Support group addresses AIDS Survivors Syndrome and the challenges of cheating death
By all accounts, Tez Anderson shouldn't be alive today. When he contracted HIV in 1981, doctors gave him only two years to live. Somehow, he managed to outlast that prognosis by three decades.
"People ask me how I'm still here, and honestly, I don't know," he told the Guardian during an interview in his small office above Harvey's Restaurant in the Castro. "I would get these little reprieves — two more years here and there — and I just got used to living like that."
Muscular and energetic, Anderson has a surprisingly light-hearted demeanor for someone who has lived with death for his entire adult life, but there's no denying that he has been through a severe and sustained trauma.
By 1992, AIDS had killed more residents of San Francisco than all four major wars of the 20th century combined. As a result, Anderson watched an entire generation of his friends — people whom he cared for and loved — succumb to the virus.
The loss has taken its toll. For years, Anderson suffered from severe anxiety, deep depression, and rage. At times he even considered suicide. While driving the windy hills of San Francisco, Anderson would occasionally imagine letting go of his steering wheel, sending his car careening down the hill.
"I was planning it out so that it would look like an accident," he said. "I didn't want people to be hurt by the fact that I killed myself."
Like Anderson, many AIDS survivors suffer emotional ailments akin to post-traumatic stress disorder or survivor's guilt. Walt Odets, a Berkeley-based psychologist who has worked with hundreds of gay men who lived through the AIDS epidemic, is convinced that a mental health crisis is unfolding among long-term HIV survivors.
"There's an inability to live with vitality, to live with richness, to get up in the morning and feel like you have a future, if only for the day," he told us. "We're losing a lot of vital lives over this."
Anderson believes that many AIDS survivors have a definable psychological syndrome. Last January he decided to give it a name: AIDS Survivor Syndrome, or ASS for short (the acronym was intentional). He and two friends, Michael Siever and Matt Sharp, have since formed the group Let's Kick ASS.
Every Tuesday, they host a meditation class, and on Saturdays they convene at the Church Street Café for coffee and conversation. On the third Wednesday of each month, the group puts on large workshops and forums.
Just like during the 1980s and 1990s, when HIV-positive people built a social movement around AIDS, Let's Kick ASS is trying to unite the community in the face of hardship.
"There's nothing that will take away or fully heal this wound," said Gregg Cassin, who has had HIV since the 1980s and works closely with Let's Kick ASS. "But as we learned from the early days of the epidemic, coming together as a community is where the healing takes place."
On a warm evening last September, Anderson hustled to set up tables and chairs in a large event space at the LGBT center on the outskirts of the Castro. It was the first town hall meeting for Let's Kick ASS, and he had no idea what to expect. At most, he thought that 50 people would show up.
At around 6:30pm the first guests started to arrive. Then a few more people trickled into the room. By 7pm, every seat in the house was taken, and people were wedging into any available nook and cranny. Some of the attendees hadn't seen each other in years and were hugging each other.
"I was blown away by how many people wanted to hear about the group," Anderson recalled. "It felt like a class reunion."