I found out I was HIV positive in the spring of 2005, just a few weeks before my 24th birthday. There wasn't really anything out of the ordinary, just time for the seasonal STI screening I felt every sexually active gay man should engage in. I remember being impatient to get the appointment over with so I could meet up with my friends at the record store; and I remember being able to see the results in the doctor's sad, kind eyes before I heard them come out of his mouth. And as he talked about how far we we've come since the '80s and advances in medical understanding, I felt waves of numbness wash over my body. I just kept thinking "My life is over." Of course I was wrong, but at the time I was convinced I had just been handed a death sentence.
I think I must have been in shock, because I don't really remember the rest of that day; though I must have made it to the record store, because I awoke to find myself on my living room floor with three new CDs in the changer and my face wet with tears. I subsequently embarked on a three month campaign of slow form suicide that included poorly informed choices, sketchy sexual liaisons, and a regimen of drug consumption that would have made Hunter S. Thompson sit up and take notice. Most of my friends ditched me in this period of my life, some because of my HIV status, but I think I had become kind of impossible to be around. But I had a new friend, that voice in the back that was constantly telling to have another drink or take another pill, because "Why not? You're going to die anyway." And even if I lived, what did I have to look forward to besides a truncated life of perpetual illness, pills that make you feel worse than the disease and sitting around in doctor's waiting rooms flipping through last decade's fashion magazines? And I would never be able to love again, because what if I gave it to someone else? What was there to live for?
But a few of my friends rallied around me. They called and cajoled and dragged me, kicking and screaming, out into the sunlight. They took me to the beach, to museums, and to night clubs. They made home cooked meals and watched me eat. They showed up at my apartment with movies and ice cream. And finally my friend Aubree convinced me to leave Los Angeles and move in to her apartment in San Francisco to reboot my life. I was lifted up by the love of my closest friends, and I gradually came to realize that my life wasn't over, and I didn't want to die.
I'm thankful everyday that I'm not dead. At times the going has been extremely rough. I've had to deal with a lot of the issues I was always afraid of. I've known hospitalizing illness, I've gone through several medication regimens trying to find one that controls my disease but doesn't make me feel perpetually awful, and I can more than hold up my end of a conversation about the fall fashions of 2002. Worst of all, I let the virus get beyond me and into someone I care about very much, and I live with the guilt of that every day. But you keep going; you fight to stay healthy, and you do your best to take care of yourself and the people you love. Because that's what life is. And while my life might be harder or more complex than the lives of other people I know, there are people with far more complicated lives, whose roads are a lot harder than mine.
Yes, I'm going to die, but so is everybody else. I think the difference is I know I'm going to die; not necessarily any time soon, but I am aware of my own mortality in a way I never was before I contracted the virus. And that knowledge can become a source of strength. I wasn't doing a whole lot with myself before I sero-converted; I was content to party and carouse, just drifting through life. But now every day I am aware of this ticking in the back of my head that makes me hungry to touch the stars before my time runs out. That hunger can be a fuel to propel you toward your dreams.
I know it how scary it is to get that test, how sometimes the fear of knowing can be worse than the fear of not knowing. But the truth is empowering, and if you don't know the truth about your HIV status you can't take control of your health, or your life, and you risk doing great harm to yourself and to people who love you.
Know the truth. Take control of your life. Get tested.
Brenden Shucart is a writer, activist, and adventurer living in San Francisco, California. He sits on the board of Project Inform, a nation HIV non-profit and he co-founded the Bright Young Gentleman's Adventuring Society, a group that seeks to raise money for gay and HIV related non-profits.