone therapy and get electrolysis on my face.” she said. “I can’t afford to get my boobs done; it’s five grand I haven’t got, so I’m going to wait and do it properly.”
“I know people are going to stare but there comes a point when you just have to think, ‘fuck it’ and do what’s right for you.”
I neither advertise nor conceal the fact that I’m gay. I look relatively masculine and can pull off the straight/butch act if I’m in a rough area, or in unfamiliar company. But I don’t respond well to homophobia and I challenge anyone who’s seen me when I’m pissed off to tell me I can’t handle myself.
What I mean is that I never feel like I’m putting myself out there when I exit my front door. I don’t walk along the street feeling like I’m under the scrutiny of other pedestrians, wondering if anyone’s going to spot what makes me ‘different’ and jump on it.
If you were black in the 1950s and 60s you didn’t have the luxury of concealment. Insults and attacks, segregation, fear and hostility would have been part of your daily life.
Why are people still so scared of anyone different that they have to hide their fear behind a mask of stifled laughter, taunts and sometimes even aggression?
So I say this:
To the freaks and the weirdos, to those that don’t conform, the skinnys, the fatties, the shorties and the lankies. To the men with guyliner and the girls with tuxedos and painted-on stubble. To all those who refuse to go through life with a mask on.
I applaud you. I respect your fearlessness to turn round to the world and say “fuck you, I am who I am”.
And to Mandi — Godspeed on your journey. You inspire me.
I’m about to embark on one of the most difficult journeys I’ve ever made.
Here I go.
I’m giving up alcohol in the new year.
There. It’s out. It’s public. No going back.
There are a couple of reasons behind my decision.
Reason number one: I simply want to see if I can do it. After all, it’s a big old challenge. Booze is the lubricant that greases the wheels of new friendships, flirting and one night stands. How different will life be without that crutch to fall back on?
Reason number two: I desperately want to give up smoking.
My problem with smoking and drinking is that as soon as I get even a whiff of an alcoholic substance, I’m overcome with the craving to stick a fag in my gob and puff away.
This would be fine if I could limit myself to social smoking, but for me, it’s all or nothing. It starts with accepting every social invitation I get just so I have an excuse to smoke. Then before long, it’s crept back into my daily routine like bindweed in an untended garden.
Reason number three: As I hurtle further along the road of thirtysomething-ness, the effects of too much beer and wine tend to hang around a lot longer than a simple next-day hangover. Namely on my belly.
Having spent my entire twenties being the envy of my friends because I had abs you could bounce a fifty pence piece off of, this is, as you can imagine, somewhat horrifying.
So all in all, a couple of really good reasons to ban the booze.
So why does the thought of a life without alcohol strike utter terror into my heart?
Far from it being socially acceptable to be teetotal, most people look at you like you’ve grown an extra head when you ask for a soft drink instead of a beer.
Having just spent Christmas on antibiotics and therefore tipple-free, I found myself getting mildly irritated as my family and friends slowly became louder and gigglier as the day wore on. I felt like I was on a different wavelength.
And what is this going to do for my sex life? No longer will I have the ‘confidence’ to walk up to fit boys in bars and devastate them with (what I believe to be) my witty repartee.
Am I going to become *gasp* boring?
Before I go and hurl myself into the Thames, let’s look at the positives:
- I’m going to lose my rapidly expanding beer belly
- I might make it to the gym on a Saturday morning for once
- I might actually kick the fags for good
- I’m going to be a hell of a lot healthier (see points 2 and 3)
- I won’t waste my weekends dying on the sofa with a hangover
- I’ll stop snogging guys I wouldn’t fancy in a million years if I was sober
- I won’t wake up in a strange bed and recoil in horror at the person lying next to me
- I might actually make it through a party without creeping off to a bedroom somewhere to crash out for an hour
- I can laugh at my friends when they get into a state and remind them of what they did when I see them the next day
Hmm, this is actually looking a lot better than it did a few minutes ago.
So I guess mine’s an orange juice.
Well, for a while, anyway…