Letters! In the professional world, we award letters to people who have accomplished great achievements. As a licensed counselor, I pride myself on earning the LPC that follows my surname. Those letters do not compare to the PhD that they precede. These positive letters allow other people to make an assumption about who I am, or rather, who they think I am.
But not all letters that are associated with a name have the same positive impact. As Pride Month comes to an end, I want to shed light on some of those negative letters that are typically, but not always, associated with the LGBTQ+ Community, HIV.
We have moved away from a time when those letters led to a death sentence. Modern day medications allow carriers to become stable, hindering the virus from advancing to AIDS. Some meds also allow the it to become undetectable, meaning that it cannot be transferred to other individuals. Yay! You would think that these advances would allow for some great changes in the ways that people view these letters. Sadly for most people, that is incorrect. A sat down with a friend who is HIV Positive to discuss his struggles with it. Although he is undetectable, he still has problems finding healthy relationships because of the stigma of those letters. He allowed me to share his story because he believes that it can shed light and help not only those who have the same diagnosis but also those who still so ignorantly treat members of the community as if they had the plague. Here is his story:
Like anyone from the deep south, just the thought of coming out to one’s family is something that triggers mind numbing stress and crippling anxiety. Well, for me, that day was also the day I found out I was HIV positive. It has been almost 4 years now since that day in mid-autumn of 2015…my Coming–Out Day. It is truly empowering being able to break free from the mental, physical, & spiritual prison of ‘the closet’, but the psychological and emotional side effects are still very much with me today. I want to share my story with today…the coming out, dating with HIV, and living with HIV. If it can help even one person, I will be happy.
I found out I was HIV positive during my last semester away at college. The first inkling came to me in the form of theOraQuick home test and an extremely keen 6th sense that something was not right on the inside. That twenty–minute test came back positive, and the next thing I knew it was three days later in that student clinic exam room waiting for someone to come give me the result of the confirmatory blood test. In all honesty those 20-25 minutes waiting are still a blur to me. I remember sitting there, with the Rosary my late grandparents gave me when I was 8, praying harder than I have ever prayed before…with tears slowly flowing down my face. When I heard the knock on the door, I shut my eyes and held my breath. The nurse practitioner walked in silently and placed what she was holding on the desk behind the examination table. Without any hesitation or a single word, she grabbed me into a tight hug from behind and said to me, “Honey, it’s positive.” For the next hour and a half, we just sat there together: the nurse holding me closeas I simply sat there, crying uncontrollably. That afternoon is burned into my memory forever, yet one that made me so much stronger than I ever imagined I could be. The NP, who is now a friend, was kind enough to break the news to my parents for me. Later that evening after calming down (and about 3 scotches neat), I gathered the courage to call my mom back. She was very calm and collected; the concerned mamma bear in her was kicking in. As we were going through the conversation, she asked me three different times ‘do you remember the girl, or even the guy, who may have passed it on to you?’ By the third time she asked, I had to tell her the truth about me, and I came out to her. She responded with the same collected and calm tone which hinted to me that she had always known (and mothers always know). I still had yet to hear from my father about all of this, until an unexpected text came to me closer to midnight. He was the one I was most terrified to talk to, my conservative and Catholic patriarch of the family. I will never forget the words he wrote to me, and the most important line that always makes me choke up is:
“…I love you and I’m here for you 100%. My focus is to get you the best care for both body and mind. We will all go down this road together no matter what. I’m not upset or mad…”.
Believe you me my parents and I have had our shares of arguments and angry outbursts, but they have never stopped being by my side in all of it…a blessing I do not take for granted.
One of those side effects I mentioned about an HIV positive diagnosis is that, even in 2019, one’s dating life is made very difficult regardless whether you are gay or straight. With as far as modern medicine has come and with the scientific proof that U=U (undetectable equals untransmissible), the horrible stigma is still very much alive. I have been on many dates where I had chosen to disclose my status. I am an honest man and always like to put all the info on the table. Some dates surprised me where everything was all fine and ended great, sometimes leading to second dates. However, a strong majority of them resulted in awkward silences and “ghosting” after the knowledge was out there. What people do not realize is that it does so much damage psychologically, emotionally, and simply cuts at the very soul. Personally, it would affect me so much that for almost a year I became extremely distant with people, thinking I was just a nuisance and seen as undesirable. As time passed I was able to find and surround myself with people who did not see me as the disease I carry. These friends who I cherish so much encouraged me to get myself back out there, which I have been doing so well now with as much bravery as I can muster. The insecurity and the caution will always be there, but a risk not taken is an opportunity missed and cannot be given back.
I will be completely candid and plain: even today…living with HIV, while undetectable, is a chaotic mix of summer sunny weather and category 5 hurricanes. There are just as many amazing days as there are horrible days. When I was diagnosed, the first 6 months were DEFINITELY the toughest of all. All during that time I had an overwhelming sense of shame, started to let myself go physically, and almost completely shut myself off from society. I didn’t want to be seen or heard from, nor did I want to see or hear from anyone (even family). My fighting spirit came back to me right after New Year’s following thediagnosis. I got up one morning and looked at myself in the mirror. It was then that I no longer recognized the steel blue eyes that were staring back at me. That man in the mirror said something to the real me that day. With a stern face, he said, “What in the name God are you doing to yourself?! Enough is enough; I KNOW YOU ARE STRONGER THAN THIS!!” …and he was absolutely right. After confronting myself I started to eat healthy again, exercise 5-6 days out of the week, and started to talk and meet up with my friends again. Slowly over the years I began coming out to my friends and family, and the act of doing that is indescribably liberating. Sure, there are definitely days where the fact I have HIV weighs on my mind more than it should, but when that happens I take a deep breath and remind myself:
So, there is my story, as true as sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Even after 7 rough drafts of a conclusion paragraph, I still do not know exactly how to finish this. Yet,I do know that I have a message for anyone who has just been diagnosed, thinking of going get a test done, considering coming out to family, or all of the above:
I know that you’re scared and that’s ok…I was completelyterrified then and for months after that. Yet, once you take the first big step forward, it becomes so much easier, I promise. Just remember this: no matter who you are or what happens in the future, I love you for the person you are. Break free of the labels that bind you and live the life you deserve.
Good luck, and God bless.
You ARE NOT your letters!