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January 2nd, 2013

The Private War That Killed Spencer Cox

“My most courageous self, the best man that I’ll ever be, lived more than two decades ago during the first years of a horrific plague… I miss the man I was forced to become.”
– “Once, When We Were Heroes,” 2007

AIDS did not kill Spencer Cox in the first, bloodiest battles of the 1980’s. It spared him that.

The reprieve allowed Spencer’s brilliance as co-founder of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) to forge new FDA guidelines for drug approval and help make effective HIV medications a reality, saving an untold number of lives.

Such triumph by a man still in his twenties might have signaled even greater achievements ahead. Instead, Spencer found himself adrift in the same personal crisis as many of his contemporaries, who struggled for a meaningful existence after years of combating the most frightening public health crisis of modern times.

Gay activists like Spencer were consumed by AIDS for so many gruesome years that many of them were shocked, once the war abated, to see how little around them had changed. Climbing from the trenches, they saw a gay culture that must have seemed ludicrous, packed with the same drug addictions, sexual compulsions and soulless shenanigans that AIDS, in its singular act of goodwill, had arrested for a decade or so.

They found themselves in a world in which no one wants to see battle scars, where intimacy is manufactured on keyboards and web sites, where any sense of community had long since faded from the AIDS organizations and now only makes brief appearances in 12-step meetings, or as likely, in the fraternity of active crystal meth addicts chasing deliverance in a dangerous shell game of bliss and desolation.

The dark allure of meth, a drug so devoured and fetished by gay men today that it is now a leading indicator of new HIV infections, enticed Spencer at some point along the way. The drug is known to whisper empty promises about limitless power and sexual escape, while calming the addict’s ghosts and sorrows for miserably brief periods of time.

When Spencer Cox died on December 18, 2012, in New York City, the official cause of death was AIDS-related complications, which is understandable if post-traumatic stress, despair and drug addiction are complications related to AIDS.

Spencer believed that this connection exists. His own writings for the Medius Institute for Gay Men’s Health (an organization he co-founded after his work with TAG) focus on exactly the issues that were distressing him personally: Crystal meth abuse. Loneliness. Risk taking. Feelings of confusion after years of accomplishment and purpose.

In retrospect you can read his work and break the private code written between the lines. It spells out “HELP ME.”

Spencer’s life during this period and beyond was difficult, by many accounts. The Medius Institute failed due to a lack of funding, defeating Spencer’s effort to address mental health issues among gay men. His drug addiction spiraled and ebbed and raged again, until he finally retreated to Georgia to live with family for a few years.

When Spencer returned to New York City last September, many of his closest friends had lost track of him. There is uncertainty about his last months, and no evidence that his addiction was active, but what little medication compliance he managed had been abandoned completely, setting the stage for his final hospitalization.

Spencer Cox died without the benefit of the very drugs he had helped make available to the world. He perished from pneumonia, in an ironic clinical time warp that transported him back to 1985. It was as if, having survived the deadliest years of AIDS, having come so close to complete escape, Spencer was snatched up by the Fates in a vengeful piece of unfinished business.

AIDS has always been creative in its cruelty. And it has learned to reach through the decades with the second-hand tools of disillusionment and depression and heart-numbing traumas. Or, perhaps, using the simple weapon of crystal meth, with all of its seductions and deceits.

Yes. There are many complications related to AIDS.

To consider “survivor’s guilt” the culprit behind the death of Spencer Cox is a popular explanation but not necessarily an accurate one. That condition suggests surviving when other, presumably worthier people, did not. Sometimes guilt has nothing to do with it.

For many of our AIDS war veterans, the real challenge today is living with the horror of having survived at all.

Mark

(PHOTO CREDIT: Walter Kurtz)

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50 Responses to “The Private War That Killed Spencer Cox”

  1. James Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Just like coming out gay at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and contracting HIV when there still was only AZT as an overdosed killer, “outing” myself as a previous meth user has proven to conjur up the same reactions from others (surprise, ignorance, fear, love and support) and the same feelings for me… Shame, loneliness, depression and a lack of love-worthiness seem to be an ongoing theme in my life. I don’t choose to play the victim in any of these scenarios because, for one, I’m not and secondly that leaves no room for heroism. I will fight this battle too, and I will win, because I will never give up. One difference in my perspective today is that I now know I cannot do this alone. Thank you, in advance, for your love and support.

  2. Mike Kennedy Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    I am so sad to hear this – I knew Spencer when we served on the ACTG CAB and he was at the top of his game. For those of us who remain committed to the cause of HIV it is a striking reminder that the answer is not found in the medicine cabinet alone. Mental health remains part of human health – and the reminders that we get, on the horrific level in a Newtwown school, on the individual level in this case – it makes me think there was more depth in the Shanti model that we need to recapture.

  3. Jeff Monford Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Mark, yet another insightful, sensitive and mind-opening article from you. Like Spencer’s contributions, yours continue to be important and meaningful. Thank you.

  4. Maria Hiv Mejia Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    I am so very sad about this . sending much love and light

    ~maria ~

  5. Rich Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Wonderfully crafted article. Thank you.

    I live with the hope that someday society will look back on this epidemic and realize what an amazing part of our history this time was, not our “gay” history but human history. It’s a BFD and people will see it for what it was. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved because of these actions. People literally rose from their deathbeds and lived again. Someday Spencer and his contemporaries will be recognized as the hero’s they are.

    I tested positive in 1985 so I live with those same battle scars and wounds but today I live a full, rich life. And I owe this life to people like Spencer Cox. One of my many hero’s.

  6. Charles Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Never used meth. I don’t understand the mentality of “wanting” to even try drugs. What’s wrong with people?

    (If I may, Charles, addiction is a progressive and tragic disease, nothing more or less, not unlike AIDS itself. Why would anyone try drugs? One reason might be to escape their feelings or situation, and I can attest that the escape offered by various drugs through the nightmare of the early AIDS years was seductive and effective — until it all got out of control. But as you say, you do not understand this mentality, and that’s okay. Good for you. — Mark)

  7. Bradford McIntyre Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Thank you Mark for this well written and much needed article.

    Living infected with HIV since 1984, I too live with the fact there are so many who are no longer with us and yet I live.
    Brave people who broke down the barriers of stigma and discrimination in their own lives, as well as for others.

    I hid being HIV+ for nearly a decade but when I did come out about being HIV+ in 1994, I didn’t have to worry about losing my home or job because people affected by HIV and people infected with HIV; they fought for human rights and more, for people infected. Laws were changed.

    Medications were available. HIV/AIDS medications changed from the early years and so when I need them, there were much better HIV/AIDS medications available. Medications that saved my life!

    It is because of those who went before me, and people like Spencer Cox, that I have devoted my life these past 18 years, to creating awareness around the many HIV and AIDS issues.
    Sometimes I think maybe it is time for me to stop advocating (I’m 60 now). Then I get an email or read one of your articles, and I am inspired to continue, keepin on keepin on!

    Thank you!

    To Spencer and to you Mark, I say Thank you!

  8. Gerry M. Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    Mark,
    Singularly one of the best things you’ve written.
    We’ve lost too many to Meth and apathy.
    I sense a new awareness coming soon from our generation to the next to wake up. Spencer lived his life. Let’s hope that his passing is the lightning bolt that starts a new fire for awareness and moves us all along to brighter lives and purposes.
    Thank you. G

  9. Donald Baxter Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful essay Mark. Spencer was another son of Atlanta lost to the battle. An especially bitter loss.

  10. none Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    I’m pretty sure that drug addiction, sexual compulsion, and shenanigans were as present during that decade. They might have been less obvious from the perspective of people consumed with fighting for hiv treatment, but they were and will forever be there for the pretentious among us to mock.

  11. Terry Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    What a timely and sensitive article. Having lived rather successfully with AIDS since 1982 I now find myself weary of survival and exhausted by the effort to keep participating in life and contributing in some way. Post traumatic stress syndrome seems like the best description of how I feel. Thank you for that!
    I do feel like i have stayed too long at the party, meaning just life, and an imposter in the world of healthier people.
    “When is it the right time to just give up,” is the question that haunts me daily.

    The smoke and mirrors of faking healthy appearances at events makes me feel like a very insincere bad actor.

    What is the reason to stay in the game if you only trip up the other players with false expectations?

    Gratitude erodes into guilt at some point.
    Thanks,
    Terry

  12. Hank992 Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Did Spencer write about what he was going through his last year with us?
    I find the complacency around and tolerance of meth use in the gay community (or any community) shocking, confusing, indefensible. Meth isn’t like alcohol or smoking weed – it isnt an ‘escape’ so much as it is a black hole; a dangerous substance which can permanently alter your brain function after one use.
    Heaven help those who go there and want to come back.

  13. carlos cordero Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    i thought the article was going to blame his death on meth and i am glad to hear what you had to say. you don’t start taking meth, because you are living a fulfilling life. meth is a symptom, not the disease here. the price of act-uppers in this day is that the days of consequence and impact are just memories of a better time. today people are in their headsets, with their faces aglow from being connected to everyone, but those around them. this lack of humanity is what makes the hero in us start taking anything to numb the disillusionment. this plus the fact that people facing med-resistance, especially learned people like our Spencer, know the end of that road, and thus prefer to not be passive in the end. am so sad it happened, and i am glad your article spells out the root of the problem.

  14. Larry Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    MARK,
    What a sad story. Yet, I have to say, for all your blogs, this was one of most touching and eloquent things you’ve written. Being 30+ years HIV+ and now 65 is a double whammy. Talk about feeling isolated and stressed. Thank you, Mark, for this and the light you shine in the dark corners.
    Larry
    (I was on the cruise 2 years ago)

  15. Chevy Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    Very eloquent writing. While not all of us who have survived, in my case nearly 25 years, were or are subject to addictions, we are still subject to the loss that survivors and maturing GLBT citizens feel: loss of community, technology creating distance. If you surrender compliance, you surrender the capability to recreate that community. Nothing keeps pace with us all. Thanks for an honest and sympathetic elegy.

  16. Cleo Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Sad, but I think a lot of us long-term survivors understand where he was coming from. No one can live in a war zone forever, there is very much a sort of post-traumatic stress response. We become numb, we just get tired. We fought day-to-day pill to pill for survival, we’ve lived in dribs and drabs. Afraid to make relationships, long-range plans or commitments.

    In one of my poems I have a line about how all those years ago I never dreamed the problem of living with AIDS, would be STILL living with AIDS.

    People need some real hope. As it is I get the feeling that maybe eventuallly a vaccine can prevent other people from being infected and they’ll have to wait for the rest of us to just all die out. One day the last old guy with AIDS will die of old age and they’ll be shouting in the streets. “Finally, AIDS is over.” We’re all kinda the walking dead.

  17. david patient Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    another brilliant piece Mark…thanks…

  18. H D Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    Our diseases keep becoming worse, our recreational drug use continues to escalate, our friends who we were going to have fabulous lives with and do incrediable things are either dead or in the same hellish holding pattern. The next wave of gay youth came out in a world with an all ready deadly STD and the generation that should have been there to help them along our road to equal rights and just feeling okay about being who they are were either dead or in shock. For as far as we have come I have to say that in some ways it is even more hellish to be LGBT in the world of 2013 then it was in 1978. The saddest thing is the article and all the posts (to include this one) offer no real solution. There is nothing in the race for a cure or our rights as equal human beings that has happened quickly enough. I hope that when I finally die that when I look back on my life that in the final reflection it will all seem worth it because we will have all woken up from this hell as more compasionate, caring, and equal human beings and that when I go the world will be a better place for a young child to recoginize their sexuality regardless of what it may be to be okay and safe so that they may find some happiness in who they are and who they identify with. The same potential for happiness for every human being. This dream gets me through the worst of it so far.

  19. Matt Says:

    January 2nd, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    I would wish that we respect Spencer and let him rest in peace. There is so much projection going on and I just wish people who didn’t even know him or work with him would let him rest. Please.

  20. Wanagi Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 12:47 am

    I have AIDs and in this day and and age of enlightenment, I still must be careful as to who I disclose this information. There definitely is still an AIDs stigma between the poz’s and the Neg’s. And now, with these 20 minute result home tests, I imagine there will notw be Sex parties where one has to check in, take the the test and if one passes, one can enter the party and enjoy all the BB sex He desires. The poz’s will continue to have their BB parties but no tests will be requrired but you’ll have to sign a release that 1/ you know you are entering into a sex party with HIV positive men. 2/ even tops can contract the disease. As for the meth and the judgemental posts about users, all I can say is fuck you. I’m so fucking glad your life is so perfect that you wouldn’t want to chemically escape for a bit of time where you feel strong, confident, energetic, and can fuck for hours at a time. Granted, the hard core addicts are not pretty but at one point, you would have looked at them and thought, “wow, that guy is hot.” I cannot presume to know what was going through this mans life at his end. But, I can imagine him seeing that nothing in our community has really changed. since the decades have passed with this disease. We value beauty over substance, Wit over wisdom, Youth over age – and susequent life expererience, and being decadently rich as opposed to being poor with dignity. Fortunately for me, I have people in my life who teach me these lessons and others and others who remind me of the lessons I”ve learned.
    To them I say I am eternally grateful.
    To the haters who have posted in theses comments, I say ,Fuck off!

  21. Steve Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 6:30 am

    I too am HIV+. Have had it for 25 years now. I learned to cope with it very many years ago. But the horror of it was still there although submerged. About 5 years ago I found out I weas also diabetic. I am afraid I didn’t take that well. Why me and why now another gosh darn ailment inflicted on me. I turned to the bottle About three days after I found out I drank a 26er of Vodka in 2 hours. I ended up in the hospital on intravenous and almost died. I think I wanted to . Then a year later I found out I had sleep apnea. Another blow, so back to the bottle and the hospital. Last year my oldest dog passed away. She was not a very touchy dog, you could pet her but only for a minute or so. The night before she passed I was very surprised because she climbed into bed with me. Something she never did. I just shrugged and hugged her and fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning she was gone. I guess she knew and wanted to be with me at the end. Again I turned to the bottle in grief. Ended up in the hospital and this time was put into a security ward under constant supervision. I had counseling and they finally decided that I was not going to kill myself. I had explained to them that although I wish it would all end I couldn’t do tha because it would hurt my family and friends and I couldn’t do that to them. They let me oput but said I had to seek further counseling. I went to AA and saw a family crisis Councillor they helped me but mostly I helped myself battle my Gremlin. I set my mind and gave up booze and learned to accept loss. I also am doing meditation to help myself. I feel very sad about Spencer and other in his situation. But I have learned to grow from others like him, from the support and kindness. Well this message has gone on a bit too long so I will close and say bye for now and may everyone have a ll the happiness, joy and Love in the future.
    Steve

  22. bandanajack Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 8:01 am

    i am 69, and a gay recovering alcoholic. i credit my disease for wrecking my life, and then saving it. i was deep in my addiction when hiv-aids struck, and my sex life, then in miami-miami beach, was all but nil. the booze was more important to me than sex.

    i turned 40 during my first weeks of recovery, by the time i became a semi functioning adult again, the holocaust was in full swing, and i was taking baby steps into a sober life that had no room for relationships or even sexual congress, sportfucking as i learned to call it. as time went on, and i reconstructed a personhood, it became clear to me that i wanted sex to mean something deeper than friction or scoring a hot guy, but i was too broken to attract anyone but someone as broken as myself. during this time i was aware of the work being done to try to drag some response out of government agencies and pharmaceutical companies that were reluctant to engage with the gay community, even if it was their target market.

    it was a noble time, and through my sobriety, and my newfound career as a substance abuse counselor, i did some small part in slowing the pace of the two diseases, and making noises that politicians could hear, although just being responsible for myself was a full time job.

    i am nearing the end of my days, having lived longer and with more gusto than anyone, myself included could have anticipated. i too am haunted by old ghosts, some personal, but mostly cultural as i heard of one famous or near famous talent after the other dying of the complications of aids.

    taking into account all the socio cultural markers from the 60′s forward, i am aware that i am deeply damaged. life, people, and this country so disillusioned me, i feel like i am living with PTSD, and acoa issues combined.

    i guess it is not in my nature to bail out, but to trust that unnamed higher power AA gave me to bring me home wherever that may be. i have recently moved heaven and earth, and given up many small tokens of my existence to return to hawaii, a place that i found made me happy, and here i will stay until i breathe my last.

    mr cox, i believe, especially after reading your column, was a “there but for the grace of “god” go i” for me, or at least the grace i learned in AA.i will never be whole, but i can and have given over the need to explain it all to myself, even as i explain myself to you. your column moved me, and this note is my response to those feelings. i hope it adds something to the conversation…

    jack, aka bandanajack

  23. Subversive Librarian Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 8:03 am

    This is some of your best writing. Thank you for posting this.

  24. Mitch Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 8:20 am

    29 yrs. positive and Ive wondered about this “post-terminal phase” of HIV for over a decade. You just nailed it. It may be the most important and relevant thread/rant/blog/tome on this whole era after the meds saved us from certain death.

  25. Gus Cairns Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 9:01 am

    It’s a great piece. I feel that AIDS was like a war and the early AIDS activists were like Vietnam Vets: they were involved in a horrible, tramautic but also incredibly meaningful and exciting conflict in which many buddies were killed. I
    t felt, as Mark himself has said, felt like the best time of their lives, and they have had huge problems adjusting to post-war life, especially as society seems to want to forget about that time, minimise their contribution, and move on.
    I don’t in any way want to take away from Mark’s brilliant piece but I wriote on my own experience iof returning to work in 1998 and it’s sobering to realise the same under-exposed issues are still haunting us.
    See http://www.guscairns.com/Lazarus1.htm

  26. Wayne Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 10:15 am

    There’s much to be sad about here. I’m struck by what’s absent from this discussion: that as well as the bleak world Mark describes, there has also been another to find: one where couples are committing themselves to each other in marriage and domestic partnership, raising children, finding meaning in lives that extend beyond the gay “community.” The lesson in Spencer’s death is that we must all find ways to use our skills in pursuits that make us passionate–and recognize that we can find meaning in art, in fighting poverty, in fighting environmental destruction, in any number of ways that may or may not be gay-centric. Ask yourselves what you’re good at, what you like to do, what you love to do, what you dream of doing–and then do it! Don’t let fear stop you. Follow your nose and opportunities will arise. And you will be happy. The only failure is the failure to try.

  27. meman Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    A long-term poz myself, I have been haunted by the story of
    spencer’s death. I understand many of the issues he faced, and lately have been alarmed as I see the rise in fetishizing HIV and meth among a young generation of beautiful men. Thank you for your poignant and timely essay.

  28. Jeff Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    This excerpt from the TAG website says it beautifully (full text here: http://www.treatmentactiongroup.org/2012/memoriam)

    “Unfortunately, Spencer himself did not benefit from these advances and indeed succumbed to a form of therapeutic nihilism and despair which led him to his untimely death early this morning from advanced AIDS and organ failure.

    It’s as if President Ronald Reagan shot Spencer at 20 in 1988 and the bullet didn’t kill him fully until today.

    Spencer died of despair, racism, homophobia, AIDS-phobia, and a host of other ills that afflict our country and our world.

    He saved millions of lives, but could not save his own.”

  29. Armez Belair Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Soem people, gays included do not have an addictive persoanlity. It’s true, that exists too. Drug addiciton is not a moral problem nor is sexual orientation But the religionist moralists have made it that: a moral issue. Gay and drugs Do Not Go hand in hand. But it what gets out there to the mainstream scewed up mentality of the masses. Education is only part of the answer. Out and out aggressive in your face anger and retaliation are good positive actions and need to be continued. When is gay is considered normal and part of the fabric of society which it once was before the madness of moralist religionists came along, there will be less of it. social scientists see the approval of same-sex marriage as a normalization and acceptance of what was once considered normal. Love who you will. The rest is unimportant.

  30. JMT Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    I find many of the responses to this blog very interesting. Two that really stuck out to me are “None says” and “Terry says.” Very different but equally brutal in their honesty. Like None said, in my experience the sex and drugs have never stopped happening in the gay community – the substance and venues change but the behavior does not.
    In regards to Terry, it breaks my heart that so many of us feel so disconnected and apart. Life in general is exhausting and sometimes unrelentingly oppressive. Such is the universal human condition that many of us feel isolated, unloved, and alone. This is not unique to HIV+ men, meth addicts, or those who survive war, famine, and plague. Mental and emotional health are not a cultural priority for us, and rarely do we ever share our pain and angst with even our closest friends. Just relating the feelings provoked by the responses above.

  31. Mark Fischer Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    There is so much truth . . . very personally familiar truth . . . in this story . . . Despite progress in the areas of LGBT rights and HIV treatment, both segments of the general population have lost much of the “sense of community” and “one-on-one human compassion” that were once our most valuable assets.

  32. Mike Says:

    January 3rd, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    I just want to thank you all on here for sharing what I have not ever been able to put into words. Your depth of openness and vulnerability is so appreciated by me. I heard the words “You have HIV” back in 1984. I was told I was going to die within 6 months. I lived.
    For about the first 10 years, I lived each day like it would be my last…..Spent too much money and took too many trips and more…..I lived. For the next ten years or so, the survivor’s reality and guilt and pain set in. Too much pain and loss and grief….but mostly too much survivor’s guilt.
    I lived.
    These days, I have an amazing life. I do what I am passionate about and have a phenomenal job, friends and hobbies. But I also have the intense paralyzing emotional pain of still being alive when all but one of my friends from the 80′s are dead. Yes, I’ve been thru therapy, support groups and more….Amazingly, I’ve never been addicted to anything.
    But still I wonder, why the F am I still here when so many incredible guys are gone…..I do a LOT of charity work to pay it forward. It has been rewarding, but doesn’t lift my depression.
    I’ve been on the brink of intentionally leaving the planet several times and I still keep it as an option….who knows, maybe someday.
    But for now all I do is deal with the depression and try to focus on one day at a time. Goals are still a thing of the past. I only let myself plan up to two years into my future, if that…so, yes, I have it good and I know it, but I still have that nagging question, why….why me…………why am I the one still here…

  33. Alan Arthur Chiras Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 3:30 am

    I am alone and lonely.

  34. Rob T. Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 4:54 am

    It’s interesting to the read the reactions to Mark’s dazzling January 2 post and to hear from people who are, like me, longterm HIV positive. (Member: 1982). Such disparate and often opposite themes: hope, despair, guilt, shame, suicidal ideation, addiction, triumph of the indomitable human spirit. It’s like a rohrschach test as rendered as spin art. I don’t mean to be glib, I find everyone’s point of view compelling, though few are relatable.

    I was in the trenches since college in the late 70′s (NYC and SF.). Saw all, I mean all, of my gay friends from high school, college grad school, my mid 20′s: dead, dead, dead and dead. I’ve done my share of activism-still do- but never saw myself as a hero or a victim. I was not haunted by survivor’s guilt, nor compelled to transform my life into something meaningful. For me, that seemed life self-aggrandizement on the back of tragedy.

    My experience of the plague years were awful, wonderful, miraculous: simultaneously gut wrenching and awe inspiring. My core belief has always been that life is ephemeral; people come and go. I feel lucky to have experienced those times, with and been infected. I feel lucky, period. I know that the legions of loved ones who I lost would have given me a good thump if I spent the rest of my life languishing in any self-destructive thing. I lived. (This is not a criticism of others who feel otherwise; Its more my own survivor’s strategy, and a shout out to anyone for whom this resonates.)

    And I’m sheepish to say this aloud, though it’s much been said, Rock Hudson and the AIDS pandemic catapulted the gay rights movement light years forward. So, despite all the deaths-and I lost partners, plural, I look at that life experience as a mixed bag.

    The recent recreational drug pandemic, less so. I’m not judging anyone who has shared his story. A solid third of my friends are sober; Nor do I question that numbing oneself, with anything, is a consequence of every addict’s life experience. In the last ten or fifteen years, all of the gay men who have died around me, did so from drug-related something, and depression and despair, possibly suicide. That’s tragic.

    I am lucky that my Teflon nature didn’t pull me down any of those rabbit holes. And I’ve done everything-and plenty of it. At the end of the day, it feels empty, soulless and, ultimately,
    boring. And it feels disrespectful to my friends who died from AIDS, died from drugs, or are now sober-and struggle with sobriety. I joke about not finding drug abuse-or any other addiction compelling. Like everything else in my life, I just couldn’t make a commitment to it. (Um, it’s a joke.)

    I do take issue, though, with those gay guys who only see only craven addiction, keyboards, websites, rampant promiscuity, superficiality in the community. Sure, some value age and beauty over wisdom and intelligence. That’s not a happy place to hang your hat forever. We are no longer a monolith. If that’s all you see around-and there is no question it’s a problem, a big one-find some new like-minded friends, perhaps. Or contribute to a solution. Or volunteer with older adults with dementia. Or take a trip to Haiti-or anyplace where people die by the thousands and it doesn’t make the news.

    Yes, I know that the root cause and treatment of addiction is complex; I’m suggesting that one’s own narrative both colors and creates one’s life experience. I say this having lived through the AIDS years, having been a grief counselor, seen the consequences of “woe is me” vs., well, any positive coping strategy. The latter group fares better. Considerably.

    I had a traumatic loss in my mid-30′s. Was devastated. Saw a therapist, cried to all my friends for…way too long. One day, I was telling the therapist, for the 400th time: “I’m trying to get over it! “. He, the directive sort, said: “Don’t try. Do.”. It was an “aha!” moment. I don’t waste time on regret anymore. Life is short enough…if you live.

    But, then, I don’t know the answer for anyone’s else’s journey. Mine is still in progress and changing with alarming frequency. My one takeaway from having repeatedly stepped on land mines, and survived them, is to not tell other people how to live their lives. Now, THAT, has been a struggle.

  35. Josh Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Dead or Alive Meth addicts are not heroes. They are selfish people pleasuring themselves with poisonous agents. Many of them sell meth to maintain their own addiction, therefore “pushing” the drug onto others in the gay community. These addicts like to live large, pretending to be successful and affluent at any cost. Abusing meth allows gay men to belong to an elitist club of addicts whose main goal in life is to achieve the greatest sexual pleasure and become a “power gay”. They take meth to have ambition, work days and nights without sleeping then party like rock stars. Then when their world collapses they bleed the gay community of resources and play the victim… (only because they know that the people they sold their poisonous drugs to are after them now) There are people in poor 3rd world countries who don’t have the luxury of food water and shelter and these people don’t abuse drugs (and they too have access to them). Meth people have no souls. The problem is not the poor little gays not being accepted or having extraordinary problems, the problem is they are not nice people to begin with.

    (Oh my. Angry much? Or, more specifically, filled with irrational resentment and self loathing and misinformation and disturbingly comical rage much…? — Mark)

  36. Tom Flow Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I have two words for the writer of this article: PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY.

    I’m a gay man. I do not do drugs. I have PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for my actions.

    I’m a gay man. I am not HIV positive. I have PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for my actions.

    Being HIV positive is NOT a “rite of passage” for being gay. But rather a sign of low intelligence and inability to accept PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for your own body and your own actions.

    I hate people who try to make it seem like all gay men are HIV positive, and all gay men are drug addicts. WE ARE NOT THESE THINGS! Only the mentally weak and unintelligent fall into these social stereotypes.

    “Drug addict” and “HIV Positive” are labels just like “Gay” is a label. But “GAY” is not a super set of “Drug addict” and “HIV Positive”. They are mutually exclusive to the word “GAY”. Do not clump me into the same category with these losers just because you feel sympathy for their plight. We all do. But don’t apologize for them and make this out to be “part of gay life” when simply it is not. Life is what you make it, and with PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for your own actions you don’t need worry about these negative labels.

  37. James Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    Mark, these comments would be better served if you’d keep your self-serving commentary out of them. Do you really think Josh is “comical”? Well, guess what—you meth clowns are the joke. You wrote the blog piece. That was your say. Now why don’t you just read the comments and shut up, user.

    (Oh, you mean remarks like THIS? Oh you poor sweet thing. Let me give you some backstage tips about blogging. I actually have to approve each new comment before it is posted, and as you see from this comment string, I’ll let ANYONE make a remark, and I rarely change a thing except for spelling errors and typos [yours was a real mess, I'm just sayin']. I rarely add something to a comment, but you’re such a charmer I can’t help myself. And James my darling, if you do not like it, start your own blog. The WordPress program is a snap to use, and it even has spell check! — Mark)

  38. Marc Paige Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    An excellent, insightful article, Mark. Thanks for writing it, and for honoring one of our fallen heroes.

  39. Brian shaw Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I knew Spencer very well . He was a brilliant conversationalist. A good cook and a great kisser. I can see the tendency to make the story a meth related tear jerker but that is not fact. There were underlying medical issues and a troubled man dealing with his past and groping for his future. Shame on the gay media for making an attempt to tarnish his image and undermine his achievements.

    (There is no evidence that Spencer was using in the last months or even years, which I state in the posting. And yes, it is uncomfortable to bring up his drug history, but it was important enough for Spencer to discuss and openly write about, and no less than the New York Times included this fact in his obituary. I think many of us are simply trying to make sense of all of this and see if there was one more lesson that Spencer was able to teach us. Suggesting his addiction was shameful and should be cloaked in secrecy is a disservice to the many addicts in recovery who find new lives and meaning and pride. — Mark)

  40. Ed Wolf Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    I don’t know enuf about Spencer’s last years and his relationship to meth to comment on. What I do know is the hugeness of taking care of yourself if you’re going to work in the HIV field for any length of time. Because I started as a volunteer in 1983 with the Shanti Project in San Francisco, I was part of many support groups, staff meetings, retreat weekends; I died many times in the guided death personalization, got rebirthed via Stan Grof’s work, beat telephone books ala Kubler-Ross. I sat in endless clinical support groups and shared how I was doing, what I was doing for self-care, etc. The magnitude of the pain and separation and death we were constantly exposed to had great potential for PTSD and it took a lot of focused work to cope with it. I learned vipassana meditation with Jack Kornfield and did many retreats with Ram Dass and Steven Levine where we kept parsing out the difference between pain (which all human beings experience) and suffering, which is a human;s response to pain; understanding that difference offered me great relief. I’ve also continued to work in the field, which has also been helpful, as I’ve come to experience HIV as a global pandemic and that not one of us is alone in our losses, our fears, our hopes, our strivings to make things better. I found an excellent therapist in 1994 and continue to see him from time to time. It requires a lot of work to work in the HIV field, to live with HIV, to be impacted by it. One risks becoming traumatized if you can’t find a safe space to ventilate what is/has happened to you and then receive validation for what you’ve been through.

  41. Gregory Smith Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Great article. I mourn Spencer Cox though I never met him. I understand. I am sorry he succumbed to meth, a dangerous and dead end behavior. No need to rant against the fallen, they already loathe themselves for all the reasons Josh rails about, only to bury that further with more of the drug. Being a survivor has so many angles – anger, loneliness, feelings of a type of incongruence with the modern gay community and my greater community of humanity.

    Not a day passes that I don’t think of friendships lost and happier times. Yes I try to remember the happier times. I am blessed with a long relationship and now stable health but find myself cautious about deep enduring friendships. The need for another HIV+ friendship is important but every time I connect I am faced with a loss again; how many times can I hurt and not retreat. I muddle through my daily life never having found a venue or support group willing to discuss the really important issues deep down, only the superficial.

    (Thanks for your thoughts. But please note that Spencer did not succumb to meth, and there is no evidence he was actively using in his last months or years. — Mark)

  42. Rob T. Says:

    January 4th, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    For Josh: You…don’t…know…what…you’re…talking…about. Degree of insight in that rant: zero. For your own cred, talk to a recovering addict, preferably one who stroggles and came from privilege. The tale will not be one from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”. That comment was stunning, not in a good way.

  43. Gus Cairns Says:

    January 5th, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    John: “There are people in poor 3rd world countries who don’t have the luxury of food water and shelter and these people don’t abuse drugs (and they too have access to them).”

    Oh gimme a break. Meth is a bigger problem in Thailand and SE Asia than it is in the US, in gays and straights alike. Tanzania and Kenya are experiencing a huge upsurge in heroin use. India has a huge drug problem. Do I even need to go to Russia??? Let’s not starts playing class warfare between rich, selfish meth users and the deserving poor. Addiction, despair and depression are universal ills.

  44. daveW Says:

    January 5th, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Mark,
    Really excellent column. Folks who aren’t poz really don’t get it. And the long term survivor has faced more challenges than we even recognize. Thanks for telling us what happened to this handsome, and gifted man, who did much for the community.
    “Aids has always been creative in it’s cruelty” That lazer perfect thought is so sadly true.
    -dw

  45. Joyce Says:

    January 6th, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Mark,
    The article was well written, filled with compassion, emotion and information. I thank you sharing. I have not dealt with addiction but still live with AIDS and the stigma attached. I know what it like to be judged based on gender and religious belief. As a minister often times I am considered fallen and sinful. It matters not how one becomes infected, the size effects of the meds, rejection, loneliness, and stigma are the same. As a heterosexual black female advocate and professional some try to label the impact differently for me.
    My hat to Spencer for the battles he fought, victories won and his contributions to raising awareness about AIDS, addiction, mental illness, and human disparities!

  46. Esther Says:

    January 10th, 2013 at 4:34 am

    Mark,
    Thank you for paying tribute to a great man that I never had the privilege to meet. I find it regrettable that some of the remarks seem to allude to addiction as being a shameful thing or something that he willed on himself. I am glad that you wrote about his meth issue. It is an illness on its own and really has nothing to do with how strong or weak he was. Each of us has different strengths and weaknesses so if one is able to deal with all the issues they face well BRAVO! However do not make light of somebody else’s suffering and how he coped with it. More so someone that contributed to a lot of people being alive today. I live In Kenya so please note that despite all the amenities quoted in some answers that may lack, people use drugs and it’s at a crisis level. Thank you Spencer for keeping a lot of people alive.

  47. Gray Says:

    January 17th, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Well written and poignant. Thank you Mark for adding your voice to the chorus of others remembering Spencer Cox for the sum of his experiences. Indeed Spencer was a lightening bolt whose thunder will reverberate for years to come.

  48. Robert Darrow Says:

    January 17th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Re: Tom Flow.

    As you can read, most of these comments were written by folks who have lived for 25 plus years with HIV/AIDS. Back when we were infected, we had no idea that HIV existed, whether we drank, did drugs or had monogamous sex. So where does PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY enter into this scenerio, Tom? Tell me, please. When I was diagnosed, I started the only AIDS resource center in my region. It is still alive and well, as am I. I recently earned my MA degree with a 4.0 from a large, credible university, so your “HIV+ = low intelligence” comment doesn’t hold water. No, I would never “clump” you “into the same category with these ‘losers’,” Tom, because you are not worthy to be in any category near them. Shame on you for your judgmental attitude! What an unhappy person you must be. And BTW, I don’t need your “sympathy for their plight.” It is your ilk who needs the pity. Shame on you! (Oh, and karma’s a bitch, Tom.) Good luck, honey.

  49. Tom Flow Says:

    January 25th, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Re: Robert Darrow

    I took grew up during the time of AIDS. And I personally lost friends to the disease.

    I remember when they didn’t have a name for it and my friend called it “The gay flu.” Before there was a name like HIV/AIDS.

    I lived through it. I’m HIV negative. And I’m NOT a drug addict nor have I ever done drugs. Because again, I take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for my actions.

    And yes karma is a bitch and from your post – I can see it’s already bitten you.

  50. Robert Darrow Says:

    January 30th, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    OK, Tom Flow:
    So you were using condoms during sex before HIV was known. And that’s why you’re HIV negative. You took PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY just in case a virus came around in the early ’80′s. Good for you! You are amazing, wow, –to foresee the future!!! You deserve an award!

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