When HIV is not your only battle

Published 08, Jan, 2018
Author // Félix Garmendía

New York guy Félix Garmendía: "I will not let fear stop me again from living my life."

When HIV is not your only battle

I wonder if I will finish this piece. Have you ever wondered when you are sad, if writing about it will help you find peace? I have, and it has been my experience that spending the time, effort and contemplation to express these feelings definitely helps.

I’m not unfamiliar with sadness. Like every person with a chronic illness, I have my long dark nights when I feel like I’m wandering around, lost, in the dark. I am bipolar, so sadness can be a bit difficult to battle. Like I have mentioned before, besides being  HIV positive for 30 years, I also have a rare, progressive, neuromuscular disease called, “Inclusion Body Myositis.” This chronic illness is an auto immune condition that attacks the muscles in my arms and legs.

Five years ago, I landed in a wheelchair, after a bad fall in the street where I hit my head and became unconscious. After that incident, which ended in an ER visit, I decided to deal with the fact that it was time to use a wheelchair. It was not easy, but I managed to do it. After a period of adjustment I have pretty much accepted the fact that I might never walk again and that I might never have the independence I once had. My life has changed completely.

One more time, with the support and love of my caregiver and husband Denis, I conquered another bump in the road.

We found out that we are eligible to get a new wheelchair every five years and so last week we went for an evaluation for my new wheelchair at a specialized seating and mobility clinic at a prestigious hospital not far from our home. We talked to a neurologist and among other things we talked about the things I still can do in a normal daily routine, after explaining that my condition has deteriorated.

Every morning, my husband takes me to the bathroom. I still can walk if he holds me. I feel very proud that I can still groom my beard, shave, brush my teeth and wash my face by myself. When I stood up this morning with his help, I noticed I couldn’t keep my torso straight. The upper part of my body was bending forward, Denis got scared and I realized then that most likely, my back muscles are so weakened, that one day I will not be able to maintain my back in a straight position. I noticed that my back muscles have become weaker a couple of months ago when I tried to roll over in bed and my body didn’t respond. My neck muscles are weak as well, I can’t raise my head in order to watch TV laying down.

The incident this morning was a bit difficult to take. I have dealt with sadness successfully but this morning, I was dealing with fear. The kind of fear that comes when you are reminded that your body is deteriorating. What is next? I started thinking about my paralyzed left arm, my already challenged right arm, my disabled legs and most recently, the fear that my throat muscles are coming to the point that I have to drink water after every intake of food, or the food gets stuck in my throat.

I have a lot in my head at the moment and this morning’s incident put a dent in my inner peace. Fear is my number one enemy these days. Fear paralyses me, it makes me lose all confidence and my heart gets heavy in such a way that it hurts every time fear strikes me.

What to do now? Where I go from here?

At this moment I must realize that I have no control over the deterioration of my body but I also know that fear in itself is a different story. I can desensitize my fears. I have done it before. There are things in life that can be challenging, we all have been there. When it comes to obscure chronic illnesses that feeling of fear comes from the impossibility of knowing how bleak our future might be. When we try to wonder what is going to happen and we let fear sneak in, the outcome is going to be murky. I have realized already that before anything else, I must deal with my fears.

And I have to ponder a bit about fear itself. The dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”

Fear is not always a negative thing, fear by itself, is part of the human survival instinct. It tells you when to be guarded and it definitely can save a life.

So, what is the most powerful threat I am facing at this moment? I believe it is misguided fear. The kind of fear that can complicate every situation. In my case, it’s the fear of becoming bedridden for the rest of my life. There it is, I am mentioning the root of my biggest fear.

At this moment I must remember the most insightful, poignant statement about fear. It was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” That comment was a timeless observation about fear.

Fear is an old acquaintance of mine. It kept me in the closet for 23 years, living in a place where I was humiliated and bullied on a daily basis for being gay. Fear made me waste precious time that I could have used to better myself instead of feeling sorry for myself.

The answer at this point is to be proactive, understand that every day we fight against a chronic illness, is a day that we can enjoy instead of drowning in despair. I now count the reasons to be happy. I remember that I have always lived my life intensely and the deterioration of my physical body is part of my journey.

I will not let fear stop me again from living my life. That is not an option anymore. We humans have a strong capacity for hope. Sometimes we hope even against all odds.

I reclaim my power to live without fear, the power that has fueled the most pivotal decisions of my life. Sometimes in life we must jump out of the nest, trusting that we can fly.

Fear will not complicate my present, because I am committed to live every second trusting the unpredictable miracle that life is.

About the Author

Félix Garmendía

Félix Garmendía

"I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 60s. Living in Puerto Rico, and growing up there was a bumpy process. I was very aware of my homosexual identity at a very early age, so fighting the stigma was a very intense journey in my native island.

I love art. The Ponce Art Museum was my shelter since I was in high school. As my first job ever, I guided bilingual tours for locals and tourists from all over the world.

In high school, I was introduced to music and theater, after that, I chose to pursue a B.A. in theater at the U.P.R. ( University of Puerto Rico ). Rio Piedras campus.

In college, I discovered many things about myself. My sexual identity became established, my religious beliefs changed dramatically and my awareness of my role in society became the first and biggest challenge of my life. I became a proud gay man, an atheist and an activist. The political climate in Puerto Rico was very far away from recognizing any kind of gay rights so I knew that I needed a community that I could call my own, and be myself. After several years in Puerto Rico, in my twenties, I moved to N.Y.C. to pursue a Master’s Degree in Art Education and Art Criticism at New York University. I decided to stay in Manhattan. Here I found myself. I discovered my passions, causes to fight for, and the strong community that I always dreamed of. I became a passionate man with strong convictions.

After graduation I became a N.Y.C. school teacher. I taught art in the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and Upper Manhattan for 15 years.

Sometime in my twenties, I was exposed to HIV. I tested HIV-positive and after a serious depression, came out strong and victorious. I became an AIDS activist. My passions in life became the gears that fed energy into my existence.

Very early in my N.Y.C. years, I became a staunch liberal. All my causes were related. I was trying to survive in a world where not everybody cared if I did or not. Politics made clear who cared for me as a human being.

That’s why I’m very vocal about my postings. Not because I want to convince anybody, but I do it for those who, like me, once needed some direction in life. I want to share the "real" me with those friends with similar beliefs or at least respect for my beliefs.

Today, I still live in Manhattan. I’m legally married to my husband Denis Beale and I’m disabled. My life is not easy, I have several health related conditions that are a real challenge these days. This bring me to another one of my causes. From personal experience, I believe in the legalization of cannabis (marijuana). 

I consider myself a loving, compassionate and spiritual person. I have no patience for bigotry, especially the kind of sanctimonious bigotry that wraps itself in prayer and fake compassion.

This is a synopsis of who I am. It would be really helpful to start introducing myself with my favorite warning. Warning: I’m human, far from perfect, passionate about life, the pursue of difficult answers, and the conviction that we are all equal."

Felix has been featured in The Huffington Post’s Queer Voices; see the piece here

You can follow Felix on Facebook here or here, on twitter @PozHeart and also on Instagram, here.