It was an early Sunday morning, the day after my 22nd birthday, when my commanding officer informed me that I was HIV positive. As cold as it may seem, having Uncle Sam give me the news was strangely comforting. The officer literally read from a script, but it was surprisingly tactful. A physician was present to answer my medical questions. I didn’t ask him any. He couldn’t answer the only question I had—“Why me?”
The day I found out I was HIV positive I told my best friend from high school—after all, he was the first person I told about being gay. This time, I told him in person. His reaction this time was sadness. We sat silently for a long time.
The day I found out I was HIV positive I also decided that I would spare my parents the disgrace of having a “degenerate” for a son; I would go away to die alone. At the time, I was living with my parents, but I moved out the following year. Fully expecting to die well before the age of 30, I learned a new way to live—I didn’t plan for tomorrow; I lived only for today. In the years since, I’ve learned to plan for tomorrow, but I still live for today.
I met Michael in 1990 after a summer away from home at a Marine Corps training school. I had gone through basic training the summer before. I was in the best shape of my life.
Michael was handsome, but what appealed to me was that he was an average guy. He adored me. He was a devout Roman Catholic and a successful businessman. I fell in love with him. He told me he was HIV negative, but he lied. He didn’t admit to me that he was HIV positive until 1993.
When I tested negative in 1991, I believed that I’d been absolved for the risky behavior I’d had in the past. I had just returned from active military duty physically unharmed, but mentally wounded. Because I felt both invincible and vulnerable, I let down my guard with Michael.
When I tested positive in 1992, Michael and I were no longer together; I had been with a new boyfriend for about a year just before the test. We didn’t always use protection because we both believed we were negative. When I tested positive for HIV, I had just broken up with the new boyfriend for a woman who I believed was going to make me straight.
My family was completely unaware that my life had become like a telenovela. I told the newly minted ex-boyfriend about my HIV status in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York. He was horrified at first for what it might mean for him, but he quickly shifted his attention to my plight. Mercifully, he tested negative. I wrote a letter to the woman I was seeing, explaining that I had tested positive for HIV, but she wasn’t deterred by my status. Regardless, my foray into heterosexuality was brief.
Soon after I moved away from home in 1993, I started falling apart emotionally. Struggling with my demons about being gay and HIV positive in addition to hiding these truths from my family weighed heavily on my mind. By 1994, I was in a major clinical depression.
Michael died in 1994 of AIDS-related complications, adding profound grief to my list of woes. His death only increased my fear that I would soon get sick and die.
I slowly recovered from my major clinical depression by the end of 1994. As I got better, I discovered that I had had dysthymia (chronic, mild depression) ever since early childhood. Learning to deal with dysthymia reduced the intensity of my internal issues, a skill that was—and continues to be—a blessing.