It never leaves me. It’s always there.
Every time I get a deep cough, the kind that goes into your chest, I wonder if I have Pneumocystis pneumonia (PNP). Whether it’s a skin infection, the flu or just a sticky substance in my mouth, I think the diagnosis of being HIV-positive is right around the corner.
My fear is completely irrational. I have not participated in any of the high risk behaviors associated with transmission of the HIV virus in several years. My former partner, who died of “AIDS related complications,” passed from this Earth more than a decade ago. Each test since then has been negative. It’s as if I am expecting a new strain of HIV to be discovered, something that lies dormant in the body for years and years. So, why do I feel this way?
I’ve determined that both fear and anger still live in my soul.
Like many in my generation who lost friends and loved ones to the plague, I can’t seem to move past those images. If you are age 50 and beyond, you know those images I’m talking about. Time has been good for healing grief and loss, but not forgiving. I’m still angry that so many of my friends have been taken away before their time.
Realizing that this will sound completely against my safe sex mantra, I’m also angry because we have to protect ourselves using condoms. An expression of passion or love for another is natural to me. To put a piece of man-made polyurethane between two lovers has just never seemed right to me, if not unfair.
Then there’s the fear. Whether I’m having sex with my partner or fantasizing about sex, it’s still hard to shake it. Yes, I know all the platitudes about living in the past being a breeding ground for depression. I have been told to “let things go,” but there is something wrong with that. I am a person with a past like everyone else, so isn’t that going to shape how I approach life in general? From dating to partnering or zeroing in on my life’s mission, those choices will be made because of the person I have become through my life experiences.
The part of the story that has changed for the better is how the HIV-positive person has the capacity to see himself. For one, there are a lot more (positive) HIV-positive people in the media making way for a new definition of living with HIV. If I were to become HIV-positive, I think I would find support from a wide community from the newly diagnosed to those who have been living with the virus for decades. Although the side effects from current medications can be challenging, they certainly are not as bad as AZT was for my friends. There is hope for a vaccine and some would say a cure. Hope is within reach, not something so far in the future that you know it would never arrive in your lifetime.
Perhaps this is why I feel such a bond with friends and associates who are HIV-positive. Although, as they will tell you, HIV does not define them, it is a significant part of their lives. Those who can rise above their own condition are the real heroes to me. They have a purpose in life, and it’s to better the lives of others. These are the ones who feel that they have value and are worthy of love.
Stigma remains though. That is the one thing that would hurt. I don’t know how I would see myself, or how others would see me, if I was HIV-positive. Those who know me, I hope, would still love and feel good about me. Those who don’t know me would most likely judge me. They’d wonder why after all these years I became infected. Then they would wonder about the circumstances. Did my partner “give” it to me? Who was unfaithful? Most people would be polite, but judge me nonetheless. In a worst case scenario, there are places in this country where I could have trouble finding housing and a good job.
What would I be like if I was HIV-positive? Would I try and hide my status, or use it to help others. I wonder.