The Moment I Broke Through HIV Stigma and Shame
Looking around the room, I saw faces that looked like mine, in the sense that they were just as lost, confused, scared and intimidated as I was. Everyone was pretty much silent at first, and I avoided making eye contact because I wasn't ready to open up on any level, especially with a stranger. When the facilitator entered the room and introduced himself, he insisted that we all take a moment to introduce ourselves, and that's when I began to internally panic. What was I supposed to say, "Hi, I'm David, and I'm HIV-positive"?
I kept to myself at first and just listened. Fortunately, I was near the end of the introductions so I had some time to formulate a few words that would best describe my reason for being there. What I heard prior to my spotlight moment were men like me admitting something that I had trouble admitting even to myself: Just like me, they were HIV positive.
I had moved to San Francisco a couple of years after being diagnosed, a couple of years of hitting rock bottom in my personal and professional life. My diagnosis at that time, at least to me, was the end of my world as I knew it. I entrusted a circle of friends and family with my secret, but after that I pretty much kept it to myself. I had made the decision to move to San Francisco because, in my mind, that was a place that was more open to guys like me, where I could find some sort of support system.
I later learned that I was totally off about finding a city that was more open to HIV-positive guys, as the stigma within the gay community was strong (and probably still is, although I may be wrong as I left San Francisco years ago.) But what I did find was an abundance of resources and programs to help me break through my personal stigma and shame.
After some months of one-on-one counseling through a program of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, I mustered up enough courage to attend a weekend of events and programming specifically geared toward gay men who had recently been diagnosed. I was hesitant at first because I was two years deep already, but my counselor kept insisting that two years was still recent, and that I was mentally suffering as if it was still the day I had first heard the news.
The weekend consisted of about 20 gay men coming together to hear each other's stories and find ways to help each other overcome whatever obstacles were blocking us from moving on after the initial diagnosis. In my group, there were some men who had found out just days or weeks before, and others who had been living with HIV for years but were only now ready to start the process of moving on.
As I heard each person tell his personal story during that circle introduction, I immediately related with each one. Some stories were more devastating and heartbreaking than others, but in the end we all had the same feelings and experiences. I had never been in a room with so many people who understood me and knew exactly how I felt. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks as I heard story after story, and when it was my turn to share, I no longer wanted to limit myself to my name and status. Instead, as the tears flowed the words also flowed. I spent what felt like a lifetime (probably a minute) telling my personal story of HIV and finally admitting to a room of strangers that I was HIV-positive. That was something that I had never imagined I could do, but in that setting it felt right and I felt safe doing it.
For me, this was my breakthrough, my turning point. From that weekend experience I not only gained new friends, a new confidence and a new perspective on life, but I also gained a new attitude about my life and myself. Years later, I have published over 60 articles and personal essays about my struggles and life with HIV, and about HIV/AIDS in general. I have spoken at conferences in front of thousands of strangers, and I've lived a very public and open life about my positive status. But it all comes back to that moment when I first sat down, looked up and saw a group of lost, confused, scared and intimidated men, just like me.