Handling Depression and Having Pride After an HIV Diagnosis
June 28, 2012
What was the first thing that you did that helped you come to terms with the diagnosis? Because it sounds as if your life went on as it was. But you were taking the meds. So you had a sense that this is something that you needed to do to sort of keep alive.
Yeah. So I was taking the meds. I started to get healthier. My immune system started to repair itself. I quickly became undetectable. My CD4 count started to climb. But there was this sense of -- I thought, "I'm going to die. I'm not going to live to see 30."
And that thought would continue on for me, for years. And then I realized, as my numbers climbed up, my immune system repaired itself and I got healthier, the realization came to me that I was going to die, but it wasn't going to be from the HIV; it was going to be from the partying, from doing all the drugs. And that was kind of the aha moment, as Oprah likes to say, "Your aha moment."
It started a path for me of figuring out how I could change the behaviors in my life so that I could start to live a life that I was proud of, and ultimately a life that would allow me to live a long, generous life.
What first steps did you take on that path?
Well, the first step I had to take was to really dig deep into what it meant to be positive. And the higher up you want to go, the lower you have to go down. So it's kind of like when you want to jump off a diving board; if you want to get some height, you've got to really go down on it. You've got to jump down hard, and then you go up high.
So I went to the bad place, emotionally, with it. I did not reach out for help, for therapy, didn't really reach out to friends. I kind of just took it into myself. And it's not something that I would recommend to others. I would definitely recommend reaching out, finding resources and seriously looking at the Just Diagnosed Resource Center on The Body. It's there. You're not the first person to get HIV. See how it's been done. See what other people have done. And then make decisions for yourself.
But what I did, as I'm often known to do, is do it the hard way. So I would listen -- there's a musical, as I'm sure most of you have heard, called Rent. And there's this song called -- I can't remember the name of it. I think it starts with, "Will I?" And the song basically talks about dying alone, without anybody to care for you and to be there for you. I assigned that song to my life. I told myself that was what was going to happen. I was going to die alone of AIDS with no one to care for me.
And that was a period of probably a year and a half. So really, depression, I guess, to kind of sum it all up. I was depressed, and I wasn't reaching out for help. And going that deep down started my ascent back up.
And so what were your first steps after going to that dark place? It sounds like it was really cathartic to just kind of be in that depression, and also just feel it and just cry it out. What then did you do to start that ascent? Did you reach out for help? Did you go to an organization? Did you tell a friend?
I had started to tell people. I had started to tell friends. And in coming out -- you can come out in so many ways, for so many things -- coming out in disclosing your HIV status is such a personal thing. And you're entitled to do it in any way, shape or form, or not at all. I systematically started to tell people closest to me, friend-wise, leading up to telling my mom.
There was definitely a lag time between telling all the people that I knew in my life, and then telling her, because I knew that it would upset her the most, and so I didn't want to upset her. But I just started systematically going through and telling people one at a time, in a very matter-of-fact way.
And my way of coming out progressed, too. In the beginning it was like, "I have something to tell you. I'm HIV positive. I'm good. I'm healthy. I feel good. But I wanted to share that with you," which then progressed to just slipping it into casual conversation during dates. So there was definitely a progression of the first time I told someone to the most recent way that I would explain my status to someone.
All this stuff was happening at once. It was like thinking I'm going to die, realizing I'm not going to die from HIV, and trying to move past that thought, recognizing and telling people, and realizing they're not going to reject me.
And I think we all have this innate fear of rejection. I know it's a really strong motivating factor for me, is thinking that people are going to reject me. So when I realized that people were not going to reject me -- and then also the realization that some people might -- and that was OK.
So it started me on this path of like just wanting to shout it from the rooftops, where I would be, like, "I'm positive! This is me. I have HIV." And that was the start of that being OK with life, and moving on from my addiction and from my fear of dying.
So, now, backtracking a little bit, how did you tell your mom? You said that you were telling friends in the run-up to telling Mom. How did you start that conversation?
I went over to her house. I want to say it was around the holidays. And I sat her down. I was like, "I have something to tell you. You need to know that I'm totally healthy and everything's fine." I said, "But I have HIV."
And she started crying, and she said, "No, no, no."
And so I told her, "No, I don't. I don't have it. I don't have it."
And then she was like, "Oh, OK. OK. OK." And then the next day she called me and she's like, "You do have it, don't you?"
And I was like, "Yeah, I do."
And she's like, "OK." So we needed that buffer, that fake buffer of pretending that that didn't just happen. But we got through it. She's been to my doctor with me.
Looking back on it, for people that are going to tell people in their life, if they've got to tell their families or their friends -- have information. Be prepared to take them to a site like The Body. Have pamphlets. Get your information together. Do your homework. Because the fact of the matter is, by the time you're ready to tell someone you've come to a place, for the most part, of being OK that you're going to tell them, to some degree. And they are not going to be prepared for that. So any information that you can leave them with, resources to check out I think is really helpful, and I would encourage you to do that for their sake.
My mom is totally OK with it now. She gets it. I run marathons. I do 200-mile bike rides. I teach spin. She sees that I'm healthy and that I'm going to live a long life, and I'll outlive her. But in that moment her world was definitely, I'm sure, collapsing around her when I told her.
Yeah. No kidding. Speaking of Mom, tell us a little bit about you childhood, upbringing. Where did you grow up? And what was it like growing up?
I'm an only child. I do not suffer from only child syndrome. I grew up in Chicago. I was overweight as a child. And most of my adult life, I have been overweight. So I definitely wasn't like an outcast. I mean, I was; I wasn't like the most popular kid, by far. I had my friends, you know? Like, you had the other outcasts that were your friends.
But growing up, I went to a private Catholic school. And next to the Catholic school was a place; it was called Shelter of God's Love. And there was a place where people with disabilities lived. And when I was 12, I started hanging out there. And so my best friends were all the people that lived at the shelter.
So there was a girl with spina bifida. There was a blind woman. There was a girl with cerebral palsy. Those were my friends. And it was like two blocks from my house. So I would get off of school. I would go there. I would do my homework. I would hang out. I would help around the place. I would help serve dinner. I'd eat with them. So that was what my childhood, my formative years of growing up, was like in a household where you were different. But I guess you weren't different. I mean, you were different, but you weren't. That's just who you were.
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