Read part one here.
Bob Leahy: We left off the story with the incident in which you became infected. So you walked out of the door. How did you feel? It must have been kind of momentous, no?
Joseph Sinnott: It didn’t feel momentous at the time. I knew what had happened . . . Let me put it another way. I received blood slams from two different guys and I was invited by them to their places. And yet afterwards, I never heard from either of them – and that surprised me. Certainly I was not expecting support, or a long term relationship or even a friendship but at least some recognition. . . . because for me there was an intimacy to it.
It sounded almost like a conception.
Well in online conversations, both bug-chasers and gift-givers refer to it as the male equivalent of conception.
So you expected at least loose bonds between you and the father figure – the gift-giver?
I expected something other than silence. One of them eliminated himself from my circle of contacts. The other guy, we did have a one-time exchange of emails.
But when you think about it, can you understand their position?
Yes; again I was just looking for more than silence.
I can understand that - maybe, I think that in a way it probably meant more to you than it did to them.
Yes, it did mean more to me.
Ok, let’s jump forward, you went through a period when you had to wait to get an HIV test. How long did you actually wait?
Well, there were two slamming incidents. The first was in late September 2013 and the second time was in February 2014. I was reading about the early signs of infection and in late October I started getting a rash, the kind of rash I had never had before. Turned out to be shingles, which, I had read, can be an early sign of seroconversion. So I figured I had already converted. I went to the Hassle Free Clinic and had the quick blood test and it was negative. They also ran the p24 test, which I learned four or five weeks later was also negative. I returned to Hassle Free after another few weeks, still shy of the usual three-month window, and again the quick test was negative. So I stopped thinking about it.
So what happened then?
In mid-February when I met the second guy for a blood slam, I had in the back of my mind I was positive. So again we had our encounter and it would have been late March that I had severe abdominal and persistent hiccups, twenty-four hours a day. So I went to the hospital, was admitted after 24 hours in Emerg. The explanation for the hiccups was that my liver was inflamed and enlarged and pushing up on my diaphragm. I was at the hospital for a week while they did tests. Two doctors came into my room on a Friday afternoon and they just said, with no introduction, no fanfare, “Turns out you are HIV-positive and have Hep C as well.” I was out of hospital an hour later.
Ok the obvious question then is how did you feel once they had told you that?
I was calm. Part of the (bug-chasing) online dialogue when you find out you are poz is a moment of celebration. But I was alone, so there wasn’t a rush of excitement or anything like that.
Was there sadness or regret?
No. It was numbness but it wasn’t a debilitating numbness. I had been struggling with mental health issues and substance use issues and I had lost hope and the diagnosis allowed me to bring back hope in to my life.
Do you want to describe why the diagnosis would represent hope?
It’s as if it gave me a project, it gave me a reason to live. I’m still on the journey to be . . . it’s a lifelong journey. There is a difference though between my relationship with HIV and my relationship with Hep C. I was expressly seeking to get pozzed and so I have incorporated it into my life, whereas the Hep C is still off in a corner somewhere. And so I’m wanting to reflect on that.
When you were processing your reactions, did guilt surface in any way shape or form? We’ve talked about this before, that the argument is that by becoming infected purposely, you suddenly become a drain on the healthcare system, some say.
Certainly I’m aware of the criticism but that just takes us down a very slippery slope. Do we make cigarette smokers pay, or drunk drivers? Plus over the years, I’ve paid my taxes. . . But you ask about guilt. The guilt that I have and still struggle with is the great WTF question. I have children. What was I thinking? Is this the kind of behaviour that I would want to model for my children? I’ve gone from a highly successful career and family life, father of four and here I am (pause) . .
(Laughs) Not. Still struggling to find my identity. How would I explain it to my children?
Is that an unanswered question? Have you had to explain it to them?
I haven’t yet disclosed that I’m HIV- and HCV-positive, but I certainly intend to.
Do you think you would ever tell them the story you’ve told us?
No. I’ve disclosed within my family to two of my siblings, I’ve disclosed that I’m positive and Hep C, but that’s it. I’ve disclosed to a close friend too.
But since then you’ve entered into the world of support groups quite extensively. Have you told your story, of how you got infected, in those groups?
Yes, right after being diagnosed I set about researching and building a support network of professionals and I have a remarkable circle pf care.
Tell us about the kind of supports you have latched onto.
Support groups at ACT for recently diagnosed, for dually diagnosed and for planning for the long term, plus one-off sessions, plus a dual diagnosis group at Toronto PWA Foundation. . .
And all the while you have been going through addiction counselling?
I’m in a weekly group at CAMH. I’m doing a narrative therapy group at Mt. Sinai, a meditation group at Mt. Sinai. . . .
This is all rather unusual. Tell me why you are involved with so many groups. Is it because you have enthusiasm for supportive surroundings, or are you seeking counselling or you want to rub shoulders with people in the same boat?
All of the above. And I also have individual sessions and an individual therapist through the Hep C program at the Sherbourne Health Centre.
So (laughing) you really are a drain on the healthcare system. But I want to round this off. You haven’t told family but you have certainly sought support from within our own community. Have you had to deal with any negative reaction from within the community?
No. I would say very little reaction to anyone to whom I’ve disclosed. I’ve got indifference - “it doesn’t matter". When I’ve disclosed to co-participants in groups, and I’m speaking in gratitude now, there has been no difference in our relationships.
I can see that but I don’t think that necessarily means indifference. Isn’t it outward indifference?
Who knows? Inside there may be. .
I would just be surprised if there was true indifference, because I think the bug-chasing thing raises some strong feelings in many people. But they are also used to working in an environment of compassion and support, with no judgement. But I’m wondering whether that is enough to stop internal judgments being made. Ok - I want to move on to some retrospective looks at your situation. Now how long ago were you diagnosed, remind me?
Not too long ago. So summing it up, do you have any regrets about where you find yourself now? Would you do it again?
I would say I have no regrets. I'm still working through a lot of things, but regrets would be useless for that purpose.
But whether or not they are useless, regrets happen. So how does it feel right now? Are you happy? I’m trying to pin down where Joseph is at right now.
I’m a happier person. I have existential, relational and spiritual issues to address – and I’m in the process of addressing them. So yes, I’m happier, I have hope again – but there’s no content yet to those hopes.
OK one more question them. What would you say to somebody – say a young man who was in a similar position that you were in n and found the idea of bug-chasing kind of hot?
That’s a huge question. Let me be clear right now I would want to sit down with him and have a long conversation with the intended purpose of saying "no". But I grapple with these issues all the time. Is there hypocrisy there? I don’t know.
I think “I don’t know" or ”"I’d have to think it through” are very valid answers sometimes, because these are big questions I'm firing at you. OK one very last question, how do you feel about telling your story to me and to PositiveLite.com?
Good. You have been asking me open-ended questions, for which there are no easy answers, and I respect that.
Well, let’s call it day. I think we’ve gone full circle back to a reflective point which is a good place to end. Joseph. I can’t thank you enough for doing this and being so open.
You’re very welcome, Bob. And thank you as well.