Fall 2001
It's Only Video
Ian Stulberg, LCSW
I was frazzled! The copy deadline for the National Video Festival catalog was past due, and, as the festival manager, I found myself on the phone to a producer of one of the festival's feature video art pieces. The producer, an artsy- fartsy New Yorker, was dictating a quote from the director of the tape about his feelings on artistic collaboration. I had the receiver nestled between my shoulder and ear, typing as she dictated.

"O.K.," she said, upon finishing, "above the quote, put, 'Joe Artiste (not his real name) on Collaboration."

"Fine," I replied, furiously typing away.

"No! Wait a minute," she interjected. "Instead of that, put, 'Joe Artiste, 1984' after the quote."

"O.K., fine," I accommodated, furiously retyping away.

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" she exclaimed. "Instead of that?"

At which point I lost it: "You know," I said, exasperated, "it's only video."

"Excuse me . . .?" she replied, uncomprehending.

"It's only video," I reiterated.

"I don't believe I understand," she responded icily.

"Well, in the cosmic scheme of things," I explained, matter-of-factly, "I don't think it's going to matter in 20 years time whether we put 'Joe Artiste on Collaboration' before the quote or 'Joe Artiste, 1984' after it."

"I guess I see your point," she uttered, mortally offended.

Following this exchange, "It's only video!" became the rallying cry among festival staff, whenever we found ourselves running around like chickens without heads, desperately trying to deal with one crisis or another. "Wait a minute: it's only video!" one of us would shout: the entire, four-day, big deal festival could be canceled and the world would not stop spinning. We were not talking "life and death" here.

Some months prior to this, my brother, Mike, who was not yet 29, became one of 420 people in the U.S. to die of AIDS (What a huge number 420 seemed at the time!). Mike was the youngest and most driven of my three brothers; definitely the one with the most chutzpah! I remember suggesting to him at one point that I'd probably end up working for him before it was all over. So, it seemed a particular tragedy to have my brother, who probably had the most promise of all of us, die at such a young age.

Following his death, I became a hotline volunteer for AIDS Project, Los Angeles. APLA would, in a matter of a few years, become a multi-million dollar, nationally recognized AIDS organization. However, at that time, it had virtually no public funding and was barely more than a hotline located in a former Hollywood motel. Still, it was the only game in town as far as services for people affected by the epidemic were concerned.

It was always crisis-to-crisis desperation at APLA, literally dealing with life and death issues. Unlike my job at the festival, we were not able to stop and exclaim, "Wait a minute, it's only people's lives!"

Nevertheless, I found I really enjoyed my volunteer work at APLA. Despite the fact that what we were dealing with was so devastating, I found it was an immensely gratifying experience for me to assist callers by calming their fears, connecting them with resources, or providing them with up-to-date information.

Once I realized I was spending most of my time at APLA (also getting involved on their speakers bureau and with their client services program), it dawned on me that if I was going to work in crisis-prone settings, I'd much rather be dealing with people's lives than with video. So I applied to UCLA to obtain a Masters in Social Work. Most of my social work student peers, it seemed to me, came into the program waving a banner for the social ill of their choice: eating disorders, immigrant rights, substance abuse, etc. I was the first to wave the AIDS banner and, in fact, ended up doing my research thesis on "The Psychosocial Impact of the AIDS Epidemic on the Lives of Gay Men." Realizing how profoundly my life had been changed, as a gay man living through that period in history, I was curious to examine how the epidemic had impacted other gay men. I wanted to know about their behaviors, feelings, experiences and beliefs regarding such issues as sex, relationships, support systems, sexual identity, and discrimination.

My research partner and I hoped to obtain 100 responses to the questionnaires we distributed. We ended up with over 300. Obviously, there was a profound need on the part of the community to ventilate on the subject, and many questionnaires were returned with comments attesting to the therapeutic value of simply filling them out.

There are two findings from that study that I think are pertinent to this article. The first was that over 15% of respondents indicated that, specifically as a result of AIDS, they had changed their professional goals or career choice.

As I sit in my office at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Mental Health Services program, I think back on the 15 years since that study was completed (almost 14 of which were spent as a social worker in the HIV community). I recall the large number of professional peers I've known who, like myself, made radical career changes, often giving up lucrative positions in law or entertainment in order to devote themselves professionally to HIV-related social services. Inevitably, these were people who had lost lovers, family members or close friends to AIDS and, as a consequence, had responded to the need to devote their lives to the fight against the disease.

Perhaps one of the main explanations for the life change that I and so many others made is provided by the second finding from my research study. Participants reported that volunteering for an AIDS organization was more helpful, by far, in coping with AIDS-related anxiety, stress and depression than individual therapy, support groups, calling an AIDS hotline or even talking with friends. While such involvement was obviously helpful in terms of providing volunteers with ready access to the most up-to-date AIDS- belated information, it seemed that the more significant implication of this was that volunteering for an AIDS organization provided people with a productive and meaningful outlet for their energies. It gave them a sense of contributing, along with other gay men, to the fight against a common foe. Ultimately, I think the result of this contribution was that people experienced a much-needed sense of efficacy against an epidemic, which in the mid-80s had rendered us quite powerless.

It is also interesting to note that the study revealed that those who volunteered for AIDS organizations were significantly more likely to agree with the statement, "AIDS has forced me to get my life together." I don't mean to suggest, of course, that "getting one's life together" necessarily requires changing one's career goal to a human service profession. I imagine it is conceivable that one might devote one's life to . . . say, video, and still have a fulfilling life. But I do think that giving to one's community, taking actions specifically geared toward making life better for others is one of the finest aspects of what it means to be human.

Losing my brother was probably the worst things that ever happened to me. When I started volunteering, I did so in my brother's name, as a way of honoring his life. It occurs to me now that I did end up working for him after all. The fulfillment I've gotten from this work, and the meaning it has given to my life, is actually my brother's legacy to me.

Ian Stulberg, LCSW
8/00 Manager, Education, Training & Operations
Mental Health Services
L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center
1625 N. Schrader Blvd.
LA 90028 323-860-7368

Ian Stulberg, LCSW was the LAGPA Community Service Award recipient this year,  along with Linda Garnetts, PhD, for his thirteen years plus work in the community, especially for HIV/AIDS service and education.

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