Leaning into the bathroom mirror, angling for a closer look,
my fingers trace the lines on my skin; it’s still taught, relatively wrinkle free.
I run my hands across the stubble and my brows, checking for gray hairs, their thickness and density.
No change this week, not yet.
I examine my eyes.
The left pupil is still damaged from disease,
unable to adjust to lighting, perpetually small, always with a slight ache.
The color is more golden today than yesterday.
I enjoy acknowledging the shade changes;
I call them mood eyes, transitioning from an icy gray to a gaseous green to golden hazel
and whatever colors in-between.
I trace the contours of my face,
palming it and gingerly touching each inch
as if I were a blind man and attempting to learn another’s face for future reference.
I had never been a mirror person before nor a person who primped, plucked, or went out of my way to make sure I was “presentable.” I never really cared about my appearance. This is not to say I never used a mirror before, of course I have, but not more than in the most hurried of ways; I rarely delved deeper than a “quick check.” Prior to this the mirror had been an enemy of sorts. I could never figure out the backwardness of it, always getting confused. I had no skills in personal grooming either. Combing my hair was such a challenge that, for a decade, I used to shave it all off to avoid the hassle; today, I do the exact opposite and simply let it grow however it pleases, wild and free. I could never tell you the color of my eyes. I really was not sure; I hadn’t paid much attention. The contour of my nose and cheeks remained foreign to me. I shaved my face in the shower resulting in many a patch of random unshaven stubble. As an acne covered pre-teen and teen, my focus only went to the red pustules littered about. My psychologist says there is a deeper underlying reason for this avoidance of presumed vanity and looking deeper at myself; she is probably right, but for now, I am more worried about my appearance and what is to come.
This examination, which is relatively new to me, is, on the surface, an exercise in fear. It has become a daily ritual. I am looking at a face that until recently was unfamiliar; I never really knew what I looked like in any great detail. I would often be laughed at when people realized I could not find myself in a picture without attempting to remember what I was wearing the day it was taken. I did not understand what people meant when they said how much I looked like my mother or that my eyes were beautiful, or any other comment about my facial features. Now, I am on a journey of self discovery. At 41 years old, I am finding my face through this process, and in reality, so much more. I am searching for signs of the encroaching disease and medicinal side-effects. Eventually the deeply creased lines will appear, the skin will discolor, the fat will redistribute in awkward and abnormal places and a general look of emaciation will take over my face. I have no idea when the inevitable will appear, but it will and I am afraid. Ironic how fear has transformed the once so care-free me into someone so vain and insecure.
My entire adult life has been spent working with teens and before this process began, I used to talk to them, when they were looking for guidance, with an analogy about how, when looking in the mirror, occasionally there is a moment of ”self-reflection,” whether acknowledged or not, when we experience our three selves at once, our personal trinity. The first person we experience is standing in front of the mirror, the character the world sees, who we present, our façade. The second person is the one we see in the reflection, with our personal judgments, insecurities, doubts, or even the person we cheer, admire and love is here as well; it does not have to be negative. And finally, there is the third person who is looking back at us from the mirror, the one with all our dreams and ideas, the truest desires of self, maybe our soul in a more visual form. This is the person who really knows us most, the person we desire to become or are meant to set free. I would explain that, from my point of view, one of life’s challenges is to find a way to reconcile the three, make the three one. And while I may have expressed this “wisdom” for the benefit of others, I now believe I was actually teaching myself, foreshadowing. I was preparing for this phase of my life when I would have to take long and hard looks in the mirror, forced to delve deeply into my reflection and assess both the physical toll and emotional reality this disease has placed on my three selves.
The day I started on this journey of acknowledgement, being forced to take long looks in the mirror, reflecting, began with the news Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson had died, just hours and moments before. I took these deaths as a sign before I walked into the examination room that I was going to hear what I really already knew: I too was about to die. Why wouldn’t I be? I had always been told, “Everything happens in three’s.” My life was about to end, or at least the life I knew. With this understanding, I did not cry when she told me; instead I apologized to her for being the first person she had the misfortune of telling, “The test results confirmed our suspicions and yes, you are HIV positive.” I thanked her for the care she and her staff had given me over the last few weeks and the motherly love she had personally shown me, for stepping in when and where my own could not. With my hand in hers, she walked me to the receptionist, who had already made the calls, set up the appointments and was waiting with a packet of information to arm me with what I needed to set forth, to take my first steps of self discovery. It was all arranged for me and my only responsibility was simply to show up.
I did not realize, however, that this was actually the beginning of a new beginning. Similar to Hindu and Buddhist teachings, with all death there is birth, a new life is created. I was about to experience the effects of karma through my metaphorical reincarnation as a HIV positive man. Now that I was “dead,” I would have to pay for the indiscretions of my “previous” life. I already unknowingly had been; at this point I believed I was simply a victim. I had never assessed the potential consequences of my actions nor given much of a thought to what life could, and now would, be like as a result of these choices.
You see, ten months before being diagnosed, I lost my job, I became embroiled in the legal system and was just now beginning the healing process of being sick for nearly half a year. I had passed out in a park, unable to get myself home until a stranger found me and carried me back. I suffered from nightly sweats so extreme I woke up in a pool perspiration every morning. I was wearing an IV pump to infuse my body with penicillin to combat the syphilis that, for maybe a decade, had been quietly invading my body, explaining the scales covering the palms of my hands and bottoms of my feet. The syphilis was so rampant within my body it had infected my brain, probably permanently damaging my vision and ability to think, process, and evaluate. I had no insurance, no income and was living in an extremely tenuous situation, with my now ex-partner of 14 years; I never knew if I had a place to live or not. He was nearly a decade into the denial of his own, personal, HIV battle. The years of breaking up and making up had reached a level of intensity we had never experienced before. All of my friends had walked away, too frustrated to deal with our chaotic relationship. Karma was playing out in my new life, before I even knew I was being reborn, putting me in the most helpless place I had ever been. I was alone, 1800 miles away from my nearest family member, broke and dependent on someone who had no want to be responsible for me. I was paying the price for all the cheating and dishonesty I had committed, feeling like a criminal, free of a jail cell, but with a felony sentence nonetheless. Soon, I would find myself in a mental health facility and ultimately living in a hospital waiting room.
All of this has brought me to where I am today, back to my Indiana roots and examining myself in the mirror. Through the help of a few dozen friends and their $10 or so donations to get me safe, I have returned to what I not so lovingly refer to as “Hoosieria,” Indiana, the place I grew up and the last place on earth I wanted to be, a place I have run from since I graduated from high school. Maybe I am in a cell after all; it sure feels like it sometimes.
With that being said, I have been able to evaluate where I stand and how I feel about being positive, or at least start the process. It is a never-ending learning curve that has required the assistance of a team of professionals and personally delving deeply in how and why I have gotten here. I have come to the realization that this daily examination in the mirror is both looking for the virus’s progression and the side-effects of its medication on my face, as well as an opportunity to check in with myself. I use this time to reconcile that trinity and begin the process of making three disparate parts one. As I exam, I reflect and as I reflect I learn. And, while I may never be a person who spends great lengths of time looking at myself in the mirror for more superficial reasons and I still cannot properly groom myself, it is no longer a nemesis. Instead the mirror has become a tool for self-reflection and meditation in a way. This new practice is leading me to accept myself, evaluate and forgive that second reflection in the mirror, free myself of judgments and move forward; it has brought me to a place of learning who I am and, maybe more importantly, what I actually look like.