When I was first asked to blog for POZ, I resisted. Blogging is not a natural thing for me.
As a young man, I kept a journal of my ideas, my big thoughts and dreams -- and my fears. As a painfully shy and closeted gay teenager, journaling was extremely cathartic as I didn’t have a lot of people to talk to about the turmoil within me. It was a private, solitary activity. Privacy was the critical element which enabled me to express my thoughts and feelings honestly and safely. But it remained difficult to share my thoughts with others. It was hard to show people what I had written, because it represented who I was: a young man learning that I was suddenly at odds with my faith, my parents’ expectations of me, and the dreams I had for myself. It was a time of deep fear, coupled with overwhelming longing to be understood, accepted and loved. My fear of judgment and persecution and and my shame about being different stifled me. I remained silent and alone with all of it. It was a dark lonely time.
I eventually disclosed my sexuality to just a few close friends. Not surprisingly, these disclosures were made in long-hand notes which I wrote and carried around for weeks - before finding the courage to present them to those I had decided to trust with my secret. Eventually I found not only my voice, but a wealth of courage and acceptance.
In the coming years, I really bloomed. I found a group of supportive friends in the early 1980s that loved and understood me. Then suddenly, like many of my generation, I was exposed to unfathomable grief as I watched my support network being decimated by AIDS. We did not understand it back then. It was like a supernatural horror story: a silent, foreboding phantom villain who struck randomly, ominously, and fatally. Homophobia was rampant. Those who got sick were blamed for being ill. It was hard to resist the urge to pull inward again due to fear, stigma and ignorance. I found strength and was forever changed.
Flash forward - I am 50 now. I am at a point in my life where I am happy. I have good friends and a supportive family. I’ve been working in the field of HIV for many years. We know so much more today about the disease. But my heroes remain those from the early generation of AIDS activists, who taught us the way to help ourselves is to not be silent, but to stand up and be heard. Our subsequent and accelerated progress in the gay rights movement owes much to these heroes. They insisted we not wait for society to decide to grant us equality, but to demand to be treated humanely, and to insist upon nothing less than the same rights and privileges as our heterosexual counterparts. I found new meaning and happiness by dedicating periods of my life to fundraising for AIDS Walks, AIDS service organizations, LGBTQ causes and HIV/AIDS research.
Then about six months ago, I learned I had sero-converted. I was awash with confusion and fear. And surprisingly, shame. Shouldn’t I have known better? How could I let this happen? Unsure of how to process all of these feelings, I did what felt safe: I pulled inward to that dark and lonely place. The stigma silenced me. And I realized my silence implied shame.
I have decided to not remain silent. I know that I will find support and relief from others. I feel compelled to share these feelings openly and honestly to see if my experience can somehow benefit others who may feel alone in all of this. I remind myself several times daily not to judge myself. And I remind myself to seek the support that I need and deserve.
My name is Charlie Finlay. I am 50 years old and have been recently diagnosed with HIV. This is my story. If you have recently been diagnosed, you have your own story and your own journey. I hope you take comfort in knowing I walk with you, shoulder-to-shoulder. I have decided to share my journey with others in this blog. I’m not sure where the story goes, but I know that sharing my experience will help me, and it is my hope that it helps you, too. Let’s not be alone in this. Let’s see where this journey takes us.