October 22nd, 2006

eloquent with rage

His Pet Virus

"Perhaps there wouldn't be an epidemic of overweight children if kids had to work a little harder for their porn," Shawn Decker surmises in contemplating the sexualization of children from an early age due to the Internet and the ease of acquiring sexually explicit material. It is just one of his observations that made me laugh out loud while reading My Pet Virus, the story of a man and his disease, HIV. Lest you think Decker makes light of being infected, readers learn quickly that as a "thinblood" (a term he coined for a hemophiliac because of that word's literal translation—"one who loves blood"), he was infected at age eleven with HIV, and with Hepatitis B and C in only a few years. And you think you had a shitty childhood?

Shawn frankly admits he was lucky to have a support system of family and friends growing up, but he was certainly not without his trials. My Pet Virus recounts his battles to stay in public school, the fear and prejudice of a small Virginia town, numerous trips to doctors and hospitals. As a straight man who admits that he could have been the Belle of the Ball if he were gay, he feared he would never find a woman who could reciprocate his love because of his ever-present pet virus.

Decker makes a point of the fact he stayed off HIV drugs for as long as he could. Naming HIV his pet virus was a tongue-in-cheek way for him never to think about the disease. Though I don't recall him ever using the word denial, he definitely denied his potential fatal illness a lot longer than some people would, or could. Decker's approach might have been unorthodox, but in his youth, staying away from the then-new AZT might have saved his life. He describes his eventual need for medication and the battles he's had since starting them. For those of you who don't know, HIV drugs make you sick, almost as much as HIV does. Even the drug Marinol, a synthetic THC (the stuff in marijuana that makes you high as well as hungry), aids in increasing appetite for those who feel too sick to eat, but at the same time can cause horrible hallucinations. Shawn suffered from paranoia after his doctor accidentally increased his dosage:

...after taking the first one, it hit me: aliens weren't invading Earth someday, they were already here. Now! The catalyst for this line of reasoning was a People magazine cover story, titled "HOLLYWOOD: How Thin Is Too  Thin?" As I gazed at Calista Flockhart's skinny arms, big eyes, and long face, my [lifelong] UFO fascination suddenly horrified me. And now that I was wise to them, did the aliens—who were using fame and acting as a cover—know I was onto them?
Along his way, though, Decker led a pretty amazing life. He got to meet some of his Pop Culture idols, Ric Flair of professional wresting, and 80s icons Depeche Mode. He shook hands with Vice President Al Gore, has appeared on national television and currently writes for a national magazine, Poz. Now he travels the country lecturing with his "wife partner" Gwen about HIV awareness and education.

Shawn's writing style is light and breezy, which makes for a quick read. He certainly doesn't break any stylistic ground, but I'm sure he'd agree he wasn't trying. He wanted to convey the importance of his story without preaching or hyperbole. He surpasses success with his candor, wit, and intelligence. On speaking of tension in the HIV/AIDS community over acquiring the virus through sexual contact or tainted blood products, he says:

Is there a difference between receiving junked-up medication and landing a bad lay? Maybe. But the real decision-making process begins after diagnosis, because it's too late for all of us... once the test results are in, and in the end we're really in the same boat and face the same fearful—and sometimes painfully stupid and insensitive—reactions.
I couldn't agree more.

Shawn Decker is online at My Pet Virus and MySpace.