*The following narrative is from one of our HIV-positive scholarship applicants. It has been minimally changed to remove any identifying information.*
2012 was going to be a year of big changes in my life. I was right, but not in the way I predicted at all. The last few months of 2011 saw the end of my first long term relationship, my mother checking into rehab to face what had been a lifetime battle with alcohol addiction, helping my siblings cope with this big step she was taking and enrolling myself in classes to further my education. I had spent the last three months on a roller coaster ride of emotions. Sad to close the chapter with my former partner. Angry at my mother for waiting so long to face her demons. Worried about my father and siblings. Stressed about school and the future. Scared of failing and making mistakes.
January 1, 2012, came and I was ready to leave the negative in the past and move myself forward to a brighter future. I was not 100 percent sure what that future was, but I knew I wanted to help people and was enrolled in classes at the local community college to finish some prerequisites for a Master’s program to become a teacher. Before classes started, I decided to take a weekend trip to relieve some stress and have a fun filled weekend before my free time was once again filled with essay writing, studying and class. I went to visit an old friend from my undergraduate years. He and I had dated briefly during that time and had stayed in touch off and on throughout the years. He was someone I trusted. That weekend was filled with bad decisions. Alcohol lowered my inhibitions. I had had unprotected sex in the past, but I practiced safe sex almost 100 percent of the time. That weekend, we did not use condoms. I didn’t think anything of it, and neither did he.
Three weeks later, my grandfather passed away. He had lived a life devoted to his faith and was a shining example of putting others before yourself. He was never one to judge others. He loved his family with all his heart. I drove to New York with my family to spend time with my grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends to celebrate his life. The night of the funeral, I got a text message from my friend I had visited a few weeks prior. It simply said “we need to talk.” I explained where I was and asked if it could wait and didn’t get a response for another two days. I was home at that time and I called him, he told me he had tested positive for HIV and I should get tested. I made an appointment the next day to get tests done. That was the longest two days of my life. I found out I was HIV-positive on a Thursday afternoon. I spent the next three days crying. I was convinced my life was over.
The first couple months were the hardest. I did not tell a soul about my status outside the two people who I had been with the past year. They, thankfully, both tested negative. I was back on the roller coaster of emotions. I wanted this new year to be better and filled with progress and new opportunities. I spent those first two months in a constant state of denial and depression. This couldn’t be real. When I was accepting of the diagnosis, I was convinced my life was over. Despite my doctor reassuring me that I could live a long, healthy life, I was convinced my life was over. I shut myself out from the world. I rarely spoke to my family or friends, stayed home most nights with a bottle (or two) of wine and dropped out of all my classes. In my mind I could never help other people again, who would want help from me?
After getting through the first few months, I started to realize my life didn’t have to be over. I educated myself more about the virus, joined an online help group and began communicating via email with several other men around my age who were also positive. Suddenly I wasn’t alone. My viral load reached undetectable levels very quickly and have stayed there for over 4 years now. My CD4 counts were excellent. I was ready to move on and realized it was time to start taking care of myself again. I started running again, training for races, eating healthier. I could feel myself improving physically and emotionally.
I joined an online dating site specifically targeted to HIV-positive individuals. I went on a few dates and got to know some great people who I still consider friends to this day.
Things were really looking up for me. I started dating someone I had met before my diagnosis. We took things very slow, really getting to know each other. When it became necessary for me to tell him about my status, I was prepared for the worst. Instead I was surprised by an understanding response and have now been with him for 4 years. Things were going well, I was in a relationship, working hard on myself physically and had started classes again. I still was not really dealing with the psychological side of things. I hit a low point one night while drinking with my partner. We ended up in a physical altercation and it all boiled down to my status. He was accepting. I was not. It was at that time I decided to start talking to a therapist and my family. My parents were very supportive. My siblings have always been there for me and continue to be so today. I spoke with several therapists and finally found one I respected and felt at ease talking to.
HIV has affected my life in a major way. It brought me to my lowest point physically and emotionally. It made me give up on goals and doubt myself. It scared me. I let it define me for almost a year. It took a big event to make me realize that I could not continue down this path. HIV led me to this dark place, but it also led to me dealing with issues I had long ignored. I now take better care of myself in every aspect possible. It is weird to say, but in some ways, HIV has made me a better person. I’m more compassionate. I’m more responsible. I’m more patient. I’m more driven. I know I have a future, and I’m ready for it.
If there was one thing I wish people who are not living with the virus knew about those of us who are living with HIV, it would be that while we all share this one common virus, we are still individuals. It is easy to group everyone together depending on whether they are “positive” or “negative.” By doing so, you are missing the big picture. HIV is not a character trait or a personality flaw. My story is different than every other person who is living with HIV today and those who have passed. My story is mine. Don’t make assumptions about a person just because they are HIV-positive. Every person, regardless of their status, is on their own path. Sure some have had a rockier ride than others, but we all started out the same and we will all end up in the same place eventually. Get to know people before making any judgments. By judging someone without knowing them you could be the one missing out.
People living with HIV can make a difference and can help others. That is why I am going back to school for with a focus on housing and community revitalization. I believe that once I faced my demons and accepted that HIV is just a part of my journey, I can do so much more and help those living in areas that need help most. I’m excited for the future. Just over four years ago, I couldn’t say that, but today I can.