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Personal Perspective: A Story of Magnetic Love

Spring/Summer 2012

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Shannon and Tom Southall

Shannon:

Since I was diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, my life has been an incredible journey -- filled with joy, love, anger, and a whole array of emotions. One of the hardest challenges has been disclosing, not only to potential intimate partners, but to friends, family, and co-workers. At one point, I felt I just had to accept that God did not have someone in mind for me to spend the rest of my life with. But what's that old saying? "When you finally stop looking it finds you." Boy, did it find me! I can see that because of HIV I learned how to live my life -- and that's why I was ready for Tom when he entered the picture.

One of the things I learned was that the way people respond to my HIV status doesn't have to do with me personally. They're trying to figure out how they can deal with it. But accepting that is easier said than done, because rejection still hurts. I've decided that the only people I want in my life are those who fully support me. After telling potential partners that I had HIV and seeing them run screaming for the hills, afraid that I infected them by just holding their hands, or having them stay and then ending it myself because of their baggage, I resolved to always just say it up front.

When Tom and I started talking, I put it right out there. I knew to look at how someone responded. If he was completely on board with no questions, I was scared! If he couldn't find the door fast enough, then so be it -- don't let it hit you on the way out. I live without shame -- if you can accept me for who I am and what I bring to the table, let's get to know each other.

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I found that Tom's baggage wasn't any worse than mine and the relationship of my lifetime began.

When I told him, there was a pause and then: "Okay, what does this mean for us moving forward? What do I need to learn? How can we be together?" All amazing questions, and he ended with: "I want you in my life. I want to learn how to deal with this and how to incorporate it into our lives." He was the first man to see me completely -- not just my HIV.

I never felt I had to reassure him, but I have taken the time to continue educating him -- not only about my life but about the community as a whole. In the beginning, I did have to reassure myself, though. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop -- for Tom to come to me and say he was sorry, but that after giving it a lot of thought this was just something he couldn't do. It wasn't until a year and half ago that I finally realized he was "all in", had both shoes firmly on the ground, and wasn't going anywhere.

The first time we had sex, I'll admit I was scared. I was so afraid he was going to change his mind and decide this wasn't worth it. Or that he would suddenly freak out and take the "forever shower" and scrub and scrub! But he didn't, and over the years, the sex has gotten better. Our lines of communication are wide open and we are able to talk to one another throughout sex. We even laugh and then stop and say, "Are we supposed to be laughing during sex?" Yes, because we enjoy one another so much.

I'm actually more careful during sex, because if Tom were to become infected I'm not sure how I would handle it. He says if it happens, it happens, but we know what we need to do to protect him. Sometimes, I've even had to play "HIV cop" to make sure that no matter what we experience, Tom is safe.

Eventually, we decided that my undetectable viral load and the fact that I am a woman lowered his risk enough that we could take off the condoms. That decision is not for everyone, and each couple needs to make an informed decision after talking to their doctor. If my viral load was detectable, safer sex would definitely be required. I will say that the first time we opted not to use a condom was an anxious moment for me. But we educated ourselves, we talked to experts, and did research. So we both felt comfortable with the decision.

Apart from sex, we both have to deal with me sometimes feeling sick and having side effects from the medications. And then there are the plain old issues that affect any relationship: finances, kids, jobs, family, communication. I had surgery and developed a staph infection. I had to have a second surgery, keeping me out of work for four months. Things like that can spiral me down into what I call a "mini depression". I always know I will get out of it, but I get scared and withdraw, which affects our relationship.

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This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. Visit ACRIA's website and GMHC's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
 
See Also
More First-Person Stories From People in Mixed-Status Couples

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