I tested positive in February of that year. I had lost my lover several months earlier, which is what made me feel that I should get tested. I cannot say whether he had the virus or not, but I needed to know whether I did.
There have been many things that have happened to me in my thirty-plus years, but testing positive was totally devastating, even though I kind of knew what the results of the test were going to be.
I disclosed my status fairly quickly to my sister and a few friends. I needed to tell someone. They were very supportive and helped me try to deal with this virus that I now had to live with. They allowed me to talk about my feelings, and sometimes went with me to see my doctor. I think it was just as hard for them as it was for me, and I was the one who had tested positive. I guess my story is not much different from that of most people when they find out that they are HIV-positive or have full-blown AIDS.
It was ironic that, although I kept my doctors' appointments, I could still deny that I was HIV-positive. I had always been someone who drank alcohol, but it seemed to get worse. I started to drink more. I felt good when I drank, and I did not have to think about being HIV-positive. I also think that I still felt normal, like "I can still do the things I did when I was not positive" (or thought I was not).
I was on a binge that lasted several years. Finally, a friend came to me one day and gave me a copy of Body Positive magazine. It was the first magazine I had seen that was addressed to individuals who are infected and affected by the virus. What stood out for me the most was the creed, "You are not alone." I read it over and over again. In some ways it addressed a lot of the issues that I was facing in my life.
I carried that magazine with me for a year and a half before I got the nerve to call Body Positive for help. I thought that I had everything under control. I did not see that my drinking -- among other things in my life -- was out of control, until a friend pulled my coat about how I was living.
It had become a very destructive life. I had always felt that there was something missing, something that I was not getting from family and friends. I tried to go to therapy, but went through three therapists in a six-month period. I had always heard that it was helpful to share what you are going through with others. I finally got up the nerve to call a number in the magazine and enroll into a support group.
So six months later I was in my first support group. It was an experience that I will never forget. I say this because I was able to share with others what had been going on in my life and where I needed to go with it -- that is, where I needed to go with my life.
In many ways it helped me make some serious professional and life changes. I had been working with the psychiatrically disabled during this whole time and had been dealing with their problems, but I could not get my own personal life together. After the experience I had with the group, I could not stop thinking about how much it had made a difference in my life.
I decided that I wanted to do something in the HIV/AIDS community. I had always volunteered for various organizations, but it had never occurred to me to do some work with people who are stricken with the virus. Yet there were plenty of people in my life, whether it was family or friends, who were positive.
So I decided to become a group facilitator. I called the agency that I had done my support group with, and they trained me to run support groups. Several months later I was doing my first group.
I made up my mind during this time that this is the type of work I would like to be doing. I began to look for full-time employment with an agency that provides services for individuals who have the virus. I landed a job as a case manager at Bronx AIDS Services, where I was responsible for securing entitlements for clients who were infected and affected by the virus. I helped them to secure financial entitlements, such as SSI, SSD, and DASIS. I also helped clients obtain appropriate housing and ran support groups for gay men and for the families and friends of infected individuals. Although at times I found it difficult to deal with the problems of people who had the same virus I do, the work was very rewarding to me.
For the past two and a half years I have been working full time in the HIV/AIDS community. This was the best thing for me to do. My life has changed so much during this time. My work with AIDS, first as a volunteer support group facilitator and later as a full-time employee, helped me to understand better that I can live with this virus and that I do not have to let it control me. I realized that I am a person with HIV -- I am not HIV itself. I have had to incorporate the virus into my life in order to survive.
Several of my family members and friends ask me, "How do you do it? You are HIV-positive and you work with that population every day." I tell them that I am not only helping others but that I am helping myself stay alive. I truly believe life begets life, and as long as I have the strength to continue my work I will do so, knowing that I came from a place where I thought my life was over. This may sound ridiculous, but being HIV-positive has not only brought an array of problems for me but it has also given me something to live for.
Now my life has made a complete circle. I am now employed at Body Positive as the Coordinator of Community Outreach and Education. Who would have believed that joining a support group would actually bring about such a change in my personal life and professional career. I do not think I would change my life for anything at this point.
Illustration by S. Weininger
David Gonzalez is Coordinator of Community Outreach and Education for Body Positive, Inc.