In February 2007, I received a call from my primary care, who’s an amazing family nurse practitioner in SF. It was just about 5PM and I was driving in my car. He’s asking me if I can come in to see him the next day. I thought for a few seconds and figured that I could move a few things around in my schedule to make it work. Naturally, I asked him what it was about. I had just had a series of STD tests, and a receptionist at his office said that everything came back negative. (It later turned out that the gal didn’t have all of the results in front of her at the time, and she wasn’t aware that my HIV test had been held for a second look.) He said that it’s best that I come in, that he wouldn’t tell me over the phone. After the call ended, I called back a minute later, thinking I’d try harder to find out what was going on. Ah, the I’ll-call-you-at-5PM trick; the after-hours voicemail is now answering calls!
Needless to say, I was rather bent out of shape that night. It’s a somewhat rare thing for me that I can’t sleep over something that’s bothering me. This was one such night. Is it cancer? Could it be HIV? Hepatitis? Syphilis?
The next day dragged on forever. Every moment that I wasn’t actively working, I was drawn back to the concerns of the prior evening. Then came the end of my workday; time for me to leave for my 4:30PM appointment. I had to concentrate extra hard during my drive since my mind kept wandering and I was thinking it’d be ironic if I died in a flaming car wreck on my way to find out that I wasn’t going to die…
I wasn’t left in the front waiting room for long. And once inside the office, my primary care came in almost immediately. Without delay, he told me that I tested positive for HIV. This is news he had delivered countless times before.
At this point, I should have fell to my knees, tears in my eyes, wailing, “Why me?!” Instead, I accepted it as fact, and listened intently. After all, the time spent stressing over this possibility – as unlikely as it had seemed to me given my sexual practices – had convinced me that I would be OK. I knew the state of HIV medication had come a long way, and that HIV was, in medical terms, a treatable infection.
I began asking questions: Do I need to go on meds? What kinds of support groups are there? What life changes do I need to make? As he spoke, my friendly FNP at one point said that I’m probably not hearing him anyway, given the shock he thought I must’ve been in. I told him to continue, that I was hearing him.
I left the office with a few sheets of paper on which I had scribbled phone numbers for various support services. Wow, I had HIV. I never, ever thought this would happen to me. I didn’t even know anyone else who was positive. What were the chances of it happening to me?
The best way to describe my emotional state at that point was upset. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t necessarily depressed. I was unhappy about the situation, but I didn’t think I was going to die (which, incidentally, seems to be common among those I’ve spoken to). My mind was racing: Who could it have been? How? I hadn’t had much bareback sex, and even then, I only had one guy cum inside me. And he was 100% sure he was negative.
To this day, I have no idea who it was or how, exactly, it happened. Maybe it was some innocent-enough foreplay, some precum that made it just far enough inside before safe sex ensued. Or maybe one of the few who had barebacked me hadn’t been knowledgeable of their own status (or honest about it).
Starting the night I found out about my seroconversion, I started contacting the boys with whom I had been active — some via IM, others via email, and yet others over the phone (the most awkward way to break this kind of news). I really appreciated the guys who first asked me how I was doing. Then there was one who just repeated “Oh my God!” 3-4 times, wondering if it had possibly happened to him, too. The good news was that this handful of guys had all tested negative since being with me and/or since me informing them of my status. So if none of these guys were positive, at least I wasn’t responsible for spreading the infection to others. This made me feel (a little) better.
I realized that I might never remember or come to know for sure who had infected me, and it’s a question I’ve stopped trying to answer. Since details relating to sex (especially the “when”) fade and become less reliable with time, I figure that I’m probably not going to figure this one out. And what if I did find out who? How would I react? Would I confront the person? Did he expose me knowingly? Maybe he was simply an unwitting disease vector, just as I could well have been for the guys with whom I had intercourse. Better to leave this one alone…
For the first couple of weeks, I remember thinking almost constantly about my condition. Who would want to be with me now? Do I need to seek out other poz guys? How do I do that? How will friends react when they find out? Lots of questions swirling around, lots of Google searches to do.
I decided that I would be fairly open about my status with guys I’d meet, either online or in bars and clubs. It’s a policy I still practice, with mostly positive results (no pun intended). I’ve only had a few instances of the other person freaking out in some manner and shutting down. In other cases, the other guy would express his sincerest apologies and explain how he’s just not ready to be with someone who’s positive. And in yet other instances, the other guy has a close friend who is positive, and they have come around on the issue of whether to date someone who is serodiscordant (or of different infection status).
Over time, I’ve come to find out that a few people I already knew were poz, but they had simply not chosen to share their status with others. And, unfortunately, a few people I know have, since my time of infection, themselves seroconverted. I’m glad I’ve been able to be there for them in the beginning. It’s important for the newly infected to know that their lives aren’t over, that they can still be happy and, in most cases, healthy.
I’ve known my status for a year and a few months, and I’ve likely been positive for nearly two years now. By continuing to exercise and take generally good care of myself, and by going on a drug regimen that has had very limited side effects to date, my outlook about my HIV is pretty good. While it was something that occupied my mind almost continuously in the beginning, my status is not something that rules my thoughts. Sure, I still get a little down about having HIV at times, but at other times, I marvel at the fact I’m able to live with this virus and still do everything I did before.
Michael is an HIV-positive individual living in the Bay Area.