BY: Padraic Maroney – “The Neurotic Urban Millennial”
Middle school was a defining time for me. On top of the normal, everyday hormonal things that we deal with during this formative time, my family was in flux. My father’s restaurant had closed, my older brother spent a year in South America as part of an exchange program, and I began to help take care of my younger siblings, while my mother was at work.
Something much more tragic and defining happened in the Fall of 1994. I was in seventh grade at the time. When I woke up, my parents told me the news that our cousin had passed away due to complications from HIV/AIDS. My parents had called and let the school know, wanting me to talk with the guidance counselor.
By 1994, AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25-44. There was a lot of people who didn’t understand the disease — leading to stigmatization — and was considered a death sentence. In 1994, Pedro Zamora helped to shine a light on the disease by appearing on “The Real World: San Francisco”. Up until that point, there was all kinds of false information. Growing up in the late 80s, some people thought that you could catch HIV by using a public water fountain or restroom.
It was a weird morning going through my routine. People who I never talked to had heard the news and were coming up to offer condolences or just to cure their curiosity. Living in a small town in upstate New York, it was the closest any of them had gotten to the disease and, as kids are known to do, they were curious. That morning also changed something in me.
Billy, my dad’s cousin, was always a welcome sight at family gatherings. He had two sons younger than me, but close enough in age that my brother and I would play with them at all the gatherings. We would force Billy to do his impression of Donald Duck, which was so good that he had won contests for it. He was married but got divorced when he came out later in life.
In the years since his passing, I have spoken at length with my two aunts who were with Bill during his illness. Their stories detailed not only his suffering while he was sick, but also the lasting impact that it has had on them. The thing is, watching someone suffering while they die, due to complications related to AIDS, haunt that person’s family and friends long after they are done suffering. Their family and friends are literally left to watch this person slowly fade away until they have no fight left in them.
Here’s the thing, diseases are abstract and hard to fully realize until they hit home. Maybe it was because I was on the cusp of starting to date, that it struck me so hard. But Bill’s passing hit me hard and instilled a fear in me. I feared getting infected and what might happen afterward.
To be honest, I was a late bloomer because I always had the fear in the back of my mind. Nothing is 100% safe and there is always a risk. While most teenagers might worry about avoiding an unplanned pregnancy and having to try to find a maternity-sized prom dress, I was worried about what would happen if I became infected with HIV and how that would affect my family. I didn’t want to put them through that again. They had suffered through the disease once and I didn’t want to be responsible for doing that again.
I did everything I could to be responsible. Getting tested regularly, using protection, eventually getting a prescription for PrEP when it became available, and always talking to the person before anything went too far. It’s awkward coming out and asking, “Do you have AIDS?”, and I know that it probably scared some people off. Granted, I was young and didn’t know all the specifics about how infections worked, especially how much harder it was for a man to get infected by a woman than vice versa.
Despite all my fears, as I graduated from college and moved out into the world I began to meet people who were living with HIV. They were positive, at different statuses ranging from undetectable to AIDS. Knowing these people helped to put a new face on the disease. It wasn’t just people dying. These were otherwise healthy people living life.
I’ll admit that I was apprehensive and did exactly what I never wanted to do. At first, I was hesitant and tentative and would treat these friends and acquaintances like zoo animals. Looking, staring, but never getting too close. It was wrong and I’m not proud of myself for it. But I was a work in progress and had to overcome years of ingrained fear.
We’ve come along way since those days, but there’s a long road still to go. PrEP is a drug that helps to prevent infection, when taken regularly. However, a recent article stated that 25% of men between the age of 18-34 have never even been tested. People talk about their status more openly. People know what undetectable means now. But it’s not enough. Currently, in Philadelphia, where I live, residents are infected at a rate at five times the national average, with over 30,000 people currently living in the region with HIV.
As I have grown up, I’ve seen my views evolve. As they have evolved, I’ve worked through those early childhood fears to become an advocate to help fight the stigma of those living with HIV and raise money for those living with HIV and AIDS.
In fact, I am walking in the Philadelphia AIDS Walk this year, as I do every few years, in memory of Bill. I walk to raise money to help find a cure for this disease. I walk to help provide services that can improve the lives of those diagnosed with HIV, educate others from possibly contracting it, and stop the stigma that those with the disease deal with.
If you would like to donate towards my fundraising goal for this year’s walk, visit my page here: http://www.aidswalkphilly.org/profile/detail/215913
Padraic Maroney hails from upstate New York, suffering from middle child syndrome. His writing career began after moving to the Philadelphia suburbs while in high school. He wrote for The Bucks County Courier Times’ Reality section, written by local teenagers, and has the distinction of writing a weekly gossip column for a college newspaper at a school he didn’t even attend! His love of pop culture led him to intern at Teen People, where he met Janis Gaudelli, and realized he could turn being a millennial into a career. Since then he’s alternated between writing and marketing, but always focused on Millennials and everything they bring to the table. Padraic is a lover of shenanigans, 80s music, and the movie “Scream.”
You can follow his additional adventures on Instagram: @padraicjacob