In my 10 years with HIV, I’ve been at many a dinner table or party where guests, unaware of my serostatus, have disparaged people with HIV. “Isn’t it amazing,” a woman once said, “how AIDS targets all the people who should die—the overpopulation in Africa, China and India, gays and drug users?” I wanted to say: “I’m not a gay, heroin-injecting rice farmer in a crowded village. I’m a white woman in upper-middle-class suburbia. And I have HIV.” Though I knew that would embarrass and shame her, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t change her attitude—only hand her a grenade to use against me later. So I let it go.

But on a recent occasion, the disease in question wasn’t HIV. I was with my friend Sylvia, a pretty, long-haired blond who’s well-educated, fun and, like me, an accomplished horse rider here in the rolling farmland of New Jersey. We were sitting with friends on the terrace of a country inn, a considerable way through strong drinks, when someone at the table said, “I think it’s ridiculous when women get eating disorders. How hard is it to accept your body as it is, and if you don’t like it, just run a few miles or something?”

I noticed Sylvia squirm. Did she have an eating disorder? I’d never pegged her as the type. Her weight had never fluctuated in the three years I’d known her, and she seemed to eat without a lot of concern for what was on her plate. But if anyone knows that you never know what secrets people hide beneath their everyday social exteriors, it’s me. So when Sylvia hastily excused herself to go to the bathroom, I followed her—with no idea about what I’d say.

I found her crying hard and gasping. I wrapped my arms around her. “You OK?”

She shook her head violently. “I’ve struggled with this my whole life,” she said.

“Are you getting help?” I asked. 

“It’s not that.” She inhaled. “It’s the baby. Well, it was the baby.”

“The baby?”

“My boyfriend and I decided not to have it. But it was late. It was hard to find someone to do the abortion. I’m so upset; I’m having trouble eating again.”

What was I going to say? Then it happened. “Well,” I said, “I have HIV.” I don’t know why I thought that would make her feel better, and as soon as the words tumbled out, I worried she’d think I was being competitive. (“I see your bulimia and abortion and I raise it one HIV.”)

She looked at me wide-eyed and stopped crying. She seemed relieved to have the distraction of someone else’s problem. “You do?” she asked.

I’d obviously surprised her, but I’d also seriously  surprised myself: It was the first time I had ever disclosed my HIV status spontaneously and purely out of a desire to make someone feel better.

“Yes, but I’m OK. And you’re going to be OK,” I said.

We stayed there hugging for a while, crying in each other’s hair, until a stranger came in. We broke apart to clean up our teary faces side by side in the mirror. As we headed back out, she took my hand. “I want to hear all about this,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”

I caught myself feeling a faint, strange guilt. Hearing that someone I had thought was perfect had her own issues to deal with made me feel better about my own. And it reminded me that all around me there are people who harbor their own painful secrets—and cry alone, just like I do, when other people talk disparagingly about something they could never imagine associating with you.

Anonymous discloses her HIV to someone new in each of her POZ columns. One day, she may reveal herself in these pages.