Consumed by shame, I never told anybody. From the moment I found out until well into my treatment, I dealt with HIV alone. The notion of your own inevitable death is a bitter pill to swallow at such a young age, harder still with nobody to turn to for support. I grew hard from the experience. Turning inward, I bottled up my emotions and grew a tough outer shell to close myself off from the possibility of rejection or judgment by those who I cared about the most. With no outward symptoms, nobody would ever know unless I told them. And so, I never told anybody.
As I’ve grown more comfortable with my status, I’ve learned that HIV does not define my existence, yet it has become an inextricable aspect of my identity. I am not the same person I was before my diagnosis, nor am I any less of a person because I have HIV. To the contrary, I am stronger for it. The long and arduous road I chose to take required tenacity and perseverance. Moreover, my triumph over AIDS, however fleeting it might be, has cultivated an unmatched confidence in my ability to overcome anything else I might ever encounter in life. While I’ve certainly grown from my experiences, I offer the insight that hiding your status ultimately makes life more difficult than it needs to be. The lies and secrecy make for a rather lonely life.
But I don’t always take my own advice. Even now, few of my friends know. Against my better judgment, I still hide the truth. At first, I asked myself, “Why scare them with a possible false alarm?” And at every turn, I came up with a new rationalization. “Oh, I’m still healthy. No need to worry them.” Even though I can see myself being guided by irrational fears, I can’t help myself. With sexual partners, I am honest and forthright as possible, but among my friends and family, I struggle constantly against taking the path of lowest resistance. I am scared of how they might respond and what they might think, even though I should have no reason to worry. Every single person I’ve told so far has been incredibly supportive.
It took me a long time to truly understand, but HIV is not the death sentence it used to be. While it is still true that people living with HIV will inevitably die from AIDS, we are no longer condemned to dying a slow and painful death. Everybody dies inevitably, does it truly matter if you die from AIDS rather than, say, diabetes or heart disease? Advances in medicine have extended survival to such a degree that people living with HIV can build long, thriving, and productive lives. And in doing so, we undermine the notion of HIV as some fearsome pestilence and instead promote an empowering vision of hope.
Albert is an HIV-positive individual living in the Bay Area.