“We Were Here” The AIDS Years in San Francisco
A Resilient Community’s Response to a Devastating Epidemic
Several weeks ago, I saw the wonderful documentary, We Were Here. Directed by David Weissman, the film chronicles the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the 80s when the gay community was experiencing the devastation of this yet-to-be named disease. Five interviewees told their compelling personal stories of how they were affected and transformed by the epidemic.
As one of the first HIV-test counselors in San Francisco, I hung on to their every word; it was like turning back the clock 26 years. I remembered all of the people I lost, including beloved colleagues and friends. It was relentless. I also recalled the satisfaction I felt that I was able to make a contribution during a very difficult and scary time.
The film also highlighted the courageous, gutsy response of the gay community. As a result of their efforts, support services were set-up almost immediately. The community educated themselves (and their doctors) about the replication of the HIV virus in order to understand which medications would be most effective in slowing the progress of the disease. The results were astonishing. Sustained community advocacy hastened the approval for new medical interventions that eventually changed the face of AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic, manageable disease.
As a therapist, it was inspiring to be reminded that the HIV/AIDS community’s overwhelming grief and fear was able to co-exist with a terrific level of resilience. Having a sense of purpose—something to wake up for everyday—is deeply empowering, no matter the obstacles. And empowerment supports good mental health.
Getting involved with an issue or cause we feel passionate about changes our brains; it not only makes us feel better, it has the power to transform our lives. The five outstanding people interviewed in We Were Here, are a testament to that.
Reference: “The Activism Cure” by Meredith Maran, June 2009