*The following narrative is from one of our HIV-positive scholarship applicants. It has been minimally changed to remove any identifying information.*
At the age of 51, I have been HIV-positive for more than half of my life. In the summer of 1990, I received my diagnosis while living in New York City. I was 25 years old. I will never know for certain how I contracted the virus. At the time, I was in a two-year monogamous relationship with an HIV-positive partner and we vigilantly practiced safe sex. My biannual HIV tests were routinely negative until that summer. Of course, I was surprised and shocked. I realized quickly that the how and why of my HIV diagnosis was not as important as my future choices and increased awareness to my care. In 1990, HIV was not a manageable disease. HIV was still developing into AIDS and people were dying. Consequently, I felt as if there was a timer on my life that had not been there before. I would come to realize that I had to hope for the best but live every day fully because I was no longer assured of a normal lifespan. The prospect of living into my thirties and forties was no longer a given in my life and probably would not happen. That was my thinking at the time. I would learn over the next 25 years that whether or not you have HIV, another year of life is never guaranteed for anyone.
Although HIV is no longer the plague it was many years ago, it is still with me every day because it is a part of me. While I hope that no one else contracts the virus, I do wish that those living without HIV knew that an HIV diagnosis is not the end of one’s life. For me, it was an unlikely beginning in many ways. Based on my own experience, the fear and worry of contracting HIV was forever gone. Unfortunately, that fear was replaced with uncertainty regarding my future and longevity. During the 1990s, HIV held up a mirror to your own mortality. I cannot say it was not scary because it certainly was scary. In hindsight, every skin bump that turned out to be nothing or every low T-cell test that I worried about gave me a sense of strength over the years.
Over time, HIV gave me a sense of freedom and calm. My decisions and actions were infused with a gratitude and abandon that I had not had prior to my diagnosis. I would learn that the daily crises we all encounter are the perks of being alive. How important can one disappointment or upset be when I am still alive today? While I am far from perfect, I have tried to live a whole life that does not depend on the future, but is more based in the present. I have also tried to keep a healthy perspective about who and what is important in my life.
I am now entering my senior year at my university and am majoring in psychology after starting my higher education during my late forties. I am also looking forward to attending graduate school after I receive my Bachelor’s degree. Based on my own experiences, of which HIV is only one part, I hope to help others navigate the tough times in their lives. There are certainly days when I feel overwhelmed and tired, but I often remind myself that every day I am alive is another day that I did not believe would occur 26 years ago. While it is impossible to say where I would be today if I had not contracted HIV, I can look back at my life and see how HIV influenced and shaped the person I am today. To be clear, there were certainly difficult and emotional times because of the virus. But, as I look back over the last 26 years, the experience of HIV taught me life lessons as a young adult that I am grateful for and carry with me to this day.