Thursday, August 12, 2010



"There is a very fine line between triumph and disaster. That line is hope." Joel Rothschild, author of Signals: A Story of Life After Life, and Hope: A Story of Triumph

I had the honor to meet bestselling author Joel Rothschild in 2003, when I interviewed him for A&U-America's AIDS Magazine. The experience has changed my life for the better: it helped me realize its complex, multiple layers, and also it helped me find my purpose in life. The article I wrote on Joel Rothschild and his book, Hope--A Story of Triumph, is called "Scratching the Surface of the Divine" and appeared in October 2003 issue of A&U.

Square in a triangle in a circle in another triangle in a rectangle, in the colors of the rainbow.
The Hope Principle, Bauhaus rendering by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved. The Hope (or rainbow) Principle is my first interpretation of Bauhaus photography. The image contains some of the colors of the rainbow (the natural and man-made rainbow, including the color black, for remembering AIDS). Rainbow symbolizes Hope... thus the title of this image.

I posted my interview with Joel Rothschild, below:

Scratching the Surface of the Divine: An Interview with Joel Rothschild About Long-Term Survival, Hope, and Letting Go of Self-Sabotage

Joel Rothschild is one of the longest AIDS survivors, who's also an activist and best-selling writer. In 2001, he received the Ribbon of Hope Award for philanthropic work related to AIDS. In 2000, his first book, Signals, reached the number one place on

Diagnosed with full-blown AIDS on April 22, 1986, a time when little was known about this fatal disease, Joel Rothschild was faced with two choices: to close his eyes, let go and die, or to fight AIDS one day at a time and survive. He chose to live and, almost two decades later, he survived his doctor's prognosis, his friends and peers, and learned to live a positive life.

Hope, his second book, is his story of triumph over the devastating, terminal disease. It is Joel's personal lesson on positive living and cherishing life as a gift, a lesson he chooses to share with his readers. Hope is a powerful book, an inspiring and, most importantly, real story that covers Joel's struggle with the disease and his continuous fight to survive AIDS through belief and acceptance, gratitude, and forgiveness. Hope is an inspirational story, a model of positive living for everybody facing challenges in life, a read I'll remember for the rest of my life.

Still, I have to know where he found those "droplets of hope" to move on, the strength to change his life for the best and survive.

"I've been asked this question by doctors more than a hundred times," Joel explains. "On the 22nd of April, 1986, I had ten T cells, was given a life expectancy of six months. By then, life expectancy was less than a year." Joel's voice is warm and welcoming. "You ask me how I survived...." Wearing jeans and shirt, he relaxes into a comfortable armchair. "For many years I didn't know what the answer was. I survived my lover, my friends, and peers. When I read Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning I recognized an internal optimism. I never see the glass half-empty, I always see it half-full."

I sit face to face with a person living with AIDS, who's been given the so-called death sentence some seventeen years ago. Yet, there is no sign of the disease. His passion for living is reflected in his warm eyes. The "internal optimism" he describes so clearly in his book vibrates into his voice.

"I learned very early on with AIDS to live in the moment." His face relaxes into a smile. "The magic is in two things...." As he explains, Joel comforts Billy, his terrier, in his arms.

First is the optimism he talks about in Hope, the living in the moment, learning forgiveness, and gratitude. The second is a balance between seeing the "ray of sunshine" at all times, and the medications.

"I've always taken the medications," Joel says, "I'm on Fuzeon now and a firm believer in medical care."

The AIDS diagnosis marked the beginning of Joel's spiritual transformation. Recognizing "internal optimism" he reached an elevated spiritual level as he just started to "scratch the surface of the Divine," to connect to his "higher self" and to God.

The way Joel Rothschild survived AIDS is a valuable model of living a positive, peaceful life while suffering from a terminal disease. His example extends to each one of us, sick or healthy. He learned to let go of the self-sabotage while focusing on the positive. From very painful opportunistic infections, Joel realized the value of living in the moment and remaining at peace. He discovered that physical pain doesn't have to translate into emotional suffering?that all things in life have a meaning, a purpose, which doesn't always have to "feel" right.

"I have survived several deadly opportunistic infections," Joel explains, "internal Kaposi's sarcoma, meningitis."

Both Billy and Gerttie, his other enthusiastic terrier, now rest peacefully in their master's arms. A sense of serenity envelops the bright living room, filled by the round intonations of Joel's voice.

"I think you can't underestimate the value of living in the moment and letting go of the self-sabotage," he says. "Those things are as important as any medication. You will not survive unless you believe you'll survive."

Joel's words remind me about Dr. Peter Anton's forward to Hope. He talks about "psychoneuroimmunology," a new area of fighting AIDS, a new field investigating how attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets influence the body and health outcomes. I wonder if it can also be used to fight other fatal illnesses.

Joel absolutely agrees. "The way that I survived AIDS is advantageous to any terminal illness," he says, "and it's a better way to live your life, even if you are not sick. If you can't eliminate the stress and find peace, you can't survive."

During his seventeen years of surviving with AIDS, Joel tried different medications and volunteered for several experimental drugs. He survived them all. Since 1986, many advances have taken place in medicine because of HIV/AIDS research. What about a vaccine, a cure?

Joel believes in the possibility of a vaccine, "one day, for HIV-negative people." There's hope in his eyes. "It's well worth researching."

Throughout the interview and in his book, Joel talks about the importance of living in the moment. Yet, he has plans for the future. He continues to help others, work as an AIDS activist, and to write. Also, currently, he is working on a third book. How does he do it? How does he balance staying in the moment, with his dreams and goals?

"It's a good question." Joel offers me something to drink. He needs to take his medication. "You can stay in the moment and still have goals," he explains.

We agree that it is good to have goals, hope, and aspirations in life. But aspirations are different from expectations. If we don't meet all of our expectations in life, we become fearful and guilty, and depressed. Joel believes that the more we can stay in the present, the stronger we become. "Anxiety, fear, depression, guilt are deadly with AIDS, they are the direct result of not living in the moment," he explains, "more deadly than any disease."

There's never been a one hundred percent fatal disease. AIDS is. Joel is its one percent anomaly, its survivor. But every terminal disease has its own one percent survivor. Survivors. He's met some of them. Their secret to survival, like his, is optimism, hope, and acceptance.

By reaching "true optimism" and healing through forgiveness, Joel "scratched the surface of the Divine" and learned how to live a positive life. Can we do the same? How?

Many people believe that the only way to learn is to beat their heads against the wall. Some, though, learn from others? experiences. Joel favors learning by example.

"I've tried to capture seventeen years of death, disease, suffering, and loss in a short book. It's my dream that people would read it and learn from it without suffering." I can hear the passion in his voice and see the optimism in his eyes. "I certainly believe that people who've just become positive will read my book." He suggests other readings, by Victor Frankl or someone else who has experienced death and loss. Or go to a cancer ward. "You'll learn to value what you have," he concludes.

HIV/AIDS is a taboo issue most people prefer to ignore, thinking it can never happen to them. It can happen to anybody. People, in general, need to become more aware of this pandemic.

"Each time we share our truth, we change the world." Joel's face looks determined. "I have been open and honest about my HIV status from the first day. I think it is very important and healthy."

Hope you'll enjoy the read.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS

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