There's a saying that life only gives us what we can handle. For Greg Guelda, his life was completely changed one December when he adopted a child, despite splitting up with his longtime partner. Only a month after the adoption, he was celebrating his daughter's first birthday and having to deal with an HIV diagnosis. In a way, he lucked out: Had he found out his status before the adoption, Greg never would have had Ruby, his daughter, who is now 7 years old. As a single parent, Greg's life has been changed in so many great ways by Ruby -- many of which he shares in this beautiful interview.
This interview was conducted along with Brian Rosenberg, CEO of Gays With Kids. TheBody.com is proud to present this interview as part of a series of interviews with HIV-positive dads done in collaboration with Gays With Kids for World AIDS Day 2014.
Mathew Rodriguez: Greg, had you always wanted to be a father, growing up? Is this something that you always saw yourself doing?
Greg Guelda: Yes. I was actually engaged to a woman when I was around 21. One of the reasons we were moving forward more quickly with that was because we both wanted kids.
I've always seen myself as wanting children. So there were years and years in which I didn't think that was going to be possible. But I always wanted kids. So, yes.
Mathew Rodriguez: When you were first diagnosed as HIV positive, after you dealt with everything that comes with being newly diagnosed, did you think about what that meant for your hopes? Did you think that that had ruined your chances of being a parent at all?
Greg Guelda: This is where my interview is going to be very different, I think, than everyone else's. In 2007, I was engaged to a guy. And the idea was to move forward with the adoption. So in moving forward with the adoption process it was necessary for me to take HIV tests. I adopted my daughter internationally, and that was part of the adoption program.
My tests were negative, and they always had been.
In short, the referral was made. I was connected with my daughter the day, actually, before she was born. And things sort of progressed, as adoptions do. I split with my ex before bringing her home because he was exhibiting signs of -- well, I don't know what we'd call it -- things that made me feel he would not be an optimum co-parent; I'll put it that way.
So I split with him in November of 2007. I got the call to go to Guatemala and pick up my daughter at the end of December. I brought my daughter home on Dec. 23, 2007. And I applied for an additional large-scale life insurance policy because, obviously, now, I've surprisingly become a single parent. In the process of applying for the life insurance policy is when I found out.
And then another 30 days passed, and my daughter had her first birthday. So basically, on a one-month sort of scale, I became single, became a parent, discovered my HIV status, and then celebrated my daughter's first birthday.
I never had the opportunity to process HIV, what HIV would mean for me as a parent. As it turns out, my ex infected me intentionally, and had been positive for several years and was lying about it the whole time. Anyway, yeah. So if I had gotten my diagnosis before the adoption, I don't believe my adoption would have been even possible, and I really don't have any idea how I would have felt about it.
I know that when I was diagnosed, of course, it sent me into a bit of a tailspin, in great part because I had no idea what it was going to mean for me. It was already like: OK, how am I going to navigate being a single parent? And then overlaying that on top of it.
So, yeah. I guess it doesn't perhaps follow a typical pattern because of the timing of my diagnosis.
Brian Rosenberg: What did you do to get help, to deal with all these major life-changing situations?
Greg Guelda: Sadly, I didn't do anything to get help. I did everything on my own. It's sort of pathetic, but I'm an entrepreneur, so I'm used to creating my own opportunities, solving my own problems, working through everything on my own. Honestly, becoming a parent was really kind of the same thing.
Basically, I was very lucky, in the sense that because my businesses had done well I was able to just not work. I quit working for three years, just so I could focus on being a parent -- which was incredibly lucky on my part. I can't imagine if I had to deal with all of the emotional roller coaster of the HIV, and the responsibility of the parenting, and financial stress on top of that. It was very, very lucky for me on that score.
It took me years, to be honest with you. It took me years before I would even let my daughter -- I won't say out of my sight; that sounds so controlling -- but she just didn't go to anyone else's house. She didn't go with a babysitter. I took care of everything all the time.
What that really meant for me was, because I was so focused on her, I really didn't deal with HIV at all. I mean, I would go in and have my bloodwork done, but I was healthy as a horse and so I really didn't do anything. I just put the HIV on a shelf, because I had to pick something that I could manage. And the only thing I really could manage was being a parent.
Mathew Rodriguez: When was it then that you started dealing with your health?
Greg Guelda: It was years later. I was making some, what I would call, less than perfectly rational decisions about looking for a change in patterns. I needed to do something to improve. My daughter and I moved to Costa Rica for a while. I thought some distance might do me some good, and I felt that there might be some opportunities for me to do something professionally there; so I thought I'd give that a shot. I just -- I needed a change of pace. I was running, more or less.
I mean, going through the mechanics, I feel like dealing with my health is really two separate questions. One is my physical health, and one is my sort of mental and emotional health. My physical health, I kept up with. Found a fantastic doctor. Saw my doctor to do bloodwork when I needed to do that. So I was always doing that. But the emotional, mental health of dealing with the HIV component -- gosh, I'm still dealing with it. And it may be a lifelong, ongoing issue. I hope not.
But I don't know that I have completely been able to process all of it, because I haven't had time for myself to focus on that aspect. Like a lot of people, a lot of parents, no matter what variety of parent they are, you tend to put yourself last on the list. And, like everybody else, that's what I've done. I'm trying to make arrangements so that I can focus more on that. And I'm doing well, but probably not as focused and proactive as I should have been, and certainly not as sane as I should have been.
Mathew Rodriguez: You are talking a lot about the balance that you have to strike as someone who's living with HIV and being a parent. What is some advice that you would give to other HIV-positive men who want to be parents?
Greg Guelda: Wow. Gosh. I don't know. It's really difficult for me to use the word advice. I don't want to paint myself into a position of being able to tell someone else how they should do things, or could do things. From my own experience, I would say that being a parent is not only the most important thing in my life, being a parent saved my life. There are times when being a parent is really the motivator for getting things together and taking care of myself, and doing lots of things.
And I would say that, while I had to learn on the fly about how to integrate being a parent and being HIV positive, because they happened exactly at the same time, it's possible. It doesn't really affect my daughter. It doesn't affect how well I care for her. It doesn't affect how much I love her. It doesn't affect how I interact, really, with other parents, or her school, or my family. HIV is not, in really any way, a deterrent to being a parent, or being a really great parent, as a matter of fact. The deterrent is being able to manage your own health, and your own well-being, along with being a parent.
And HIV, of course, adds a layer of complexity to that. But I think if someone is really in a spot where they can manage their well-being, both physical and mental, and really have a desire to be a parent, I don't see any reason that they shouldn't -- at all.
I will say one other thing. When I was discussing becoming a parent with a lot of people, virtually no one was supportive. And it sounds really kind of crazy, but at the time I had a pretty wonderful -- I had a life that most people would have loved to have. I traveled four months of the year. I went where I wanted. I did what I wanted whenever I wanted. I had a lot of freedom. And I was incredibly -- as I said -- I was very fortunate to have that.
Most people couldn't comprehend why I would give up all of that freedom to take on the responsibility of being a parent. In the end, most of those people have come back to me and almost apologized for not seeing that potential in me, as a parent. And those that have children have subsequently come back and asked for parenting advice from me. So I feel a little vindicated, I guess.
Mathew Rodriguez: You said Ruby was 7; so she's still very young. Does she know anything about your HIV status? Or that you're living with something? Or that you take a pill? Have you had that conversation with her in any way yet?
Greg Guelda: No. That's a tough issue. I'm very open with my daughter about, "Why don't I have a mom?" "Well, because Daddy doesn't want to marry a woman. If Daddy ever gets married, it'll be to a guy." I'm very open with her about these things. You know, women can be astronauts and just trying to give her a rational perspective on life.
My daughter is so young, and 7-year-olds can become very worried, especially only children. An only child can become incredibly worried about the parent because I am the only buffer between her and everything else in the world. I don't want her to feel at risk of anything happening to me.
So I just don't think she's old enough to have that discussion. She sees me take pills every day. To her, they're vitamins. That's how I get her to take her vitamins. "While Daddy takes his vitamins, you take your vitamins." "OK, Dad." So we go through our morning routine.
Honestly, I believe there's going to come a time -- and I'm not looking forward to it -- when my daughter is going to have to process this information. And there are going to be situations where other children or their parents are potentially going to be very unpleasant about it. And I just don't want to put her in that position yet. I really don't want to.
I know that she will eventually be very capable of processing that information. For example, I took her to our AIDS Walk. She asked what it is: "What's going on? Why is there a walk? And who are these people?"
I explained everything to her. I'm just afraid it would scare her if she knew that was me.
I took a selfie of my daughter and me the very first morning that we met. This was after a long sleepless night of dancing and singing and wondering how do I deal with a baby, and how do I change a diaper, and that sort of thing. We were just going out for the very first time to go for a walk. And just as I was leaving my hotel room -- this was in Antigua and I was like, "I want to remember this moment" -- and so I took a photograph of us exactly right then.
It's a great picture because of when it was taken, if that makes sense.
I don't know if you know that list of 25 that everybody years ago was doing on Facebook: "List 25 things you don't know about me." That kind of thing. Coming on the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, my daughter and I were living at our house in Costa Rica and I posted 25 things. And No. 25 was where I announced to everybody, hundreds of people on Facebook, why I had been acting so strange for a year, and why I seemed like an angry person when normally I'm a pretty happy guy. You know, just what had been going on.
So I posted it on there. And I feel like that liberated me a little bit -- to kind of kick the skeleton out of the closet, more or less. Having this thing on Facebook, I think, is good. Because it makes people realize it's not just some creepy person in some back alley using needles that deals with this. It's people around you that you know whose biggest crime was trusting the wrong person.
I will be honest with you: HIV, in and of itself, is completely manageable. It is. It's terrible; don't get me wrong. But in the grand scheme of things it's not as horrible as many, many other things out there. The stigma of HIV is, to me, ten times worse than the actual virus. The virus itself I feel completely comfortable with. The stigma continues to be the worst part of it for me, for what it's worth.
Mathew Rodriguez: Thank you so much.
Brian Rosenberg: Definitely, you'll help us to help lessen the stigma and, specifically, for gay dads with HIV. So, again, we really appreciate your participation.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.