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'Russ, not Russ who is HIV-positive'
It is about nine years since I was told I was HIV-positive and it is almost the same amount of time since I met my partner, Chris, and started a stable relationship. These statements seem to run in tandem but the paths between them have been anything but smooth. My story is about denial, emotional feelings and the role that HIV can play in the creation and development of personal relationships. It is, in short, a truthful account of the emotional difficulties I have encountered - which you may have empathy with.
My partner Chris does not have HIV and has been well throughout the whole period, but I must go back to the start of August 1995 to begin my story.
Being HIV-positive and single seemed natural. This hidden, awful virus did not exactly make me feel good about myself. The doctors were telling me I had only a few years to live, so somehow the idea of searching for a partner seemed futile. If I had only a short time to live, I certainly did not see any benefit in using up time and energy on emotional issues. Instead, I went out drinking nearly every night, and slept around, worked hard, socialised a lot and tried to enjoy every minute of the day. I remember feeling very tired, but put that down to HIV, and not my lifestyle. When illness came, I would enlist the support of members of the caring professions. Single, free, happy and busy, with a back-up. I really thought I had it all worked out. Maybe you have felt that, or perhaps you feel it now, and there is no doubt it is a nice feeling. Then one evening, at the start of one of my drinking binges, I met Chris. I was buzzing and felt confident and happy. One of the first things he said to me was that I had sad eyes. In one second, my whole life seemed to stop in the face of such directness. I felt the need to retaliate, and told him I was HIV-positive very much in the vein of "take that". The response? A kiss of passion and the word “So?”
So Chris entered my life when I did not want anyone. For me, facing up to HIV meant addressing the emotional as well as the medical issues. In short, it was permissible for me to love someone and even more important for someone to love me. Some of you will be laughing or sneering about this, perhaps – but remember at the time I am talking about, 1995, the life expectancy of most people living with HIV was quite short.
Now I was starting to feel emotions and that should have been good, but it did not work that way. I felt sad, hopeless and anxious, and furthermore I felt lonely. How could I be lonely when I was living with my partner? Then I felt envious of his good health and thought about how I had once been. A few years into the relationship, I was a mess and was being treated for depression. You see, this is no Hollywood love story. The recovery does come, or else I would not be writing this, but it was difficult. It involved long-term counselling and a hell of a lot of effort on the part of Chris and myself. In short, I learned to involve myself in Chris's life and found my self-identity again as Russ, not Russ who is HIV-positive.