At the end of last summer, I would have described myself as an average, twenty-something man.
I was in a long-term relationship for two years with someone I loved, we had recently bought a puppy together, and occasionally we’d open the door for a third lover, when the opportunity arose.
Both in our prime, it became a unanimous decision that the last thing one would want to do is hold the other back from life, which led to the plausibility and eventual reality of solo encounters.
The following week was the first and last time I slept with someone outside our relationship. It came and went rather smoothly, with my partner mirroring a similar journey that evening.
The following morning when we reunited over a Starbucks, it seemed like this could be an ideal compromise between comforting companionship and a primal, curious sexuality.
However, just a few days later, I was in a hospital bed with an unexplained flu that ravaged my immune system and almost claimed my life. My mother drove hundreds of miles from our family home to say a potential goodbye, while a congregation of medical staff were unable to identify the roots of my waning strength.
Despite blood tests, I was misdiagnosed first with an inflamed appendix, then Crohn’s Disease, before I was finally discharged without any explanation.
It was only after taking a private STI test a month and a half later that I received a phone call referring me to a HIV-specific clinic for further analysis. My knowledge of HIV at this point was minimal, and I’d assumed that such a high-risk virus would have been spotted by the hospital.
The very first thing I did after walking out of my three-hour appointment was get into the passenger’s seat of my partner’s car, and cry. At the time he swore unwavering support.
Luckily I’d kept to myself, but this would have been more than enough time to infect others had I not spent the time recovering.
From a mental health perspective, it felt like I’d taken one step forward and 20 back. I’d lost my job due to extended and then unexplained time off, and though I found it physically easy to, say, put on my coat and walk the dog, adjusting to my newfound state-of-mind was far from as smooth.
Isolated from my family and, since most of my friends had moved away from Birmingham after graduation, the city soon felt like a hollow, scary and, at times, even threatening place.
My partner and I grew distant as we both struggled to adjust to my diagnosis. He got tested and was negative, which confirmed who I had contracted the virus from.
My needs became less centred around sexual fulfilment and instead I craved meaningful discussion, and an anchor in a world that was rapidly changing before my eyes.
But if you’re in an open relationship and one party is unable to perform sexually, disruption feels inevitable. We eventually split 10 weeks after my diagnosis as I felt that fundamental boundaries were consistently being broken.
HIV was the reset button I needed to evaluate everything in my life
At such a vulnerable and important time for my mental health, I was unable to persevere in a relationship with someone who just didn’t respect basic understandings of partnership.
As my feelings of inadequacy rocketed my self-worth plummeted. Chronic anxiety confined me to my apartment, where I fought for some control over a life I was losing.
Recreational drug use soon became the last remaining relic of the former me – the only way I could still be ‘part of the gang’. But even when I was high, I was miserable at best.
That could have been the end to my story. But thankfully, somehow, I found a shred of confidence and clasped it for dear life.
As my former life toppled in front of my eyes, brick-by-brick I started to rebuild. I invested in my fitness, frequenting the gym four times a week; small weights at first, or simply a run on the treadmill for some peace of mind.
One-by-one I opened up to friends, revelling in the growing pride that still comes with honesty every time I’m able to share my true self.
Eventually I met someone new. He came into my life masquerading as a passing stranger, soon becoming a strong ally and, now, an indispensable lifeline.
If you’re not willing to adjust your lens, you’ll always see the same picture. HIV has ironically taught me the importance of possibility and having a new perspective. It was the reset button I needed to evaluate everything in my life, and gave me the strength to overcome a reality I thought had bested me.
It’s coming up to one year since I was diagnosed and I’ve since shared my status on social media. I’ve had floods of invaluable messages of support and respect, many from people who I expected to say nothing at all.
I’ve also had people who were with me at the forefront of my diagnosis and subsequent stages of my recovery publicly declare that they were not even associated with me at this time, washing their hands (and minds) of months of memories.
People I was closest to, and who yet somehow felt a need to actively state they had no involvement with me in the hardest time of life, which they’d watched happen.
There’s clearly still a stigma to be broken. You can’t re-write history, but it can be learnt from, and I’m just thankful for the lessons that I’ve been taught.
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