I remember how I felt anticipating my HIV diagnosis. As I walked into the clinic and heard the door shut behind me, I felt an uneasy calm, but also unwittingly, a fearful expectation of a positive result. A positive result would be life changing on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level. I asked myself what if it turns out I have this virus? A question that continued to play out in my mind through the initial testing process.
The health care worker was very nice as she sat me down and explained the HIV testing process from receiving my initial result, confirming a possible positive result and the initial steps of moving forward if I was HIV-positive. She was speaking with me as we waited for the result and having glanced down at the test, asked me: "What do you know about HIV treatment?"
I looked straight ahead and knew immediately I had tested positive. I responded by telling her that with medication, HIV is a manageable condition. She then proceeded to tell me that the result was indeed positive; and it was later confirmed I had HIV. Many emotions coursed through me as I came to terms with my diagnosis. My mind processed this life changing event in a methodical sequence of thoughts and reflections that led to critically important conclusions.
I wasn't going to develop AIDS, if I kept to my treatment regimen, led a healthy lifestyle and followed up with my doctor. In addition, as long as I got my blood work done regularly, I would always know my CD4 count and viral load. Medication for HIV had made significant strides in improving overall health and life expectancy of those living with HIV, but also in reducing the occurrence and severity of possible side effects related to their usage. That being said, there was still a level of anxiety in taking this medication daily, but I embraced this opportunity for the life-giving blessing it was.
I was also aware of what was to come as I aged. I understood that as I got older, I would be at a significantly higher risk for experiencing other medical conditions that come with age, much earlier in my life. Thereby, I knew that in taking care of myself I could possibly "minimize" my risk, to better treat any other medical conditions if and when they would occur.
I have now been on HIV treatment for almost 15 years, and I do deal with some long-term effects due to the medication. I am currently also dealing with other medical issues that have developed since my diagnosis. This comes as no surprise and I have come to accept this reality, which was a part of my acceptance of my diagnosis.
At times I feel significantly older than I really am due to the "premature" changes to my health. Yet, the biggest elephant in the room at the time of receiving my positive test result was guilt as many other people living with HIV have experienced.
Guilt is a monster from within that will devour a person if it is allowed to. I am bisexual and I was dating an attractive, fun and outgoing guy prior to my HIV diagnosis. You can say this hunk was too outgoing, as he was involved in sexual relations with other individuals while we were still together. Obviously, this ended things.
It was at this point that I became significantly concerned for my health. We had used protection inconsistently at the beginning of our relationship and shortly after, we never did. I definitely should have been more diligent in making sure he always used a condom, but intimacy is a two-way street. Simply put, I should have known better, but it has been water under the bridge for a long time.
Yes, I did feel guilt and regret. Yet, does having dated this individual, being bisexual and now being HIV positive have any bearing on my human dignity and self-worth? No. I am James Cotromanes and like millions of wonderful people, I too have a chronic condition I live with. I am HIV positive.
How often do those of us living with HIV show compassion for ourselves in light of the stigma, coping, guilt, acceptance and medical related issues associated with it? And in what ways?
Editorial Note: Although James experienced initial shame in regard to his relationship, his experience is a very common one. As intimacy and trust increase between partners, it is often common that protection such as condoms fall by the wayside and that makes sense.