If you insist on searching for a silver lining in the plagues I’ve endured over the last four years, particularly the impact of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or rather the impact of my former employers’ horrifying treatment that triggered PTSD symptoms), there is one obvious candidate: my new-found freedom from decades of debilitating writer’s block. I’ve published over 300,000 words on this blog alone, on topics ranging from mental illness to musical theatre.
Most theories of human psychology, from Freudian analysis to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, place great weight on what we avoid. Avoidant thoughts and behaviors indirectly reveal how our mind works, or doesn’t work. However, it’s hard to drill down very far once you realize you’re avoiding something as broad as “Writing.”
After three years of blogging, however, I now have enough data to analyze which important topics are conspicuously missing. Or what it means when there’s a sudden burst of inspiration. Such as when I took a break last month from writing about kids, brains, and dishonest lawyers, and for the first time wrote about my experience as a gay man coming out into a world dominated by AIDS.
First Clue: A hole in the story.
Over the holidays I got a text from a gay friend in Seattle I haven’t seen for a while. He asked whether I was still looking for a job or applying for disability benefits, and wondered “what is your PTSD from?”
I realized I could respond by cutting and pasting the account I’d already written for a draft blog essay about how different kinds of trauma interfere with our brain’s ability to process memories. So I searched my files.
I discovered I’d started the explanation three times. Each time I reached this graphic – “6 Most Common Causes of PTSD” – then stopped writing.
I’ve never endured physical or sexual abuse, war, or a serious accident. Instead, like too many other sensitive Mormon youths, I was the victim of emotional abuse from a pervasively homophobic and authoritarian message that denied our very existence. Those unhealed wounds reopened thirty years later, when I experienced “unrighteous dominion” at the hands of ignorant employers and dishonest bureaucrats.
But there’s a sixth common cause of PTSD: “Witnessing/Experiencing a Mass Disaster.” A big gay mass disaster, which resonated with and amplified the horror of the closet.
Second Clue: I read a book.
“Anhedonia,” or the inability to feel pleasure, is a common symptom of depression and other mental health disorders. As a lifelong reader, the most obvious warning that something has gone wrong is when I find myself unable to read. Conversely, the earliest hint of wellness comes when I start reading again.
Nowadays I read every day, although I’ll never again rival my mother’s frequent-flyer status at the Bellingham Public Library. I’ve gotten much pickier. There are lots of books I can’t finish, and even more I won’t start.
I own a copy of Randy Shilts’ classic account of the origins of the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, but I’ve never read it. Or watched the HBO adaption of Shilt’s book. Or seen the movie Philadelphia. So last month I was surprised to find myself reading David France’s How to Survive a Plague.
Not just reading France’s 518-page book, but devouring it. France was a young gay journalist in New York who witnessed ACT UP’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. How to Survive a Plague is a week-by-week account of life in the trenches in New York. France’s story paralleled my own experiences on the Western and Midwestern fronts.
I was there. But I’m not Lazarus in the tomb. Instead, I spent the plague years as the guy observing from the edge of the picture.
Third Clue: A bumpy ride.
In my mind, the story of my relationship with HIV always begins with a picture of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. As I wrote in “OK Boomer,” the first of these five essays about HIV, the quilt is where you can see a ragged tear in the fabric connecting me to my gay Baby Boomer brothers.
When I began writing “OK Boomer” the essay indeed started with the AIDS Quilt. So I was a little surprised by the Facebook comment left by one of the young Second Tenors in Vancouver Men’s Chorus: “You took me to a wild ride of complex and different feelings. What a roller coaster.”
Going back to the finished essay, I realized that during the writing process the quilt story and pictures had moved to the conclusion. Readers encountered AIDS without warning, after meandering past quips about generational pop culture.
When you’ve been avoiding something for too long you have to sneak up on it.
Fourth Clue: War is hell.
The term “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” was coined in 1978, and the diagnosis was added to the DSM-III in 1980. However, we’ve associated trauma with same constellation of symptoms under different names for centuries, from “soldier’s heart” after the Civil War, to “shell shock” in World War I.
My all-time favorite author is an obscure woman from the Scottish Highlands who used the penname Jane Duncan to write three series of novels. Her central themes include memory and storytelling. Although many aspects of the books parallel Duncan’s life, they are fiction. Through her narrator-surrogate, Duncan repeatedly protests that her gifts do not include true autobiography.
Nevertheless, in Duncan’s penultimate book before her death from cancer in 1976 she removed the authorial mask. The preface to Letter from Reachfar consists of an apologetic letter to her editor:
You suggested that I should record my part in the war against Nazism and Fascism as a photographic interpreter in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force…. I tried to write the book you suggested, but in trying I discovered that the years of the war were some of the most sterile of my life and that there was very little in those years that I wished to record.
The attempt to do what you asked “took off” for me, however, into something completely different, something that I really wanted to say and have wanted to say for a long time to you and my other readers. As you know, quite a number of readers are sufficiently interested in my novels to write to me and the question that is most frequently asked is “Are your books autobiographical?” I thought it might be of interest if I sketched the background of my life and placed the novels against it, in an endeavor to show how fiction arises out of fact by some mysterious process that I cannot explain.
As a “photographic interpreter,” Duncan spent World War II in a stately home in Buckinghamshire as part of a secret intelligence unit poring over aerial photographs of Western Europe. Her job was to tell Allied bombers how to distinguish between an elementary school and a bullet factory. It took avoiding the horror of war for Duncan to finally tackle her memoir.
The last time I wrote about Jane Duncan, I made the connection between my PTSD-amplified trichotillomania and her body’s similar reaction to stressful situations:
Even after reading Jane Duncan’s books numerous times over the decades, I still marvel at our many personal connections. For example, last month I remembered how in times of exceptional stress, her protagonist inevitably develops an itchy skin rash. Then she proceeds to tear off her flesh in long strips.
On my most recent re-reading of her final novel, I was struck by another thing Jane Duncan's narrator and I have in common: we both know exactly when and how our bodies are going to react, but that knowledge merely makes us angry at ourselves. Which makes the itchiness/hair-pulling worse, and then stokes the anger, in a vicious cycle.
Jane Duncan avoided but never escaped the trauma of war.
Fifth clue: I am Pops.
Actually I’m “Papa.” When our daughter Eleanor was born, my ex chose the title “Daddy.” I preferred to be “Papa,” in part to honor my maternal grandfather H. Boyd Phillips, who always went by “Pops.”
Pops was the archetypical representative of the Greatest Generation. He was a civil engineer, with pocket protectors, eternally crew-cut hair, and clunky glasses. He was precise and dryly witty.
Pops spent World War II in the Pacific with the Army Corps of Engineers. My mother recently showed me a letter my grandmother wrote to a friend on May 8, 1945 – the day Germany surrendered to the Allies. I didn’t realize Gram worked as a typist for the Veterans Administration in Salt Lake City during the war. Each day she would leave my mom and my Aunt Carol at home with family members, and go do her part for the war effort.
As I detailed last year in “Crazy Mormon Mommy Bloggers,” Gram’s long letter to her friend is filled with numerous lines that resonate with family members seven decades later. But the real reason my mother showed me Gram’s letter was what my grandmother wrote in gossiping about an acquaintance's discharged husband:
He recently returned home, classed as Psychoneurotic. His wife said that that at first just having to decide what he wanted to eat made him violently ill. Also in the VA files there seems to be lots of Anxiety Neurosis. In my unlearned way I had been classifying that as “worry wart” – we learn something every day.
As Gram concluded seventy-five years ago, “when I see in our files just how many fellows are given discharges for various neuroses, I’d like to broadcast to people how no stigma should be attached to it.”
When Gram wrote her letter, Pops was still serving overseas in some classified location. No one knows what Pops actually did during the war, because he never talked about it. Never.
|Pops visiting Vancouver in 1972. I'm on the far right|
My daughters have been binge-watching a TV show that featured a plotline involving HIV. I related to the story. I thought I could talk to my kids about anything, in an age-appropriate and sensitive way. But when Rosalind asked me a question about AIDS, I was speechless.
So I’m grateful for whatever dam recently burst enough for me write about my experiences as a gay man in the AIDS era. I still have to approach things obliquely – when it came to the gritty stuff, my recent essays relied on long quotes from David France and Andrew Sullivan. But it’s a start. Unlike Pops or Jane Duncan, I already know enough about how closets work to give me confidence that eventually I’ll find the rest of my voice.
When I searched my blog essays for previous references to HIV/AIDS, I realized I’d already begun sneaking up on the subject. The hints came in the safest of spaces. I mentioned HIV medications in the same essay where I made the connection between Jane Duncan’s body-focused repetitive symptoms and my own struggle with compulsive hair-pulling. And when the Vancouver Men’s Chorus presented a concert called “Gays of Our Lives,” I was able to reminisce about how reprising familiar songs of grief and rage gave me a glimpse back to the Gay 90s.
Surrounding yourself with family, friends, chorus, and good books can offer hope to even the most scarred trauma victim.
Other “AIDS is not a Picnic” essays:
“After the Fall” (2/6/20)
“Set Theory” (1/30/20)
“A Lifelong AIDS Walk and Picnic” (1/29/20)
“OK Boomer” (1/28/20)
“Gays of Our Lives” (5/22/19)
“Opportunistic Infections” (5/12/19)
“I Shall Miss Loving Him” (1/19/18)
“I Come from Good People” (1/7/18)