“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife and you may ask yourself
Well—how did I get here?”—Once In a Lifetime, Talking Heads
Often, the first question I’m asked when I disclose that I’m HIV positive is “Do you know who infected you?” or “How did you get it?” Every HIV positive person I’ve chatted with has a story of how they got here; it is a crucial part of our journey and identity. How we became HIV positive is more than just the virology of transmission, whether it was from bareback sex or sharing needles. We seek a venue, a room, a place with context. We want a name or names. We want a time frame. We want answers, because it helps how we tell our story and may define our past, present and future.
We think “If I could just find out who gave this to me, I could”—what? Give it back? Seek revenge? Become a crusader fighting the evil-doer who infected me? Heal more completely and without the stigma associated with being “unclean”? Be a justified victim and not an active participant?
True, there are many living with HIV who are victims of someone not telling the truth; infected by someone who played Russian roulette with their partners by not regularly testing, not knowing their status. In North Carolina alone, an estimated 7,000 are HIV positive and unaware of their status, thus potentially spreading the virus to others.
After winning a long battle with shame and self-blame to get to this point, I’d like to answer the two questions I get asked from a place of rigorous honesty.
“Do you know who infected you?” No, I’m not entirely sure. I have an idea, and I’ve done a lot of calendar backtracking, counting sexual partners on fingers, trying to recall the risky behaviors I engaged in when drunk, high, depressed and spiritually bankrupt at the time I most-likely sero-converted, and I’ve come up with no definitive answer. I had a lot of sex. Some of it was with protection, and some of it wasn’t. Somewhere along this journey, I became HIV positive, and then my life’s journey changed dramatically.
“How did you get it?” Through unprotected, bareback sex with a HIV positive man who neglected to disclose his status. Then again, I didn’t insist on using a condom, either, and I was most likely drunk and stoned at the time.
Those are more honest, straightforward answers. I’ve grown to appreciate honesty. It doesn’t frighten me like it used to. It cuts through the bullshit stories I used to tell to elicit sympathy.
My story is not pretty. It is wrapped in dirty cellophane and stained with addiction issues, sexual compulsion, one night, late night hookups via the internet, staying too long in bars, bath houses and sex clubs and feelings of being desired yet never wanted, pursued yet never held close, and being used, abandoned and alone in a city of millions. It is a story of what happened when I tried to run from me, became someone I ended up not liking very much, and worst of all, told lies to those I loved—including myself.
For years I tried to decipher who could have infected me—it may have been Andrew, Brendan, Stephen, Chuck, or someone whose name I can no longer remember. At the time, It was important that I knew, until I came to realize that knowing ‘who did it’ changes nothing: I’m still living with HIV.
Finally, “how” I got to that place—not “who” infected me–became the most important question in my detective work.
When I was honest—when I stopped telling the story of a condom breaking, or the story of being taken advantage of by a sexual predator and just owned it—just said, “Yes. I made a mistake. I made several. But it just took once. I had unprotected sex many, many times because I was in such a place back then that I just wanted to give up on myself”, I felt the floodgates of honesty open from within, and felt real healing begin.
We all have a story to tell. The best stories come from a place of honesty, and from a beginning where mistakes are made, lies are told, trust gets betrayed, a journey begins, and lives become forever changed. Why is that? Because that’s where God lives. God lives within those stories, and shapes them into endings where we become the authors of better days to come. We become warriors instead of victims. By sharing without embellishment, our honest, naked stories of living with HIV, we invite others to share their experience, strength and hope. We loosen the shackles of stigma and allow each other to begin to walk unfettered, teaching others and uplifting others through a communion of change and strength.
Come sit by the fire and tell your story. I will listen.
Today, I don’t care who infected me. In the same way that an adopted child may not feel the need to seek out her birth mother and feels kinship with the family who raised her; I do not feel the need to find out who gave me HIV. My family and friends are enough. They have accompanied me through the darkest, earliest days. They continue to love and support me unconditionally and share all of life’s mysteries and triumphs.
I share this today with an open heart: I hope that the man who infected me with HIV has been able to find the same kind of support and love in his life, and that he has been able to heal and move forward with strength and dignity, just as I have done. I wish him peace.