I’VE ALWAYS BEEN THE KIND of guy who has a hard time taking compliments, be it a shred of low self- esteem convincing me I don’t quite deserve it or perhaps even my own desperate attempt to remain humble. But my toughest compliment-accepting abilities came when folks dubbed me a “survivor” in regard to my HIV status.
When I think of the word survivor, I imagine people who narrowly escape the clutches of death. So to me, the real survivors always meant those who fought HIV and AIDS at a time when death seemed almost certain. Thanks to modern medicine, I technically never came close to losing my life.
However, this isn’t to say that those of us diagnosed in these modern times don’t have a whole set of challenges that we face. As I approach my eighth year of being HIV positive, I understand that overcoming these challenges can actually be little survivals in their own right.
First off, I had to survive going back into the closet. As most LGBT people know, it can be painful to hide a major portion of your life out of fear that others may not accept the real you. Unfortunately, harboring secrets can eat at us from the inside out, so doing it a second time for my HIV status felt even worse than the first time with my sexuality.
I also survived telling my friends. A lot of them got scared and withdrew from our friendship while others tried to give toxically outdated advice. Thankfully, it taught me to cherish the few who truly offered me health and wellness.
Frighteningly, I survived telling my family. It took two Xanax, a letter from my therapist, and a whole lot of tears in order to let those words slip from my mouth. I hated the idea of disappointing them, or causing them fear and pain. But they all pulled through and gave me new reasons to love and appreciate them more than ever.
I survived rejection. Even though it didn’t happen often, getting turned down for a date or a sexy rendezvous was humiliating. I felt like a kid sitting alone in the sandbox because all of the other kids thought he had cooties. In time, I realized the rejection was their loss; not mine.
I survived feeling like damaged goods. With such rejection, it seemed impossible that I would ever have a loving, long-term relationship again. However, not only did I find an incredible man to share my life with, but I might have overlooked him had it not been for my HIV status. To this day, we have had no problems maintaining his HIV-negative status.
I survived loneliness. It seems that nowadays, having HIV is more fatal to one’s social life than to their mortal life. Consequently, not a lot of people are open about their status and it made me feel incredibly alone. When I learned that I wasn’t alone, I decided that no one should feel that way. Therefore, I vowed to never hide my status in the hopes that I could help others not feel so desolate. By very publicly embracing my HIV status, it landed me the incredibly prestigious opportunity to write about my experiences here at Out Front for nearly four years.
I survived the haters. Out Front’s decision to have a column on the human experience of HIV (in addition to their educational reports) is a bold move. And like most bold moves, its great success didn’t come without some harsh critics. Receiving hateful retorts for exposing myself so personally, so vulnerably, so publicly often discouraged me, but learning to focus on my achievements rather than my pitfalls helped keep me going strong and determined to make a difference for HIV perceptions in our community.
But most importantly, I survived myself. For those of us who experience our diagnosis as a traumatic event, we can often travel down two very different roads — one of health and wellness, or the other of self-destruction. Sure, drugs and alcohol became a tempting option for a bad coping mechanism, but I had already given up alcohol and my new, profound fear of death kept me in check from doing any more damage to myself.
And now, I realize that downplaying my achievements doesn’t do any good — not for those who’ve enjoyed my writing and certainly not for myself. HIV was the most painful and challenging thing I have ever faced, but I faced it head on and came through kicking it and its stupid stigma in the ass. I have decided that it’s time to shut out any low self-esteem and shelve any need to be humble and simply say, “F*ck yes, I am a survivor.”