Recently I came to the startling realization that working at TPAN for the past six years has sheltered me from the world outside of HIV. There aren't many work environments on earth where conversations around the water cooler can range from the joys of homosexual sex to the blues of medication-related diarrhea, without in any way being considered strange or inappropriate.
For the first time in several years, I feel as if my life is not defined by either my HIV status or my sexual orientation.
Upon arriving at TPAN, I was living much of my life in darkness. Not too many people knew how I identified sexually, and only my immediate family and a small number of close friends knew that I was living with AIDS.
As clandestinely as I had been living my life, the atmosphere at TPAN encouraged me to be an open book. I immediately felt comfortable enough to throw my sexuality on the table and I never for a second felt I should hide my HIV status from anyone.
Being there, I developed the courage to "come out" in almost every aspect of my life. I began speaking publicly about my experience as a young, bisexual African American man living with HIV, becoming somewhat of a "poster boy" for prevention and treatment education.
My personal world became consumed by HIV and, for a time, I believed that there was no need to really consider the world outside of it. I believed it would most certainly be the thing to take me out, so it made perfect sense to me to devote the rest of my days to the work and study of it.
Even when it became apparent that I wouldn't be dying anytime soon, somehow, I wasn't completely internalizing all of the knowledge that I was gaining about living a "normal, healthy life" with HIV. It should then come as no surprise that my arrival at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this past August was a bit of a culture shock.
After settling into the city, classes, and my internship at the state mental health institution, it occurred to me that nobody in this town really knows anything about me. The statement of purpose that I wrote when applying to UW expressed my interest in social research related to HIV, but contained none of my personal experiences with the virus.
Except for a couple of "need to know" experiences, and the process of finding a doctor to provide my health care here, I haven't had "the conversation" with anyone. And, because I also "pass" rather easily, only a select few of my new friends have a clue about my sexual orientation.
For the first time in several years, I feel as if my life is not defined by either my HIV status or my sexual orientation. In some ways it's almost as if I've walked back into the closet, but in others, it feels like this is part of a natural progression and growth for me. Have I made a choice, consciously or not, to assume the position of "don't ask, don't tell" in order to construct a new academic and professional image for myself, or is that construct becoming a healthy part of my evolving Truth?
As it always has, a conversation with my mother helped me to put some of this into perspective by challenging me to look at my situation from a different angle. Considering that I have chosen a clinical track for my graduate studies, she questioned whether or not it would actually be healthy or productive to continue to allow myself to be defined in the way that I have been for the past five years. Reflecting on my experience with grad school so far, I couldn't help but seriously consider what she asked.
My internship at the mental health institution is split evenly between two units. One is a minimum-security forensic unit for adult males who have committed crimes but have been found not guilty by reason of mental illness or defect. The other is a civil unit for adolescent males who, for various reasons, have been deemed dangerous to themselves or to others.
As a clinical social work intern, part of my training requires me to become very involved in the most intimate details of our patients' lives. Outwardly, many of them appear to be tough as nails. Internally, though, I'm learning that there is a common thread of vulnerability and deeply rooted pain that links them.
For many of them, opening up to anyone is nearly impossible. With that in mind, I realize that the more I keep my personal stuff off the table, the better able I am to establish productive therapeutic relationships that allow their stuff to be at the center where it belongs for progress to be made.
Looking at it through this lens, it would make sense for me to keep my personal life personal. Not that I would be hiding anything from anyone, or that I wouldn't bring up certain elements that would be beneficial to the outcome of the clinical experience, but that I wouldn't be allowing it to become a barrier or distraction.
Though I miss the freedom of an environment like TPAN, I am learning to balance my personal and professional lives so that I can feel free to be most productive at what I feel I was put on this earth to do -- help others. It feels rather uncomfortable and a bit awkward in the moment, like a baby bird leaving the nest for the first time, but I am hopeful that it will prove to be the beginning of quite a flight.
Please keep me in your prayers!