Being a black gay man, I always knew that I was at a statistically higher risk of acquiring HIV, compared to the average person. I was more concerned with finding peace in the conflict between my spirituality and sexuality than I was about HIV. I felt as though I would always take the right precautions and preventive measures to ensure that I was not "another statistic."
I was diagnosed on April 29, 2017, four months after I rekindled a friendship with an old flame from New York who had moved to Atlanta. I had met him 10 years prior in middle school. We hung out a few times and eventually had sex. I noticed neither of us had condoms. I was extremely uncomfortable, but he persisted. I remember communicating my concerns. "Just this one time," he said. Although reluctant, after a decade of friendship, I felt a sense of trust.
A week later, I got a frantic call while at work. He said he was diagnosed as HIV positive, and I had given it to him. I was in complete shock. I knew I was negative. I had been tested a couple of months prior, and he was the only one I had been with since. That same day, I went down to a local agency here in Atlanta and got tested. It came back negative. I knew I was not out of the woods. I then thought about his words, "Just this one time." Did he do that in hopes that I would be the one that he could blame it on? With an already distorted view of trust as it comes to people, I became even more guarded. I went through a period of being lost, confused, hurt, and ashamed.
I went from a moderately successful young black man in corporate America, to someone who was completely lost and felt stripped of his identity. Everyone heals and reacts to the circumstances of life differently. Looking back, the healing process took a few months. Going through the process allowed me to get back to a place of knowing and loving the person I saw when I looked in the mirror. The first thing that was of the utmost importance was getting linked to care, getting in care, and staying in care. For me, that was paramount. I vowed to myself to always put my health -- physical, mental, and emotional -- first. If you or someone you know and love has been recently diagnosed with HIV, this article may help. Here are some things that I had to come to grips with, in order to heal mentally and emotionally.
When I was first diagnosed, I thought life was over. I had very little hope for ever being happy again. I was more concerned about my quality of life while living with HIV. Although I thought I was educated on HIV, it was not until I was diagnosed that I realized how ignorant I was about the disease. It is OK to react the only way you know how. For me, this was with a lot of crying and seclusion. I needed to process things on my own. It is important to acknowledge what you are feeling and allow yourself time to go through the emotions. Personally, it came in waves for me. One moment I was fine, and the next I was in tears. Whatever you feel is OK; shame, guilt, anger, regret, or even fear.
Release and Invest
After my diagnosis, I was balancing the daily stressors of life -- work, friends, family, dating, school, and coming to terms with being HIV positive. It just became too much to bear, and I needed an outlet. Being completely at my wits' end, I sought out the help of a licensed therapist. I've always been a strong proponent of therapy, and this was not my first try at it. I had gone years prior, while still living in New York. Though I did not attend as regularly as I should have, my therapist did teach me some stress-coping mechanisms. This included only taking on as much as I physically and mentally could handle. If I needed to take a break from school, do that. If I was able to go on a work hiatus, do that.
I also learned the necessity of putting myself first. It was recommended that I consider my physical and mental well-being as an intricate part of relieving daily stressors in a healthy way. I was already into keeping physically fit, so I just naturally got back into fitness on a regular basis. I put the time for it on the calendar weekly and allotted that time for me and the gym. During this time, it was a sacred time and commitment I made for myself. I also became more inclined to my overall nutrition. I just felt better when I ate better and worked out. I also found a great sense of peace in reconnecting and pursuing my spirituality, reading, listening to music, working out, and spending some alone time with myself. That alone time gave me clarity, and really helped me get more in tune with myself. I want to encourage you to take some time to be selfish, listen to your body, and get more in tune with yourself.
Redirect and Reconnect
After going through a phase of reacting and releasing, I found myself quite lonely. I assume that I needed that time to myself and with my own thoughts. However, I found the sudden desire to be surrounded by friends and family. There were times I just wanted to be held and reassured. I also found myself wanting to share a laugh with friends and family over past memories. This was monumental in my healing.
I found people in my life who were anchors, or my safe place, and leaned on them. This was primarily my friends and family. There was really an amazing outpouring of love after disclosing my status to close friends and family. I reached out to my best friend immediately after I got my diagnosis, and he was extremely supportive and instrumental in my healing process. I remember us both crying on the phone. However, he reassured me and sent me research just as we hung up, reminding me not to fret, and to remain strong. When I needed company to get my mind off of things, I could always count on him to be there; whether it was just watching music videos and laughing hysterically, or giving him a call to vent about my day. He was my crutch during my healing process, and I will forever be indebted to him for that. His love for me did not change post-diagnosis, and he was a true friend in my time of need.
During this time, it was also paramount for me to see people who resembled me. I turned to the internet and found a few people who looked like me; all thriving while managing their HIV. This encouraged me to come out about my status openly and spark a conversation. I have also joined a couple of groups here in Atlanta, which model a true brotherhood of gay black men living with HIV, most of whom are HIV advocates dedicated to ending stigma and giving back to the local community. Getting linked to a community that you can relate with is surely a great way to build support. You can never have too many cheerleaders rooting you on.
Life can be challenging and hectic. That is why practicing self-care is something that is needed, especially when healing from receiving an HIV diagnosis. Personally, I can be somewhat of a perfectionist. I had to realize that it is OK if I cannot give 100% every single day. There are days I am not going to show up as my best self, and that is OK. We all are going to have days like this. The world will not end. The world is not even looking for perfection, just that you show up! I encourage you to create and implement a self-care routine. For me, it entailed scheduling a lazy day in the house at least once a month, eating well, exercising regularly, and going to bed at a decent hour every night. Promising myself to laugh often was on the self-care regimen as well. My monthly therapy session is also sacred to me.
Although receiving an HIV diagnosis may seem like the end of the world, there is still so much life remaining to be lived. I know this first-hand. Healing requires you to acknowledge what you are feeling and thinking and find a way to make peace with what is. This looks different for everyone, and there is no right or wrong way.