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On Guilt and Shame

By Ben B.

May 21, 2014

Keith Haring and Andy Warhol

It's amazing how much negativity you can disarm simply by owning said negative thing like it's a positive thing.

Errrr ... I guess with HIV it's owning said [capital-P] Positive thing like it's a [small-p] positive thing.

My sister was the one who had the most difficulty dealing with the news of my diagnosis. Barely escaping the "Irish Twins" (siblings born in the same year) designation, my sister and I do, in fact, have that "twin bond."

We speak the same way, can finish each other's sentences, and can converse telepathically in crowded rooms. On top of the twin bond, we went through divorce, remarriage and step/half-siblings together. She is, in essence: my other half.

This makes her particularly sensitive to my emotional state. It bothered her immensely to know I was picked on and ostracized by proto-homophobic peers growing up, and it's definitely informed the way she treats me now.

We're so close, she was the "rock" I would turn to whenever it was time to get an "AIDS test" throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, I want to say an "HIV scare" was relatively common (I run into trouble here: assuming other "80s kids" have HAD "HIV scares" might be inferred as promiscuity, assuming they have not might be inferred as ignorance).

Nonetheless, up until my actual diagnosis last year, my take on this stressful rite of passage was something out of the Eric Roberts 1990s AIDS film "It's My Party."

Bluntly put: if I were to be diagnosed as Positive, I would have needed to have gone on "Suicide Watch." Partially due to the guilt and shame borne from being gay in an unforgiving era, but also because at that time if you had HIV, you could never father your own children (always a life goal of mine).

It was for that purpose, mainly, that my sister always went with me. Suicide was one of the possible outcomes of a Positive diagnosis back then; for this reason, you could not receive HIV results over the phone, or without some degree of counseling coinciding with that test.

And it's from that ancient, dated meme that the tone of concern/support has erupted, from of those close to me. As if my diagnosis was an "uh oh, here comes the Downward Spiral" moment.

There's no Downward Spiral to be had here. Because I refuse to acknowledge the emotions of "guilt" and "shame" with this new life I have. Why?

I touched on this before: in the 1990s, if you were gay it was assumed that you had AIDS. You had to work double-time in your decloseting, to reassure those around you that you didn't have AIDS, you knew how to NOT "catch AIDS," et cetera. When I say my diagnosis late last year was the greatest anticlimax of my life, it's mainly due to all those calories expended on the "but I don't have AIDS" shtick I had to do in my youth.


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I spent 21 years growing out of "guilt" and "shame" over being gay ... why would I then exhume this inseparable pair of negative emotions to play a role in being HIV-positive?

Further: within days of my diagnosis, my entire worldview came crashing down: I was HIV-positive, going to live, able to have children, and honestly? Happy/sappy on a level heretofore unseen. I can't over-emphasize this enough: contracting HIV was the solitary WORST thing you could possibly have happen to you, growing up. I have, and it's seriously not bad. I'm going to fine; in fact, better than most!

My mother was the last one of my immediate clan who was told. I am most like her, and my brand of crazy is definitely more reminiscent of her's, over any other member of the family. That being said: I did fear guilt and shame from her direction. Ergo, I suffixed my "outing" with:

If you are feeling guilt or shame right now, I would ask you to internalize it; you must understand that pair of emotions won't do me, or you for that matter, any good.

She was surprisingly much calmer than I had thought. I came out the summer after Jeffrey Dahmer blew up the media, and I know my safety, especially as a gay teen, was always at the forefront of her mind. Yet there I was, HIV-Positive and non-suicidal, asking her to join me in this Brave New World I'm now living in.

My challenge, in these days of "cocooning" before I "out" myself a second time, is accepting that my choice in mates might not always understand what living in this "Brave New World," free of guilt or shame, means.

But that's superfluous. Because living without guilt or shame is the most freeing way to exist, even if it needs to be a more solo one than most. Not only are you not beholden to the judgement of others, you're also free from the scrutiny of your biggest "judge" -- yourself.




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