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Surviving the AIDS Epidemic: Resilience + Guilt

by | Jun 26, 2020 | LGBTQ

Being the sole survivor of a plague made me feel like the lone wolf for much of my life. You see, I am an HIV survivor and for some reason I never acquired HIV while all my friends did. That numbered over 100 and I lost them all. People seem to tell me that I am so lucky. Really? So, what you’re telling me is that I was lucky enough to watch everyone die; many right in front of my face.

Several times I swear I saw their spirit leaving their body. So many gay young men in hospital beds lined up like they were being led to their death, and they were. None of them survived and the things I saw should never be seen by a 20 something. Food trays left outside room doors on the floor because the orderly was afraid to go in the room. No one would touch them like they had leprosy. Haz Mat suits and you were restricted. I would go in without any special gear on me figuring I had it so what was I protecting myself from? I would go in with the food trays and feed people because no one would go in the rooms. It was horrific.

The AIDS epidemic created hospital wards full of dying men, who looked like they were in the Holocaust. The moans of pain and sounds of lungs full of fluid will haunt me forever. It was a very dark time. So many guys lost their own families who abandoned them. The fear was palpable in the hospitals. Others lost partners to the disease. I remember one day going to St Vincent’s Hospital in NYC’s Greenwich Village. My friend Michael was in a semiprivate room and it so happened that he was net to his friend. He introduced me. The guy was very sick. His legs were grotesquely swollen and full of Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Purplish blue masses on both legs. He was in so much pain. His legs looked like that of a rhino.

I was sitting on Michael’s bed and the guy wanted to meet me. I forget his name. I began talking with him. He proceeds to tell me that they promised him to be around for Thanksgiving but not Christmas. Mind you it was Mid November. My heart sunk. He told me his partner Jimmy was very sick at some with AIDS and couldn’t come to the hospital to keep him company. I told him that I would be his Jimmy for today. I proceeded to get the cream for his legs that was on the stand and began to rub his legs. He said that no one would touch him. I said I was his Jimmy and I would massage his legs so they feel better. As I rubbed his legs I prayed to myself that God would take him fast and with little suffering. I cant belive that I prayed for him to die but there was no way out for him. I knew that.

Four years later Michael died 36 hours after Easter Sunday. I left my parents that Easter Sunday and went to the hospital to spend the day with Michael. It would be my last day with him. We had chocolate pudding for Easter Sunday dinner. Back then the y would put the patients charts at the foot of the bed on a clipboard. Me being who I am, I grabbed he chart and looked at it. HE had THREE T CELLS!!! I said to him Jesus Christ 3 T cells? You can’t get a good orgy out of that. He got very serious and told me that he didn’t want to leave me. I told him he had to go when the time was right and not worry about me. I didn’t cry but I was far from alright.

The next evening after the gym I went and his body was filling up with fluid. He didn’t know who I was. He was delirious and very agitated. The nurses told me he was dying and there was nothing I could do and to go home. I knew that was the last time Id ever see him alive. At 7AM the next morning I got the dreaded phone call. He died.

Another thing I hated was when I was told wow you’re blessed. So again, what youre telling me is that my friends weren’t blessed but cursed? No no. I did everything they did. I was in my 20s like they were. I went to the same places with them and I did the same things they did but I’m blessed and they aren’t. That’s what youre telling me. I tried everything in my power to get infected. I didn’t want to be left behind. I wanted to go with them but the forces of the universe deemed that I be left behind. It took years of therapy to deal with HIV survivors guilt while I had to learn to maneuver my life alone. Its never been right for me. I felt like a nomad wandering in the forest by myself. I kept moving forward because I truly had no other choice.

I never contemplated suicide because the words of my friends rang LOUD in my head. They still do. Jim, Go live your life. You’re supposed to. Live for me. I’ll be watching you. Its ok. You need to go on for whatever reason. I couldn’t desecrate their memory by offing myself. It wouldn’t seem right to take my life when they begged for theirs. That would be perverse. In my eyes that wasnt an option so I went through multiple rounds of grief. I got involved as an activist. Marched with Larry Kramer in Act-UP. I was a part of the Names Project in NYC and sat on their board as the Brooklyn Liaison. I kept busy. I joined GMHC (Gay men’s health crisis) to combat the AIDS epidemic and I became part of the 800 men and subsequent 500 men which was the very first gay male study on sexuality. Jesus even most of them are dead. I worked as a volunteer counselor on a Gay and Lesbian Crisis Line I NYC for 3 years.

This brings me to now. I finally figured out why I was left behind. I wandered around in the proverbial desert for a very long time. Many times, I was disoriented in grief. Even when I went dancing I actually felt my friends looking down on me and I would look up and I swear to God I saw them (and I wasn’t drunk or high) I could never understand why I was left to do the work I am doing. After 38 years I had my work published in HIV poz gay men, HIV stigma and resilience. My abstract on HIV stigma, gay men spirituality and resilience was accepted for presentation as a poster at the upcoming APA convention in Washington DC. Being abandoned wasn’t pretty but at least now its palatable.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Dr James Gigliello was born in Brooklyn NYC. He is a cis gender gay man who watched helplessly as over 100 people he knew succumbed to AIDS in the early days. He became an activist and advocate for those who were HIV positive. He received his PH.D. in gender diversity psychology and then a post grad certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy for the LGBTQ communities. He currently is adjunct faculty for the International Institute of Clinical Sexology in Miami Gardens and Adjunct Faculty at St Joseph’s college in Brooklyn teaching undergraduate psychology online. He is also an alumnus of St Joseph’s college. In addition, he teaches Mindfulness meditation in Wilton Manors Florida. His work has been published in the Journal of AIDS and Clinical Research and he will be presenting a poster on HIV positive gay men, stigma, spirituality and resilience at the upcoming annual national conference for the American Psychological Association.



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