Desiring Intimacy After an HIV Diagnosis, in a Time More Naked Than Sexy
It was so liberating when I rediscovered how to be intimate after my HIV diagnosis. I remember looking at someone I found attractive and daring to flirt again. I hadn't touched anyone in months and thought that just looking was now forbidden, for that was an invitation into the abyss of viral contact. I just remember being numb.
The medical provider I was seeing at the time tried hard to provide me with hope and to check with me about intimacy. I just didn't feel as if I was worthy. I couldn't even touch myself. All I could think about was how did this happen to me? You know better! I went between feelings of regret, hopelessness and death. I was frozen in ignominy, even when nobody knew. Every time someone asked if I were OK, I would get paranoid thinking "they know" and would say "yeah" defensively.
This time for me wasn't sexy at all, but it was the most naked I'd ever felt in my life. It was definitely a time to cry. Through this new challenge, I was given unintended space to think more about my body and its relationship to trauma. I was also steadfast about starting treatment.
I was prescribed Atripla (efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC) a few months after being diagnosed. This was before the push for "treatment as prevention," and the algorithm was that if someone didn't have a CD4 count below 500, they could delay treatment.
The first week I was so scared of the potential side effects. I had vivid dreams and would wake up throughout the night. I had to be at work at 5 a.m., but the meds made me so groggy that I was often late to work. I couldn't tell my manager because I was terrified. I made up excuse after excuse for not arriving on time. The bus schedule was my most-used reason for lateness.
The pills were huge! I would wash one down with a glass of water only to have it lodged in my esophagus. I had to drink another glass to ensure it had been swallowed completely. It was rough in this context to think of anything else, with a rigid schedule of work, pills and sleep.
Trying to stay on top of a routine that was out of the norm for me had many points of pain. I'd never had to take something every day before. It was the first time I had to take a pill that would remind me of my reality each time I took it.
We Strive for Togetherness Even When We Are Reluctant
This made it difficult for me to think about closeness to others. Paying attention both to the new me and to another person was seemingly impossible, but I knew eventually I would have to work through it -- we strive for togetherness even when we are reluctant.
I had struggled with rejection as a younger person, and this made the feeling of undesirability familiar to me. Growing up, people would call "big head," "loaf of bread head" and other names -- this traumatized me, and consequently, whenever I received complements in my young adulthood, I wouldn't believe them. I was often left thinking, "Don't they see my big head?"
It made it easy to add HIV to my running list of reasons why someone wouldn't choose me.
Honestly, the few times condoms weren't used, it was because I felt that I would be less desirable if I pressed about it. It reminds me that root traumas left unacknowledged can lead to new fresh ones, like a tree growing fruit.
"That Poz Guy"
I didn't want to go to support groups because I felt they would just brand me "that poz guy." Too often, I had seen people collapse someone's beauty and honor into a perversion of itself because he or she had HIV. If you dared to share a compliment about them, people would say, "Girl, you know she got the kitty," and this burned me, too -- for now I had the kitty as well. The "kitty" is one of the codes for saying someone has HIV in black LGBTQ spaces. Because of the stigma connected to HIV, for some people just saying the word HIV is difficult enough.
There was just one thing I could hope for, and that was undetectability. Naively, I thought this would make me more desirable. I could say, "I'm poz and I'm undetectable," and it would be like overly salty soup, just add some water and magically it's fixed!
Yay! I was undetectable within a month of starting antiretroviral treatment and felt a little better because I was determined to not allow HIV to conquer all of me. It had taken enough -- my optimism about relationships, my vision for the future -- but I was committed to not allowing it to take my body without a fight. I felt proud, as if I were putting a middle finger up at all the viral copies that were trying to replicate and laughingly dismissing them. Now, if I could conquer love, it would all be so perfect again.
The Myth of Poz Love as Predatory
I was still scared to date because I was struggling with internalized HIV stigma that made me diminish the nuances of body, virus and intimacy into the myth of poz love as predatory. I felt as if nothing good would come from loving me, just tragedy and an infection.
It causes serious harm when you're confronted with narratives of non-disclosure blame for the ways in which we interact in a world ever ready to display us as lurking around seronegative people waiting to expose them to HIV. They will determine your humanity by the answer to the question: "Did you disclose?"
It is interesting that people can make space for all the complexity of intimacy outside HIV. I've heard some of the most impassioned arguments about other barriers to intimacy and why someone deserves love. When it comes to serostatus, all of that goes out the window. On first meeting someone you wish to be intimate with, you must with provide them all the information you have: "I'm poz, my CD4 count is in the 800s and my viral load is undetectable; did I forget to tell you who my doctor is?"
I had to do lots of work to resist internalizing messages and to remember myself in how I moved through the world. Who you are has nothing to do with what you have. It isn't somehow indicative of your value. This made it a little easier to begin thinking about dating.
I was asked on a date and nervously agreed. What would I say or how would I disclose? I remember sitting at dinner thinking about this. I awkwardly burst out and said it without pause or preamble, "I'm poz!!"
The person looked so scared and shocked.
It probably didn't help that I hadn't warmed him up, explaining with shame that I had a secret to share. I probably didn't help that I hadn't looked dejected and rested my eyes on my chest. I had made a declaration without context or emotion.
I figured this was the only way I could deal with disclosure. It had been drilled into my mind that my job as poz person was to protect others from me and, therefore, I needed to let him know, now, right at this moment. He kinda nodded and immediately felt bad for me, saying: "I'm so sorry that happened to you. We can be friends, but that's all."
I had flirted with the possibly of being desirable again and was rejected, but it was such a beautiful thing to hold that I could be sexy with HIV.
Intimacy for people in unseen communities is challenging. Where in the social consciousness do you see love modeled for poz people? The brutal truth is that we navigate the world in the ways that make sense to us, with all that we hold identity-wise. And we are beautiful people coming home to ourselves again and learning that we are complete.