Peg, a close friend in another city whom I’ve never told I have HIV, called several weeks ago to let me know that the ex-lover who infected me had died of AIDS. Though Peg had known him for years, she had learned of his status only when he died. “You should probably get checked out,” she gently suggested.
I was torn between sadness (I’d once cared about him) and satisfaction (the bastard who had given me HIV was dead). I was also among coworkers who don’t know that I, a white woman in suburban New Jersey, have HIV. I stammered to Peg, “I’ll have to call you back.”
Hours passed while I debated telling Peg that I have the virus—and have known since 1996. A big part of me wanted to disclose. She’d probably be supportive and not tell anyone. Then again, she had called to warn me. What if, after I told her, she called guys she thought I might have had sex with and told them? (There weren’t any she knew, but she didn’t know that.)
The call, with its opportunity to tell someone that I have HIV, made me take stock of my ongoing POZ column. In it, I am assigned to disclose my HIV to one person at a time, write about the experience and perhaps eventually “come out” in the column by revealing my name. Among those I’ve told: several men I’ve dated; a few family members; one of my female friends; and the head of the Equestrian AIDS Foundation (EAF). The responses have varied: Some guys left, but one stayed (hopefully for good). My family has become a source of wonderful support, as has the EAF by helping to pay for my beloved horse, Andy. Overall, I’d say the reactions have been incredibly positive.
I still haven’t told my wider circle of friends or gone public, in POZ or elsewhere. Most of the people I’ve told recently have taken it well, so I feel more supported and “normal” and have less of a need to share with others. But that’s not the only reason. Regardless of the supportive things people say when I tell them, I still can’t bear that they may think: She seems like a nice girl, but only bad people, or people who do bad things, get HIV, so maybe she’s not that nice. I hate to admit it, but since I got HIV, it’s even more important to me that people think I’m a good person. It offsets my own worry that if I had indeed been a “nicer” girl, one who hadn’t had unprotected sex, I would not have HIV.
Even my mom, who’s known of my status for years, thinks differently of me now, though she would never admit it. When I lost weight recently, she told me I should gain it back so people wouldn’t think I looked sick. I could sense her fear that she’d have to explain my appearance to family friends. I don’t blame her. Though I lost weight simply because I was too busy and stressed out to eat, I was upset to think that I looked unhealthily skinny.
Still, there have been times when I wish my body would scream “She has HIV!” and disclose for me. I know that every time I zip my lip, I promote the idea that HIV is some unspeakable evil. And that sucks, because the thing I hate most about this disease is living a life of secrets.
After I got home from work, I called Peg. I told her that I’d been safe and was OK. She said she was relieved. We hung up, and I sat wondering whether I’d done the right thing. I felt strength and pride for not burdening someone else with the news, relief that she would not pity me and that I wouldn’t have to educate her about it—but mostly remorse and sadness that I’d lied to my dear friend.