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This Positive Life: David Robertson on Looking Good and Choosing to Live

By Kellee Terrell

June 21, 2013

David Robertson spent of most of his college days as what he would describe as "undecided" -- but not about his major. He never categorized himself as gay or straight, and continues to defy categorization. However, he had to learn the hard way -- through an HIV diagnosis -- that you can't judge whether someone is HIV positive or HIV negative by whether or not they look healthy.

David saw no option but to live a life of hope, after he saw his older brother all but give up on his health after his own HIV diagnosis. Not wanting to live anyone's stereotype, he began to take better care of his body and became a mentor to other young men of color -- both HIV negative and HIV positive. A deep soul with deep thoughts, David took some time to tell us about the stigma around being a black man with HIV, how dating HIV-negative people requires education and how important it is to choose to live.

This interview was conducted in November 2011.


Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.


Let's start from the beginning. When did you find out that you were positive?

June 19, 2007, at 12:34 p.m.

What prompted you to get tested?

Routine. New job. I liked the sound of a PPO instead of an HMO. With my doctor, we had to do routine blood work. At that time, I was going to a chiropractor. And the chiropractor was telling me that I had some swollen lymph nodes. Me, thinking two things: I had just had two teeth removed, so I was, like, oh; it's something, probably ... you know, it's flushing out something that my antibiotics would take care of. Two, it was me traveling a whole lot. So I thought that it was probably my body stressing. I didn't think it was anything serious.

I remember my doctor asking me the questions. You know, "Do you know anyone who has HIV?" I explained to her, "Yes." Previously, my brother was diagnosed, in 2005. My aunt passed away around that time of cancer, related to her AIDS diagnosis. Nothing really clicked.

Because you just didn't think you were at risk.

Oh, no. I wasn't. I mean, where's the mirror check? I thought I was invincible. Yeah. That was the diagnosis.

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And so when you got tested and you got the results back, what were you ...?

My immediate reaction: I started laughing. It was that nervous laughter. And then I heard myself laughing, but I'm looking at my physician's face. And she's looking at me. And this look, her look, went from being kind of nervous to very emphatic. Because I think she kind of realized, like, whoa; he didn't expect this news.

Just hearing those words, I think, did something that could never be given back to me, this tripping I felt, just, immediately. It was like I felt like I got that scarlet letter on my chest. Not Superman.

So you didn't think you were at risk. But you were in; at the time you were in what you thought was a monogamous, committed relationship? Or, what do you think happened?

No. I mean, just the people that I had sex with. I mean, we were in college. We all come from decent family structures, and we're all attractive. There's no apparent physical ailments, no lesions, like I saw in Philadelphia. They didn't look like someone who was emaciated, from Africa. They didn't look like they were shooting up drugs.

So all of these things that you thought HIV looked like: These people didn't look like that.

No, they were fine.

So you just thought, Well, then, I'm not at risk.

I had even more of a thought. I thought I knew. I was invincible. I had this invincible characteristic that ... mmm, you smell good, taste good, you feel good, and you look real good; you are all good.

And so what was that like, when you just, kind of, left the doctor?

I went through a lot of emotions. I called my mom. And the first thing my mom said to me -- you know, we'd dealt with this already, my brother's diagnosis -- she was very quick with me but she said, "Dave, I've got one question to ask you, because I'm at work. Do you want to live or do you want to die?"

That kind of threw me for a loop because I'm the baby of the family. I'm expecting for my mama to be, like, "I'll be right there. I got my breast milk waiting for you." No.

So I told her, "Mom, I want to live." I don't want for what happened to my brother, and how it affected my family nucleus, to do it again. I just; I knew. I saw. I felt. I dealt with. That's one of the main reasons why I know it pushed me more to my contraction ... just the feeling of, the stigma feeling -- the concept of me not feeling wanted. That was internalized.

And I just remember, after I got off the phone with my mom, there was something in me, purpose, wanted to live. But I didn't want to live. And I walked into the middle of the street. I was going to be hit by a taxi. The taxi drove around me. Went down the street by my house, this little neighborhood, little joint, restaurant/bar. I got pissy drunk. I walked out. I'm feeling good. Lit. Real lit. Bummed a cigarette.

My first inhale, it hit me again. Yeah, you drunk, bruh, but you still have HIV. I called my dealer at the time and I'm like, "Man. I'm having a really, really bad day. Will you give me X, Y and Z." Met me at my house. My thought was, "Well, if I can't take my life by getting hit by a taxi, I can't overdose on liquor; I'm going to jump off my balcony."

I got high. Did a couple of bumps. Did my whole name. I went to jump off ... because anyone who's been on drugs may know a thing called tweaking: I tweaked. And I was going to jump off. Bird, wind, concoction, or whatever ... I freaked out, flipped back. I felt a sense of dying that day, and I thought that that sense was something that I had to manifest myself, rather than me realize that that was my pride, that was my invincibility, dying. That I wasn't invincible. That I wasn't. I got that mark on me, but it wasn't the Superman mark; it was the "You're Human" mark.

What did that next day look like, then? If you were, like, "OK; I'm not going to kill myself"? Or not that next day, but then, that period kind of after that time?

The first 30 days were difficult for me. I didn't know what to do. I had told certain friends. Certain friends just stopped answering my text messages.

And how old were you?

Twenty-three.

So you were young.

Yeah. Everyone who I used to party with: it was like they knew something was wrong. They didn't know what was wrong. But everyone just kind of left me. They abandoned me. I felt abandoned. And I think, in that silence, I kind of realized that everyone around me that left me was only there seasonally. It's the whole attribute of, when it's good everyone's around; when it's bad no one's around. And I literally had that, that feeling of, Wow, now that I lost everything (or what I thought -- I lost everything) no one was there to kind of give me a ride. No one was there to kind of buy me a round of drinks. It was difficult.

My only strength at that time was to show my family that this disease was not going to take another black man in my family. I remember just seeing the look on my mom and my sister's faces, looking at my brother. And it's something: being a fly on the wall, and then being, no longer the fly on the wall, but being that object that used to be the fly on the wall looking at that object. And I became that object.

I had a choice. Was I going to be a statistic with another statistic? Or was I going to be a statistic connected to hope? And, yeah.

So, talk to me about your brother and his diagnosis. I've interviewed you before. And I know that you had kind of felt like your brother had given up. And you didn't want to give up.

His history is like many other people's stories. It's hard. I think the stigma is hard, especially for men who are not MSM, for men who are not IV users, for men who ... I mean, the biggest issue my brother had at that time -- I don't know what he's doing right now, particularly everything, but I know he has no sex drive -- but he was addicted to sex. And for him that was his downfall. He loved having sex with females. It was a gratification of the wanting. You know, everyone wants that. It's human nature to want that physical touch.

I think that you're not a man anymore to some people if you have HIV because, you know, you can't do what a man can do. And I think that, in his mind, he became less of a man now that he couldn't enjoy the participation of ... barebacking.

... the things he was doing. Yeah.

It's that kinetic touch; it's that feeling. And I think it's like he lost the lighter with his cigarette. It was aimless. And I don't think that he really knew how to reinvent himself.

There are some people -- and I realize, for my brother -- it has nothing to do with the present. It's most to do with the past. But he didn't want to do any reflection. He's definitely not the mirror guy; never wanted to look in the mirror. And I understand that.

So looking at my brother: he reminds me of a diamond. Because he's covered with coal, but at the core there's a good part in him. And the good part of him is -- he's very silent when it comes down to me talking -- but I know that's the resilience of him just trying to keep on. Because it's like someone who needs help but, instead of asking for help, they just stand and look at you and think that you can read your mind. And that's because he lost his voice. He lost his ... his ability to be man enough to say, "I need help."

But you weren't like that.

No.

Very much after you were diagnosed you were vocal. You started speaking out. And so what was that like? And did people try to tell you not to be out?

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You know, "You don't want that. You don't." I have such a strong relationship, you know, just in my faith, that parishioners would tell me, "Move on. It's going to get better. Just live your life." Or if people wanted me to choose sides: "Well, if you go this way, it would be this beneficial. If you go that way, it would be beneficial."

In what way? If you what?

Well, because I contracted HIV by having a threesome. It was, you know, me and my homeboy and a female. So it wasn't like I ... I've never denied having sex with a man. Duh. It is what it is. But I've never put myself in that category. Because I was just: a hole was a hole. And you know, I'm ... I mean, I never categorized myself. I'm in college; I'm having fun.

So you didn't categorize yourself as being gay?

No.

You were just having fun.

Yeah. I still don't consider myself as being gay. I consider myself as being a young man who, at that time, experimented heavily with a whole lot of things other than sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

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But being told that I shouldn’t speak out: that was often. But I realized it wasn't because people didn't want to know the truth. It was because people were afraid of the truth. And there are hundreds and thousands of David Robertsons, pre-HIV, that are going through the same thing. But I think for me, and where I was at in my life, I didn't know what I was going to do. I just knew that I had to make something, at least -- if not for anyone else -- at least to show my family that HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence, like we saw for so long in my brother. Or that teeter-tottered.

It was like a seesaw. It was HIV. We saw, I mean, it was just, what? Literally, the boy had no T cells. And that's always been my motivation: to make sure that if anything ever happened to my family, or my siblings, that they would know that HIV was not the thing that took our whole family structure out.

Did you ever confront the two people in the threesome with you?

Yeah.

And what did they say?

So, my homeboy who, directly after all this happened, in the intermediary, I called him. I'm like, "Yo, man. You know, I just left the doctor's office." I knew. I wasn't that promiscuous person who did not know who I didn't sleep with. Even though I was drunk and high some of the times, I was very well aware. And I also knew that we didn't, at all times, use condoms. I mean, what's the point? You fine. I'm fine. You know, you look good. I look good. It is what it is.

I called and I'm like, "Man, what's good? I was at the doctor's office."

And the first words out of his mouth were, "Oh, no."

What does that mean, "Oh, no?"

That's my exact reaction. I said, "Well, what do you mean, 'Oh, no'?" And it got quiet. And he was, like, "Man, you know, I thought I was good."

I'm like, "Well, can you please elaborate?"

And he went on to say, "You know, man, I was diagnosed about a year before we all met. And it wasn't nothing gay. I got it because I was injecting OxyContin in my toe."

But he still never said anything?

No.

Why did he think he was good? Because he was on medication?

His rationale was, "My doctor told me that I was undetectable. So to me, I couldn't give somebody something if it really wasn't in me."

I wasn't educated at that time. I didn't understand. I barely understand now. But I get it. Facebook is a mug. I didn't know what happened to the young lady, but found her on Facebook. This is in 2007. Found her. Reached out to her. Casual conversation: "Hey, what's up? How you doing? How your mama doing? How your daddy doing? How you doing?"

She said, "Good. Good." It was that awkward, like ...

Like someone's hiding something.

Yeah. So I'm like, "Have you talked to So-and-So?"

"No."

I'm like, "Well, I got HIV. And I just talked to him." And she broke down, and was, like, "I have it. I can't do anything about it. My life is a little different now. I'm getting married. I've got a kid coming. I'm glad that you want to do something about this, but I'm not there. I'm not in that college stage anymore."

I just want people to understand that the college mentality is not sexuality; it's fulfillment. It's just like, you know: the best example I can give someone is, when you go to college they ask you what your major is. And the majority of people circle undecided. And that's what we were. We were undecided individuals having fun. And because we were undecided, we now have a definite. Because we didn't decide.

I haven't spoken to either one of them since the fall of '07. I've never ... if I ever even harbored anger or resentment, it was for about 30 to 40 seconds. Because I had to get me right. I knew I wasn't right -- emotionally, spiritually, and even physically -- to allow for myself to look at someone as if they were an object, and think that I knew everything about them. You know, we always assume that if a person can't hurt you, then they can't harm you. And that was my assumption, that, oh, you know, if you're attractive, you know, you can't harm me.

So what are some of the things that you've done, in terms of speaking out? Now, you do live in Chicago.

I do.

And so what are some of the things that you're doing here?

I work with the University of Chicago, for Comer Hospital. We have a program called Living Positively. So we work with high schools, elementary school, colleges, faith-based institutions, giving STI, STD and HIV information, but then also correlating with our story. I'm also a recruiter for South Side Health Center, which ... I never really wanted to focus on one demographic. But having the honor to be a part of the White House HIV/AIDS Panel in Chicago, hearing the numbers of young men being infected, who are disproportionately being affected with HIV were young MSM men ... I couldn't turn my back on them.

And I work with Rush House. I mean, I realize working in HIV that everyone needs help. Every hospital needs a voice. Every organization needs a voice. It's a desert of people wanting to tell their truths because of stigma. But it's been an amazing, amazing journey, rich in specialists, youth specialists, with our church's Identity Youth Group, [in] which we correlate biblical stories with our common-day issues.

So my desire is to talk about the behavior, and not so much the sexuality. Because if you put 180 men in the room -- gay, straight, tri, bi, open, queer, whatever the gamut is -- if you put a bag over their head and you put on some Timberlands on their shoes, everyone has the same thing. So everyone has to get the same message. Because everyone has this thing that is giving everyone else a thing.

So what has been some of the response to your work by people? Do they identify with you?

I think ... I make sure that I have a holistic message. Because it's just not about HIV.

Right.

HIV, for imagery reasons, are the leaves on the tree. The roots are: How did you grow up? The roots are: Were you loved as a child? Do you love yourself? Do you affirm to yourself? How do you feel?

It starts mentally, and when the individual isn't mentally attuned then they're not going to have a great interpersonal skill set to help give that off to anyone else. So for me, HIV is it. But it's not the thing that I connect the dots with. Because I don't ... you know, I've said in many, many speaking engagements -- and I knew I was losing people because I was giving HIV statistics. But the moment that I began talking about depression, the moment that I began talking about suicide, the moment I began talking about how ... Don’t look at this today, but this is the same individual who was homeless. This is the same individual who walked the streets. When people begin to see those markers in their own lives, it kind of offsets them. And, if not bringing them back to the HIV message, my hope is to awaken them on: Do you know your truth?

Speaking of truths, let's talk about your health. What's the truth of your health? Are you doing better, or ...?

It is un ... it's not unfortunate; it's a crying shame. As a black man, it took me to contract HIV to know more about my body without being in college, but sitting down with my physicians and saying, "I know I got about 20 minutes on your books, but you're not leaving here until I understand the gamut of what you're telling me."

Mine is amazing. I've never felt better. I think most important, for me, HIV, my diagnosis, made me really be attuned to my body. Stress. I know what I can deal with, and what I can't. I know that I'm not invincible. I know when I have to say no. My eating habits have definitely changed for the better. I can't ... You know, in Chicago, it's called Harold's Chicken?

Oh, I'm from here. I know. Harold's Chicken, I definitely know.

Can't kick it at Harold's, you know, too often; Shark's. But I'm OK with that. I'm a young black man living in a community of individuals that have myriads of issues other than HIV, and obesity is one of them ... which is directly connected to healthy eating. So for me, having this platform, I have to dispel as much as possible, and as soon as possible, to do the correlation of ... OK, this is about HIV; but this is why I'm healthy.

Do you want to live, or do you want to die? Like your mother said on the phone.

But the reality is, those two are very easy decisions: to give up; or to go higher. And it all started, with me, with I hated the way ... I hated myself. I looked in the mirror and I remember saying to myself, "I never want to see myself ever again. Because I got myself into this. I did. I did. I did. Not who I slept with. Because it doesn't matter anymore. I got this girl. And she livin' in me. And it is what it is."

Have you forgiven yourself?

Yes. I don’t believe that people who can talk about forgiveness can ... if you can't forgive yourself first. I think, for me, it was, "Be horny and get it on; I'm still a man." I'm not your diagnosis. I'm not the world's viewpoints. Yeah. I'm having flashbacks of ... it's a progress. It really is. Even thinking about how I got here: it wasn't because it was someone who was negative telling me I was going to be OK. It wasn't someone who was completely way off field. It was the people who have this disease that ... And they're the same people who were going through the same thing I'm going through. And they were ... it was like in a figure 8. It was just, they had a little hope, and they were spreading it through. And they got a little more hope, and they spread it through.

I look back now and I'm like: I can literally point to three people who poured into me to where I can literally look at myself in the mirror and say, "I love you." Which many people ...

... can't do.

Cannot do.

I want to get back to your HIV treatment. How difficult is it for you to adhere to treatment?

It isn't hard at all.

Really?

I think the hardest thing for me, it was up until this year: I cried every night that I'd take pills. I literally sat in my bathroom. It was like a ritual. I knew I was going to cry. I knew I was going to go to bed depressed. Because I don't ever want to take vitamins! But now I've got to take a pill with somebody's pharmaceutical company name on it? You know, really?

If there was a ... you know, the microphone would go to my stomach right now, there are still side effects. It's attainable. It's feasible. It's not as perfect as having a clean bill of health.

And so I just want to talk quickly about stigma, as well. What does stigma look like in your life?

Putting me in the box and closing it up; and marking me just as what you want to say, which is your truth.

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Your perception.

Your perception: it is not a truth. Perception. But moreover, I think that if people really understand that stigma kills, and not physically -- because people are so mentally killed by stigma that this infectious disease takes away their infectious ability to smile, their infectious ability to be loved, their infectious ability to love, their infectious ability to want to be productive individuals in society ... even to be a global citizen.

For me, stigma is my gasoline. Because whatever someone said is a stigma, I want to make sure that I attack it so that we can clear out some weeds, so we can actually do something right, and not wrong.

What has dating been like since you've tested positive? Same?

Same. I think the main thing; I think the most humbling thing: I was speaking at a university, and I got that question. And a young lady stood up and she said, "I'm be honest. I can't kick it with no dude who got HIV. Like, you're cute, you know, you got good word in you. But ... uh-uh."

And another girl stood up and she said, "I know you. And you've been beat up by your boyfriend."

Wow.

"You've been talked about by your boyfriend. And you know a whole bunch of other things that your boyfriend did. And this black man is saying, 'I got this. My closet doors are open. You know my business. There's no skeletons in my closet. I'm dangling right here.'" She said, "I'd date you. Because I know about HIV. I'm educated about it. I know how I can prevent myself from getting it. And I know how you can prevent yourself from giving it to me."

And I took that away. And what she said to me, in front of everyone else, was, "As long as you keep your doors open and keep telling your truth ..." It has ever been an issue because I'm never going to steer someone wrong. I've been on dates where it went from me courting to me being an educator. And I'm OK with that. Because I'd rather -- if I don’t date a person -- I'd rather them walk away knowing that they've been affected by HIV, so they won't be infected by HIV.

And so then my final question is: What is your advice to people who have just been diagnosed with HIV?

Live. When it's all said and done, when it seems like it just is not getting any better ... live. I consistently look at people who don’t have the artillery to live ... who are deaf, blind. I'm not there. And I think that we've gotten to a place where we want to tell people what they can't be, and not what they can be. And not many people are simply saying, "Just live."

It's not going to be easy. Life isn't easy -- with HIV or without HIV. But, live. I don’t think many people, newly infected people, know how to live. Because they thought that they were living, bumping and grinding. That's not living. That's giving yourself away to humanity. And then when you come back, and when you wake up, you have nothing left ... because you gave away everything.

I think that that has to be it.

Let's just live. Well, with that, this interview comes to a close. Thank you so much. So amazing. Thank you.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. She is currently the health reporter for BET.com.


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