By Jeremy Miles
Pounding along on a running machine, Peter Hellawell looks lean, muscular and very fit indeed. This is perhaps not surprising as he’s currently training hard for this month’s (April 18ths) London Marathon and on course for a very respectable sub three hour finishing time.
Yet a few years ago this 40-year-old picture of health, all clear skin, sparkling eyes and bright cheery smile was a physical and mental wreck. He was suicidal, deeply depressed and preparing for certain death. That is what happens when you live with the spectre of AIDS, it consumes you with fear, negativity and a cold, creeping sense of hopelessness. Or at least it does if you let it.
After being infected with the HIV virus in the early 1980s this one-time happy-go-lucky Bournemouth boy, a drama student who had hoped to make his living in the theatre, journeyed to Hell and back. There were two suicide bids ( an overdose of paracetamol and an aborted attempt to throw himself from the Clifton suspension bridge), dark days of despair and dreadful, seemingly endless, sleepless nights.
Today however, after more than 20 years of being HIV Positive, Peter Hellawell has learned to confront his demons and embrace life. As he says: "Eventually you learn that everyone has to deal with stuff. It’s just that mine has three initials attached to it." It is important, he says, that people should know what those three initials A.I.D.S. stand for. – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The full diagnosis of what the media invariably call "full-blown" but he terms "symptomatic" AIDS finally came for Peter some five years ago.
"So many newspapers and magazines print it as a word, in lower case, you know ‘Aids.’ I hate that! I think it diminishes what it is. It’s not a disease, it’s a syndrome, a syndrome that leaves you vulnerable to a whole collection of conditions that can take advantage of a damaged or weakened immune system."
He says that living with HIV has made him a stronger person, adding: "If someone said they could magically take away my HIV tomorrow but that in doing so I’d lose everything I’ve learned from living with the virus for the past 20 years, I wouldn’t go for it. I’d rather have the package that I have today."
It seems an extraordinarily brave attitude but, after talking to Peter for an hour or so, I realise that it is also part of the psychology of dealing with his condition, and absolutely necessary for his on-going survival.
Back in the early 1980s when he became infected little was known of the mystery illness that was starting to kill members of the gay community. His diagnosis came just weeks after the HIV virus had been formally isolated and identified. Young, gay and carefree he had been one of the unlucky ones. An openly homosexual man in his late teens, he had had no idea that unprotected sex could be life-threatening.
His lover was a 30-year-old charmer called Tony Baskin who had also slept with the rock star Freddie Mercury, a fact that must have seemed impressive at the time. Peter recalls seeing photographs of Tony in America with members of Queen - images of his new special friend with famous rock stars and even a private jet. It was intoxicating stuff. Within a couple of years though Peter was dealt the hammer blow of discovering he was HIV Positive and Tony, who had now moved on, was fatally ill. Before long Mercury was clearly stricken too. Peter’s perspective of his past relationship was changed irrevokably.
"When I met Tony he was hugely attractive to me. He was an absolutely charming man who made me feel as though I was the centre of his universe. With maturity of course I came to realise that whenever he was with someone else it was they who were the centre of his universe."
The arrival of HIV in his life was devastating. He had been such an up-person – "always glass half-full, rather than half-empty," he says. Then sudennly sickness, depression and death seemed to be everywhere. "When Tony died and Freddie was ill I wondered whether I should make contact." Eventually the decision was made for him. "Freddie Mercury didn’t announce that he had been living with HIV until the day before he died," explains Peter. "I had been waiting for the announcement and wondered whether I should write him a letter, but then suddenly he was dead. I don’t know what exactly it was I wanted to share with him, but in the end there was never the opportunity."
Coming out had been difficult enough. He remembers as a self-conscious 14-year-old searching desperately for a gay role-model. "There was no-one except Larry Grayson on the Generation Game on TV. It was very awkward. He eventually tried to confide in one of his teachers. But rather than lending a sympathetic ear the horrified master immediately dispatched him to the headmaster’s office: "I felt terrible. It was as though I’d done something wrong," says Peter. But the confusion he felt then was nothing to the nightmare of telling people that he was HIV Positive. Eventually his parents discovered the truth in the toughest imaginable way. Through the suicide note he had left after emptying a bottle of paracetamol down his throat.Fortunately he was found, sitting under a rhododendron bush, waiting for the release of death. If it hadn’t been so tragic it would have been funny.
"My parents were so good. They never pushed anything. They allowed me to talk about things in my own time. In retrospect of course I realise how difficult it must have been for them but they have remained incredibly supportive." His father is the brother of Keith Hellawell the Government’s former Drug Tzar. Wouldn’t that have made a typical tabloid headline – ‘Drug Tzar’s Nephew Has AIDS’ I ask.
"I don’t actually know how much Uncle Keith knows," murmers Peter. It’s perhaps measure of his family’s quiet level of love, loyalty and support that they don’t shout about his HIV, but neither do they seek to deny it.
Such understanding has not always been forthcoming from other quarters. Peter tells of some of the appalling bigotry and ignorance that he’s encountered. He has vivid memories of having his stomach pumped following his overdose and pleading with the medical staff at the old Boscombe Hospital to be careful because he was HIV Positive. "It was the first time I had ever used the term. I was shocked to hear myself say it." This news was met without sympathy. "They weren’t very nice to me at all." He describes being handled by staff wearing protective clothing and even having his plastic coffee cup disposed of as though it were a biological hazard."
He discharged himself in disgust and that was when he headed for Bristol – a city he knew from his time at Drama School. In the early hours of the next morning he found himself screaming, sobbing and desperately distraught clinging onto the railings of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Bathed in its surreal orange lights, he had pulled back from the brink, moments before plunging into the gorge below. He remembers lying there "feeling completely broken, a total failure whose life was effectively over but who couldn’t even manage to die."
That night was the start of weeks and months of abject misery. "I resolved that if I couldn’t even kill myself I would just make myself as though I was dead already. I was like a zombie, sleeping two hours a night if that. It went on for months. I took the strongest sleeping tablets you can get, but they didn’t even touch it. My mind was absolutely racing,.a thousand thoughts."
At the time he believed he was going insane but now thinks it was part of a process of preparing for death. "I was revisiting the whole of my life, " he says.
Amazingly he gradually came to terms with his situation and found new strength and purpose acting as spokesman for people with HIV.
"I realised that there were very few people who felt able to talk about the condition. Yet I could. I had a family who knew, I felt secure in my sexuality and I didn’t have a job in a bank or whatever. It wasn’t going to create difficulties for me in the work place. I also had training as an actor and I was good at expressing myself. Suddenly it all made sense. I thought ‘So this is why I am here.’
"I started talking about living with HIV. I felt I could do something to combat the ignorance that exists and that if only one person didn’t have to go through some of the rubbish that I went through then it was worth doing."
Today Peter, who lives locally with his current partner, works for the company Apt Training running workshops and helping others living with HIV. Surprisingly perhaps his Marathon bid will not raise money for an HIV charity but for Help and Care which supports the elderly and their carers.
"I consciously didn’t want to choose an HIV cause because I didn’t want people to be giving me money for a charity that I could benefit from.
"I suppose what I’m saying is that just because I am HIV Positive doesn’t mean I’m not also part of the wider community and through doing this I can give back to that community as well. I know the charity and the work it does. I’ve got parents who are getting older and last year I lost an aunt who had dementia and Help and Care were very good in giving support and ideas."
Peter is currently putting in 60 plus miles of training each week and getting progressively faster. With the help of backing and specialist kit and equipment from Bournemouth company Top Trainers, in recent months he has run the New Forest and Fleet half marathons in the hugely impressive times of 90 minutes and 83 minutes respectively. He believes that by running a marathon he will show people that having AIDS doesn’t automatically result in becoming hopelessly disabled. More importantly though he says: "This is the first time in years that I have felt able to commit myself to anything long-term. I suppose it’s my way of marking the fact that I have lived half my life with HIV."
It is also the first time in very long time that he feels the depression and despair of the past is finally behind him. "I don’t know how long I’ve got left to live but I do know that since I started running my immune system has actually go stronger. I am also beginning to feel that there’s a possibility that I could outlive my parents. You have to understand that for years that was something that simply wasn’t going to happen."
Anyone who wants to sponsor Peter Hellawell’s marathon run can contact Help and Care on 01202 432288 or email him direct on firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s also a chance to win flowers. People who sponsor him will be invited to guess his finishing time and a prize will go to the person who gets closest and every name will be put into a draw for a second floral reward. The prizes have been donated by the Westbourne Florists By Arrangement .