A streetcar stop reunion brings back memories

The other night, my arms heavy with groceries, I heard my name being called at the corner of Yonge and Carlton. That’s a very busy corner so this is definitely a ‘small world’ story.

He told me, as I didn’t immediately recognize him, that he was Pete Bailey from The Standard (in St. Catharines) and briefly introduced his daughter. We only had time to exchange pleasantries when his streetcar came along. Facebook brought us back together this weekend and Pete forwarded me the article he had written back in 2002, based on an interview we did not far from the AIDS Memorial at the 519 Church Street Community Centre.

I think my perspective has changed a little, particularly my description of the missteps we discussed. In fact I would say that, while not wishing to tempt fate, it’s pretty clear that some of the mistakes I’ve made (before this article and since) which seemed so death-defying, even careless, do not define me the way I once thought.  The on-going, successful treatment of bipolar II disorder of the past few years definitely could have been helpful years ago.

There’s little doubt, too, that recovery from my accident in 2003, a process not an event, continues to keep me out of over-drive.  However, it must be said that this latest recovery – which began in June, 2007 – has been the slowest, most painstaking of them all.  There was the grieving of Craig’s death, yes, but that coincided with my own desperate dilemma of recovery or death.  The choice was that stark.

Here’s how it was, though, in 2002:

Time out …worth living

The Standard (St. Catharines)
Saturday, July 27, 2002
Page: E1 / FRONT
Section: Spectrum

Byline: Peter Bailey
Source: The Standard

For Kenn Chaplin
, the major turning point in his life didn’t come when he realized as a young man that he was gay.

Neither was it when he learned he had AIDS and prepared himself for an early death.

Nor did it come with the startling realization the protease-inhibiting medications he was taking might actually help him to live.

It came four years ago, after a man introduced him to crack cocaine. Four days later, Chaplin had spent all his money, pawned many of his possessions, was robbed by a drug dealer, and had hit rock bottom.

“I called somebody who came and helped me get on my feet again,” he says. “I have an addictive personality, and at the time I had been off alcohol for 10 years, but I had become immediately hooked on crack.”

Once free of the crack supplier and back to normal with help from an addiction support group, Chaplin decided to spend the rest of his life helping other people with their dependencies.

His particular concern now is young gay men who are increasingly taking illicit drugs and having unprotected sex. He fears they are becoming complacent about their chances of contracting HIV, and may end up like him.

When Chaplin was a broadcast student at Niagara College from 1977 to 1980, he used alcohol to dull the pain he felt from being different, from feeling isolated in a heterosexual world.

“It was a self-esteem issue,” he explains. “I wasn’t comfortable with myself. Alcohol became my saviour, but like other drugs, it turned on me.”

Later, as a reporter for radio station CKTB from 1980 to 1987, he would stop off in bars after covering city council, then do his recording and editing of the news after last call. “But I’d wake myself up at 6 a.m. to listen to the news — to see if I’d been slurring my words.”

In search of a change from a pattern of heavy drinking and having unprotected sex with a variety of partners, Chaplin moved to Toronto, where he eventually found a position at the head office of a major hotel chain, in charge of reservations.

One year later, at age 31, he was diagnosed with AIDS.

“I’d been expecting it,” Chaplin, now 42, recalls. He is relaxing on a hot, sunny day in Cawthra Park that surrounds the gay community centre at 519 Church St. in Toronto.
His voice is gentle, and he speaks and moves very deliberately. Kenn Chaplin now knows his strengths and his limitations, and he is engagingly open and honest about them.

“During the 1980s, I wasn’t diligent about practising safer sex; I wasn’t discriminate. In those days, alcohol and drugs — primarily grass and amyl nitrate — were quite common in the gay community.”

The AIDS diagnosis felt like a death sentence when it came. His symptoms were like a bad flu — chills and sweats at the same time. “My apartment was being renovated, so I came down to this park that summer and huddled in a blanket.”

As Chaplin began being treated for an AIDS-defining disease called cryptosporidium, he noticed more and more of his friends and acquaintances were dying. He lost 20 pounds from an already slim frame in 1-1/2 years, then suffered from aseptic meningitis.

AIDS is a syndrome that affects victims differently. Once the human immunodeficiency virus overcomes the body’s resistance, patients can be affected by any of approximately 28 diseases in the AIDS family. The severity can also vary from patient to patient, and finding the right combination of drugs to treat the ailment is difficult.

“Up to this time, I was getting ready to die gracefully. I made my plans; I thought I was carrying myself well. In hindsight, I think I was more afraid to live than to die.”
But things changed between 1995 and 1996, when the new drugs — protease inhibitors – came on the scene.

“There was so much optimism about them,” Chaplin recalls. “That carried me.”

But it was an emotionally confusing time, as well. He began feeling guilty that so many of his friends had died yet he was still alive.

“This ‘crisis of optimism’ was a major emotional upheaval for my psyche. The medication bought me time my friends did not have,” he says. “I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Now, Chaplin must take 10 drugs every day — seven of them for HIV-related illnesses. He takes 16 tablets in the morning and 15 at night. The cost — $1,500 a month — is covered by the government and his health plan, for which he is grateful.

“You can see why it’s so difficult to use these drugs in Africa — they’re so expensive.”

The side effects range from debilitating diarrhea, dehydration and lipodystrophy — a reduction or redistribution of lean body mass that gives him a gaunt appearance.

Now that his future looks brighter, has he considered being in a relationship again? “I’m more open to the possibility of a long-term relationship than ever before,” he says. “As I’ve become more comfortable with myself, and the limitations due to my illness, I have been less self-conscious around other gay men — especially those living with HIV/AIDS.

“Living so long on my own, however, has made me appreciate my solitude. So, I’m not actively ‘looking’.”

For now, he’s content to work at getting the message out to young people — gay and straight — that taking street drugs or excess alcohol can lower inhibitions and tempt them into engaging in unsafe sex. Part of the problem, Chaplin thinks, is that young people are experiencing “AIDS fatigue.” They’re aware of the danger, but sick of hearing about it, and just want to party.

Another reason is the limited success of the new drugs. On the AIDS memorial in Cawthra Park, there are fewer names listed after 1998; this younger generation of gay men has grown up without the sorrow of losing close friends to AIDS-related diseases.
“They think, ‘It can’t happen to me, but if it does, there are drugs that will take care of it’,” Chaplin says. But he doesn’t want anyone to have to take the regimen of medication which keeps him alive.

Another source of false hope is the drug companies, he adds. “They advertise in the gay media, showing guys rock climbing with big thighs, saying ‘This drug has given me my life back’. That’s an unrealistic message.”

An additional reason for young men to be careful, Chaplin adds, is that if they become infected now, it may be by a form of the virus that has mutated and become resistant to the medication. That makes the resulting AIDS-related diseases much harder to treat.

“I’d like to think times have changed, so that young gay kids don’t have to dull the pain of what society has heaped upon them, but I don’t see that,” Chaplin says.

One thing he’s convinced of, however, is that drugs and unprotected sex are not the answer.

“Sobriety has changed my perspective on everything,” he says. “I can be an example of how not to live.”

The interview nearly over, Chaplin leaves the park, walking home down Church Street past hundreds of fashionable, casually dressed men enjoying the sunshine in a community which has been ravaged by disease.

When asked what he has learned from his long journey through the endless parties, drugs, sickness, the death of his friends and loved ones and coming to terms with his sexual orientation, he pauses. But just for a moment.

“I just want to let everybody know we are all lives worth living,” he says.

And then, with a firm handshake, he moves on.

©© 2002 Osprey Media Group Inc.


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