After I was diagnosed with HIV at 22, the journey in finding my prince charming entailed disclosing my HIV status. Being long-term relationship oriented, I considered my HIV status as a blemish. Trying to navigate the dating waters once I was ready, about six months post-diagnosis, was like trying to learn how to ride a bike all over again. In order to even entertain the idea of dating again, I had to do some soul searching and fall back in love with myself. It took some time and is still something that I struggle with. I’ve never struggled more with the feeling of inadequacy than I did after learning I had HIV. I do not blame my bouts of inadequacy on having HIV, but to years of contributing factors: manipulative relationships, both friendship and intimate relationships, which just caused continuous self-doubt and questioning.
To combat this, I sought the counsel of a licensed clinical social worker, as well as support from a close friend and a couple of close family members. Talking with these people allowed some insight, perspective, and healing as I tried to work through a time of dark thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It was a time where I felt the least like myself. How could I look in the mirror and see myself, but not know myself? Dating at this time of my life was not even on my radar. I often told a friend that I felt too broken to date or even consider a relationship. I had some self-work that I thought was paramount. My friend’s response was that we are all broken in some aspect or another; love should be gentle and do more healing than anything else.
After growing in self-love and trying to discover the person I felt I had lost through years of people pleasing, I felt whole enough to get back into dating. I become interested in the idea of being touched and loved again, but the first thing that crossed my mind was disclosure. How do I tell someone who I may be interested in that I am HIV positive? At what point do I tell someone that I am HIV positive? How will I handle rejection? It’s not like once I disclose my status, I can ever undo the fact that someone else now knows my HIV status. Can I even trust the person I am telling, or will they try to out me?
In approaching the dating scene, I often thought about pursuing other HIV-positive people. I mean, all people need love, and I felt that it might even be nice to have someone in the same boat as me. Someone who can relate to HIV stigma. After a couple failed attempts at getting to know people, I found myself interested in someone. Having had only one true love in my lifetime, I decided to give dating a shot. In April 2018 at a friend’s birthday party, another friend told me I had caught someone’s eye. I wasn’t available at the time, but the next January we went on our first date.
That first date went fairly OK. Months later, he would tell me that he had thought he wouldn’t hear from me again, since I was reserved and short. However, he learned that I am just an introvert at heart, occasionally a social extrovert when surrounded by close friends and family. We did have a good conversation, and things seemed just to flow. He was sweet, and easy on the eyes. I loved how passionate he seemed about me, although he barely knew me. There were some red flags: He seemed a bit too materialistic and talked badly about someone who made too little money for him.
We went a few weeks without seeing each other until a game night at my home with some friends, when I invited him over. It was the morning of this game night that I decided to come out about my status online via social media. I had forgotten that he followed me and didn’t think of the consequences of him seeing the post. It was not until about an hour or so after I posted about my status that fear overcame me. Not the fear of what close family or friends might think; nor that of even strangers. It was because the person that I was talking to, and courting, found out something really personal about the guy he was interested in, online.
From what I found out later in the day, he called that mutual friend who had introduced us, to get their perspective and opinion. He also called a local HIV agency here in Georgia, to learn more about HIV. That same night, he came over for game night along with some other friends. He pulled me aside and told me that it didn’t change the way that he felt about me. I was completely thrilled but hated the way he had found out—even as I was contemplating calling him earlier in the day, so that he could hear it directly from me. I thought that my strategy to be transparent about my HIV status on social media would cause me to lose someone who I cared deeply about. Not only was doing so therapeutic for me, it also helped me further my agenda in becoming a public health advocate on the issue. Even after this happened, I decided not to pursue the relationship: I had to do some healing. I did not want to damage or hurt anyone in the process of my healing.
I went missing in action for a few months, until it took a car accident in March 2019 to make me realize that life is short, and that life is all about taking risks. All I remember was being laid up with a concussion, broken hand, and neck and back issues, thinking about how it all could have ended for me. Once I was finally somewhat stable, and no longer sleeping for 12 to 15 hours a day due to the concussion, I thought about some of the same fears I had when I was diagnosed with HIV; not ever getting married or having a family. This accident just made me realize how fragile life is, and how tomorrow is truly not promised. Even though we were not courting at the time, when the man I had dated found out about my car accident, he offered to check in on me and told me that he’d be there if I needed him. That meant everything to me and truly showed me who he was.
Things moved fast after that. After reconnecting, in April 2019 he asked me to be his boyfriend. In August 2019, he was suggesting that I move in with him, and by October 2019, I was. He was a great guy in many ways, but I saw things that concerned me and decided to overlook them or make excuses simply because I have grown to care so deeply for him. When I tried to communicate issues that arose, they kept reoccurring.
After I moved in, things went downhill. Of course, we had our good moments, but a lot of his emotional responses seemed out of line for the circumstance. There were a lot of events where I felt like he had to be the center of attention, and if he wasn’t he would act out in one way or another. There were other times when I felt like he always tried to one up me; like when I told him that my internship may turn into a job opportunity, and he told me he got promoted in the same breath. No pause or “Kudos to you,” but, “Well, actually, I got a promotion today myself, and a significant raise.” This was our entire relationship—and it was exhausting.
Although we are no longer together, I wish him the best. He has a great heart, but I think we both have our own share of work to do. When it comes to dating as an HIV-positive person, think about disclosing when it is best for you, and how it is best for you. I felt most comfortable disclosing over the phone. I think that it is also wise to prepare for rejection, as ignorance is rampant. Remember if they display ignorance, they are not the one for you.
Remember that you are not defined by your status, or someone’s acceptance. You are so much more than your status. Therefore, don’t tolerate poor behavior, abuse, or less, simply because you think that is all you deserve, or are worth. More importantly, make sure the relationship with yourself is intact. That is the most important relationship you will have with any person.