By Michael Garrett
I felt the floor swallowing me up whole. Everything faded away around me and all I heard was the sound of my heart hammering in my head. Dimly, I heard myself repeat, “this can’t be happening” for probably the tenth time in the span of a few minutes. My world crumbled around me. I felt helpless and alone, but worse, vulnerable and afraid upon finding out I tested positive for HIV.
The first call I made was to my mom. I cried and swore and cried some more. I was living in New York and had started a new career and new life just eight months before. I wasn’t ready to deal with this. I tried convincing myself that I would be the false positive. I had a friend who was so why not me? I had entered the first stage of grief already and it wasn’t going well.
Looking back on that day, now nine months later, it feels like a lifetime ago. Already in this short span I've learned and grown so much in both my knowledge and understanding of what it means to be poz and how it affects both myself and those around me. What once was a crushing and all consuming brand has now become a liberating and empowering title. As I shifted from one community to a new unexpected community, I learned to be confident and strong in unexpected ways. I learned to not be defined by the stereotypes society sometimes sees, but to be defined by my own strength and actions.
These lessons are not easy and I have had bad days mixed with the good. Soon after finding out I was positive, the relationship I was pursuing came crashing down around me. I remember worrying I would be cast out of the community that had so openly welcomed me after coming out senior year of high school. I now saw myself as different and I had to play on the other side of the fence; I could mingle but at the end of the day I had to go back to my side. Many of these thoughts and fictional metaphors were subconscious stereotypes that I had cultivated while living in areas of the United States that weren’t as educated and understanding of my current situation. Thankfully, through amazing friends and a strong support network I realized that there is nothing bad or dirty about me. Being positive doesn’t need to carry a negative connotation with it, but it does take a positive mindset and open and honest communication to combat the stigma.
The hardest part of living with HIV for me is timing. With friends it is easy, but with hookups or dates it can be an uncomfortable topic. Much like coming out as gay, coming out as positive carries a risk of misunderstanding or preconceived stereotypes that inadvertently hurt. Not everyone knows how to deal with someone telling them they are positive. Often there are questions and the mood is broken. The other difficult part with timing is if you tell someone too soon, it can come off presumptuous; tell someone too late and they can feel backed into a corner or like they don’t have a choice. Overall the response has been fairly positive. Many don’t have any issue, and it has sparked healthy dialogue with those that have questions. I am grateful for the progress I have made, and the chance to help those that don’t understand as much.
The best part of this journey has been the confidence gained within myself as well as the education I’ve received. I’ve learned so much about HIV that I didn’t know or understand before. My own stigmas and stereotypes that I carried have drastically changed. I realized I had two choices in the matter: I could let this consume and destroy me, or I could become an advocate and learn as much as I can and grow and help others do the same.
To anyone out there that may be having a hard time dealing with being poz or has recently found out that they are my advice is to take it day by day. Cry and let it out when you need to. Know that you are not alone even if it feels like it. There are so many people out there willing to share their story or be a shoulder to lean on. Lastly, this is not an end but a beginning. This is a chance to focus on your health and evaluate your life and decide who you want to be. You are just like everyone else; just as beautiful, just as kind, and just as smart. Make your health a top priority and embrace who you are and who you are becoming.