Richard Thayer* doesn’t constantly have a fridge full of leftovers like he did years ago.
“Not since I’ve been able to eat my entire meal when I go out,” he smiles proudly above a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. Thayer, 47, has been living with HIV for nearly 20 years, thankfully with decent health insurance.
When the Port Charlotte resident was first diagnosed, he took the news pretty hard. “Twenty years ago seems like forever, but medically speaking, people weren’t able to shake off the terror of the disease progressing as easily as they can now,” he said, fiddling with an imported — and illegal — baggie of cannabis. He holds a hand up — it’s shaking. “It still makes me feel sick thinking about that day.”
But anxiety is nothing new to Thayer. He admits that though his viral load is currently undetectable, there’s sometimes a nagging worry that — much like cancer — the disease might make a resurgence and “go south” medically, landing him back in dangerous territory.
“It can get really depressing, if you let it,” he said. “I used to be on edge all the time.”
For years, he braved the side effects of the various medications that come with the HIV-positive diagnosis.
“I couldn’t keep [those pills] down,” he told South Florida Gay News. “Can you imagine if I didn’t have good health insurance? Those [aren’t] cheap.”
Thayer specified that the constant barrage of new medications included some to deal with heart issues and some that were highly active antiretrovirals — all of which Thayer says made him constantly nauseated.
“I imagine it’s what it feels like for someone going through chemo,” he said. “I was already mentally sick dealing with [the diagnosis]; now I had to deal with physical sickness?” He pulls out a nugget of cannabis from the baggie and packs a glass bowl.
“I honestly thought about just giving up and dying — that’s no way to live.”
Initially he tried Marinol, a synthetic version of marijuana, to combat the sickness brought on by the new regimen of meds. Shaking his head, he said, “No good: made me sicker.” At the behest of a neighbor, he accepted a gift that “literally changed [his] life.”
It was a joint.
“I hadn’t smoked [marijuana] since high school, and I really wasn’t into it,” he admitted. “But at this point, I was desperate to try anything to make the nausea and vomiting go away.” Though nervous that the organic version might have the same effect as Marinol, it took all of 20 minutes after smoking his “gift” to convince him that he’d found a way to make his ordeal liveable.
“Like night and day,” he said. “It made it much easier to keep taking my medications, which was crucial for me. It’s crucial for anyone. It’s kind of like stopping your antibiotic routine when you’re sick; it’s just bad news all around.”
His ability to gain a few pounds in a relatively quick amount of time delighted his primary caregiver. “[He] said, ‘I’m happy to see you’re upping your caloric intake! Way to go!’ Stuff like that.” Thayer wassmiling fully now. “I didn’t tell him it’s because I’ve been toking.”
And to Thayer’s surprise, the cannabis did more than just alleviate the side effects of his medication.
“I could finally relax,” he said. “Anxiety, gone. Depression, gone.” What returned? His appetite — another huge plus for those living with HIV/AIDS.
“I’d go to the doc twice a month,” Thayer said, producing a lighter from his pocket. “But the best medical provider was the dealer next door.”
As of Nov. 8 of last year, medical marijuana has been given the greenlight in Florida, but Thayer, like thousands of others, is still waiting for cannabis dispensaries to open up in his area — and he doesn’t wait patiently.
“What’s the hold up?” he asked. “Let’s get this show on the road already!”
Until that day, Thayer said he will continue to import his marijuana through a mail-order system that he wouldn’t elaborate on. He said that many HIV/AIDS patients he knows turn to people in states with dispensaries to send them “care packages.” He has few reservations about the risks involved.
“It’s worth it,” he said. “Anything that makes you want to live is worth it.”
* Richard Thayer asked that his real name not be used to in order to protect his privacy
This story was originally published in the South Florida Gay News.