Disclosure to my immediate family was a bit more complicated.
I spent the Christmas holidays with my family in Boston. We are a big Irish Catholic clan, all fun-loving musicians and artists at heart. We had lost one of our sisters to cancer just months ago, so I had decided not to disclosure my status during this visit. Instead, I felt a real need to be there, and be cheery. I had to be the funny gay uncle that my nieces and nephew expect and look forward to seeing. Do my best to fill the days with music and laughter. It was extremely difficult. Hell, it was the performance of a lifetime, but I think it was the right thing to do at the time.
I came back on the Amtrak worried. Since the day I agreed to the taping for Poz Newly Diagnosed series, there was a constantly growing nervousness in the pit of my stomach. I had to disclose to my family soon, to prevent them from learning about my HIV from some random jerk who might see my video and forward to them with "Hey! I didn’t know your brother had AIDS!" as a subject line.
So, I planned another family visit in February. I rehearsed what I would say. I would be strong, positive, and direct in delivering the news. I would disclose one-on-one and smiling. And I would quickly add that I am on treatment and healthy. So it went kind of like this:
“No easy way to say this, but to just say it: I contracted HIV -- But there is no reason to be concerned as I am already on a very successful medication regimen which has reduced my viral load, and there is no reason to believe that my life will be shortened because of this.”
For the most part, this strategy worked well. But I soon realized that I needed to leave them alone to process a bit also. There is no denying that there is sadness about all of this. My job was to deliver the news humanely and succinctly, and let go of the results. When I disclosed to my nieces and nephew, I told them to ask me anything they wanted - it was a good opportunity for them to learn a bit more.
The most emotional disclosure for me, however, was my sister in New York who happens to (also) have a very busy life. I didn’t want to do this over the phone, but the only place we could find on our calendars was 20 minutes on a weekday afternoon at the Whole Foods Market in Tribeca. I had a horrible back problem, but managed to get down there to meet with her. She was late, and wanted to make up the time by talking while we walked around the store. I insisted we sit in the café. It was really crowded. I began...“There’s really no easy way to say this...”
She interrupted, "are you drinking again? Is it drugs?" Argh. Even the best laid plans can go wrong.
So I just blurt it out, disclosing not only to her, but also the customers in adjacent tables at the café. “I HAVE HIV.” It was kind of awful. We had a few minutes to chat and finish our coffees. It was sad to leave her there in the supermarket after sharing that. And it was a difficult ride home: my back was killing me, and my heart was heavy. But they all know now. Check the family off of the disclosure “to-do” list.
Incidentally, my back got worse and worse. I had been doing cortisone shots for far too long, and needed a more permanent fix. So, I had back surgery in February: a very simple procedure called a Laminectomy that I was told would stop the sciatica. It helped! I will write a separate blog about that experience in the coming weeks...
A few weeks after this simple surgery, I was in front of the camera at the POZ offices. Nice place, nice people. God I was nervous. But being a “list-person,” I had prepared a bulleted list of all the points I wanted to hit: 1) No one is immune, 2) the graying of the epidemic, 3) finding a doctor, 4) disclosure, 5) staying positive, and 6) finding support.
They said I needed to wear makeup, so I got my face punched up a bit at the MAC store in the Flatiron. Those artists were amazing and I was very grateful that I still looked like a man, and not the first contestant to “sashay away” on the new season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I was ready for my close-up, as they say...
A colleague of mine came with me for support as I sat down in front of the lights. I am so grateful to her. It had been 14 weeks since diagnosis, and was surprised that I still felt somewhat emotionally vulnerable. I cried a bit, and I think she did, too.
I hated the video when I first saw it a month later. The camera adds 50 pounds, I joked.
But I soon realized the video is not about how I am coming off, or how the suit looks, or why my forehead looks so huge. It’s about the message -- and I had that bulleted list on my lap the whole time, and I hit all the points, and they did a great job of editing the interview.
In the coming weeks, the word was out about my status. I enjoyed a huge outpouring of support from my professional colleagues, personal friends and acquaintances. It was quite amazing.
I am HIV positive. I am grateful. I am strong. I am proud.