HIV treatment has come a long way since the early 1980s, when AIDS was more prominently a sure killer. Today, a person can live a long and healthy life with the proper medication. However, as highlighted in a recent New York Times article, a new type of struggle has arisen for many HIV-positive activists in the United States—the struggle to live healthy lives in a post-activism era.
When HIV first emerged, many young people, especially gay men, became involved in activist organizations and devoted their lives to them, lobbying for drug trials and pushing for better healthcare. The Oscar-nominated documentary, How To Survive a Plague, looks at AIDS activism in the United States during this era, portraying the rocky path of the group ACT UP in the 80s and 90s and its inspiring accomplishments promoting drug trials. At the end, the film focuses on the few survivors, who, with current treatments, can now live long lives.
One of these survivors from the film, Spencer Cox, just passed away in December from AIDS-related complications. Cox was an integral part of the movement to test for the drug Norvir®, and consequently helped save thousands. But as medications became available, New York-based ACT UP began to dismantle, and those living in the city found it hard to survive in such an expensive space. Cox aspired to be a playwright, but making ends meet proved more difficult than it had first seemed. After Cox attempted to start an organization supporting gay men’s issues but failed to raise sufficient funding, he entered a deep depression and neglected his meds, ultimately leading to his death years later.
Cox’s story is not unique. In How to Survive a Plague, one man relates this common plight to coming home from war and wondering why you outlived the others. Though not quite post-traumatic stress disorder, there is definitely a type of depression that has come from the post-AIDS-activist era. Many have thought, “What do I do now?” and have wondered how to find work with as much purpose. Compounding this, crystal meth has exploded in the social scene, worsening the downward spirals for many former activists.
The end of the documentary portrays hope, positivity, and productivity, but the life after this gratifying work may not be as glamorous as it seems. We must remember that living with HIV is still difficult and precarious, regardless of one’s access to medication and care. For those who so profoundly impacted HIV treatment in this country, we must remember to give support in return.
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