Christopher Lawrence – HIV/AIDS

“We talked about surviving.”

You’re not going to find very many people who remember [the early AIDS epidemic], because most of us are gone. My best friend—actually, he was the lover of my wife and myself, or had been, for a couple of years—[developed AIDS. Early on, the disease] got called all kinds of things. They didn’t have a name for it. They didn’t know what the virus was yet. I remember it, very clearly. ‘83 or ‘84 was when he passed.

[Between 1986-89, I lived in San Francisco, where I was involved in HIV/AIDS education.] The Rest Stop was the building. That was sponsored by some sort of 501(3)(c). It was for people with AIDS, who needed a place to be. They could watch TV, they played games there. It was like a center. It was called “The Rest Stop.” It was in the Castro District; it was a fairly small house. But it was big enough for the people that we had coming there. I just taught classes once or twice a week there, for a long time, and did other work with them too.

[I taught] nutritional classes, and activism in the nutritional classes—[encouraging] activism with your doctor, helping [patients] make their doctors be accountable. Because doctors were just saying, “Oh, you have HIV; you’re going to die now.” Of hundreds of people I taught, every single one had that experience! Every single one! I had a six- to eight-week course that I taught, like, six times; there were probably 30 people in each class. That was hundreds of people! To have not one of them not have that experience?! That’s crap.

So, we talked about surviving. We talked about what your immune system consisted of, how you support the different parts of it nutritionally, emotionally, spiritually, medically. We talked about all those things during those six to eight weeks. I made them activists with their doctors.

That was all volunteer. I worked as a nutritional consultant. Because I was better than your average health food store employee, I only worked a few hours a week at two different stores. I earned about $35 an hour to do that. I lived very frugally but okay, and taught classes for free. I was just doing what I thought had to be done, because people were dying left and right.

Everybody was a victim as soon as they found out about the HIV. People would die a few days after finding out! [People] believed there were going to die. There were so many people dying. It was like an epidemic of belief. People were just collapsing. They’d find out and, yes, they’d have the first stages of it, and then they’d be dead!

We were mixing with a lot of different kinds of drugs. People were using a lot of drugs. I’m not talking about the cocktails now. I’m talking about just regular street drugs. That was part of it. But people were just going down so fast. You’d see a person, they’d look normal; you’d see a person the next week, they’d have lost 35 pounds. 35 pounds, in a week or two! You’d see them the next week and they’d have lesions. And then they were dead. It was that fast. Within a month they’d be gone.

I practiced a lot of unsafe sex during that time. [Laughs.] [I] knew how it was spread . . .

I still today wrestle in my mind with my thoughts about unsafe sex. I don’t have it, but I just wrestle with it. [I still wrestle] with my body—[with] what it wants. With what my brain tells my body it wants. [I don’t think I had a self-destructive impulse.] I think it was more, “it doesn’t feel right,” because I came from another place—in hippiedom. [Laughs.] All-natural.

I just don’t have sex anymore; that makes it easier.


[The reason some HIV/AIDS patients are still alive, is:] number one, we no longer have the [defeatist] belief system going. A lot of us were rebels. I wasn’t the only one teaching about nutrition. There were lots of us out there doing it, all over the country, and saying, “You do not have to be a victim to this. You get a choice about what percentage you’re in. Maybe 20 percent are dying within a certain amount of time—or 80 percent are dying—but that means 20 percent are surviving. What are you going to do to see if you can be in that 20 percent?” That’s what we were doing, all of us. All separately, but we would meet, accidentally. We’d start meeting at different nutritional seminar things, trade shows, and stuff. We’d talk about what we were doing. It wasn’t a formal. It was just informal. We were the gay ones who were at these nutritional things.


When I got [to Spokane], the second night I was here, I met the man who ended up being my partner, who had HIV; that developed into [AIDS] shortly after we got married. I got involved right away with AIDS activism here. I was a member of the Inland Northwest AIDS Coalition; I was on the board of that. Most of what we did there was have a monthly potluck and some meetings. So, I was involved [with HIV/AIDS activism] right away [in Spokane], because of my partner.

[In caring for my partner] I was helped a lot by Spokane AIDS Network. It would send people to help me out, because it was 24/7 [care] for him, for quite a while. He almost died three times while we were together. When he was finally getting better, he found somebody else and he moved to Seattle. At the same time, I came down with cirrhosis. It was about a year and a half before I got my transplant. I have a lovely zipper [i.e., a scar]. I say “zipper” because they used staples. [I] was actually going to put a little zipper pull. Have one either pierced or tattooed. [Laughs.] I thought the piercing would be really funny, but they didn’t like that idea at the University of Washington transplant center. They said, “We don’t want you getting any piercings. You are not allowed to get infections.” [Laughs.]


During the summer we created the “Away in the Woods Retreat” for many years. I was a facilitator for six or so of those. I think they had them for about 10 or 11 years. It was a spiritual retreat, but we also had Dr. [Dan] Coulston, and Dr. [Jeff] Collins and a couple of [other medical] doctors. Dr. Corell, the doctor I was working for, [was also there]. We’d go up and do a lecture, and give the latest information on science and nutrition in the immune system—that sort of thing.

That first year that I went, I went as an assistant to Dr. Corell, because I was working with nutrition in his office. [I] tried to help people find all the alternatives, because you can’t just get well doing one thing. You can’t stay healthy doing just one thing. [I] met a lot of the people that I know in the community there—a lot of long-term survivors. The ones I know that are long-term survivors, they did a lot of alternative things. I don’t think I’ve known anybody [who survived] that hasn’t done some alternative stuff.


Source: Interview with Maureen Nickerson, 8 August 2007; audio held in the Museum of Arts and Culture; transcribed and edited by Laura S. Hodgman.