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Evolution of a Cyber-Activist

By Robert Breining

January 26, 2010

I wanted my first blog to be about how I got to where I am today. I wasn't always as open about my HIV status. It took me about five years to accept it myself and move forward. I want to take you back about nine years ago.

I can't tell you how many times I'd go to a bathhouse for what I convinced myself was "just for a couple of hours." But then I'd return home tweaked out three days later. I called those times tweakends. All I'd have to do while at the bathhouse is walk by somebody's room and hear them sniff; it meant I could get a bump of crystal meth or cocaine from them. It is a known code in those places.

Then after I was bumped up (i.e., high on drugs), most of the time I was so high I wouldn't even have sex. I would just sit in my tiny room in the bathhouse. The room consisted of a thin mattress on top of a big wooden box frame, a hook and a light switch that always seemed dimmed no matter how high it was turned on.

I remember sitting on my bed with the door open, my head spinning from the meth as men would walk by and ask: "You want company?" or they would walk by and sniff, which was a discreet way of asking me if I wanted drugs.

Like many people who use meth and/or cocaine, there were times I just couldn't sit still. When I wasn't sitting in my room, I was constantly walking around. The bathhouse in Philadelphia had three floors with about twenty private rooms and four of those rooms were what they called VIP rooms. Those rooms had a double mattress and a TV streaming porn. Now that's some real VIP treatment! The bottom floor had a gym, sauna, steam room, showers and locker room. I think I managed to walk all four floors within ninety seconds. It was so repetitious and one hell of a work out on my legs. I remember the sound of the birds chirping in the morning. It meant that I had stayed another twenty-four hours. To this day, I still hate the sound of the birds in the morning because it reminds me of that times I was tweaked out in the bathhouse.

Sex happened, but really I think I went to the bathhouse so people would look at me. Just so they would compliment me. But they were only saying nice things to try to get me into bed. It was more about the chase for me, you know? After I got the guy, I was over it, but it was nice to know I could get him. I could give you the gory details, but you know what happens at a bathhouse, so use your imagination. I continued these private getaways to the bathhouses for about six months until I decided to face the reality of my addiction.

I never really thought I was at risk, or that a HIV diagnosis could happen to me. I always practiced safe sex. When I dated someone we would get tested together. When the tests results came back and both of us were negative, we would then and only then have unprotected sex. I thought it was how a couple showed true love. I thought HIV only happened to other people, not a suburban guy like myself.

I remember going to my family doctor to get a HIV test. I had this gut feeling or intuition that I needed to be tested and soon. A week later I received a phone call from the doctor and he said he wanted me to come in. I was so nervous. I knew it wasn't good news. I could hear it in his voice and I felt it in my gut and my gut never lies. I have very good intuition so I am told.

I called a friend and she came and picked me up and off we went. She waited in the car and I went in. I remember it being so cold in the doctor's office. It was June 7, 2001, the day after my deceased father's birthday. The air conditioning was cranked up. The chairs were plastic and cold. I remember going back when my name was called and praying my instincts were wrong. I walked in the room and jumped on the table. The door shut and I was alone. I was alone for 30 seconds and it felt like an hour.

I remember crinkling the paper that is laid out on the table to sit on. Then the doctor walked in. I gasped and took a deep breath. He looked at me and said, "I got some bad news." That is not what you tell someone who is newly diagnosed with HIV. At least that is not what I would have said. He said, "You tested positive."

I looked at him with a blank stare as if I didn't hear what he was saying. I responded with "What?"

And he said it again, "You tested positive." I felt alone, scared and ashamed. All the normal feelings one feels after hearing a HIV diagnosis.

The real story I want to tell you about is what happened after I found out I had become HIV positive. At first, so much was going on in my life; I was in recovery for six months and had just lost my father to cancer six months earlier. I just tried to forget about it. That worked for a little while, but eventually it just wore me down. I remember I woke up this one morning and it all just hit me. I was 21 years old, HIV positive, addicted to crystal meth and addicted to going to the bathhouse.

That was a harsh way to see myself, but it was a big moment when I finally said it to myself that plainly. For once, I had no excuses or bullshit. It scared me to death, but it was also a relief because I knew it was the truth. Being in denial takes so much energy and you don't even realize it. I was exhausted.

Realizing where I was, I also started to see what I'd really been doing. Like I said, the whole time at the bathhouse, it was always about the chase even more than the sex. That made me think that it really wasn't the sex I was after as much as the acceptance. It felt like I was changing myself all the time, I would do anything just for a compliment or a smile. I was trying so hard and felt so disgusted with it.

I thought if my problem is that I try too hard, I'll just stop. I'll stop trying to be acceptable to everyone and just be myself.

That was hard, cause I knew that meant I had to tell people I was HIV positive. I couldn't handle being in that closet again but I wasn't sure how everyone would react, you know? Funny thing was, that's exactly when things started to work out for me.

First person I told was my mom. And of everyone I told, this was the hardest conversation. It was only six months after we lost my father to cancer that I sat her down and said, "Mom, I've got this thing called HIV. The doctors say I'm fine. My counts are good, I don't even have to take medicine yet." We were both really upset, but at least it was out in the open. What a relief that was.

When I told her about the meth nine months earlier, she had said, "You know your uncle went to N.A." I had never heard of it before. N.A. stands for Narcotics Anonymous. She gave me the phone number and I got hooked up with them. That's how I eventually got clean, and if I hadn't talked to my mom, I might not have found out about them. I might not be here today. I truly believe that my mother and uncle saved my life.

Talking openly about my status really helped in other parts of my life too. I play on a gay soccer team in Philadelphia. They're really good friends and one day I decided to tell my teammates that I was HIV positive. I did this with a blast e-mail to our Yahoo group. I invited them to view a blog I set up. When I told my teammates, they were amazed that I was doing so well, that I was so healthy, and that I didn't give two craps about them knowing. Some of them never mentioned it to me and others would say "What made you want to go public with your status?" some even opened up to me and said "I am HIV positive too." It was the first time I realized I wasn't alone in all this. It was amazing how well my teammates took it. People tend to think that all poz guys are these scrawny, skinny little twigs. That's not me.

Finding people who understand me has helped so much that I decided to start a website. I knew I wasn't the only one looking for support. POZIAM is a social network similar to MySpace and Facebook, just for other HIV positive people to meet each other and find a safe place to ask questions and share experiences. It's not about hooking up or finding a date. The most rewarding thing is to hear from people just like me, people who never had friends who understood them, and they discovered this on my site. Now I know how important that can be.

Like I said, it's about acceptance. I looked so hard for it for so long and it got me nowhere.

Finally, being HIV positive taught me to just let it all go and be who I really am. After that, it all happened naturally. I had to accept myself before anyone else would. Now I'm in a pretty good place.

To contact Robert Breining, click here.

See Also
Day One With HIV: Finding Out Your Status, in Your Own Words's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed
More "Just Diagnosed" Stories


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The Positive Pitch

I describe myself as a "positive person with purpose." My goal is to help people living with HIV/AIDS discover similarities in each other ... and form friendships. I want to ease the shock of a diagnosis and remind people that our dreams are not infected. I am also an HIV/AIDS cyber-activist, radio show host, blogger and social network guru.

For my full bio, click here.

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