Smile Politely

HIV and AIDS in C-U, part three

There are some people who let suffering get the best of them. Mike Benner is not one of those people.

Benner is the interim office manager at the Greater Community AIDS Project in Champaign. He answers the phone cheerily every time, and his speech is peppered with laughter. He has deep brown eyes, a neatly trimmed beard and close-cropped charcoal hair. He’s also HIV-positive.

“One of the reasons why I’m readily willing to let people know about my status is that I want people to see the fact that being HIV-positive doesn’t necessarily affect somebody’s life any more detrimentally than, say, any other chronic illness like diabetes or cancer, whatever, it’s just one of those things, and you make the most of it,” Benner said. “I think that’s the most important thing, that you can just carry on with your life and not let it rule you. I mean, don’t let the disease take control of your life. Which sometimes is kinda hard. I mean, you’re going to have your bad days, but I mean, everybody does.”

Benner was born July 5, 1961 in Hammond, Ind., where his parents both worked for the Social Security Administration. His family moved to Muncie, then to Lake County, and then to a small town called Raymond, east of Indianapolis.

As a child, Benner played piano, trumpet and French horn. “He was a quiet person. He took part in things like Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts,” Benner’s mother recalled. “He liked music and he was in band. He went on camping trips with the Scouts a few times.”

 When Benner was 18, his brother, who was four years younger, passed away. “His brother committed suicide, so that was kind of a rough time for (Mike),” Benner’s mother said. “He just had problems for a few years, several years to be honest.”

Benner’s father said he thought his son was lonely in the small town of Raymond, where he graduated from high school. “We didn’t have any relatives there or anything else. We would have done better if we had lived in a bigger place,” Tom Benner said. “(Mike) really felt odd. Odd man out or whatever, he was different, let’s put it that way. I don’t know if people in town knew he was gay or not.”

Benner said he identified himself as being gay at age 16 or 17. “I’m sure there were some that suspected that I was in high school,” Benner said. “There were some that had firsthand knowledge that I engaged in (homosexual) behavior.”

Benner left home at 18, shortly after his brother’s death, and moved to Springfield, Ill., where he worked in a restaurant called The Feed Store as a cook and manager. “It was a wild adventure,” Benner said. “I had yet to truly establish much of a support network at that time and didn’t always make the wisest decisions on who to trust. Basically my coping mechanisms had not yet been well-established.”

Benner’s parents said they had thought their son might be gay before he told them, a couple of years after he graduated from high school. “He always did things the hard way,” Rosemary Benner said. “Never the easy way. I guess he always had to do things the hard way for himself.”

Rosemary Benner said though she always kept in touch with her son, she and her husband would usually find out after the fact that he was going through a difficult time.  “He’s gotten into some relationships that were really bad,” Benner’s father said.

However, Benner’s mother said that she thought he had changed over the years. “I think for quite a few years he was really influenced by his partner,” Benner’s mother said. “He was easily led. I don’t think that’s true (any more). I think he’s become more sure of himself.”

In 2000, Benner moved to Champaign, where he studied classical civilizations at the University of Illinois while working full-time. “I just needed a change. I was getting out of a difficult relationship. I saw it as a fresh start. I’d lived around Springfield all my adult life and just needed a change of pace,” Benner said.

Benner found out he was HIV-positive about six years ago. “It was just part of my routine testing that I went and got tested, and found out. So yeah, I was kind of surprised, but I figured sometimes you can only play Russian roulette so long and it’ll happen,” Benner said, explaining that he had had unprotected sex at times. “But I had no outward symptoms or signs or anything like that. If I wouldn’t have gotten tested, I wouldn’t have known that I was positive.”

Benner said he went back to work at the Family Video store in Champaign that day. “The district manager could see something was bothering me. He asked me what’s wrong. I said, ‘I just got back from the doctor and I had some bad test results, but I’ll be okay,’” Benner recalled. “He said, ‘Well, will you be able to do your job anymore? Will we be looking for someone else to take your place?’”

Benner said he coped with the news by using online chat to talk with others who had recently been diagnosed with HIV. “I knew enough,” Benner said. “I was just trying to figure out how to tell people, but you kind of go through that whole grieving process of the fact that, ‘Okay, this has happened to me, so I know there’s things that I need to do, but do I really need to do it, or not?’”

Benner said it was initially difficult to tell his parents about his HIV-positive status. “It took me about a year until I told my parents, and that wasn’t because I needed that much time,” Benner said. “It wasn’t going to be something I could tell them on a phone call. Every time that I’d see them in person, there was always other people around, so I couldn’t really do it that way.”

Benner said he finally told his parents while they were on vacation in Arizona. “They’ve been very supportive. They were a little upset that I hadn’t told them sooner, but like I said, I explained why I hadn’t, and they could understand why, that it just wouldn’t be anything that you want to drop on them at a family reunion or something like that,” Benner said. “It was also something that I had to let them know that I didn’t mind that they talked to people in their support network about the fact that they had an HIV-positive son, because I mean they’re going to need as much support as I did to deal with it.”

Benner’s parents said the news was not a total surprise. “When you know your son is gay, the possibility of HIV is always in the back of your mind. I was sad to hear about it, but it didn’t make us want to end the relationship with him,” Rosemary Benner said. “I think he had a harder time accepting it probably than we did, because he’s the one who had to live with it. As he told me, ‘It’s no longer a death sentence.’”

About three years ago, Benner began taking medication for HIV. He has suffered a few side effects, including heartburn, chronic diarrhea, and vivid dreams that are a byproduct of a drug called Sustiva. “I didn’t really have bad dreams, I mean, they’re just really very lucid,” Benner said. “I’d wake up in the morning, ‘Is that real or is that not real?’ A friend of mine had dreams of that, he had to stop taking it because he kept on having reoccurring dreams of this Chihuahua that was chasing after him that had bear-trap teeth.”

However, Benner said those kinds of effects are part of the process of fighting HIV. “Those medications are so powerful anyway. Of course you’re going to have side effects. You’re keeping this virus from replicating in your bloodstream,” Benner said. “So I can’t expect to be taking something that’s that powerful, and not have some consequence, more so than a person that has cancer and go through chemotherapy. You can’t expect to go through chemotherapy without some side effects.”

Benner said he was also recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Altogether, Benner has to take seven different medications every day. “I take two HIV medications, two psychotropics, and two cholesterol-lowering medication, and one for high blood pressure,” Benner said. “So I’m just basically an old man.”

Benner said Champaign-Urbana has been a relatively friendly environment. “I’ve been very fortunate that I don’t feel extremely ostracized because of my HIV status,” Benner said. “I mean, I’ve been on TV countless times in the last two and half years or so disclosing my status, and I’ve never really had any negative reaction to it.”

Benner said he had to choose to keep a positive outlook on life. “As corny as it sounds, they don’t call it positive for nothing,” Benner said. “You have two ways of looking at it when you become diagnosed or you start dealing with the disease. You can really become hateful and bitter about the whole thing, or you can just take it as a blessing that you found out and you can do something to make your life better. There’s lots of those around…who feel that they’ve been cheated because of life. I guess I could go there, but I prefer not to.”

Deb Hart, a registered nurse who works as a clown at a family camp for AIDS patients called Red Ribbon Trails, has been a friend of Benner’s for about four years. She said Benner, who volunteers at the camp, is especially popular with children. “The kids just flock to him,” Hart said. “He’s got a great laugh, and you know, he’s just really gentle with the kids…Because he’s really tall, he’s kind of like a giant stuffed animal to them.”

Hart said Benner went swimming and fishing with the kids at camp, and helped them with arts and crafts and other activities around camp. He also helped keep her mood light during slower moments.

“The other really great thing about Mike is I just love his sense of humor. And he’s pretty flexible in it, too. So with the kids, he uses age-appropriate humor. If he sees that I’m just dragging, as sometimes a clown will drag…I know in my ear he’ll whisper some adult humor and that will perk me up,” Hart said. “He whispers that to me because he knows that I’ll laugh, and that’ll give me energy to keep doing what I’m doing. He has a way of sensing people’s highs and lows.”

Frank Calaway met Benner at a “Body, Mind, and Spirit” retreat for those who are HIV-positive about three years ago. Since then, they’ve spent time together canoeing, motorcycle riding, camping and hiking. “Mike is a very fun-loving, energetic individual with a love of the outdoors,” Calaway said. “I’d call him an earth person, because he’s more at home outdoors than in an office, and he’s full of energy. Sometimes it’s contagious, as much energy as he has.”

Calaway said Mike has found healthier ways of coping with life in the past few years. “When I first met Mike, he was going through a bit of a rough time in trying to find himself, and through the couple of years that I have known him, he has grown very much and become even more self-sufficient,” Calaway said. “The hard knocks that he goes through are somewhat good for him. They allow him to grow a little bit more.”

Calaway said that Benner has done a good job taking care of himself. “He’s very health-conscious. He’s not going to do anything to hurt his health. He’s got a reason to live, and that’s half the fight right there, is finding out that you have a reason to live,” Calaway said. “He just realized that life is worth living. He has realized that he’s a very good person and life is actually not as bad as he thought at one time. And there are a lot of things to be thankful for and a lot of things worth living for.”

Benner said he enjoys movies, especially Apocalypse Now, the original Hairspray, Crash, and X-Men. He also likes vegetable gardening and is a self-described “computer geek.”

Benner has also  been dating a friend, Carl Taylor, for several months. “We are a sero-different couple,” Benner said, meaning that Taylor is not HIV-positive. “We do practice safer sex and have always discussed the risks involved with any sexual activity very openly.”

In the long-term, Benner said his plans and goals aren’t certain. “Just having a nice, happy life, a healthy life,” Benner said.“And I think I’m well on my way.”


Related Articles:

HIV and AIDS in C-U part two

HIV and AIDS in C-U part one

Related Articles