Recently I was called on the carpet for making statements that seem at odds. I am a staunch advocate for using PrEP, condoms and any other new recourse that can be used to stop the spread of HIV. But in my 1993 one man theatrical show, Finding My Voice On The “F”-Train, and in several blog posts, I have suggested that testing HIV+ was the best thing that ever happened to me — because it gave me the freedom to live my life on my own terms. To one man this seemed to be a “contradiction” and was somehow perceived as proof that I advocate for PrEP for selfish sexual reasons, that at heart my goal is not really the protection and benefit of others. To help everyone understand this “dichotomy,” it is important to note that when I say that phrase, I use the words “testing HIV+” and not the words “being HIV +” or “living with HIV.” In my experience, those subtle distinctions make for very different outcomes. To understand, you must also learn the story of the day I first learned my test results.
I tested positive at age 20, in 1990. Several doctors had told me that I needed to take the test, and I had avoided it until I could do it anonymously in a Dallas STD clinic. Back then, there was a dreadful three-week waiting period for your test results. Both the initial blood draw and the delivery of the results were done with a counselor present, because the outcomes of delivering the news were often so severe that mental health intervention was immediately necessary. My counselor reminded me of what Jan Brady would have been like, if she had somehow survived the 80’s without a style makeover. She was approaching thirty, was plump, and could have used a good conditioner for her long, straight hair. She seemed too old for the acne on her face, and her affinity for tie-dye was prominently displayed at both of my appointments. Also at both appointments she talked to me for about thirty minutes about my behaviors, and my fears, and my possible reactions to bad news. At the results session, I must have struck her as fairly educated and together because while I don’t remember what I said, I remember that she said, “I’m glad to hear you say all that, because I don’t have good news for you.”
With that statement she slid a piece of paper across her desk. It was the old dot-matrix computer paper with blue and white lines that no one under the age of twenty-five will remember was once a common sight. All the way down the length of this paper was scientific language in which the phrase “the specimen has tested positive (+),” was repeated over and over. For emphasis, someone had thought of the great idea of highlighting each and every “+” sign in a pink highlighter. The pink made me giggle, as if it were there to reinforce the idea that this was a gay result. And my next thought made me laugh out loud. It was, “These plus signs go against every rule of basic math that I have ever been taught.” The page was full of these pink highlighted symbols for addition, but they each meant my life was destined to be shorter. The more I considered this, the more I laughed, and my Jan Brady look-alike counselor became quite concerned. I was placed under observation, and kept for nearly three hours. I apologized for upsetting her, and I tried hard to explain what had made me think it was all so funny. Eventually, I was able to explain myself in a way that got me released.
On my way back to the car, I realized something that changed the course of my life. Until the moment I had laughed at my results, I had always second-guessed all my impulses and thoughts. I had never allowed myself to simply react as myself, because I live in constant fear of being judged. That is how I had been raised, taught to believe that other people’s reactions were more important than my own. I had apologized for alarming my counselor, but in the moment of my initial reaction, I had chosen to be myself with no apologies. Suddenly the balance of my short life was more important to me than what anyone else thought, or how they judged my actions. In that moment, I had shed a cocoon of fear that my parents and community had spent a lifetime reinforcing. I had emerged with as the adult me. And it felt good. I wanted more. And I decided to fill the time I had left with just that, being me. That is why I can say, “Testing positive was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
I wish I could say that just being me became my true north. But as we know the lessons we learn when we are young haunt us for our lives. As my life expectancy grew gradually longer, the cocoon of protection reemerged and it took hold for a while. Much therapy and many breakdowns have been needed to shed it with some regularity. For me, learning to live a long life has been about remembering it is just as easy to find my true north when I think my time is short as it is to lose that direction when I think I have time to spare.