People often ask me (hell, I often ask myself), “Why do you do this kind of work? Why HIV/AIDS?” There are many answers. My mom likes to joke that I picked two of the hardest and worst paying careers because I am a glutton for punishment. Currently, I spend my days working on a participatory art practice; this sort of art form (social practice) "for me" blends social work and art. It is a difficult medium to finance and promote, but recently, this project was, in a very uneasy way, validated. This form of validation is sad. I don’t want this to come across as gossip or the airing of dirty laundry, but even with the grief I feel, the validation that the work I am struggling to produce is making an impact lets me know that I must keep going, even if sometimes it feels like I am talking to a wall.
Have you ever had someone tell you that they have contracted HIV? We were sitting in the parking lot of a liquor store when he told me. It was surreal; even after all the interviews, all the talks, and information I had around HIV/AIDS, I still found myself speechless and scrabbling to try and not say something dumb, something I knew was not the truth, like, “everything’s going to be okay” because most likely it is going to be okay, but do I know that for a fact? The car was quiet; you could cut the air with a knife, and he began to tear up just barely letting the words slip out of his mouth. Earlier, he said his day was a whirlwind, but I never expected him to say he was positive. My companion was cute and fun to talk to. We met because I pitched him on my project like I do with most people I meet when I am out and about. He was very interested, so we set up a time to do an interview. After the interview, we became friends; we have lots in common, and I like his company.
I played back part of the interview the next day. It was a fun and lighthearted interview (well, as fun and light as talking about sex and HIV can be). We sat late at night in his apartment, talking and drinking wine. I chuckled.
“Okay, back to the questions, Do you know your status? Are you negative or positive?”
“I don’t know my status, but last time I was tested, I was negative.”
“Do you mind telling me when the last time was that you were tested? How long ago was it?”
"Almost a year, maybe a little more than a year.”
“That’s a long time,” I said in response.
“So, how regularly do you normally get tested?”
“Well… when I was in college, when I knew where the services were, I would go every six months.”
“You know that you live close to a free clinic, right?” I asked
“Yes,” he said back to me.
“This is not a judgmental interview,” I say trying to stay unbiased. We both laugh and sip our wine. “I am just trying to point out the facts,” I smiled. “Have you ever avoided being tested? and if so, why?”
“Yes, I think I have been avoiding getting tested. A: It’s hard for me to find the time while working with the job I have, and B: I am scared to know if I am, I guess, fear of knowing.”
We continued to interview for another 20 minutes; he was well spoken about his feelings and fears. I remember thinking he had given me a lot of great material. Truthfully, I had not thought much about it since then.
After he told me he was positive, he said, “Thank you.” At first, I did not understand why. He explained that as fucked up in the head that he felt then, he was happy he had gotten tested. If I had not brought this project, he might not have gone for a long time. We talked about being an adult and how much it can suck at times, but knowing you are doing the right thing for yourself and your community, even if that thing comes with bad news, can be rewarding in its own right.
Another thing that people often ask me is how I quantify the work I am doing. How do I know that I am making an impact? I normally answer that this is an “art” project, and it is about questions, not quantifying an impact like marketing campaigns are designed to do. But my friend’s “thank you” showed me that I have impacted at least one person. That might not be a big number, but a lot of ones add up. It’s enough to keep me going forward with my project, and for that I say, “THANK YOU” back.