History’s worst overshare, or why writing’s been so difficult
I’m sleepy and anxious and thankful and confused.
A few weeks ago, owing to mounting exhaustion and general malaise, I terminated the gaming column I’ve written for years in my local paper. It was sort of a shitty thing, always prepared in the early morning hours the day it was due, but material from that column supplied the bulk of my contribution to Gameosaurus, which Patrick and I started nearly three years ago. Now, I’m a ghost around here.
It’s not that I’m not playing games. Would that it were! I’d have time to fold my laundry and clean my car, and then potential passengers might go places with me on purpose, rather than glance at the accumulated filth in the backseats and demur politely.
(Or crudely, as the case may be. My car is, to borrow my sister’s Ivy League parlance, “really fucking disgusting, Peter.”)
No, I’ve been playing as much as I ever have. I broke up last month with the sweetest guy I’ve ever dated just so that I could have more free time, the reanimated glut of which has been split between JOURNEY, ALAN WAKE, DUNGEON DEFENDERS, nightmarishly long George R.R. Martin epics, cuddle-time with a convalescing dog (she’s fine now) and a few more hours in the gym than usual. I had to choose between being a boyfriend and being irascible, fiercely independent me, and while the immediate fallout has been shockingly mild (he and I still go drinking together, for instance), I’m grappling with the broader ramifications.
The new-found surfeit of me time has been … elucidating. Getting closer to gaming on my terms has helped clarify what I expect from the hobby, but the sheer tonnage of axiomatic outrage in the community, whether on podcasts or in forums, has been toxic enough recently to drive me away from most of the Internet for days at a time. Pat and I spoke at some length in the latest Jurassic Hour about the crushing volume of id and entitlement on Twitter and elsewhere, and that was before a coterie of “fans” organized a “movement” to badger Bioware into changing the ending of MASS EFFECT 3. Which, apparently, they’re doing.
The petition and the reckless coverage it’s provoked are, on artistic principle, the worst things I’ve ever seen our pasttime produce. In the era of Activision’s “season of content” for MODERN WARFARE 3 and Ubisoft’s always-on-even-when-it-isn’t DRM, gamers themselves threaten to keep me off talking about games for good.
But there’s more to my shiftiness!
I don’t know how to explain this artfully without dancing around it, or without first filtering it through a therapist, so I’ll be merciful and blunt. I’ve lived for the better part of a decade with irrational HIV anxiety, and it’s crippled me in every way that matters. I’m clean, and I’ve never given myself legitimate cause to think otherwise — all the sex I’ve had has been unimpeachably responsible — but some combination of fear and paranoia put me on semi-permanent notice in college.
I explained this to a woman who administered a rapid HIV test a few years ago, after my first four-year streak of deliberate, ignorant chastity. Four years spent terrified that I was near death or transmitting it, whether by hot tub or barbell or whatever. Four years rehearsing the moment when I’d finally have to confess to my mother and estranged father and tearful sister and doting grandmother that my dumb ass got sick the very first time I got laid. Four years inventing symptoms, or looking for Calvinist punishment in day-to-day ailments like bruises (immunological anemia, surely), two-day rashes (the onset of Karposi’s sarcoma, naturally) and a persistent lump* in my neck (swollen lymph nodes, obviously).
Four years playing back these scenarios in my head, day in and day out, pretending every minute that I was thinking about anything but.
It was a total fucking nightmare, and it had nothing to do with reality.
As soon as the results of the rapid test came back (sunshine and gumdrops), the clinician made very emphatic, very sustained eye contact and insisted that I seek psychiatric intervention. The test confirmed I was a healthy, HIV-negative, 6-foot, 190-pound cord of muscle, but the emotional torture I’d invited likely had inflicted very real emotional damage, she said. Without help, these issues would fester.
She was right. I did end up talking to therapists, but not about that. And even though I had an official document from the clinic stating I was clean, I remained convinced that my time was up.
I got tested again a couple weeks ago — the real-deal RNA test this time, complete with blood draw and cup-o’-pee and stern pragmatism from a Planned Parenthood tech — and was told that, once the results were back, they would call me only if I was sick. If that were the case, the incoming number would be blocked for privacy reasons. The process would take as long as two weeks but likely wouldn’t last longer than three or four business days.
This didn’t sit well. Could they call me either way and bring me down to the clinic to deliver the results in person, I asked. I’d very much like to be told sitting down, in compassionate company, so that I could crumble if necessary, I said.
No, they’re much too busy for that, I was told.
So, for two unbearable weeks, I lived in mortal fear of my phone. Anytime it buzzed, my blood ran cold. Anytime the incoming number was blocked (as it was several times that week, thanks to my kind but curiously private veterinarian’s questions about my dog’s urinary health), my knees very nearly buckled.
“Ohfuckohfuckohfuck,” I’d whisper to nobody. Every goddamn time.
After three days went by, I began to relax. By the end of the first week, I was feeling pretty good.
But then irrational doubt crept back in. What if my sample got lost? What if the phone number I gave them was illegible? What if I wrote down the wrong one? What if the local Planned Parenthood staff, earnest and courageous and a godsend though they might be, had misplaced or forgotten about my file?
The icy blood and wobbly knees resurfaced, and for another week, I was useless. I hid my phone for hours at a time so that I could ration my trepidation, checking in with fate at manageable intervals. That helped a little, but those moments when I forced myself to look at the damn thing (“Okay, motherfucker, what do you have to show me this time?”) were more paralyzing for it.
All the while, my tiny, malnourished reason center was trying to talk my lizard brain off the ledge. Look, I’d tell myself. You’ve got trust and abandonment issues, yeah, and this disease you’re worried about is a potent and scary thing. But you don’t have it. You’ve been extraordinarily cautious, you and all your partners have been tested before messing around, and all of the results have come back fine.
Okay, okay, so you dated a reformed prostitute, and he turned out to be a crazy, volatile little fuck, but you made him get tested, too, and he was clean.
WHY DID YOU BRING THAT UP, lizard brain would roar. HE WAS AN EVIL LITTLE SHIT. HE USED ONE OF THOSE HOME KITS AND TEXTED YOU PICTURES OF HIMSELF TAKING A BLOOD SAMPLE AND DROPPING IT IN THE MAIL. YOU CALLED A COMPUTER HOTLINE AND GOT SOME GOOD NEWS. GREAT. LOOK AT YOU, YOU DUMB FUCK. THE BLOOD IN THAT PICTURE COULD HAVE BEEN ANYBODY’S.
Whoa, guy. Easy.
I’M A GAY. THE WORLD PUNISHES GAYS WITH AIDS.
Come on, listen to yourself! Do you hear how you sound? Let’s go for a drive, put on some tunes and get a malted or something.
I AM GOING TO FIGHT YOU.
They fight. Lizard brain wins.
I began preparing myself for the worst-case scenario, imagining the moment of truth over and over again to dull the impact of the actual, inevitable reveal. After a few hours of this, I would plateau emotionally, convincing myself that HIV really wouldn’t be that bad — people today live complete, fulfilling lives with this shitty affliction! — before considering the possibility that I might have passed the disease on to my most recent ex. The vulnerable, adorable guy I broke up with so that I could spend more time alone. That crushed me.
After two long weeks, I drove my ass back to the clinic and, voice quavering, asked a woman at the front desk if I could see a hard copy of my results. Sure, she said. Have a seat.
I had a seat. I played with my phone. I tried to guess what the ladies in the waiting room were thinking. I watched a video that looped tales of sexual-encounters-almost-gone bad — a creepy, pushy guy who, at his woman’s insistence, agrees to buy a pack of condoms before plowing her; a pansexual Latino who confesses to his girlfriend that he had anonymous, unprotected sex the night before with some dude (“NOT AGAIN!” she shrieks. “I DON’T WANNA GET AIDS!”). In the end, they all get off easy — chlamydia or conditionally clean or something, but never HIV.
Eventually, the same tech who drew my blood two weeks earlier appeared and waved me into a small room. She had the hard copy.
No chlamydia, no gonorrhea, no hepatitis, she said.
She paused ominously before flipping to the second sheet. The AIDSier one.
“Non-reactive,” she said, pointing to the data. “That means negative.”
Well, okay. I knew that.
And that was it. She asked me if I was relieved, and I muttered enough syllables to get me the hell out of that harsh, yellow office. “Thanks for being so wonderful about this,” and “Have a good weekend,” but secretly, Fuck you for making this miserable odyssey even more excruciating.
I wanted catharsis. I wanted to cry when I got home, just to flush the truckloads of raw emotion I’d piled up over the preceding six years. Because now I know. Now I’ve convinced myself that I’m not dying of this wasting disease; that I wasn’t deceived by bouncers and ex-hookers and law-school sweet-talkers; that my phone is just a phone and not a messenger of doom.
But the tears didn’t come. All I could manage was a sequence of long moans, maybe six of them, into my pillow.
Now, in the post-anxiety era, I’m trying as much as possible to be present and mindful. I want to thank somebody. I want to serve people who would appreciate it. And I want to enjoy myself without feeling guilty. I’ve got a new lease on life and all that, but I can’t blame my inertia on some unfounded suspicion anymore, either. I have to take some responsibility for my circumstances, and that starts with managing my time more carefully.
So I’ll be doing the things I like because I deserve to do them, and you’ll hear about it here first. That starts with a short, personal writeup about why I love JOURNEY so much, a play-by-play of Friday’s Nerdist show at the Trocadero in Philly and a look at what it means for a 28-year-old to party with an undergrad bodybuilder. Expect all that in the next few days.
(* The lump in my neck is an unusually large carotid bulb. It could not be more harmless.)