I wasn’t really surprised when I found out I had HIV, after all I went to have an HIV test because I had all the symptoms you get soon after you’re infected with HIV – a sore throat, headache, fever, and patchy red rash. The doctor who I saw before I had the bloods taken for my test didn’t seem to think there was going to be much doubt about the outcome and told me to prepare for a positive result. Nevertheless, I was still a bit numbed by the result.
This numbness gradually mutated into anger. It was quite unlike any anger I’d ever felt before and quite literally consumed me. There were two focuses for this anger. First of all, there was myself. My diagnosis with HIV provided an opportunity to beat myself up, something which the homophobia I experienced throughout my adolescence and early adulthood had made me expert at.
But most of all I was furious with the man who gave me HIV. Up until I met him, I’d taken excellent care of my sexual health; I’d never even had the most minor of sexually transmitted infections. We used condoms the first few times we had sex, but he made it very clear that he didn’t like them. I know that people reading this will say, “well, you should have insisted.” But before you pass judgment, ask yourself: have you ever been influenced into doing something you’ve subsequently regretted against your better judgment?
Another issue was that he was bigger than me – not physically, but emotionally. I was 24 and he was 30. I know it doesn’t sound like a big difference, but in terms of life experience and confidence it really was. He used that emotional power to bully me into giving him the kind of sex he wanted. I’m not saying I was raped or anything like that, but I was put under a lot of pressure. And the pressure to have unprotected sex needed to be seen within a wider, abuse context of the relationship – the petty undermining of my confidence, constant low-grade criticism and ridicule. Not once in our time together was I complimented or told that I was just fine as I was – there was always something the matter with the way I looked, what I said, or what I did. Why did I put up with it? Because I believed the criticism, it just confirmed what I already felt about myself and I was just grateful to have a boyfriend.
And importantly, I trusted him and loved him. I tried to talk about HIV, but always got evasive answers, such as “you’ve got no need to worry, if we don’t use condoms rest assured I’m a dry shag, I don’t leak pre-cum and I won’t cum inside you.”
Well, we had unprotected sex – not once, but many times. I even initiated some of it. The sex felt good and I believed it was strengthening our physical and emotional intimacy. But he wasn’t such a “dry shag” after all as, within a year, I developed what turned out to be an HIV seroconversion illness. The relationship had broken down by then, and when I contacted him to tell him I had HIV he couldn’t have been less concerned.
I tried to take full responsibility for my infection with HIV; after all I’d seen all the safer sex ads. But I still couldn’t stop feeling so angry with him, particularly when I subsequently found out that he was believed to have given HIV to an earlier boyfriend.
My feelings of betrayal and anger were intensified by a kind of righteousness – I wanted this man stopped before he could give HIV to somebody else and ruin their life. The intensity of my anger was overpowering, indeed for about a year after finding out I had HIV it was this anger rather than anything HIV did to my body that affected my health and quality of life.
A fit of drunken rage in front of some friends prompted me to admit that I was being damaged by my anger and I sought some professional support. Initially I wanted to talk through my options about getting even and obtaining some justice. To put it simply, I wanted the man who gave me HIV punished; I told myself it would help redress the balance, I was sick and tired of punishing myself. Retribution in some form, I assured myself, would draw a line under my diagnosis and allow me to move on.
In the first few counselling sessions all I could talk about was the deep knot of fury that was tightening within me. But, as the therapy progressed, I realised that I was feeding and intensifying this anger and that doing this was exhausting and damaging me. Focusing all my energy and emotions on a quest for justice meant that I wasn’t dealing at all with my HIV diagnosis and was using my desire for justice and revenge as a way of separating myself off from other people with HIV – I almost felt as if I had “good HIV”. What’s more, I just wasn’t looking after my physical or emotional health, and more or less absolved myself of responsibility for my own wellbeing – I just felt that what had happened to me wasn’t my fault and could be excused more or less any responsibility for looking after myself.
Well, I gradually worked out that I wasn’t that different from other people with HIV – we all had an infection that didn’t discriminate in terms of moral worthiness. In addition, I realised that even if my desire to see my ex-partner punished was accomplished, I’d still be infected with HIV, and I needed to get to terms with what this really meant and start living with the virus and all its ramifications on a day-to-day basis.
Over the coming months I also began to gradually admit that it had taken two of us to have unprotected sex. There’d been safer sex information around for as long as I’d been sexually aware. I knew how to avoid HIV; I knew that I had responsibility for my own health; I knew not to assume anything about my partners’ HIV status. The counselling helped me to start understand how my own abilities to look after myself had been eroded by the chronic homophobia I experienced throughout my adolescence. To be honest, I was so emotionally ill-equipped that, even if I hadn’t contracted HIV when I did, I’d have been infected with it later on.
I’m writing this years after my diagnosis. At the time I was told that it was unlikely the law could do anything to punish the person I held responsible for my HIV infection. If it had been an option, would I have complained to the police? Well, he was a pretty unpleasant guy, but focusing on a desire for revenge did me no good what so ever. I’ve subsequently got on with my life; sure I’ve still got issues about having HIV (one of which is that I now feel semi-criminalised by being sexually active and HIV-positive), but I know for certain that these wouldn’t have been solved by seeing the person who infected me imprisoned.
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