Positive is An Attitude Holism, Empowerment and Joy on the Ride to End Aids Ruth Cohn, LMFT

July 12, 2013 5:38 PM | Admin EBCAMFT
It is hot at the lunch stop. I am sitting in the shade eating a very good sandwich.  A woman with a red Medical Staff T-shirt comes up to me and says “Your eyes look red and irritated.  Come by the medical tent when you get in to camp and we will take care of you”. 

Where else on Earth does medical care come to you?

Many of us are old enough to remember the days when the scourge of AIDS seemed to hover everywhere. By the 1980’s and early 90’s the previously colorful and lively Castro District had become a veritable hospice, and too often a morgue.  All of us knew someone who was dying an agonizing death or had lost someone to the disease.  My best friend from seventh grade, who had grown up to become a glamorous fashion model, was the first person whose ravaged body I saw.  It was with him that I had my first conversations about what it was like to be dying.

After Donny died at the age of 33, I went on to work with the Volunteer Therapists AIDS Project, an organization that provided free psychotherapy to people with AIDS.  It was sobering and sad, sharing in individuals’ and couples’ fear and grief as life was cut short way too soon.

Since the advent of life-extending AIDS medications, the place that the illness holds in the public eye has of course changed dramatically. Still, while life on today’s meds is very different from the short and miserable life trajectory of earlier AIDS sufferers, it is still far from easy.  I now have only one client who has AIDS, a nurse infected on the job by a needle stick in the middle 1990’s.  The early drugs had a side effect of nearly unbearable depression.  The meds she has been on over the last four years that I have known her, have a complex constellation of other side effects, from relentless, gnawing muscle ache, to immobilizing fatigue, memory slippage, crumbling teeth and hearing loss.  We are constantly sorting symptoms of the illness from the side effects of the meds, the psychological from the physical, while simultaneously navigating the state’s draconian Workers Compensation system.  Even now, she says that “living with AIDS is a full time job. “

Almost since its inception, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) has largely been funded by the California AIDS Ride, now called AIDS LifeCycle.  This seven-day, 545 mile fund raising bicycle trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles, enables SFAF to provide vital AIDS support and education services all completely free of charge.  After thinking about it for some time, I first decided to do the ride in 1999.  I bought a jade green Bianchi Eros (yes, a bike called Eros!) for the venture.  At the time I thought I’d be doing a very good deed.  I proceeded to have one of the great experiences of my life.  My Eros and I recently returned from our fifth AIDS Ride.

Long before becoming a therapist, I was fascinated and mystified by the interplay between body, mind and spirit.  I was compelled by issues such as eating disorders, addictions, trauma and sexuality, all of which took place at the interface between psychological and physiological.  The study of the brain seemed to be an avenue to tie it all together.  Yet I have never experienced a world so holistically integrative, that seamlessly embodies all of these dimensions in the warm context of community, as the world of the AIDS LifeCycle.

Riding a bicycle 545 miles in seven days is a feat of considerable bodily strength and endurance.  On most days we cover between 80 and 110 miles.  Many riders are non-athletes who started riding a bike specifically to do this ride.  We are bodies of every size and shape, color, age (this year’s oldest rider was 83!) and of course sexual orientation, out there pedaling together.

This year we were 2,200 riders strong, supported by 500 “roadies” (volunteers who do everything from serving food to bike parking, gear trucking controlling  traffic, etc.)  Always among us are the “Positive Pedalers,” a contingent of HIV-positive riders who are the undisputed heroes of the Ride.

We begin training at least six months before the ride.  My husband and I are training ride leaders- not unlike being a therapist on wheels!  For this year’s June 2nd departure, we led our first training ride on Thanksgiving Day.  For more than half the year we work hard together, helping riders to build strength and endurance while also making sure they learn the crucial basics of balancing food, hydration, exertion and rest/recovery.

During the week of the Ride we share not only the road, but also all of our meals, port-a-potties, shower trucks, and sleeping quarters on massive campgrounds. As our traveling village makes its way down the coast, we inhabit a different tent city each night, accompanied by a volunteer medical staff, that includes not only doctors and nurses, but also physical therapists, chiropractors and massage therapists.  On every level we are profoundly involved in a shared bodily experience. And every camp has a staff of volunteer professional bike mechanics attending to the physical life of our vehicles.  Bike shops across the Bay Area have been important allies of the Ride for years, not only lending us their best staff, but offering discounts in their stores throughout the training year.

The range of emotions we experience is hard to describe.  There is not only the elation and empowerment of being able to achieve previously unknown physical heights,  (bathed in those delicious brain chemicals that come with vigorous physical activity,) but also the thrill of being part of a large organism of others who have devoted a phenomenal proportion of their year to this cause.  During our six months of training, all of us spend at least half of every weekend on the road.

We also meet the challenge- and the pride- of being involved in a massive fundraising effort.  While each rider must raise a minimum of $3,000, many participants manage to raise $5,000,  $10,000, even $20,000 and more. This year’s ride amassed over $14.2 million with more funds still rolling in.  I am proud to say the vast majority of the money raised goes directly where it is supposed to go- for AIDS services and education.  Even now, I am regularly overcome with awe and love for this community and how we work together for a cause; that matters deeply to each one of us.

This is the spiritual dimension of the Ride.  It evolves out of a connection to something larger than ourselves, and united by the common commitment to the cause of health and justice for people facing AIDS.  As we pump our way southward, we are often greeted by the outpouring of support from communities along the route.  Inhabitants of small farm towns, rural enclaves and larger cities too, stand on the side of the road with signs or bells, cheering, encouraging and thanking us.  Little kids wave, school children hand us licorice vines or strawberries.  For eleven consecutive years, one small town has set up a stand that distributes ice cream and home made cookies to our riders.  A café in Santa Cruz annually posts a sign in front that announces: “Everything free to AIDS Riders.”

This sense of spirituality deepens at each campsite, all of which have a meditation tent to memorialize the many who have left us.  At the same time, it amazes me that such a tragic and somber cause is regularly and respectfully transformed into a hotbed of humor and fun, wacky costumes and unending laughter- a world so imminently positive.

Limitations of space prevent me from saying all I would like to about the AIDS LifeCycle.  You can learn more by logging in to AIDSLifecycle.org.  Of course you can contact me directly for an earful.  Perhaps you’d like to join us!  For me, this year’s slogan “You Belong Here” aptly captures the essence of the Ride- this year and every year.   Although I am an HIV negative, heterosexual, middle aged married lady, I have never felt so much a part of something in my entire life.

Ruth Cohn, MFT and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, is in private practice in Oakland. She specializes in work with adults with histories of childhood trauma and neglect and their intimate partners and families. She is the author of Coming Home to Passion: Restoring Loving Sexuality in Couples with Histories of Childhood Trauma and Neglect . She can be reached at cohnruth@aol.com or www.cominghometopassion.com.

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