Trigger warning: this piece discusses themes of anxiety and medical conditions.
I remember feeling so scared to tell anyone, the fear, not that I was gay, but that I could be infected and that one mistake could have changed my life as I knew it.
In October 2015, I was just about to graduate from university, my exams had finished and I felt a sense of freedom. I was free to decide what I would do next, holiday back in Europe, move to a new city, a new country, but it all came crashing down when I got a phone call. A guy I had met one night in Dunedin called me out of the blue, I answered and he started off with some small talk, “how’s your day going, been a busy week?” I could sense that there was something that he wanted to say. There was silence and he said, “I’ve got something to tell you, I’ve been to see my doctor and I’ve had some bloods taken and I’ve been diagnosed with HIV.”
At that moment, I can’t quite say what I felt. I think I was mainly scared. Because, like many other young gay guys, I wasn’t educated about new medications and how treatable it is, I just went straight into the negatives and thought about all the films I had seen and articles I had read where they painted HIV as a death sentence. During this time, I was still closeted, and the thought that I would now be forced to come out filled me with anger. Anger because I was no longer in control of my story.
That week before I told someone what I was going through was the darkest time of my entire life. I wasn’t sleeping, eating, I would hide in my room as I didn’t want anyone to see me in fear, they would be able to tell that something was wrong. I started to get severe health anxiety, I started to become hyper-aware of my body, small marks became indicators that I was sick and I made the dreaded mistake of googling symptoms. I became so exhausted, hiding this massive secret, I felt embarrassed and ashamed of myself and my actions as I was always someone who always judged those who were dealing with depression and anxiety and for the first time in my life, I was there. Nothing I found joy in gave me the same feeling, it was as if I was a completely different person and I believed this would be the way I would feel for the rest of my life.
I went into a dark place and I contemplated what it would be like if I was to just disappear. I had so much support around me and love from friends and family but the shame was more than I could handle. It wasn’t until one night before I went to bed I said good night to my twin sister and she looked at me and asked, “are you okay?” She said it as if she knew something wasn’t right, I quickly responded with, “of course,” and hurried off to my room, closed the door and just burst into tears. I knew I had to find the strength to face this and I needed my family to know. I wasn’t even scared to tell them I was gay, I knew they would accept me but to tell them I might have HIV was terrifying.
The next day I called my mum and fighting back tears I said, “you need to come round to my flat." I picked her up at the bottom of my street and she could tell something wasn’t right, she asked me, “what’s wrong honey?” I said, “I can’t tell you right now, I just need to get back to the flat then I have something to say.” She grabbed my hand and we just walked up the street to my flat. I can still remember how long that walk felt, how sweaty my hands were, and how all I could hear was my heart beating so fast. We got inside and I sat her down, I looked at her and told her everything. I came out to her and said, “I think I might have HIV. I'm waiting for my tests and I’m sorry.”
I’ll never forget the words that came out of her mouth. She just looked at me and said, “you’ll be okay.” At that moment, I felt this weight lift from me, I felt all the shame and guilt of not just the situation I was in but years of hiding who I was, not letting people near my phone, pretending I was into girls and lying to friends and family about where I was going and what I was doing. I could finally exhale and breathe, live life as my true self.
Mum made sure I went and told my dad, brother and twin sister. My sister cried and told me, “I always knew. I always knew you were gay, and it’s been so hard seeing you hide that part of you. I just wanted to wait for you to feel comfortable enough in who you are before you told us. Know that I love you and I’m scared that I’m going to lose you but I know you’ll be okay.” As I said, I knew deep down when I was in the closet that I would be surrounded by love and support but it was in myself that I struggled with it. Like many others coming out, I feared those close to me thinking differently of me, how would my work colleagues react, my football team, and my best friends but it wasn’t until I realised that it actually doesn’t change anything about who I am that I was able to be okay with it.
The tests came back negative, as did all the other tests over the six months after and ever since, but it’s taken me four years to deal with it. I still have a fear of going to the doctor to get bloods taken, I’m still working out who I am and being more comfortable within my own skin, but I’m finally able to close this chapter.
Why do I feel the need to tell all my friends and family about it? Well, I want to share my story. There are so many of us dealing with things, so many of us hiding behind filters and smiles, too afraid to share these struggles with friends and family. I want to show people the importance of sharing your story. Do it in your way, because everyone is dealing with something, we are all just doing the best we can on this wonderful journey of life. For me, I want to live a life that is open and truthful, I want to be an open book, I know for others this is different and I urge you to not keep it to yourself. Don’t get caught up in your own head, otherwise, you’ll become an audience member in your own life.
To all those who are living with HIV, I want you to not feel ashamed, to not feel scared to share your status - if you feel comfortable doing so. We need to educate everyone that it’s not the death sentence that it once was, there is medication that you can take which makes it undetectable (which means you can’t pass the virus onto anyone). I want you to know that you are loved, you are strong and you are still YOU!
We all preach inclusiveness but still, in my own community and many others, people still judge those who are HIV+ - that's not okay and it needs to change!
I hope someone finds strength in this and my story resonates with you to find strength to face whatever it is that you need to face. Always remember, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
Voices of Hope wants you to know that you do not have to do this alone. Click here to 'find help' - it's not weak to speak!