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The Scars of AIDS Anxiety

October 22, 1987|TIM PAULSON | Tim Paulson lives in Los Angeles. His second novel, "The Real World," will be published by E. P. Dutton in June

I was in the operating room on June 3, 1984, when the massive hemorrhage struck--no other word does justice to the sudden gushing of blood everywhere--minutes after my wife, Jane, gave birth to our third son, Christopher, by Caesarean. I was ushered out as an emergency team assembled. From the hall I watched nurses carry one plastic pint of blood after another into surgery. It took two hours to stop the bleeding.

Jane recovered, and we proceeded with previous plans to move from New York to Los Angeles for the magazine for which I sell advertising.

It occurred to me that Jane might have been exposed to the AIDS virus during her transfusions and might pass it on to me. But I was too grateful for her survival at first to give it much thought. Los Angeles took our minds off our brush with death. Jane got the kids settled in school and took her time recovering, wading slowly back into her writing career. I had a 13-state sales territory to learn, and final editing on my first novel, which would be published the following spring.

Much of my business travel was to San Francisco, and my first impressions of that city are inextricably linked with the fate of an important client there. He was a young, handsome, witty man whom I liked instantly. We were both renovating houses at the time, so we often compared notes over lunch about the perils of being your own contractor. When he developed a persistent cough that fall, I suggested that it might be caused by asbestos dust. It turned out to be AIDS. My client left work at Christmas and died in June. His death brought back poignant memories of the romantic poets I had studied in college. For the first time I understood the tragedies of the brilliant young Keats and Byron and Shelley, cut down by consumption or their own recklessness at a time when their lives held such promise.

The blood test for AIDS became available around Christopher's first birthday. It was a difficult spring. I was working on my own in a large sales territory and anxiously looking for my novel in bookstores. I had a series of nasty colds. Every time I opened a magazine or newspaper, I saw another article on AIDS. I suggested that we be tested.

Jane was opposed to the idea. What was the point, she argued, since she was feeling fine. If she tested positive, she would spend her life waiting for the other shoe to drop. A part of me was equally afraid to know the truth. The other half, the part of me that dreads being surprised by catastrophe, wanted to know. Even when one of Jane's relatives wondered out loud if there wasn't some other reason I was so preoccupied with the test, I couldn't drop the idea.

I have always worried primarily about two things: my health and money. The plight of AIDS patients offered a concrete example of an illness that could strike Jane and me in the prime of our lives and leave our young children orphaned. How could we organize our lives around a tragedy like AIDS? I could no longer discuss my fears with Jane. Her position was clear: no test. My anxiety was beginning to manifest itself in physical symptoms such as dizziness and a sense of panic. My doctor recommended a psychiatrist.

I initially thought of the psychiatrist as a referee. He would listen to my side of the story and help me persuade Jane to have the test. It didn't take long to realize that no one could resolve this conflict except me and Jane. There was a lot to talk about. A lifetime's free-floating anxiety had crystallized around my fear of AIDS and the roots went deep.

Many of the fears I had to face went against the grain of the liberalism I had practiced and preached as a college student in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fear of death filled me with unliberal thoughts. AIDS seemed more and more to be an impersonal judgment on an era. Somehow, the disease makes what my generation stood for in terms of sexual liberation and an open-minded attitude toward sexual orientation seem unnatural and out-of-date.

On Christopher's second birthday, a front-page article in the morning paper announced that the Red Cross would begin a national effort during the summer of 1986 to notify recipients of tainted blood. I was panic-stricken. The old fear, like a bout of malaria, flared up once again. Jane too was concerned. Yet still the thought of having the test was more frightening than living with uncertainty and statistics in our favor. Only later did she admit her own growing AIDS paranoia. For months she met the postman at the door every day and looked fearfully through the mail for a Red Cross logo.

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