My roommate at the time was having doubts about whether he should be tested for HIV. He said it had been a year or so since the last time he took an HIV test. I had been volunteering for the local AIDS Walk and was just starting to get more heavily involved with the organization. I offered to take him to get tested and volunteered to have one as well, to help ease his fear. I was in full-on support mode for my friend, fearing the worst for him and never considering once that I might be the one needing his support one day.
The good news for my friend that day was that he remained negative. After his test, it was my turn. In hindsight, I should have gone first, but for some reason, I went second. My HIV test counselor was pretty straightforward and nice. I had explained to her why I was there and how my roommate was pretty worried about his results, but in the end, he had "passed the test." It was at that moment of confidence when I heard her say, "Baby, you positive."
The moment my life changed was on April 4, 2009, when my HIV test counselor had to break the rules and go get my friend from the waiting room to comfort me, and walk me down the back stairs that exited directly to the parking lot, because I was too distraught to show my face in the waiting room and main lobby. It's a perfect example of role reversal, and I am so thankful that he was there that day.
I told my family and a few close friends, but to the rest of the world, nothing was wrong. Showing up to the volunteer meetings at the HIV organization I was working with was beyond painful. I didn't share my secret with anyone there, even though I know now that they would have been my number one support system.
I spent the first month after my diagnosis drinking and drinking heavily. I began antiretroviral medication immediately, as well as a plethora of antianxiety/depression cocktails. The doctors had no problems issuing me prescriptions for combinations of pills to help with all my symptoms. I let my work slip and was terminated from my amazing job, which I had worked so hard to get at that time in my life. By May, just a month after diagnosis, I had ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning from a week of non-stop binge drinking. It took me almost two years before I would find some sense of normalcy in my life. Within those two years, I found myself in a new city and had reawakened to become the person I am today.
I wish I could have back the two years I wasted feeling low and useless. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have had my downward spiral. Having settled in San Francisco after the diagnosis, I opted to attend a weekend support group for newly diagnosed people given by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. What that amazing weekend showed me was that there were others like me, and that I was more in my element doing the comforting versus being comforted. That weekend proved to me that I was a lot stronger than I originally thought, and all I needed was for that light switch to be flipped on. The friends I made that weekend are all still friends today. Through the years they have all evolved and also been transformed into compassionate helpers and activists. I wasn't the only one that decided to do something more to help. Each of my new friends, in their own way, became a better person that weekend and is now either directly or indirectly -- sometimes without knowing it -- helping others and being a role model.
When I finally had the courage to come out publicly, I did it in a big way. Being a writer, I published my second coming out to let the world know that I was HIV positive and I didn't care. To this date, my only regret is that I didn't pen it sooner. The overwhelming feelings of fear and shame were lifted almost immediately upon coming out, which is not an unfamiliar feeling for those who come out as gay.
I've spent the past three years writing about my feelings regarding my journey, my struggle and my opinions. I've been an open book and consider myself an activist in my own way. I work with HIV organizations, speak at conferences and events, and volunteer when I can to help to make a difference. I'm fortunate that in my career, I have a voice, and I can spread a message through many outlets. I've also realized that the words of confidence I speak in a personal setting are just as powerful as the words I write that are read in national magazines and prominent websites.
The only way that more people will feel comfortable talking about HIV is to make HIV a nonissue. Coming out as HIV positive and showing your friends, family and the world that you are still the same person they know is the best way to start. Helping to kill the stigma surrounding HIV is what's necessary now. Whether it's raising money for HIV/AIDS research, PrEP as prevention, HIV stigma, knowing your status, or anything that reaches out to you, do something to help that movement.
As my five-year anniversary approaches this April 4, I am feeling 100% blessed to live the life I live and want nothing more than to be a voice for my generation, helping others, and myself, by knowing that I can make a difference. Whether it's writing a cover story on HIV for a magazine or posting on my Facebook wall about HIV, it's all equally important. If you are HIV positive, regardless of whether it's been one day or 20 years, your voice is just as needed, and now is the time to speak out. We are stronger in numbers, and the more we help each other overcome what we need to overcome, the sooner the rest of the world will catch up and join us.