Since becoming HIV positive over 13 years ago, I've learned a lot about myself. Learning to accept my disease did not happen overnight. The road was bumpy, but I made it.
The first couple of years were the hardest. In the beginning, other than my doctor and sexual partners, I told no one. The shame I felt at being found out was palpable. I remember always being on guard about my status. I can't begin to count the number of times I'd have friends over for a social visit, and when it came time to take my pill, I'd sneak away to the bathroom to do it secretly. Eventually, I started to tell the people in my life, but before I was able to do that, I had to go through the hardest time of my life. It is darkest before the dawn.
I finally reached a breaking point thanks to a song. It's called "Will I" from the musical Rent, which as you probably know is about HIV. It's a simple song. There is only one chorus, and it repeats four times. I've included the words below because I think it will help provide some perspective on just how low I had sunk.
Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow
From this nightmare?
I thought that no one would ever love me because I was HIV positive, and I would die alone in a hospital bed sick with AIDS. I would listen to this song on repeat for what seemed like hours, and would sob uncontrollably on the floor of my apartment curled up in a fetal position. The sounds that would come out of my mouth were loud and guttural; I was an animal in pain.
It felt as if these sounds resonated in my soul. I'd never experienced anything like that before, and thankfully I haven't since. I would wail until my stomach hurt -- and then I'd wail some more, and harder. My stomach muscles would end up hurting badly, but I couldn't stop. I always did though, eventually. The non-stop wailing would become interspersed with short breaks. My stomach muscles would relax a little. And finally, it would peter off into some light tears. By the time I was done, I felt empty inside. I had cried every tear, feeling and ounce of energy out of my body.
These breakdowns would come seemingly at random. One time I would be OK about being rejected by a potential suitor for being HIV positive, but the next I'd go to the bad place and then on came that song. I can't say exactly how long this period lasted, but I do know exactly when it ended.
It started out like a typical breakdown. Something had set me off. The song was on repeat. The wailing was happening on cue and then all of a sudden it just stopped midway through. I remember frantically trying to get the tears back. I needed the release! But they didn't come. I don't know what happened, to be honest with you. Perhaps I'd cried all the tears that I could and all that was left was to start moving on with my life.
Soon after this, I began to notice that the more people I told about my status, the better I felt. I started telling everyone and anyone I could. This empowered me in a way that I'd never before felt. The better I felt about being HIV positive, the more I came to see that what I was experiencing was not the norm. I thought that everyone broke through to the other side, but they don't. Many seem to get stuck in the bad place, and we have to find ways to change that.
Richard is an independent fundraising and business development consultant, writer, full-time student and group fitness instructor. He has been HIV positive since 2002, and believes that the key to eliminating HIV-related stigma is for HIV-positive people to live openly with their disease.
Want to share your own "Day One With HIV" story of finding out your diagnosis? Write out your story (1,000 words or fewer, please!), or film a YouTube video, and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the coming months, we'll be posting readers' "Day One" stories here in our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed. Read other stories in this series.