San Francisco as the epicenter of loss: Part II

Untitled (Burning Skull), 1987. Keith Haring: The Politcal Line.  deYoung Museum, San Francisco. 2015.
Untitled (Burning Skull), 1987. Keith Haring: The Politcal Line.
deYoung Museum, San Francisco. 2015.

For those of us who weren’t ill, AIDS gave us a new and better reason to live.

The 80’s were a time of death and resurrection in San Francisco. Those of us who had survived the nihilism of the late 70’s felt lucky to be alive. We had to either get wise quickly or be carried away with the rising tide of illness. The recovery movement in San Francisco was born.

It’s easy to forget but half the city seemed to get clean and sober in the 80’s. It became clear to many of us that using drugs and alcohol clouded our judgement and facilitated our indulgence in activities that could compromise our health and our lives. We had to wake up quickly.

And we did.

Alcoholics Anonymous was never so popular, particularly in the LGBT community. During most of the 80’s the clean and sober contingent of the Gay Day Parade was overwhelmingly the largest. It was usually placed at the end of the parade so that onlookers became participants, marching into the end-of-the-parade festivities at the Civic Center as part of the fold. Just as, in the 70’s, you were a nobody if you didn’t indulge in substances, in the 80’s you were on the fringes if you did.

Most of our friends who found out they were HIV positive, if they wanted to preserve what was left of their health, stopped or severely limited their use. And, for the rest of us, getting high was incompatible with helping our friends who were ill. Narcissism had given way to altruism.

We also learned to appreciate life. We were still young and, as we saw many of our friends dying, we experienced what older people do when their age cohort begins to succumb. This has a profound effect on you. You really understand that life is finite. You get on with things. Your mundane concerns seem, well…..mundane. It occurs to you that you might want to do something meaningful with your life.

This period of time truly shaped our lives. Several of us became therapists and social workers, other friends became nurses. All of us, no matter what profession, volunteered and fund-raised.

My best friend, Dannie, was still alive and well. We continued to plan trips and travel together. And then one day on a trip to Vancouver Island by ferry he turned and said to me, “Kathleen, I’m HIV positive”.

This was 1989 and became the closing salvo of the decade for Dannie and me. It had taken awhile but now he was in the bullseye of the epidemic. The skeletal figures, oxygen tanks, experimental treatments and hospices would no longer be one circle removed.

Dannie’s health would deteriorate in slow motion in a few short years….

Helping a friend with an alcohol or drug problem

the bridge back
the bridge back

A friend of mine sought my counsel today. She has a friend who is depressed and drinking heavily. She says he is, “going steadily downhill”. Other friends of his have attempted to help by putting pressure on him to get help. This has not been effective. My friend has remained on the sidelines not knowing how to approach the situation. She wanted to get some advice about how she might help. I gave her some suggestions.

Attitude adjustment
People who have alcohol and/or drug problems are usually very down on themselves already. The last thing that he needs is for people to be critical. If you want to begin to talk with him about his drinking approach him with acceptance and respect. A nonjudgemental attitude will go a long way in engaging him in a meaningful discussion of his alcohol use.

Offer support
Offering him your opinion that he may need help is a delicate matter. Only he can decide to get help. If you are understanding and supportive it is more likely that he will be receptive to your observations.

Provide resources
Be ready to provide resources if he acknowledges the problem and agrees that he may need to stop his use. There are programs that are outpatient, residential and self-help. 12-step programs are a good resource but there also are other alternatives now which engage the person with a substance use problem in an exploration of the problem and may give him tools to decrease his use, use more safely and/or move toward abstinence as he decides what is best for him. This approach is called harm reduction. You can find a list of resources here:

Set limits
Take care of yourself in this. Do what you can to assist him but be firm about the kind of behaviors that you will not tolerate. These behaviors could include drinking while you are in the car with him, insulting or violent behavior, stealing, etc.

Be prepared for setbacks
In the end he may or may not choose to effectively cope with his problem. He may try several times to get the help he needs and not be successful. But remember, research and experience have shown relapse is the rule rather than the exception and it often takes more than one try to be successful. Your role as his friend may be to be the voice of reassurance and optimism in the background. After all, it’s his show…..

This information is for educational purposes only and should not in any way be considered a substitute for professional help. If you feel that you need immediate assistance please call your local psychiatric emergency services.