Becoming “poz”

“You’re Positive.” It was the afternoon of June 21st, 1995 and I can vividly remember the exact tone and inflection of the doctor’s voice as he delivered the two words that would forever change my life. I can remember the smell of the office, the pitying look in his eyes as he uttered the words, the ugly wave a nausea that swept through my stomach, and the light dizzy feeling in my head as my brain began to grasp the meaning of this new nugget of information.

“How could this possibly happen to me?” was the question repeating in my mind as I sat absorbing the shock. “People like you don’t get HIV,” my first gay friend had told me only a few days prior to receiving my test results. I didn’t go to bathhouses, didn’t do meth or any other hard drugs, I didn’t even sleep around that much. In fact, my gay dating life had barely gotten off the ground and I wasn’t even out to my friends or family yet. For crying out loud, I hadn’t even tried being a bottom yet! “You don’t fit the profile!” the logical part of my brain screamed in my head. This simply cannot be happening or my life might as well just end right here and now.

“Now you’re not going to do anything stupid are you?” the doctor asked between my sobs as he begins writing a prescription for thirty extra-strength tranquilizers. “Some people can become suicidal after getting this kind of news and I need to know that you will not be trying anything like that.” I shake my head to indicate no, still unable to speak. After another twenty minutes of sobbing and asking several times if this might be some kind of awful mistake, the doctor gives me a hug, a prescription for Xanax, and what I would come to refer to as “The Welcome Packet” from the Department of Health. I walk from the office, literally numb from terror, and somehow make my way back to my new little condo in the gay ghetto. Tucking away my Welcome Packet, I thought about how I now had to call the guy I had been seeing and let him know.

Over twelve years later and here I am today, happier and healthier than I have ever been in my life, looking back and labeling that first year or two of being HIV-positive as “the dark ages”. I am much stronger for the journey, even if it was an unintended one. Facing your own mortality is terrifying, but it can make every day seem like a blessing if you can make it through the initial shock. Oh…and the guy I had to call that first horrible evening? He ended up being the best thing to happen to me, struggling together we overcame a whole lot, and we are a couple still today.

My hope with this column is that I can use my personal experience with HIV to give hope to those struggling with the disease, expose some of the common challenges faced by HIV-positive folks, and provide insights to the HIV-negative readers here about how to stay that way.

So, if you are HIV-positive and are struggling to make it through the first year or two, or have made it through and have some advice to share with others, we would love to hear from you. Over the last several years, I’ve had a great opportunity to act as peer counselor to other newly diagnosed HIV-positive men and it makes a big difference when you are able to talk or learn from someone going through the same journey, struggling with the same issues as yourself. If you are HIV-negative and would like to learn how to stay that way, we would like to hear from you too. In this age, ignorance can kill, or at least ruin a couple years of your life. Even simple things like knowing how to ask someone his or her status, or hearing why it can be so difficult for an HIV-positive person to disclose his or her status, can make a big difference.

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