*The following narrative is from one of our HIV-positive scholarship applicants. It has been minimally changed to remove any identifying information.*
After hitting rock bottom, I dug a little deeper just to be sure that there was nowhere to go but up. Thankfully, I was right.
It was my sophomore year of college; I was studying Musical Theatre a University in New York City. My dreams were unfolding before my very eyes, and I was living the rockstar celebutante life I had always fantasized about. I had recently returned to school after performing on the first International Broadway Tour of an extremely notable tour*. It was an astounding year spent traveling to exotic destinations, living lavishly in exorbitant hotels, and falling in love with reckless abandon.
Yet, although I had just gotten the chance to live out my dreams, I found myself doused under the weight of a crippling depression. Upon returning to school, I was consumed by an unrelenting listlessness.
I lived in a constant state of internal dissonance and paranoia. Making eye contact and engaging in meaningful communication became nearly impossible for me.
I was empty and afraid.
While spiraling through the pains of guilt, ignorance, and shame, I became foolishly dedicated to my pain.
My grades fluctuated dramatically, and my relationships with those I cared about suffered immensely. Self-loathing seemed to be my only area of expertise – so I committed to it.
I threw myself deeper into a dazzling abyss of toxicity that seemed to welcome me with empty promises. I began casually using drugs and engaging in risky sexual behaviors. This led to numerous abusive relationships wherein I continuously allowed myself to be taken advantage of by people who had no concern for my happiness or well-being, which didn’t bother me at the time because I didn’t either.
He was a painter from Queens. His reputation was written in the scars all over his body. He was a wolf that didn’t bother to disguise himself in sheep’s clothing; he brazenly bared his teeth, and I fed him so eagerly. Our relationship was characterized by a tumultuous passion that consumed the both of us. We were enraptured in the dangerous storm we had created. I was addicted to the way that he would hurt me, and he became obsessed with seeing just how much I could take. It almost felt like love, but, in fact, it was the opposite.
Eventually, the abuse escalated and became physical. It became increasingly difficult for me to justify seeing him. As I gained perspective on the situation, I began to understand just how responsible I was for the situation I had gotten myself into, and how capable I was of getting myself out of it.
I left abruptly on an evening like any other. He was crying on his porch, and I got into a cab. That was it. My healing process took some time, but I slowly began to rediscover the person I always knew myself to be. I welcomed home all of the parts that I had almost left behind.
My health and well-being became my top priority. I started working out regularly and making healthy choices in my diet and relationships. I could sense my life improving incrementally in significant ways. It had been a few months since I’d gotten a regular check-up with my doctor, so I made an appointment at my university’s health center to make sure everything was in working order. That’s when I got the news that I had contracted HIV.
The diagnosis came upon me like the loosed fires of war. As I sat in the examination chair, a complete loss for words came over me. My lungs became heavy like lead, and tears violently erupted from my eyes. I got out my phone to call a close friend and I trembled as I choked out the news. This assembly of moments seemed to last an eternity. I became hollow. The nurse left the room while I sobbed harder than I had ever known was possible.
Then, all at once, the feeling of sheer emptiness was flooded with an outpouring of anxiety. A million questions raced through my mind about treatment, expenses, my sex life, and my social life. Would I be an outcast for the rest of my life? How will I ever feel happy again? Will I get sick and have no quality of life? My head clamored beneath the weight of these worries eclipsing the strength I had once known.
It seemed that life itself became out of my reach, and suddenly I was so small. Painstakingly, I began taking the necessary steps towards getting treatment. Although I was overwhelmed, I was determined to rectify the situation and reclaim my dignity. I endured months of difficult communication with my family, doctors, and insurance companies. The complications from dealing with the logistics of relocating and rebuilding my life from scratch challenged me to discover an inner resilience that sustained me through this challenging time. Soon after, I was able to start a consistent treatment regimen.
I am happy to say that I currently have an undetectable viral load, my body is healthy, and my spirit is thriving. I am blessed to have convenient access to the necessary treatments and medical care that I need. I have an immense amount of love and gratitude to my friends and family whose support has sustained me through the difficulties I was faced with. I am the healthiest I have ever been. I live out my dreams each day with the utmost joy, humility, and appreciation. My zeal for life cannot be tamed. As I continue to grow in wisdom and unconditional love, I share the abundance of my blessings with those around me. I have become the light I had always wished to see in the world.
Becoming HIV positive was a necessary wake up call. It was the announcement that my life was about to become much more deeply whole. I learned to become enamored with myself. I found pride and pleasure in my own strength. No longer would I seek validation from banal infatuations, or look outside of myself for the love that I deserve.
My diagnosis illuminated the parts of myself that I was afraid to embrace, and enabled me to welcome them with unconditional love. As I started taking my medications, I chose to cultivate a healthier lifestyle for myself. I began practicing yoga and meditation as ways to heal my relationship with myself and destroy harmful patterns of thinking and behaving. I have an intrinsic knowledge of my self-worth, which allows me to see beauty and truth in all aspects of life.
Since learning about my status, I have blossomed. Out of the darkest season of my life has come an inner peace and unshakable happiness that is now the foundation of my life. The kinships that I share with my friends and families have deepened immensely. I feel supported and understood by those close to me as I have learned to brave life with compassionate honesty, integrity, and openness. This experience did not change me; it liberated me.
To those living without HIV, I would most importantly like to assure them that my diagnosis does not make me special or different. I am not dirty, nor am I afraid. This diagnosis is merely one aspect of my life. It does not define me as a human being, and it certainly does not dictate how I live my life. I am still fearless, and I am strong. I am still the electric social butterfly that I have always been, and the journey of my life continues to unfurl in beautiful ways. I am grateful to have learned how to practice self-love and discovered how to live a joyful life.
I aspire to inspire others by my example and hope to equip them with a sense of personal power. In continuing my avowal, I encourage everyone to use condoms whenever they may have a sexual encounter. It’s so easy, and they will allow you to enjoy having a healthy sex life without worry of complications, unwanted pregnancies, and STDs. Furthermore, if you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship – get out of it. Leave. It’s that simple. You deserve better. Give yourself the gift of growth, even when it’s difficult.
All that I am left with is my gratitude. Every person who has shown me love has deeply impacted my life. Every doctor and nurse who has communicated with me and helped me throughout this process has been a blessing. Every day that is filled with sunshine, laughter, and ease reminds me of how wonderful life is, and how fortunate I am to be living it. My thankfulness is endless.