An Honest, Open Reaction to Learning That My Partner was HIV+
I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, think that I had the perfect reaction, and this is certainly not a ‘How to…’ sort of post. Rather, as the title explains, it is the unedited diary entry that I wrote the day that an ex boyfriend told me that he is HIV positive.
This incident happened a long time ago, and I have deliberated since about whether to post my entry, often asking what good it will achieve. I do not propose that this will show others how to behave, or try to suggest that this is how other people will react when faced with the same situation. However, perhaps by sharing my own experiences, it will elucidate on the thoughts that went through at least one person’s mind. Hopefully it will help either member of serodiscordant couples to see the mentality that others have travelled through.
I do not keep a diary, but I have often felt that writing things down helps form my thoughts properly and coherently. He told me was positive one morning, a few weeks into our relationship. I wrote these thoughts down that evening.
“What to do?
‘I’ve got something to tell you, but I don’t know how to…’
I lifted my head from the pillow and showed him that he had my full attention.
The words “are you joking?” almost escaped my mouth before I had the sense to stop them – who would joke about that? I stared him in the eye – there was no joking here. Yet there was also no sign of weakness – I quickly realised that this was a man who had been forced to deal with his reality and was trying to do it in the most appropriate, self-respecting way. He didn’t look away; if he was ashamed then he wasn’t showing it.
If you’d asked me before how I would react in this situation I probably would’ve told you some cliché about how I’d expect my mind to race with a hundred thoughts and questions. But it didn’t. My mind went numb. My thoughts were wiped and replaced with a single, unanswerable “What…?” The confusion and shock echoed inside my brain, behind my slightly wide-eyed face.
I’m writing this today, the day I’ve just learnt that the guy I’m dating (maybe even “going out with” – damn we haven’t actually had that conversation yet… would that make this easier? Or harder? Is it even relevant?) told me one of the biggest news that someone you care about can ever tell you. And so the “what…” questions have swarmed and swamped my mind all day. What am I meant to say? To do? What does this mean – for him, for me, for us? Can I deal with this?
I needed to get out of the house, I knew that much, but I was worried about looking like I wanted to run away. So when he suggested we went for a walk it was very welcome. I took what was probably the longest shower of my life, then took a long look at myself in the mirror, raised an eyebrow and thought “right…let’s see how you deal with this one. Because it’s happening; and you’ve got to deal with it.”
We walked. We stopped for coffee. Walked more. More to avoid standing still and force a conversation and less because we had somewhere to go. I saw a fair amount of London today.
All day I’ve wanted to both walk away – to get space, to allow myself to think, to physically remove myself from the difficult reality I was faced with – and to hug and hold him like I’ve never hugged someone before.
We’ve spent almost the whole day together, and I’m really pleased about that. There were times of silence, there were moments where he said I was staring at him a lot and he wasn’t sure if I wanted to hug him or punch him, and there were moments when we laughed and joked about completely unrelated things, just like any other day so far in this relationship. That was important.
And of course, more detail emerged. I should be clear: he is very fit and healthy, his medications are working well, and his viral load is virtually undetectable. For those of you who know a bit about HIV (which frankly should be all of you) will know that this means he is basically not contagious.
This is, ironically, part of the problem. All day I have been feeling like I’ve just been presented with this massive, life-altering news that should change everything, yet I’m actually struggling to work out how this is going to change anything
Yes, we need to [continue] to be very careful.
Yes, there is a chance that his meds will fail to keep being effective and he could become ill.
Yes, he has to take meds everyday and sometimes they have side-effects.
But none of these come close to being a reason to break up with someone.
Yet there has been this sadness that has hung over me today. The number of times he has apologised suggests that it’s something wrong. When, at towards the end of the day, I asked ‘What now? What’s changed?’ He replied with ‘For me, nothing. I’m the same. I really like you. I’m just a young, healthy HIV positive man’. And for some reason that last part hit me like a hot, stinging slap to the face; a lump swelled instantly in my throat – a lump that told me that even though I couldn’t put my finger on why, this did makes things different.
Later I realised. The bad feelings to learning this news all came down to one thing: fear.
Fear for catching HIV myself of course. But this is not really a threat.
Fear of telling my friends, my family, my mum.
and fear of how strangers will react. Every medical form. Every job offer. Every trip to the doctor. I could feel the judging eyes already; other peoples’ ignorance burning into us; making us feel ashamed for something that isn’t even our fault.
But I guess most of all I feel sad. I feel very sad for him. He has HIV, and all because an ex-boyfriend of his was unfaithful. There were times today where I forgot about it – we laughed, really laughed, and joked. Other than this massive weirdness, we’ve had a really lovely day. But there were also moments where the doubt swamped my brain and my emotions took an inexplicable dive. I found myself with welling eyes and that lump in my throat becoming all too familiar. No matter how well the meds work, and how healthy he is, he is always going to have HIV.
With all confusion in my head, I was desperate to prove to him that this doesn’t change anything. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to have sex with him, to show I wasn’t concerned. I wanted to tell him I love him. Yet I was too scared. Scared that tomorrow I’ll wake up and realise I’m not OK with this, that I can’t deal with it, and that having pretended that I can just makes it worse.”
Having emptied a little bit of my swirling mind onto paper, I fell asleep, exhausted. The next day, and the days after were also tough. But as the shock faded, my mind became clearer. Gradually I realised that this was a man that I was developing very strong feelings for, and that this was not something that was going to come between us. In essence: the fear dissolved. Not completely, of course, but enough that it was not overpowering my feelings towards him.
The other thing that gave me courage and strength to calm my fears was realising that my situation was pale in comparison to his. If he could be so brave and self-respecting about this, then I certainly could get on and deal with it.