My name is ‘Nathan’ and I’m in my early 30s. When I was diagnosed with HIV while I was living in Kuala Lumpur, away from Australia and my familiar friends and life, this experience railroaded me. It was so radical to me, sweeping loss through every depth of my mind, body and soul.
The initial shock left me distraught with visions of everything I thought I’d lost. I felt outside myself until the second day. I woke enveloped in dark crushing loss and full acceptance of the abandonment of the hopes of my life. For months I focused only on wildly fighting to protect my partner and preserve my physical health and financial independence. Dramatic changes beyond my control cascaded across my life, destroying my employment, financial stability, relationship, sexuality, purpose, hopes, identity and spirituality. When I finally returned to Australia, kind hearts helped me find the medical care and financial stability I needed, and then the greatest challenge began…
As the adrenaline, emergency and destruction of the first wave of my diagnosis’ impact subsided, I tried to set about living whatever was left of my life. Bereft of my identity and self-worth, this was extremely challenging. How could I embrace my life when it seemed so infinitely reduced to worthlessness? Love, sex and relationships are the core to my fulfilment and self-realisation, but these were relegated to distant memories now unattainable and tainted by HIV stigma and pity. My ideals of health, energy and a strong sexy body now seemed unreasonable expectations. How could I love myself when I couldn’t realise my basic ideals in life and create love with others? When I accepted these losses, I felt my soul was hollow and I was worthless. For weeks, I woke exhausted every morning as if I had never slept, my head slumped and I shied away from people as I walked down the street. I had little strength, I felt no sexuality, my body felt numb and lifeless, everything felt a struggle.
I researched topics and intensively nurtured myself. The depth and inter-personal nature of this diagnosis in my life meant I couldn’t heal without deep human connection. At this point I reached out to others who were living with HIV. I attended a workshop for gay men newly diagnosed with HIV in Sydney. Socially I connected with others living with HIV online and face to face with my new friends living with HIV. I discovered others living with HIV and got to know them, these new peers of mine transformed the possibilities of my healing. I could see others living with HIV and be seen by others as living with HIV, and this was so valuable to me. Beyond the humanising expressive and emotional aspect of seeing and being seen, I started believing in new versions of my future because I could see and trust the people I met and their lived experiences. My peer group interactions helped shatter my HIV misconceptions that were so difficult to break on my own, and they helped me recognise that I am human fighting a very human struggle shared by others.
It took years of time and a lot of love to heal my self-worth and the belief in myself as deserving of happiness. Initially I prioritised work, social impact and hook-ups to find fulfilment, but as my identity and spirituality healed, I became more willing to start pursuing additional personal and relationship goals.
The entire time, I have found strength in thoughts of and conversations with my peers living with HIV with whom I bonded in person and online. I count myself incredibly lucky to have had access to such a network of peers, and to live during a time medical advances like PrEP, which is a medication people can take to prevent HIV from developing in their body, and the understanding that when I maintain my own undetectable viral load (UVL), the HIV virus is so low in my body it cannot be detected and I cannot pass on HIV.
Five years on from my diagnosis, I am incredibly happy and content, and I am fully embracing life. Although HIV is a part of my identity, it does not impact on my self-realisation and the love and fulfilment in my life.
Published for Talkabout Online #193 – March 2020