My name is George M. Johnson. I'm black. I'm queer. I'm HIV positive.
Like the announcement at an AA meeting, there comes a time when you must face your greatest fear, look at your reflection and be fully accepting of the person looking back at you. I've been telling this story for some time in bits and pieces, and I've disclosed my status in several articles. But I never told the full story because I didn't know whether I was ready to go full term with my truth.
I will never forget the day I secretly refer to it as the "best, worst day of my life." I had just turned 25 and was about to graduate from grad school. Things were looking up for me -- but I wasn't feeling well and knew deep inside that something was wrong. It was November 19 to be exact, a day after my mom's birthday, when I finally built up the courage to go and get tested. Being in Richmond, Virginia, services weren't comparable with other major capitals. It was a free clinic with some very nice staff members. I remember them telling me it would take about 20 minutes and an oral swab.
Then they sat me in a room alone to watch some stupid ass video about sexually transmitted infections. All I remember was praying that, either way the results came out, I would be covered. Twenty minutes passed and the nurse came and took me into a room. Another woman walked in, so I already knew something wasn't right. I began to panic. I just remember falling onto the couch and her telling me that "the results came back positive."
I immediately broke down and began to fear the worst. The lady grabbed me and hugged me as hard as she could, repeating, "You are gonna be OK baby; I promise you that you will be okay." After calming down, I took a blood test that was sent out for results, and I went back to work.
I couldn't focus. I was at work thinking the absolute worst. I remember texting one of my best friends and then calling a co-worker who also happened to be a pastor. She immediately came over and sat with me. She held me, and she prayed with me.
I sat in disbelief for about an hour when the phone rang. It was the bank calling me to tell me that I had gotten approved for my mortgage and I needed to come in ASAP with paperwork. I literally grieved my diagnosis for one hour and then sucked it up as if it had never even happened.
But the next two weeks would be agonizing, as I went to my first doctor's appointment. I was nervous as I had never experienced anything like this before. It was my initial blood work and I remember having a black nurse. When she pulled out the needle to do the blood draw, I broke down in tears again. She grabbed my hand, looked at me and asked whether I knew the Serenity Prayer, to which I responded "no." She said, "Well, let's learn it." She began the blood draw and said, "Repeat after me." We went through the prayer twice and it was all over. She told me to always say that prayer in everything I do and I would be okay.
I remember having my first appointment and getting my initial results back: a T-cell count that was low but a viral load that was unusually low as well. The doctor was shocked but also relieved that my body had been doing well on its own. Just to be safe, I was still prescribed meds in an effort to get me undetectable. I can remember those early years: every pimple or cold or rash sending me into a panic attack; prepping myself for the worst and not really living for the moment anymore. Would I make it to 26 or 27 or 28? Before I knew it though, I had made it, and at some point I stopped counting down and began looking forward.
There was much to learn about navigating life as an HIV-positive person. Although disclosure is not a necessary step, for me it has been and is the most freeing thing I have done. There is something beautiful about looking at your reflection and knowing that you aren't masking pieces of your entire whole.
I knew rejection would come -- and although it doesn't come as often as I imagined it would, it still is a striking thing to hear someone say they don't mess with people like you. There is still much stigma and fear and little education in our community around the topic, which makes the need for those of us living with the virus to be more vocal about it than ever. The often mislabeled "death sentence" has truly become one of power and shows what can become when you look adversity in the face and refuse to be condemned by it.
At some point I decided that I was more than my diagnosis, and I needed to be a vessel to teach others that they can be too. I decided to dedicate my life to activism and advocacy for those who are marginalized and voiceless in this fight against HIV. Taking my meds on time, eating right, dieting right and enjoying life is the best example I can put forward for those who just need to know that it will be OK. Believing that everything happens for a reason, I know I wouldn't be the person I am today had it not been for my diagnosis. My story, like those of many others, is one about surviving and thriving. I can only hope that this makes one of the many who don't know their HIV status go and get tested. Once you know, you too will have the power to be more than a diagnosis.
Want to share your own "Day One With HIV" story of finding out your diagnosis? Write out your story (1,000 words or fewer, please!), or film a YouTube video, and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the coming months, we'll be posting readers' "Day One" stories here in our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed. Read other stories in this series.