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Positive for Two Weeks

Positive for Two Weeks


Why a temporary false-positive HIV diagnosis was a blessing in disguise

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

At some point in every romantic date, the conversation invariably turns to personal history. That's when I usually tell people that I've been an intravenous drug addict -- and then watch as their eyes drift from mine, look down, and then away. "Did you get any diseases from shooting drugs?" they'll ask.

It's a natural question, but for a long time I considered myself one of the lucky ones who did not contract HIV.

After surviving a lethal addiction and homelessness, I saw myself as a compassionate person who empathized with the marginalized. And then I tested positive -- for all of two weeks -- and my inbuilt prejudices surfaced with a vengeance.

At the same time, during those difficult weeks, deeply embedded judgmental fences came crashing down. I'd had HIV-positive friends (and boyfriends) for as long as I could remember, but somewhere in my subconscious I separated myself from them, which confused me: How could I have been so judgmental?

Perhaps because I'd inherited my stigmas in childhood: Growing up gay meant to eventually contract HIV; HIV meant death; therefore my existence was defined by avoiding this disease at all costs.

When I heard that I'd tested positive, I felt as though I'd lost all the air in my lungs. I asked all the typical questions, but I didn't care about the answers. What really plagued me was one thought: Will anybody ever love me if I am HIV-positive? I knew this was absurd -- I'd loved an HIV-positive boyfriend in the past. But now the tables were turned. I felt an immediate psychological change. Those I judged, I became; scenarios I once projected onto others were now my own; and I was filled with a raw shame imagining what others would think of me.

A close friend comforted me, saying, "Telling people you're positive is the last closet to come out of." But this was a closet I was angry and terrified to have put myself in. It was yet another reminder of being viewed as a failure by society.

Even though I'd always thought of our positive brothers and sisters as pioneers and warriors, somewhere in my mind I felt fortunate to be separated from them. I felt too young to go through this war, and I believed, through my addiction, that I'd already endured enough pain.

And yet what I'd already overcome taught me to be introspective, and eventually I surrendered. It was as if the news was the catalyst that shook my spirit into acceptance -- I knew I could not change this.

And then, during my second week of processing all this, my doctor called and said, "This rarely happens, but you are not HIV-positive." I'd received a "false positive."

I will never be able to fully comprehend the struggles of an HIV-positive person, but the effect of HIV stigma on me has been smashed.

I can at least express a new sense of empathy. Sometimes, to know people's difficulties, we must walk a mile in their shoes. I had just tried them on.

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