A Life Beyond My Expectations
It was 9/11, and I got an email from a sexual partner that they had contracted HIV. I went and got tested and found out that I had also contracted it. This was in 2001, so I hid it from most people. I felt shame. I had been using drugs when I contracted it. Before finding out my status I was getting tested maybe once a year.
I had met this person, who notified me of their status, through sex work. I hadn’t gotten into active addiction yet. When I had a client, I would use meth with them if they used it. Then, I would not wear a condom. After I found out my status, my substance use increased, and the sex work decreased. Since there was no knowledge of U=U, I didn't feel comfortable knowingly doing sex work. I think my substance use increased because I was a bartender, and it became very depressing hiding my HIV status or being ashamed of it rather. When I would get asked on a date, I would tell them right away. Then, people would just not want to have anything to do with me or ghost me.
Being in Fort Lauderdale, there was a whole bunch of clinical studies on medication effectiveness. Since I had never used medication before, I was considered a good candidate for getting on these studies, so that’s how I was linked to medical care. I had a full-time job, but I still wasn’t making enough to afford the insurance plan that we had at work. There was a point where every year for about 3 months it would cost me about $2,000, and financially, I couldn’t swing it. I started to not get my medication as steadily. It was for a good year or two, leading up until I went to prison, where I was rationed my medication.
It was substance abuse that led me to prison for 7.5 years. I didn’t hide being gay when I was in prison, but I did have to hide my HIV status. It was weird because I had tried to get to the point of accepting all of myself. In prison, there was a rule in the books that said because of the misperception of perceived contamination, I could be fired from my job serving, fixing, or preparing food. My prison boyfriend cried when I told him my status, and that was a huge turning point for me. It was pivotal for me to find somebody that loved and cared about me and accepted me for every part of me.
I’ve now been HIV-positive for 22 years. I am undetectable, and I adhere to my medication. I got sober in January of 2013, right before I went to prison. What I’ve learned is, I can do anything I want to, as long as I don’t use substances. I can have a life beyond my expectations, and my expectations have changed. I now understand how to set intentions for what I'm looking for. I remember when I was a bartender, I was ashamed to go into a support group. Now I realize that the people that you see there are in the same situation, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re going in there to seek fellowship and community, and we need that. Go find a fellowship of people. You’re seeking them to tell you that who you are is good and worthy as you are.