Beautiful Trauma

By Brian Bartlett


The following is a personal story I shared publicly to Facebook on this day one year ago. It’s been expanded to cater to a broader online audience outside of the confines of a community I know personally on social media, and excerpts have been added to relay what has happened a year later since posting this story:

December 1st 2016

Looking back on my young adult life reminds me how much has changed in just the past few years, the result of a combination of challenges faced that lead to a complete personal metamorphosis. I feel we all face challenges that define and redefine our lives, but never thought my own would be so dramatically contrasting to the point of being visibly noticed. People often comment in on how different of a person I am now, that whatever the reason is a reason worth celebrating. That I look good, am happy, in a good place, full of optimism, even sometimes called a community leader. There was a time I never considered publicly sharing the story behind these changes because of what people would think or say, especially not within the public confines of Facebook. But time brought self-reflection, and the social political atmosphere of this past year has inspired me to be a more forthright person and not withhold my feelings at the behest of what the public thinks. I realize harboring this story has encouraged massive insecurities and weaknesses that I let define myself negatively and set limitations, even on a day-to-day basis. And I also realize a major personal flaw; that I worry too much about what others think of me, even over how I feel. None of it is worth the exhaustion or the loss of self-acceptance. So with a little courage, the pros and cons weighed, and the benefits considered, I've decided I'll share my story to all of you, a story that’s taken many re-writes over the past few months to develop. I apologize in advance for it’s length or depth.

I was raped by an acquaintance during a party seven years ago in 2010. At the time I was in college for a second attempt at a fine arts degree. Since I was younger I had a long-standing love for marine life and the ocean, hoping to possibly work with whales, but figured my future careers lied with my other talents. I was out as a gay man since the age of 17; sociable, cheerful, consistently happy, had many friends. The relationship with my family was healthy and good, as was with the LGBTQ community, being an avid member of a local youth center and a barista in the city’s premiere gay coffeehouse. I drank and partied like most college-age adults felt compelled to. And one night at a house party, I got close with someone I considered more so a friend while in his apartment, a moment of shameless fun and vulnerability fueled by alcohol that a lot of us are casually familiar with. And it was evident, after stating the words “no” and “stop” to this friend, that this was a different kind of encounter. I wasn’t sober but I certainly was not unaware, and when words (yelling, then screaming) didn’t work, I turned to physical force. I was not a capably strong person compared to him, and from there I met the carpet of his living room floor. I was pressed into the ground and made sure I wouldn’t move. All the while, on the floor above us, in the same house, the party was continuing. I remember having trouble breathing, the darkness of the room, footfalls and music on the floor above, and closing my eyes to avoid looking at anything. And a lot of pain. It ended as quickly as it had begun, and I don’t honestly recall the rest of the evening; whether I went back to the party or went home.

This friend remained a presence in my world, considering the size of our community and my place of employment. He never brought up the events of that evening, and eventually the realities of what happened came to me. Ashamed, heartbroken, confused, and fearful of seeking help or reporting something to any higher power, I internalized everything and "handled it like an adult". It didn’t seem realistic that something like sexual assault could ever happen to me. I attempted to self-reason until I ran out of excuses, which lead to more excuses; I told myself I deserved rape for being physically weak, that I tried too hard to get attention, that if you weren’t drinking you wouldn’t have ended up in that kind of a situation. The stress of seeing him in public, and of these internalized debates, led to a long, four-year downward spiral. I binge ate quantities of food I’m still ashamed to convey. I turned to video games as coping mechanisms. I failed out of college a second time, disconnected from classes and refusing to do the work. I disassociated from my family and friends, missing opportunities to celebrate key life moments like my 21st birthday. I started going out to bars alone, no true reason outside of to drink. The stress eating lead to an 80-pound weight gain that impeded my confidence, and I often never left the house aside for work. Invitations to social events would be passed up, and when I did make an appearance it was often short-lived. My interests in the ocean and education eventually waned, and I stopped painting and drawing. The idea of being sexual with anyone was off-putting; I would date but the relationships would be brief and lack intimacy. Slowly I grew disconnected, bitter, unenthusiastic, quickly angered, disgusted by my appearance, deflective, anxious, and above all depressed. Externally I maintained a perception of happiness for the sake of public appearances, and held everything in for four years. I’m not even sure I had a plan for the rest of my life at that point, and I didn’t bother to even care for one either.

By February of 2014 there was a defining moment of change. My parents came to me for a talk, one of many that happened within that time period and that usually ended without reconciliation. It was another pointed intervention to figure out what was going on with my life, which happened consistently since I lived at home. They always said I was meant for bigger things, living in another country or on the ocean and pursuing my dreams, that they’re not sure what happened to me but that I was meant for more. When defiance broke I eventually opened up about my thoughts and feelings, and poured out. I told them I was afraid of the future and that I had fallen behind in my life. I was angry with the world, scared of becoming an adult, and I felt that there wasn't any good in the world worth living for, and if there was I didn't deserve it. Eventually my mom said this: "If you feel there isn't enough good in the world, be the good that you feel is missing." Her message was resonant for some reason, like it stuck and made everything make sense, and I realized she was right. The only person that can change my life and my perception of the world was me, and if I felt the perception wasn’t a good one I would fix it. It felt like a purpose for a change. I didn’t want to spend my life aimless and broken; I wanted more and deserved more, I wanted to fix this. And it wasn't too late to start living again. Soon I designed a plan: I would forge life goals, find a career to pursue in the long-run, exercise and maintain my health, evolve socially, rekindle my friendships and accept new ones into my life, re embrace my family, and have adventures. I would cultivate happiness, rebuild my confidence, practice humility, deflect negativity, and make my life worth living every day and as much as I could. Yearning to travel more I decided to visit my sister going to school in New York City, and prior to this I would get tested at the local STD clinic.

March of 2014 I tested HIV-positive in a small room with a clinician. Time stopped. My adult life was an underappreciated cabinet of glassware that I finally started having an interest in taking care of, and it all came to a sudden and crashing fall. That friend from four years had made fleeting attempts to contact me since the assault via phone calls, all attempts of which I rebuffed. I realized why; he was trying to tell me something, something that should’ve been said a long time ago. His choices in actions left behind a permanent mark, something that I never wanted and never wanted to happen, and it was going to be there for the rest of my life. This friend, someone I trusted and cared for, violated me in a moment that altered my health, and that moment was never going to go away now. All of these thoughts and emotions came instantly, in a wave that crushed my heart to the floor. For a moment I sat silent and staring into my own thoughts until the clinician asked if I was okay. I had no response except to cry; everything came flooding out in a surge of frustration and defeat. I have been HIV-positive for four years, without treatment and without knowing. It wasn’t fair. Specialists answered questions and gave support; no matter what they said, I still felt undervalued and broken. I felt tainted and dangerous, like a biological weapon. Thoughts grew into fears about what would happen to me or what people would think of me, what my family and friends would say if they found out. Thoughts of anger, pure hatred for this person that did this to me. Worries of my health, of the unsureness of my future. A couple days later I took the bus to New York, and I admittedly had considerations of whether life was worth being around for anymore. I thought about getting off of the bus and walking into the woods, never coming back out and never making it to the city. The ride down was one of the longest and scariest days of my life.

Being in the city and with my sister, something re-inspired me. I saw so many different people, all going through the day-today, pursuing whatever goals they have laid out for the day or the future. Massive skyscrapers, the sky beyond them, and planes ricocheting across the sky headed to destinations I personally dreamed of visiting. A bustle and liveliness that permeated into myself, a feeling I hadn’t felt in nearly four years. The feeling of just simply being immersed in life. I remembered my love for the ocean, for art and for the people I knew. And then my red-headed sister, beaming and goofy and charming and beautiful as always. She was excited to see me and to hear that my life was turning around, that I was ready to finally make a change, and that she couldn’t wait to see where I was going. I realized something: I was not done. Prior to all of this, to sexual assault and an HIV status, I had already faced a plethora of challenges. Growing up I learned to adapt with an Asperger syndrome diagnosis, and later I came to terms with identifying as gay: I was always different from the others and always felt a step behind. I conquered these challenges and dominated life so far, and if there was anything to prove wrong it was everyone else and life again. And myself. I was still here after everything that happened, and there were people still worth living for and things I still wanted to see and do. Like my sister, like traveling, like my family and friends, like becoming something bigger. Failure was not an option after finally taking the control back in my life. And if anything was proven by that friend’s actions four years ago, it was that my Mom's words were a motive to be around: there needs to be more good people in this world. Returning from the trip I began treatment at the local clinic, built a small support base of friends I trusted to know this story, found the optimism within myself, focused on my goals for the future, and hit the ground running. The rest of this story is a boldly contrasted and amazing journey into the latter half of the 2010’s.

It’s been three and a half years now, and I not only accomplished my goals; I did this and more. I'm the happiest and healthiest I've ever been in my life, and I worked all of the weight off. Sometimes I even look at myself in a mirror and feel attractive. I've socially opened up in degrees I never imagined I would, cultivated friendships with so many amazing people, and made a name for myself in a diverse and beautiful community. I paid off all of my school loans and intend to go back someday (for marine biology), and bought a brand new car. I've planned large group get-togethers, ranging from movie nights to Pride events, summer and holiday parties, day trips, nights out on the town, and a monthly LGBTQ video game night at the bar I’ve been serving at for the past three years. I’ve traveled the country in this time frame more than I have in my entire life, at one point seeing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans within mere weeks. I worked three jobs at one time; barista, bartender, secretary at a hospital, and I still made the time to live life. I refined my artistic abilities and continue to practice a talent I refuse to lose. I garnered a catalog of adventures and firsts, never wasting a day and always trying something new. First concert, first long-term relationship, first time modeling in a photo shoot, first time baking something successfully, first birthday party thrown for myself, first sold piece of art. Things of all sizes that I never gave myself the chance to do in the past out of fear. I worked for a whale watching company over two summers, training to become a naturalist, and my passions for the ocean world have been reinvigorated and I continue to devise a plan for the future. I learned I could fall in love with someone who is HIV-negative, and maintain a healthy long-term relationship. And despite my past I defied my fears, and I found that there is a lot of good in this world. And like what my mom said; if there wasn’t enough good in the world, use your power to instill it for yourself and others.

My life was constantly busy and fun. I made sure the agenda in my world was to live everyday loudly and never turn back. But despite all of these moments I was still in a closet hiding secrets: living life to the fullest now, because of a story I refused to share to the world. Part of my reasoning was the fear of what people would think of me: a noticeable amount of stigma exists about the topics of both sexual assault and HIV, and even in a community that strives for acceptance I heard enough jokes and remarks on occasion to deter any want to be a more honest person for myself. These worries and insecurities remained bottled in a compartment that was going to stay inside of me, yet at the same time hurting me. I felt inauthentic despite the adventures, dishonest despite the confidence, doubted despite the love, and not worth the attention given. I had my support base of friends I opened up to, but was that going to be everyone for the rest of my life? My parent’s didn’t even know. With every doctor’s appointment my physician educated me, answering my questions and concerns. He told me HIV is a life sentence, no longer a death sentence: you choose to live your life how you want with your diagnosis, thanks to the treatment and care we have available now. I was no longer calling myself a biological weapon, and I never was one: by educating myself I knew better, and I was not an endangerment to anyone. He said it’s now a chronic illness like diabetes, a condition talked about publicly and without deterrence. So why the stigma? Is it because of HIV’s association with sex, a topic the American public still cringes to discuss but exploits unabashedly? It’s unfortunate association with LGBTQ history, the AIDS crisis and the toll it’s taken on humanity? Is it because people just don’t know any better? I determined the underlying factor was because it’s a topic (like sexual assault) not candidly talked about enough. The reason for the fear, the jokes and remarks, the stigma, is ignorance. Ignorance is combated with education, by confronting insensitivity and talking publicly about the topic at hand. People in the past few years have often said how commendable I am for my optimism and positivity, that I’m looked up to in the community for the things I do. So I will utilize that regard, and go public. Because if opening up gives me peace and dispels the stigma a bit more, enlightens others on a localized level, or better yet advocates for anyone that's ever felt alone, undervalued or too ashamed to stand up for themselves, then that's all I can want.

To those that remained friends for the past several years through all of this, the ups and downs: thank you for your patience. To those I never told prior to sharing this story: I apologize, I hope you can understand why. To those I look to for care and support: you're a reason I keep going. To my assailant: There’s no excuse for what you did. I'm not afraid of you, and you didn't win. And to those turned off or bothered by my sharing this story: consider this an exercise in not worrying what people think anymore. I learned early on that life is a short opportunity that deserves to be lived incredibly and honestly, without regrets. Never let it's unpredictability break you, and never tell yourself you're not worth the opportunity to all of the things that you want and more. Neither sexual assault nor my HIV status define my life or my happiness: I define them for myself. And I’m neither a victim of assault nor a statistic, nor ashamed: I’m Brian.

December 1st, 2017

It’s been exactly a year exactly since I shared my story above to Facebook. To say that a lot has happened since then would be a relative understatement. Some work was needed to be done prior to the process of “coming out”: there were people that had a right to know before finding out for themselves online. My parents, who I never told anything to all these years, who’s response past the tears and heartache was that they were so proud of what I’m doing and of how far I have come through all of this. My ex-boyfriends, that would potentially receive feedback publicly knowing we had dated at one point in the past, that deserved a heads-up prior to the drop. Close friends I had made in recent years, that were close enough to entrust a very personal face-to-face story to and that I felt deserved it from a place of love. My present boss, that in the case of employment would have questions and concerns, and possibly receive some by a patron or customer. My former boss at the coffeehouse, who I felt deserved an explanation for those years of struggle and an equal apology. And my extended family, some of whom grew up only knowing what they knew of the virus through the media and news reports in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The morning of I pressed the ‘share’ button, and a wave of tears poured out followed by a severe weight finally falling off of my shoulders. In the immediate short-term: Facebook likes, reactions, comments of love and support, and shares in just one day that ranged in the thousands by the end of the week. Calls and texts that eventually drained my phone battery. A group of my closest, best friends came over the evening of to provide strength, discuss things in further detail, ask questions, and simply be there as an awesome support base. But most memorable and impactful of all were the menagerie of personal messages received over the week. From acquaintances in the community, from people I didn’t know, from people in other parts of the country, either in-person or online. They had seen my story, read it, and felt compelled to share they’re own personal stories in return of HIV or sexual assault. And they wanted to thank me for doing so myself. They said it made them feel not alone in this world due to they’re experiences or statuses, that they feel stronger and safer now, that they don’t feel as afraid or ashamed of themselves. One person in another part of the country came out about his own status not long after, quoting my actions as a reason for doing so. Even a year later I’m still personally processing the effect of all of these stories being shared to me and why they did so. I can guarantee that it’s an empowering feeling.

A year into things and life is fuller, brighter, more freeing. The year has been a politically and socially charged one, but I remain optimistic and uplifting for both myself and others, and continue to fight for the things that I believe in. I still make my visits to the clinic for checkups and my viral load remains undetectable, meaning the virus is suppressed to a rate that is non-transferable to others. I recall a constant, suppressing weight inside of me in the past that is no longer there. I have personal things to still work on; they’re an aside to the steps I’ve already taken to face them. Intimacy has been, since the sexual assault, a constant struggle in my life, and I continue to combat this challenge. The relationship with my friends and family has never been stronger: our bonds have strengthened and I feel a deep connection to my parents once again, and I can attest that I’ve never been more comfortable to open up and be myself around everyone as I am now. My story has been used in individual and group projects: people interested in using my face and experiences as opportunities to further the efforts of education and awareness about HIV and sexual assault. I learned a lot about love, self-love, honesty, and self-identity that I never knew before. I attended my first Pride weekend 100% out of the closet, as both a gay man and HIV-positive. And people look to me for guidance and support. When asked questions I’m very public and candid about my status or story, and I’m quick to educate on any misinformation. A variety of people ask, and I’m more than happy to share and answer. And every day I attempt to redefine the stigma for myself, and it’s something I’m up to the challenge for.

I bring up my love for the ocean a few times in this story, being something I’m mildly obsessed with (most people that know me can concur). It’s a beautiful, dangerous world full of incredible life. Whales, in particular, are very strange, intimidating, powerful, intelligent, and beautiful creatures. What we know of them is literally from the past forty years of research; prior to this we feared them for they’re size, hunted them nearly to extinction, and often saw them as inferior beings that we knew very little about as a result of ignorance. A recent explosion of interest in learning more about these animals, and more about the ocean, is thanks to those who have a passion researching them and educating the world about them, and in return a drive to conserve and fix what was broken by past human actions. To quote Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum, “we conserve what we love, love what we understand, and understand what we are taught”. In my eyes, HIV and sexual assault personally parallel this truth. HIV has a storied past of being misrepresented and feared, all the way to a political degree. There was a larger disinterest in learning what can be done to combat it, and only in recent decades has there been a renaissance in treatment, education, and awareness. The same can be said for sexual assault, a topic not very often talked about publicly and, as a result, writhing in a slick of taboo and stigma. Since coming out publicly with my story, I’ve heard less jokes and remarks made about both topics and more questions asked. In one year alone I’ve seen less stigma in my world, and more support and encouragement. People are willing to understand what can be done about HIV and sexual assault, and oftentimes they have looked to me for advice being someone that is open enough to represent and talk about those topics. The fact that people want to talk openly is an achievement alone it’s self. The city I was born and raised in has been in the forefront of internationally-recognized HIV / AIDS research and educational outreach for a while now; it’s sobering but empowering to see how sharing my story can provide another opportunity to combat ignorance and promote visibility. Like whales and the ocean, we won’t know what HIV or sexual assault is or does, or what it means to be HIV-positive, without being willing to educate ourselves, otherwise we’re forever blinded by a fear of the unknown.

HIV is something that should be talked about. Sexual assault is something that should be talked about. We shouldn’t be scared of what we don’t know, and we should ask questions. We shouldn’t confine our fears and personal demons within ourselves: it only burns inside of us and robs us of the opportunities to learn and thrive in the one life we have to live. We can break through traumas by being authentic and open with one another. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from the past year about society and politics, it’s that the best way to fight ignorance is by being visible, unafraid, and willing to educate. If someone like myself can do all of this, I know anyone else can too. There’s no greater feeling than knowing you’re not alone in your fears and experiences, and it’s a powerful feeling knowing you can make a difference just by being open and honest with yourself. I continue to not let a virus or a scenario from seven years ago define who I am as a person: the effects of both are things I’m willing to work through, and something I’m proud to face. Looking into the future I’m not sure where life will take me: my hope is that it’s to the ocean. There was a time I was worried that being HIV-positive wouldn’t let me get to that kind of world in my life; I now refuse to believe I can be stopped, and I’ve thrown those fears to the curb. I know I can get there, anywhere, and I’m excited to be a representation to others about this small dynamic of my life along the way. Here’s to another year after this, to many more to come, and to taking the plunge.